After a decade in the bargain bin, Nic Cage is back at his batshit best in MANDY, an infernal, mind-melting rock opera of revenge from cult filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. TF meets the team putting Cage Rage back on the agenda…
Nic Cage unleashed. Cray!
I’m not interested in reality as it is,” chuckles Panos Cosmatos, the Canadian-Italian writer/director with a name nearly as good as his astonishing films. If you’ve seen Cosmatos’ visionary 2010 debut, psychedelic sci-fi horror Beyond The Black Rainbow, that statement will come as no surprise. Now, Cosmatos is back with Mandy, a film that blends ultra-violent B-movie revenge, extra-dimensional terror and an ’80s metal album cover aesthetic, while gifting Nic Cage his best role, in his best film, for almost a decade.
So specific was Cosmatos’ vision for Mandy that he waited eight years to get it made. “They say ‘don’t put your eggs in one basket’, but I did anyway,” smiles the director, who’s in high spirits talking to Total Film less than 24 hours after his film’s Festival de Cannes debut was greeted with ecstatic applause lasting the length of the credits, and beyond. A shy, softly spoken film geek turned filmmaker, you could imagine Cosmatos and Guillermo del Toro having conversations that would spill into the early hours. “It was a mad thing to do in retrospect, but I was like, ‘This is what I want to make next.’” Thankfully, Cosmatos found the ideal partner in Elijah Wood’s production company SpectreVision (The Greasy Strangler), who gave the far from commercial filmmaker the breathing space he needed. Changing PlaCes
But not before the film almost fell at the first hurdle, when Cosmatos’ first choice for Jeremiah Sand – the messianic cult leader who abducts Andrea Riseborough’s eponymous Mandy – turned the part down. “When Panos and I met, he had seen me in Linus’ [Roache] role, as the leader of the cult,” says Nic Cage, talking to TF over the phone with the ice-cool cadence of Wild At Heart’s Sailor Ripley. “I saw myself as Red, because I felt I had the life experience and the memories to play the part honestly.”
Set in 1983, the film sees lumberjack Red Miller spending his days toppling trees in the Pacific Northwest and his nights cuddling up to Mandy, a fantasy-fiction-obsessed, prog-rockloving illustrator whose otherworldly mystery is emphasised by the unexplained scar running down her left cheek. Cosmatos’ hesitation to cast Cage stemmed from the fact he envisioned Red and Mandy as a much younger couple, a problem Cage accentuated by turning up to their first meeting in Vancouver “looking like Father Time”, with grey hair and beard from his role in Army Of One. “I was going to play on this theme of age versus youth,” Cosmatos explains.
“It might have been too specific.
The film works better breathing in a more mystical way.”
A year after realising his error, Cosmatos cast Cage as Red, reconceiving the character as an older, gentler soul. “It was a great phone call to get, because I really wanted to work with Panos, and I found him fascinating,” says Cage, a fan since Black Rainbow haunted his dreams for a week. “When I first met him, he was talking about his memories as a child – how he liked the look of his action figures if the sun got too hot and the figures melted. And then I thought about Beyond The Black Rainbow. There’s a really way-out, creepy shot of this face almost melting. You see how sensitive he is to those memories. The art is coming from an organic place.”
With Cage on board, Cosmatos and co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn tailored the part to Cage’s wild at heart sensibility, a screw-loose insanity that filmmakers have failed to harness since Werner Herzog last turned Cage’s whack-a-doodle dial up to 11 in Bad Lieutenant. “When we got him, I started to get really energised about the character. I actually rewrote a bunch of dialogue to have lines that I wanted to hear Nicolas Cage say,” Cosmatos laughs. “I thought, ‘This can really have a new life now.’”
After Mandy is taken by Sand’s satanic cult, Red witnesses a horrific sequence of events and returns home a broken man. Slumping onto the toilet, his despair erupts in a three-minutelong take as he glugs mouthfuls of vodka straight from the bottle between guttural cries, all while wearing a pair of faintly comical y-fronts. “When I saw the movie in Sundance, [audiences] don’t know how to respond because it was a little bit past the fourth wall,” Cage remembers. “I wanted it to be uncomfortable. I wanted it to be naked in its vulnerability.”
