It's the morning after the world premiere of "Leaving Las Vegas" at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and I am still under the spell of this remarkable film. It stars Nicolas Cage as a man who loses his family and his job, and moves to Las Vegas with the intention of drinking himself to death.
And while he is there he meets a prostitute, played by Elisabeth Shue, and they fall in love, although he warns her, "You can never, ever ask me to stop drinking." The movie contains no small emotions. It is operatic in its passion and tragedy. And it contains two of the best performances of the year.
Nicolas Cage and I are talking about the film in his hotel room.
Roger Ebert: This guy is really in pain, isn't he?
Nicolas Cage: I think he's in so much pain that he's decided not to feel any pain at all.
Ebert: He probably didn't drink alcoholically before this crisis came into his life. Because if he'd been drinking like that, he wouldn't be alive for the crisis.
Cage: He says, "I can't remember if my wife left me because I started drinking or if I started drinking because my wife left me." I think something really emotionally devastating happened to him. The way I explained it to myself was, he has a kid and for some reason or another, he can't see this child, and that has driven him to where he is.
Ebert: The relationship he has with the woman in Las Vegas, his "angel," played by Elisabeth Shue, is interesting because he drifts in and out of hallucinations, and there are times when she may seem like an angel to him.
Cage: It's an interesting irony to me because on the one hand, he's destroying himself. On the other hand, if it were not for this drinking, he would not have found what I consider to be true love. He would have put her in the same judgmental box that all the other men do, which is that she's a hooker and not to be taken seriously. With the drink, he sees her for what she truly is, a person with a fairly decent heart. So even though he's doing himself in, he still has this experience, at the very end, of a true love, which is more than I can say for many people.
Ebert: When we talked right after the screening, you mentioned the three stages of music that the movie goes through.
Cage: Mike Figgis, the director, is a musician. He's a terrific composer. When you look at the movie in the beginning, it sounds like blues. In the middle, it's more like jazz. And by the end, it's very operatic. I remember a scene where I'm gambling and I'm at the end of my rope but I'm winning, seeing snake eyes and boxcars, and that's just before I bring another woman home to sabotage the relationship. And I remember, for some reason or another, I just started doing Wagner's "Parsifal," which goes like this (he sings). By the end of the picture, opera is pretty much the score of the film.
Ebert: Opera goes for big emotions and follows them straight through the end. So does this film. It doesn't compromise. It must have been hard to get a film like this made without somebody trying to soften the story or, God forbid, add a different ending.
Cage: Yeah, you can imagine some Hollywood producer saying that at the end we should all traipse off to the Betty Ford Clinic so everything will be all right. But because the budget of the film was what it was, not too many people had the right to dabble with the script. We made this picture for a small amount of money.
Ebert: How small?
Cage: Four million.
Ebert: That's less than just your usual salaries. It looks like it cost more. Everything is on the screen that needs to be on the screen.
Cage: Well, it was shot in 16 mm., instead of 35, which would be more expensive. I find 16 exciting because it gives the film a pastel look. It's in muted colors, like a painting. Film has lost something in the translation to high tech. It's become so super-real. It's with digital this and stereo that and everything's like a CD. It's becoming colder - you get a crystal, pristine feel in new films, while in the old black and white movies, there was a separation between the audience and the film and you could sort of dream upon that. It was like a painting. "Leaving Las Vegas" is in color, but the 16 gives it something of the same quality.
Ebert: A lot of people use 16 to break into the industry. But Mike Figgis and you and Elisabeth Shue have all made lots of big-budget 35-mm. movies, so maybe the impetus here was to break out of the industry.
Cage: As an actor, having a 16-mm. camera in my face was liberating because it's much smaller, so you don't feel as intimidated by it. It catches those little nuances. Because as soon as that big camera's in your face, you tense up a little bit. Film acting is a learning experience about how to get over that, but I don't know that you ever really do.
Ebert: Figgis told me that you did it all in 28 days. So you kind of plunged into this character and swam underwater for a month.
Cage: Essentially. I felt that because it was a short shoot, I could stay on the grill, and just get this tunnel vision mode going, and know that at the end of that tunnel I would breathe again. If it had been a four-month shoot, it would have been a lot more difficult for me. To get into a head of a man who wants to kill himself is not my m.o. I like being alive, and when I work, I try to get into the meaning of the lives in such a way that I can see where the character's going or why he's doing this. So I found myself questioning death and its mystery.
Here I was doing the portrayal of a dead man's suicide letter. (John O'Brien, who wrote the novel, killed himself.) O'Brien's family came to the set, and I remember they said, "That's the same watch John wore," because I, for some reason, had it in my mind I wanted this specific watch. I was driving a BMW in the movie, and they said, "That's the same vehicle John drove." So these strange little rips in the envelope of time and space were just a little creepy.
Ebert: O'Brien's novel is autobiographical?
Cage: John O'Brien, from what I can gather, was a man who was a drunk but obviously a brilliant writer who, two months before production began on this movie, shot himself in the head with a shotgun. So there was a mood that went through the crew and through Mike Figgis and Elisabeth Shue and me, that his words really had weight. His father said, "This book is his suicide note."
Ebert: What did you know about drinking before you started shooting the movie, and what did you find out playing this character?
Cage: I drink socially with my friends. Having a glass of wine at dinner is not a problem. It blew my mind that people who drink too much over long periods of time can actually develop hallucinations, go into delirium tremens. I tried to get my hands on videotape of this happening. I recall seeing heroin withdrawals on film but for some reason, it's very difficult to get alcohol withdrawals on film and so I had to use my imagination of what that must feel like.
I spoke to many drunks; I spoke with people who are running programs for this problem and what I could gather was, the stomach shrinks and contracts like a fist, and the alcohol's like this injection that goes into the body and relaxes the stomach. So the performance really largely came from the stomach for me.
And I watched four movies to get an idea of great alcoholic performances. I saw "The Lost Weekend" with Ray Milland, "Days of Wine and Roses" with Jack Lemmon, Dudley Moore in "Arthur" and Albert Finney in "Under the Volcano." They were all great, but the Albert Finney one struck a chord of reality and I wondered, what about this is different? I asked Figgis - because he had worked with Finney - was he really drinking? And Mike called Finney, and he said, "No, I wasn't. It would be impossible to do that because of the way the schedule is changing and you have to get there and show up for work, and it just wouldn't be possible to take a gamble like that."
Ebert: Well, you couldn't really control your acting if you were drinking.
Cage: Right. That would be an example of Method acting going too far.
Ebert: In the opening scene, you need a drink very badly. What I picked up on was sheer terror. You were so frightened, and your bravado was such a desperate smoke screen.
Cage: Terror of the physical pain. Terror of the hallucinations that might come. I was trying to portray that, the complete horror of it.
Ebert: She's in the sex business, and you're not in the sex business. There might be questions of possessiveness, jealousy. That's all the subtext of the relationship. How did you work through that mentally?
Cage: I felt that it wasn't about the sex. He was looking for some kind of companion at the end of the road. Many drinkers will say that it's difficult to have sex if you're bombed all the time. There was this strange dynamic that she could go and, you know, do her job, which was to have sex - and somehow it wasn't like she was cheating on him. There's a line in the picture where I say to her, "Maybe I should ask one of your tricks what it's like sleeping with you." And she says, "They wouldn't know."