Last year I spoke with stunt coordinator Chris Brewster about his work on Black Adam; this week I reconnected with him and discussed his work on the new Nic Cage and Nicholas Hoult film Renfield from director Chris McKay.
Renfield packs in a lot of action with 50% of it stunts and there is over 50 minutes of action in the 90-minute film. Did you try to do as much practically as possible?
Oh, absolutely, yeah, I feel like Renfield was the biggest blessing in the entire world. I’ve spent a very, very large part of the last decade working on superhero action and stuff like that. After a while, it all gets very, very formulaic, and a lot of the action that you see in the movies right now, it all looks the same. Chris McKay introduced the idea of Renfield to me, and told me that it would not be anything like any of the action that is out there right now and he could not be more accurate about that. We had to get as creative as we possibly could every step of the way especially with the gags. This was the most exciting and enjoyable, creative process ever because there were no restrictions. It was like, whatever we could dream up we can do. I feel like we had more fun, laughing and coming up with ridiculous ideas, and then finding ways to actually make them work in the choreography than we ever have.
I thought that came off the screen. Any movie where someone is being beaten to death with their own severed arms will have me cheering in the aisles (laughs). How do you choreograph a scene like that?
(laughs) Well, it’s incredible, because, you get so used to a fight scene where it’s a jab across or a hook punch. Any good choreography is character based and story based and usually, the story doesn’t allow for you to go super over the top or do anything that’s really creative and different. But the story that was created, the script that was lying in front of us, was already so creative and unique, that it was really easy to take that and just add layers of creative movement and just exciting new ideas that you really couldn’t do in any other situation.
How did you find working with Director Chris McKay, Nic Cage and Nicholas Hoult transforming them into 2023 versions of the classic characters Dracula and Renfield?
Oh, man. Okay. So, first part of the question, I’m working with Chris McKay. He’s literally the coolest director on the planet. He is more open to ideas and more collaborative than almost any director on the planet; he genuinely builds a team around him and combines the ideas of the overall group. It’s a really, really amazing experience. He’s built an army of some of the coolest department heads and producers and people in film and entertainment. Literally, it’s just one big family. Working for Chris McKay is a blessing; it is one of the best experiences you can have in this business.
Working with both Nics was a really, really great time. They both have their own unique ways, but they’re both masters of their craft. Nic Cage is I mean, he’s a legend.
He’s Nic Cage!
(laughs) Yeah! he’s Nic Cage. It’s just like working with a master and watching the way he developed his character; it started with him and Chris McKay talking just about their favorite Draculas and they wanted to pay tribute to them, but also what makes this Dracula different? Then Chris McKay brought me into the conversations as far as the Dracula movement of it all, how to make this Dracula different than any Dracula that we’ve seen before. To us you’ve always seen one of two polar opposites of Dracula, where you’ve either seen him as the bull or the matador, the matador being he’s a prince, he’s royalty, he has that regal nature to him. He has the ability to be so charming that he can hypnotize you. We’ve seen a lot of actors really portray that in a great way. Or we’ve seen actors show us the bull side, the animalistic that evokes the crazy and scary side. But to us, the most fun part of Dracula is the ability to transition from one to the next. That’s what we really dove in and try to work with. He based a lot of the ideas off of the way a cobra moves. A cobra is one of the deadliest creatures on the planet, but it will mold you into a sense of false security, where it’s just kind of like dancing, and you just get so trapped, that it’ll strike at you and you don’t even realize that it’s moving. Nic Cage actually had some pet cobras at one point in time…
Of course, he did (laughs).
(laughs) Because he’s Nic Cage! He studied their movement but he was actually able to put that into his character into the physical movement of his character, which I thought was one of the cool things that you can actually see moments in the film where he almost has like a sway to himself. It’s really weird knowing where it came from, and seeing how it translates into his physical movement.
Nicholas Hoult is one of the coolest human beings on the planet. He is good at absolutely everything. He is an amazing, amazing actor. He’s like a classically trained dancer so he picks up choreography, whether it’s dance or fighting or anything, he picks up choreography insanely fast and he’s a really, really good mimic. If you show him it’s not just going to be two punches like this, it’s going to be a really labored overhand, like this. Then this punch is going to come up with sway, he can mimic everything you’re doing with your body and replay it to you exactly the way you did it. Since he memorizes it so quickly, he’s able to get it locked into muscle memory, and then add layers of his character and where he is in the scenes. He’s not thinking about what the next move is, he’s just playing out the scene while doing the choreography. I mean, literally, the two of them are some of the most incredible performers, not just actors doing stunt stuff, but just performers as a whole that I’ve ever met.
Do you have a particular favorite stunt scene from the film?
Well, in a really weird way every scene was really, really special to me. If I had to pick a favorite, I think that the apartment fight was the most no holds barred. No restrictions just the absolute over the top, awesome fight scene in the whole film, so that that one is very, very special. We did a ton of wire work, we’re jumping from the second level to the third level back down to the first level. Lots of high work, lots of fight stuff, we had really, really cool gags and it was just one of those jobs where every department had to come together for that. We had a lot of actual live effects, I mean, we were ripping arms off (laughs) and it wasn’t just CG, we actually had arms that we could rip off a body and all the blood flying everywhere. That was legit, it wasn’t all done in post like most projects nowadays which are more CG than practical. We were doing a lot of practical I mean, obviously we have Jimmy Price, one of the best VFX guys ever working on the film so there’s still a lot of VFX but they’re not in the places that you would normally expect them.
Watching every department head join forces and make that scene come to fruition was really cool. One of the scenes that we started with which was another unique take on the characters is the opening scene where we’re in Dracula’s library. Everybody who knows anything about vampires knows that they cannot be in sunlight. We’ve seen what happens when a vampire is hit by sunlight and one way or another, it’s bad news for them. It was really cool to have Dracula look directly at the sunlight and catch fire, and then continue fighting. So, again, something that would normally be all CG. The whole team loved the idea of doing the practicals so we really lit Dracula on fire (laughs). Dracula really flew across the room and speared the hunter and continued the fight. Just being able to do that was really fun and just awesome.
It looks so much better as well, whenever you’re doing things practically. You can always tell and I think the audience gets more engaged as well.
After 20 years of start doubling, doing superheroes and designing action for Marvel and DC, you’re moving into directing and producing action features; what are you working on next?
I just finished filming a short film, my own short film that was written by Jackson Rathbone called Sanctuary. That one we’re in the editing stages now and at some point in the very near future, we will be ready to show it around and it was just an awesome, awesome project. I have a couple of other things that are in the works that I’m doing a lot more on the second unit directing side, doing a little bit of directing on some smaller projects, and just trying to grow and keep creating.
I imagine there’s less physical injury whenever you’re directing…
(laughs) Usually, hopefully. Yeah, that’s the goal. I suppose the goal was to abuse myself less physically while directing and stepping into more coordinating type shoes, as opposed to hitting the ground and then stunt doubling, but you never know.
Renfield is in theatres now.