The Origin of Renfield’s Weirdest Power Is Even Stranger Than You Think
The Walking Dead creator on how he reshaped Dracula’s servant into a hero.
When the idea for Renfield was conceived, the Universal Monsters franchise was at a standstill. Tom Cruise’s The Mummy had just flopped, the Dark Universe was dead before it could walk, and the last Dracula movie was a misguided attempt to turn the bloodsucker into an action hero. Bram Stoker’s creation needed new blood. Enter: Robert Kirkman.
The creator of The Walking Dead and Invincible already had plenty of irons in the fire, but in 2019, he pitched an idea to Universal for a comedy following Renfield, the simpering servant of Count Dracula with a penchant for eating bugs. In the original Bram Stoker novel, Renfield’s habit of eating bugs came from his belief that imbibing the blood of living things would give him the same powers as Dracula. But because he’s a spineless coward, he can’t bring himself to attack humans. Renfield, which screenwriter Ryan Ridley penned based on Kirkman’s idea, reimagines this penchant for eating bugs as the fuel for superpowers.
“I wanted the movie to be really fun, and I wanted it to be a horror comedy,” Kirkman tells Inverse. “But I thought it would also be cool if it had a really strong action element to it. And that action element, I think, led to some fun superheroey stuff.”
Funnily enough, the film’s premise of “eating bugs gives Renfield superpowers” wasn’t in Kirkman’s original pitch. Instead, he credits Ridley with the idea. “Ryan had come up with that it's like Popeye's spinach, which led to some really great moments in the movie,” Kirkman says.
Inverse spoke with Kirkman about how he came up with the idea for Renfield, the other Dracula movie ideas he beat out, and his thoughts on a sequel.
Inverse: Both in the book and the movies, Renfield's penchant for eating bugs is a long-established part of his character. Where did the idea of eating bugs becoming a superpower come from?
I don't know. Working with Ryan [Ridley] when he was writing the script, I had thought that the bugs would just be a placebo and that Dracula's blood that he gave him is what gave him powers. But Ryan had come up with that it's like Popeye's spinach, which I think led to some really great moments in the movie. So that was an evolution that Ryan Ridley brought to the table.
So what did your original pitch look like?
There definitely wasn't an emphasis on the bug eating. That wasn't something that was a big part of what I had done. There were maybe a couple of points where he does eat bugs, but it was more for fun.
Would you say this movie was more inspired by the depiction of Renfield in Bram Stoker's novel or by his cinematic portrayals over the years?
It's a hodgepodge of everything. The character's been around for so long, and there's been so many different things that have been done with him. You draw from all those things along the way.
Was there any alternate approach, or was the idea always to shape Renfield as a superhero?
I wanted the movie to be really fun, and I wanted it to be a horror comedy, but I thought it would also be cool if it had a really strong action element to it. And that action element, I think, led to some fun superheroey stuff, but it wasn't necessarily meant to turn Renfield into a superhero. It was just a cool evolution of a guy who has faux-Dracula powers and how that would work. And when we started digging into what his abilities would actually be and how he would get out of certain situations, it just became a little bit more polished and cool and action-y.
Did you have any input into the script as it was being written, or did you just come up with the idea, and then they ran with it?
No. I was a producer on the movie, so I worked with Ryan quite a bit on a few of the earlier drafts. I think that once McKay came on board as director, he was shaping that script far more than I was. But there was a long process where Ryan and I were working quite a bit together.
Your pitch for Renfield came out at a time when Universal was looking to pivot after the failure of The Dark Universe. Were there any other competing ideas for a Dracula reboot?
Not that I'm aware of. I know that Dracula was originally excluded from The Dark Universe, and so I was trying to come up with a way to find a new angle into Dracula that wasn't necessarily a Dracula movie. And so that's when I came up with the take on Renfield and wrote my treatment. And Universal, they don't really tell you, "Hey, you're competing with this Dracula movie and that Dracula movie." They just tell you, "We like this," or "We don't like this," and thankfully they said they liked it.
Did they give you any instruction or idea that they wanted going into the treatment, or were you just given free rein to come up with whatever you wanted?
I had given them the gist of what I wanted to do, and we had a couple of discussions, and then I wrote my treatment. And they gave me notes and everything, but there wasn't any kind of directive from Universal, "We're trying to accomplish this with the Renfield character. We're trying to accomplish this with the Dracula character." They were just open to my interpretation and allowed me to just spin my wheels and see what came about.
Could you see yourself coming back for more Renfield or a more Dracula-focused one?
I think it's definitely a possibility. I commend Universal for allowing us to tell a complete story in our movie and be able to focus on one story and not be worried about building a universe or setting up a sequel. But that said, I'm a comic book writer. That's the way my mind works, so I'm constantly thinking about how you pay this cliffhanger off or how you come back next month and tell a continuation of that story. And so there are definitely a lot of options for where Renfields's world could go post this movie, and hopefully, we get to explore those.