OUT OF THE CAGE
David Gordon Green’s film extracts excellent value from the thespian depths of Nicolas Cage, writes
T’S great,” muses David Gordon Green, the director of the Joe, starring Tye Sheridan and an impressively bearded Nicolas Cage, “when you can have actors who can find within them depths of reality, and things that can really trigger something in audiences. I mean, that’s why we go to movies, to see people like these guys that really invite us into their lives, to experience characters through their eyes. That’s the most rewarding part of a movie like this, getting in the ring with actors like Nic and Tye, and taking a story that I have a great history with and bringing it to life.”
Cage, of course, has had one of the most fascinating, and at times beguiling, careers of any actor of his time. Growing up Hollywood royalty as part of the Coppola family, he dazzled early in films such as Rumble Fish and Birdy, then had a truly stunning three-year run in 1986-87 with romantic leads in Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Moonstruck. All that was before he turned 24. Eight years later, he won the Academy Award for best actor for 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.
And that’s when things got a little weird. The past nearly two decades of Cage’s career have been wildly polarising. He’s became one of the biggest action stars in the world, much to the chagrin of many fans who think he has sold out and abandoned his thespian roots. He’s also appeared in some real stinkers. Big-budget stinkers, which are the hardest to forgive, it seems.
It was always a somewhat false duality. Cage turned in excellent performances in films such as John Woo’s 1997 Face/Off, Martin Scorsese’s 1999 Bringing Out the Dead, Spike Jonze’s 2002 Adaptation and Werner Herzog’s 2009 The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But for many moviegoers Cage had become the hack who cashed a big cheque for a National Treasure or Ghost Rider film once or twice a year.
For a while there, Green had been accused of turning his back on sensitive indie drama himself. Still, he can be forgiven for not immediately thinking of Cage when he imagined the title part in Joe. “Whenever I’m reading a book,” the director says, “I’m thinking about the movie. I’ve been that way since I was a little kid. My first thought, reading the Larry Brown book long ago, was: “This is Robert Mitchum.’’ Somebody who really has this sense of wit but masculinity, and dramatic ability. But when I started thinking about the reality of putting this project together, Nic is the only guy who carries those with gusto. Who has the Oscars to prove it, has the bad-assed action movies to prove it and has the hilarious comedies that I can quote to you all day to prove it. So I really wanted that kind of complicated texture.
“And I really wanted to bring Larry out,” he continues. “There is a resemblance. If you look at images of Larry, when Nic grows the beard out, there’s definitely a very vivid resemblance. And when I started imagining that, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
As for Cage, he gives a “Who, me?” kind of shrug and passes the credit. “The great news was,” he says, “when I read the script, I knew right away that this was something where I wouldn’t have to act too much. That I could bring whatever my life experiences were from the last couple of years into the role. And it’s interesting, when the movie premiered and my wife saw it, she said, ‘Well, that’s you.’ ’’
Cage could be accused of being just a bit disingenuous here. It’s never quite as simple as “just being yourself” on camera. First of all, it’s damned hard to be yourself in such an artificial environment — in a situation that’s not your real life, speaking words not your own, with cameras and bright lights and cameras trained on you and dozens of people watching. (And knowing that millions will be watching later.) And second, what feels “just being yourself” to an actor doesn’t always translate to audiences as character information onscreen.
Still, there’s certainly a truth at the heart of his point about the script, adapted from a novel by Brown, possibly the great American southern novelist. When he wants to be, Green is a truly brilliant director, and he can be brilliant at extracting very naturalistic performances from his actors. Despite his reputation for over-thetop performances in recent years, Cage treasures that sort of role. “One of the things about working with David,” he says, “is that he will interview his actors. He’ll invite little stories you may recall from your own life. And he’ll put those in the film, so that you get that feeling of spontaneity, that feeling of real life, of that actually happening, instead of something being acted out. Little memories, little bits and pieces of dialogue, little thoughts or experiences that actors can put into their performances so that you don’t have to act so much.”
The project has deep, longstanding roots in Green’s life. In college his film professor, Gary Hawkins, turned him on to Brown’s novels, mostly set in Mississippi and all tough, gritty, gripping stories with unforgettable characters, many of them men struggling with images of masculinity. Green was transfixed. He went on to begin his career with critically lauded indie classics like George Washington and All the Real Girls before returning to work on Hawkins’ 2002 award-winning documentary about the author, The Rough South of Larry Brown.
When Brown died suddenly in 2004 from an apparent heart attack, Hawkins decided to adapt his novel Joe as a screenplay, thinking it was at once Brown’s most personal work, the work that Hawkins himself most responded to, and the most cinematic of the novels. He couldn’t get any interest from the industry. Nine years later, he was having an idle conversation with Green, who had since parlayed his critical acclaim into big-budget Hollywood films ( Pineapple Express, The Sitter) and legendary television comedy status ( Eastbound & Down). Green asked his old professor if he had anything he should read and received, in return, the script for Joe.
“When I read the script,” Green remembers, “it struck me as a great contemporary western, a genre I’ve always been drawn to and that I love. It’s a story very distant from me, but it’s something that really resonated with me. I felt really familiar with this world, even though I can’t quite say I grew up in the squalor of Tye’s character, and I can’t quite say I’m as bad-assed and masculine as Nic’s character. But they’re people I look up to, and I wonder about. Even the horrific characters, or some of the quirkier characters, are people I feel like, in my strange life, I’ve met along the way. And I love to explore, and take a few steps in their shoes.”
Green had a few tricks up his sleeve to ground the film in the world in which it’s set. “I remember when Nic came to town,” he recalls. “We were talking about how to flesh out the cast. I really wanted it to have a raw authenticity and not a Hollywood polish. We were going to make sure these characters felt like they were of a real world, and that we were dropping in on guys who knew how to do this labour, and how to do these voices of either poetry or horror, depending on who we were looking at. We cast it, outside of Nic, with all Texans. It was all shot in and around Austin, and we’d go downtown in the morning and there’d be a construction foreman looking for guys for the job, and some people with landscaping needs looking for someone for their job, and then there we were looking for some people for our job.”
But filling one specific part was a nagging challenge, says Green: “I wanted somebody who felt sad, in a way, and had a depth and darkness behind his eyes rather than a guy who
Oscar winner and action star Nicolas Cage