It’s very possible that Nicolas Cage was specifically put on this earth to star in “Mandy." Set in an alternate version of 1983, it’s a heavy metal revenge epic that turns Cage up to 11 as he hunts "Jesus freaks" and eventually gets into a jaw-dropping chainsaw duel, among other delights. His character Red is on this warpath after he and his beloved Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) are terrorized by people in the woods who are led by an entitled prophet named Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). The saga brings out the very best of Cage—moments of his gleeful face covered in blood, engaging in action scenes that rival the casual insanity of his screen presence.
But while “Mandy” (coming out this Friday, September 14) has the makings of an instantaneously essential midnight movie, one that demands the largest screen and the loudest speakers, this is no macho beer-chugging party from director Panos Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn. Rather, it’s one of the year’s most visceral love stories, handled with profound sensitivity and told with hypnotic precision. Continuing to hone his standout vision after his psychedelic debut "Beyond the Black Rainbow," Cosmatos utilizes heavy color filters, a meticulous slow build, an unforgettable, synth-heavy score from the late Johann Johannsson, and of course the always underestimated range of Cage, to craft an exquisite bloodbath inspired by mythological battles as much as the incomprehensible nature of true love. [To read my review of the film from its world premiere at Sundance, click here]
RogerEbert.com spoke with Cosmatos about his film, the very precise acting of Cage, why he didn't want to make a frat boy action movie, and more.
“Mandy” is essentially two movies. The first half is a love story, the second a revenge tale. How did you go about creating that atmosphere with performances, but also with editing? It’s very sensitive, lovely, like a type of Eden.
It’s just the way it sort of shaped out, in the early conception phases. You kind of slowly narratively build these things, and I always wanted the film to have a significant section where you spent time with Red and Mandy, like we were there with them and got to know them, where it seemed like heaven with them. Over the course of the edit, it just turned out that it divided the film into two halves, and it ended up working well.
Did you have a lot of time to work with Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough when it came to chemistry, to capture that instant sense that their characters are meant to be together?
I think the way they approach their characters allowed that to happen. We decided to play his character as a slightly damaged, normal man, who has been allowed to be fragile in the presence of this person for the first time. And Andrea wanted the character to be, how to phrase this … kind of the choices that she made with the character to subtlety guide the audience to connect with her, in a way that it feels like a real loss when she’s no longer in the film.
As a viewer, you step into a movie like this and you’re excited for its genre spectacle, but then you find out that it’s really sensitive. I was wondering how important that was to you, to have that more gentle nature?
It was very important to me. I didn’t want to make a purely testosterone-driven man film at all. I wanted to make a movie that everybody could connect with on some personal level. From that, I drew a little bit on my own relationship with my wife, where there are these moments where you’re happy, and you’re alone together. Being in each other’s presence.
I really like the part [in "Mandy"] where they’re watching TV, because it feels like something everyone does with their significant other. Nobody goes horseback riding, that I know of. [laughs] You eat and watch TV, or where I feel the most close to my wife.
It’s interesting that you say you didn’t want to make a big manly movie, as "Mandy" seems to play with the macho aspect of it, whether it’s different sizes of weapons, or Jeremiah’s entitlement to Mandy. Did you talk a lot about that with your actors, or with co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn, when you were writing it?
Yeah, well we were interested in the male ego and what a nightmarish, poisonous mushroom that can be. But I wanted the audience … the last thing on earth I wanted to do was make a movie that plays directly to a sort-of frat boy audience, you know? I feel like if those people want to enjoy the movie, then they have to earn their way to that. Spending time with Red and Mandy, and connect with them on every level that you can.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s pleasure to be had in things in our film, I just didn’t want the film to just have solely stuff for that audience.
How do you balance that? You want to be able to enjoy the spectacle of someone getting a sword in someone’s mouth, but …
I don’t know how I balance that, it’s everything that’s in a film is just following your creative instinct as you go. As far as the weapons go, I wanted the weapon that he forges himself to crystallize, a manifestation of his grief and insanity and not like a real object; more like a mythical artifact that he sort of pulls out of his soul in a way [laughs].
I’m curious: did you ever discuss a different fate for Mandy? I understand the need for an impetus, but I was wondering if there was ever an idea to have her not meet the fate that she does?
No, from my perspective I always wanted her to have this operatic, tragic, kind of mythological quality. And I think for that to happen, it had to be part of it.
There’s something very specific ... you explain more than others might the background of these bizarre villains. Was there a lot of talk about how much backstory you give the LSD Jesus freaks? You make it believable in a very strange way that these people exist, that they’re human, but that they’re so far gone.
I like the idea of creating this mythological landscape, and then populating it with neurotic people. My goal is always to evoke what these characters are about, and with a very specifically chosen broad stroke. These lingering, micro details. For example, I think that Mandy at the core for her character, her damage comes from starling memory. I try to evoke these things in one fell swoop instead of drawing it out, over the course of many scenes. But as far as Red goes, he’s a little more of a mystery, but I think there’s really not that much to him as a person. He’s a simple individual. In a way, he’s very much defined by his relationship with her.
After the terrible stuff has happened with Mandy, Nicolas has that amazing scene where he's crying and drinking a full bottle of vodka in the bathroom. It’s all one take. Was that very indicative of the energy on set? What evidence did it have of your collaboration with him? Or really, where the fuck did that scene come from?