Staged in a brightly lit bathroom, this scene stands in stark contrast to the arresting visuals employed throughout the rest of the film. Shot on murky 16mm, Mandy is bathed in every colour of the black rainbow – demonic reds, ethereal blues and jaundice yellows. “I always intended it to have a colour-drenched, juicy feeling,” Cosmatos says with relish. “Black Rainbow and this film, I made for the 16-year-old version of myself that would go to the theatre baked, and completely lose myself in the boiling grain. I’m trying to recreate the trance aspect of a film like Apocalypse Now, where you’re drawn into this altered state of consciousness.” Equally important to this effect is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s stunning, apocalyptic, prog-rock infused score – the last by the great composer before his untimely death earlier this year.
‘i always intended it to have a Colour-drenChed, juiCy feeling’ Panos Cosmatos
But there’s a reason it’s called Mandy and not Red (other than the fact Bruce Willis had dibs). Mandy, the character, drives everything that happens before and after her abduction. “I wanted a revenge film that orbits around a person that’s been victimised,” says Cosmatos. Dig deeper, and you’ll discover Mandy is a personal piece of work. Both Black Rainbow and Mandy were written, as Cosmatos tells it, at his lowest ebb following the death of his parents. Together they represent Cosmatos’ grief, anger and eventual acceptance of monumental loss – Black Rainbow a suffocating intake of breath, Mandy a cathartic exhale. “The energy of Black Rainbow was very much inspired by my mother, who was an experimental artist and loved nature,” Cosmatos considers. “But she’s also present in the character of Mandy. And so is my wife.”
Casting Mandy, therefore, took on monumental importance for Cosmatos. “To me, she’s the soul of the whole movie. If she’s not mesmeric and intriguing, then it’s for nothing.” Ironically, Cosmatos found his muse while watching National Treasure. Not the Nic
Cage treasure-hunting film series, but the
Robbie Coltrane Channel 4 drama, which co-starred Riseborough. “She was so amazing on that show. And then I’d also seen her in Oblivion, where she had this very cantered presence that really captivated me. So I knew she could do anything.” dungeon dePths
Following an avant-garde opening hour that’s all atmosphere and escalating dread, Mandy takes a drastic turn, mutating into an outrageously gory, hugely satisfying revenge romp. Revenge, in this case, a dish best served with a scoped crossbow, a hand-forged chrome axe (inspired by ’80s fantasy film Krull) and a chainsaw so implausibly lengthy you could cleave five people simultaneously. Delving deeper into some unseen netherworld, Mandy exists in its own dimension, where the infernal and the everyday overlap. “Part of the realm of the film is it’s seemingly a normal reality, but then you start to see all these little facets of a mythical artefact, like the Tainted Blade and the Horn of Abraxis,” says Cosmatos who, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a Dungeons & Dragons fan. “There is a possibility of conjured demons in this world.”
The film also features animated sequences, which chronicle Mandy’s metaphysical journey after her abduction. Inspired by heavy metal comics and Ralph Bakshi’s animated Lord Of The Rings, one of the first films Cosmatos ever saw, the heart of Mandy lies in these animated interludes. “They’re about [Mandy] being resurrected in a different dimension, and driving [Red’s] quest,” Cosmatos explains. “I think of her as a goddess and Jeremiah Sand as an evil wizard. Unwittingly, he’s created this entity that is more powerful than he can ever be. And on the earthly plain, Red Miller becomes a demigod who does her bidding.” In Cage’s words, “[Red] starts as a normal man and after he becomes, essentially, Jason Voorhees.”
As for what’s next, Cosmatos has nothing on the cards. But one thing’s for sure: he won’t be sticking to this plain of existence. “I don’t ever want to make a movie that just takes place in our world. I want to continue working in the realm of hybrid worlds of imagination.” And what a wonderful imagination it is.
mandy opens in cinemas on 12 october, with a home entertainment release on 29 october.