Making Dracula’s Home: Why ‘Renfield’ Chose New Orleans’ Abandoned and Eerie Charity Hospital

When director Chris McKay was making “Renfield” he turned to production designer Alec Hammond (“Donnie Darko”) to help deliver a fresh and updated take on the Dracula story, by taking “a big monster movie, rooting it in the classic movies, but subverting any expectations.”

The film starring Nicolas Cage as Dracula and Nicholas Hoult as his faithful sidekick Renfield, begins in 1931, in black-and-white. It was important, Hammond says, to set up Cage’s world in the historic context of harkening back to classic Dracula movies before jumping to the present day.

The Charity Hospital in New Orleans, which had been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina, was the perfect location for Hammond to set Dracula and Renfield’s modern-day lair.

Hammond says, “Its exterior looks like Dracula’s castle and so we maintain the silhouette from those classic movies. The history of the city was reflected in the structure, it looks like a modern version of the castle, and it was completely wrecked and completely broken down.” Furthermore, every historian Hammond met had stories to share about the location being haunted, which helped serve the myth of Dracula.

Hammond’s next challenge was to build Dracula’s lair, which he did on a soundstage.

His idea was to build a lair that was befitting of Dracula, but in a negative space. Says Hammond, “Can we take something that gives you the great height of the ceiling and cathedral-like space and do it out of messed-up materials? But keep the idea that the space was fitting for him?”

That meant having pipes sticking out of the wall instead of polished woodwork, and having reflective tile instead of stained glass. Hammond adds, “There may still be tile on the floor, but it’s broken up where it’s used to hold the blood of his victims. I wanted there to be a penetration of natural light so it feels like we are in the basement. He’s flipped his existence.”

In his designs, Hammond had vestiges from the film’s opening scene to reflect the continuity of Renfield and Dracula’s relationship over the years. “We had the blood fountain and furniture from France, the drapes from the octagonal room when he’s caught in the power circle,” he says.

Dracula’s actual lair being in the old blood bank room, in the basement, was not explicitly laid out in the script. Hammond says, “Renfield is trying to make it easy for himself. He’s trying to kill fewer people. He doesn’t want to bring anyone to Dracula any more. So, the idea was that he picked the old blood bank area, maybe there was old blood in the freezer.”

Hammond’s initial concept for Dracula’s throne was to combine “a barber chair and blood transfusion chair with all these blood bags hanging around him.”

Except McKay wanted something grander. Says Hammond, “I designed it again, we did it straightforward where the bloodbaths radiate from his head – Louis XIV combined with ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”

Hammond adds the new idea worked perfectly for him. “Translucent blood bags surrounding Dracula’s throne was great because we built a lot of lights in behind so you get red light cascading through the space, but you also get backlight where Nic was going to be. It was also useful because we could play hide and seek with him in the space before he’s fully revealed.”

Hammond notes there are a lot of areas that aren’t fully realized on screen, but were incorporated into his set build that created a sense of overall depth. He reveals, “To the left of his chair, there’s a pile of 75 semi-fresh bodies. There’s a room at the back with at least 150 fully decomposed bodies, and there’s a blood smear where Renfield had to drag them across the floor.”

On another side of the room is the blood fountain, with a lion’s head and a cascade of blood coming out of it. and in a far corner was where Renfield lives. “We had to lay out what he would do on this day-to-day basis in taking care of Dracula.”

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