I pretty quickly decided that that scene should play out like an absurdist one-act play, you know? It’s like a weird micro play of his graceless meltdown, he’s overwhelmed by his grief and by this situation. I just thought it would be really interesting to see an actor as fearless and capable as him, grab that and go with it. We did two takes, one was a rehearsal take and I just gave him notes on key frame, where to hit certain notes when and where. And then we did it one more time and that was it.
Is he a precise actor when it comes to his more unhinged moments?
I think he’s extremely precise. I think people kind of have this perception that he’s just winging it, or that he’s just quote-unquote going crazy or something. But he’s extremely thoughtful about how his character expresses himself. Our first conversation really was about creating a sort of path for the character from damaged, normal man to like the nerve of an animal. And that he transmogrifies into this curious, amused, Jason Voorhees, golem.
One of my favorite things in the film ... I gave him “Friday the 13th: Part VII” to watch, in light of his character’s last third of his arc. I’m happy that there’s a very brief moment where he’s specifically homaging a thing that Jason does in the film.
What’s the Voorhees moment that he evokes?
At the beginning of the chainsaw fight, when he’s trying to start his chainsaw and the other guy pulls out his bigger chainsaw. [Cage] is just looking at the guy and his jaw is moving in a weird way, and it’s Jason rotting jaw that he’s evoking there.
I’m going to back and watch it.
Bill Duke shows up, and he really cements the hero’s journey, giving him the tools and knowledge. How important was it to you to have Bill Duke in your movie?
I really wanted an iconic actor there, and I was really excited that Bill agreed to do that. As a director, I really love the film that he made called “Deep Cover.” Getting to talk to him about “Deep Cover” was awesome. Another movie about toxic male masculinity, and the terrifying journey and weird power dynamics. As far as the Jeff Goldblum character is concerned.
The second-half of "Mandy" becomes more word-less, and the action sequences truly take off. Did you spend a lot of time dreaming up the fights, the costumes?
As far as costumes, a lot of that happens in the conception phase, which for me is very visually and musically driven. I am trying to create pop culture artifacts and not just straight-up thinking of story and wanting to tell that in an effective way. The story is played simple, and I like the idea of a very simple storyline and then building a universe around that.
As far as the fight scenes go, we were lucky enough to have an amazing fight choreographer, Ben Cooke, who had worked on James Bond and Bourne, stuff like that. Conversations with him about the style of the fight.
Johann Johannsson’s score is so amazing, and it's a great work to have as part of his legacy. Did you have him in mind when you were making it? When did he start influencing you in the process? How did you find that spot where his sensibilities matched yours? He’s a sensitive storyteller as well.
I didn’t have him in mind, I didn’t immediately think of him as an option. But it turned out that he had seen “Black Rainbow” and wanted to work with me, much to my surprise. But after talking to him for a bit, he is a sensitive guy, but he’s also, I started to realize, and Icelandic metal head. He has this whole other side of him that he wanted to express that he hadn’t really done before in a score, and that excited me as well.
Were any scenes influenced by his music? Did he come in later?
He came in later. I generally have, when we’re writing and building these things over time, I tend to have a giant folder of cross references and visual images, and I also filled a playlist of songs to give to the cast, even the crew and give them a sense of the tone, which I probably gave to Johann at some point. He’s sort of building this auditory palette.
His use of synthesizers especially, finding a unique way to create atmosphere is so effective.
In our early conversations, we said that we don’t want to reference or evoke these things from the past that we love but not in a … we didn’t want to ape them, we wanted to interpret them.
"Mandy" very specifically takes place in 1983, but were you finding a way for it to not be a complete throwback or retro? Were you wary of that? How do you find that middle ground?
To me, the 1983 of the film is, the way that I think of it is that it’s not real, historical 1983. To me, 1983 is a name for this sort of landscape of my childhood memories and my emotions of the time and I’m coping with them now. These sort of weird mythical stories, it’s this mythological landscape that is inspired by that, by my mind of that time. It’s not really 1983, per se.
I’m curious, given the experiences within this film and "Black Rainbow"—what is your stance on psychedelics?
Um, I did a lot of them in high school. I smoked a lot of weed and did mushrooms and acid and stuff like that. But eventually, something in me changed and I just can’t do drugs anymore. I think after I lost a friend of mine from high school from a heroin overdose, the drugs turned dark.
There's certainly a psychedelic aspect to this movie and “Black Rainbow.” What excites you about that? What do you want to express?
I came to those aspects and those stories without thinking about it consciously. It just ended up playing out for me in that way. I think the inspiration of Black Rainbow, for Barry Niles’ acid trip, was the battle of gods in “Contempt” by Godard. It’s literally just these shots of statues’ heads, and I think it’s interesting to play out these interior states of these characters, as a kind of mythological battle. Every time I’ve tried to smoke weed now I feel like I’m in a battle with the demon’s embrace [laughs]. It feels like an epic power struggle against the universe.
This is a pretty good anti-drug movie, come to think of it.
[laughs] Some people I know once saw “Black Rainbow” on mushrooms, without my prompting, and just thought it would be a good idea. After they were enraged with me, like it was my fault that they did that. [laughs]