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'Renfield' stunt coordinator on building the film's 'super over-the-top' action world
Stunt coordinator Chris Brewster calls Renfield a project unlike any other.
Chris Brewster knows about big action sequences. With a career in stunts and fight choreography stretching back two decades, he's worked on everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Star Trek Into Darkness, and his most recent high-profile work includes the supernatural sagas Wolf Pack and Teen Wolf: The Movie. He can build an action sequence, and he can do it while showing off the supernatural powers of everyone from movie monsters to superheroes.
But even for Brewster, stepping into a project like Renfield felt like the start of something particularly ambitious.
"The starting point was literally a conversation with [director] Chris McKay that pretty much went, 'This is going to be a film that nobody can put into a single genre. We're going to do something big, exciting and unlike any other project any of us have ever been a part of,'" Brewster told SYFY WIRE. "And then we went into talking about how the action specifically needed to be super over-the-top, as in we would not have a single action sequence without at least one Mortal Kombat, fatality-level finishing move. So, we knew instantly that we were in for something very big."
Serving as the film's stunt coordinator, Brewster had to plan, choreograph, and execute fight scenes involving vampires, vampiric familiars, armed thugs in werewolf masks, and much more, and he had to do it all while keeping the focus on making the film feel like a genre-hopping adventure that kept that "over-the-top" vibe throughout. That began with discussions about Brewster and McKay's favorite action movies and action sequences, which eventually translated into the idea that every single stunt performer, no matter how ancillary, needed to be operating with a level of detail.
"When there's numerous thugs or numerous bad guys in a fight scene, [we're] really telling the story of what every single one of them is doing, so we know how they get from A to B, and so that the bad guys don't just look like Power Ranger Putties, they don't look mindless," Brewster explained. "They all look like they are trying to do something, and the more badass the bad guys are, obviously, the good guys look exponentially better."
He continued, "So we really listed out everything that we felt every single fight scene should have, and we thought every single fight scene should have multiple hit combinations. We weren't going to do one move, cut, one move, cut, one move, cut. We wanted to really see the flow of each character. We wanted to see character moments within the fight. We really didn't want the fights to just look like simple dance choreography without any life to them."
Those character moments, of course, reach their apex in the work of Nicholas Hoult as Renfield and Nicolas Cage as Dracula, both of whom went into intensive fight rehearsals with Brewster and his team to get their characters right. Since both Renfield and Dracula operate from a place of supernatural fight powers, that had to be worked into each piece of choreography, while also nailing the behaviors of both characters. According to the stunt coordinator, both actors got it right, but they approached it in very different ways.
"Nick Hoult came in and he trained with us for months," Brewster said. "I mean, he put so much time and effort into practicing the techniques, practicing the choreography, and he got everything so locked in that he didn't have to think what move was next. It was already embedded in his muscle memory. So that's why he was able to do the moves in the choreography, but look surprised and really add character to everything he did. He was just so familiar with the movements that he was able to really get into his character doing those movements."
He continued, "Nic Cage came in and he really wanted to kind of download the choreography with the filters of how he wanted to play the character. So with Nic Cage, before we even got into the choreography, we spent a lot of time talking about the movement of Dracula and really embraced the animalistic nature of Dracula. It was very snake-like, or very cobra-like. He would lull you to a false sense of security with almost a sway. He has this very regal nature because he's a prince, he is royalty, and the Dracula that we all know and love has the charisma where he could just magnetize and draw people in. And he's able to do that and just like a cobra, kind of lull you in and then strike before you even know that he's on the attack. So he really, really channeled the movement of different animals, and really got into character first and then learned each move of the choreography as the character."
When it came time to put it all together, and get every department on the Renfield crew in the room to make a scene work, Brewster said the production worked as an environment of constant collaboration, with ideas coming from everywhere, all filtering into the finished product. After years of coordinating stunts and directing second units for filmmakers, it's an environment Brewster hopes to foster himself as he transitions into more directorial work.
"I've worked with a lot of directors over the last 20 years of my career, and I absolutely want to be a director like Chris McKay," Brewster said. "The experience on Renfield was the best experience of my career, because Chris McKay and his entire team welcome collaboration. They genuinely make every single person on set, on the crew feel like they are an integral part of the project that we are making. Every single person was happy to come to work every single day. We genuinely felt like one really happy family, and it's all because of the leadership of Chris McKay and his team."