Inside Nicolas Cage’s Most Insane, Hell-Raising Performance Yet
Filmmaker Panos Cosmatos opens up about his surreal revenge-nightmare ‘Mandy,’ starring Nicolas Cage as a scythe-wielding man out to avenge his beloved.
Mandy is the greatest psychotropic prog-metal blood-orgy revenge nightmare ever committed to film, and credit for its dark, trippy majesty goes to writer/director Panos Cosmatos.
Teaming with stars Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache, cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, and acclaimed composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (who passed away shortly after completing his score), Cosmatos’ follow-up to his 2011 cult hit Beyond the Black Rainbow is yet another mind-melting effort that defies easy (or reserved) categorization. The story of a lumberjack named Red Miller (Cage) who goes on a hell-raising rampage after cult lunatics, led by wacko folk singer-turned-guru Jeremiah Sand (Roache), prey upon his wife Mandy (Riseborough), it’s a dreamy descent into pits of despair, a furious explosion of unbridled rage, and a sexualized journey through a demonic 1980s netherworld populated by fanatical degenerates and unholy blood-guzzling biker-assassins.
In short, it’s a one-of-a-kind freak-out that head-bangs to the beat of its own deranged drum. That, in turn, makes it a fitting companion piece to Black Rainbow, as well as additional proof that the 44-year-old writer/director (son of Tombstone helmer George P. Cosmatos) is one of genre cinema’s true visionaries. Employing hallucinatory aesthetics and alternately spacey and intense-to-the-point-of-insanity performances—led by a phenomenal Cage turn of mounting fury and hysteria—Cosmatos conjures up an entrancing mood of ethereal apocalyptic dread, perverse desire and unstoppable wrath.
We spoke with the auteur about the film’s Michael Mann and ‘80s-VHS inspirations, convincing his star to assume the lead role, staging an all-time titanic chainsaw fight, and capturing the closing moment’s remarkable Cage grin—which, once seen, can never truly be unseen.
Mandy plays like a dark, depraved LSD nightmare. Was your aim to replicate a psychedelic trip, to the point of making people actually want to try acid?
Definitely, with certain sequences, I was trying to replicate it, especially with Mandy and Jeremiah in the living room. But I would never tell anybody to take LSD. Too risky! [laughs]
You told me in 2011 that Beyond the Black Rainbow was an attempt to create the sort of movie whose VHS box artwork mesmerized you as a kid, but which you weren’t allowed to see. Did Mandy come from a similar place?
It definitely came from the same core of that—trying to evoke the feel of this imaginary film that I would picture from the VHS covers, and get from reading the synopses. But this one is the flip-side of Beyond the Black Rainbow. That one was delving into science fiction and a sort of claustrophobic vibe, whereas this one is more like riding around your neighborhood on your BMX listening to King Diamond.
Why such a long time between Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy?
It was literally just waiting for the right scenario where we could make the movie the way we wanted. A lot of that was trying to attach a movie star to the film, and finally we found somebody who got it, in Nicolas Cage.
How did you wind up connecting with Cage?
I had gotten word that he might be interested, so I’d rewritten the part of Jeremiah Sand with him in mind—just tweaking the dialogue in a way that I felt would be interesting for him, but that made the character a bit more of a disintegrating wannabe rock star that used flashy ‘70s California language. He ended up passing on it, and then Elijah [Wood, one of Mandy’s executive producers] worked on a movie with him [2016’s The Trust], and reminded him about the script. He said that he’d actually loved it, but that he’d been kind of talked out of doing it.
I went and met with him about playing Jeremiah, and the first thing out of his mouth was that he wanted to play Red Miller. I just felt completely gutted, because in my mind, I’d been visualizing him as Sand. It just felt like a blindside—I wasn’t expecting it. I had a hard time stopping the car and turning around and, on the spur of the moment, picturing him as Red Miller, which was not what I was thinking at the time. Although I really liked him. It’s not like he was an asshole or anything [laughs]. He was a great guy, and I really enjoyed talking to him.
Months later, I had a strange dream where I was watching Mandy and it starred Nicolas Cage as Red Miller, and it was undeniable. So I woke up and I immediately said, “I think we made a mistake,” and they agreed. From that point on, it was like the gods had spoken. My id took over!
Both Beyond and Mandy are set in 1983. What’s the significance of that year to you—and does that mean they both exist in the same cinematic universe?
Right. I think it goes back to the VHS boxes. For me, 1983 is a signifier for this kind of mythical, imaginary realm.
Mandy has one of the all-time great chainsaw fights. Where’d the inspiration for that come from, and how did you stage it?
Early on, when I was coming up with Mandy, I realized that I wanted to have a chainsaw fight in it. There’ve been some great chainsaw fights throughout movie history, like Dark of the Sun, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Phantasm 2. But at the same time, it just seemed incredibly difficult. I think it’s harder to pull off a chainsaw fight because they’re heavy machines, and they can just feel very cumbersome. I wanted it to feel a bit more like a barbarian sword fight. But it was an early notion, and yeah, it turned out to be just as much of a nightmare to shoot as I thought it would be [laughs].
Equally as great is Red’s homemade bladed weapon. Does it have a name—and who owns it now?
It’s called The Beast, and I think the one that’s actually made out of metal is out in L.A. with SpectreVision. I have one of the replicas—one of the stunt chrome-layer ones. My friend Jeffrey Halliday designed the original sketch for it, which is based on the “F” from the Celtic Frost logo. I wanted it to feel almost like a manifestation of Red’s insanity. Instead of just as a weapon, it was like a crystallized object of his grief.
Stylistically, Mandy is far from conventional. Is it tough to get backing for a movie like this, when it might be difficult to convey—verbally, or in writing—precisely what you’re after?
Our approach was basically to find and attach talent and go from there. And once we had Cage, the financial funding thing appeared pretty quickly, by XYZ [Films].
The LSD lab sequence with the tiger feels indebted to Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Was that a direct inspiration?
I’m sure Manhunter influenced me in some way. The whole time I was directing Beyond the Black Rainbow, in the back of my mind, I was pretending I was Michael Mann [laughs]. Just to keep sane, I guess—one of those weird survival instincts. Like, I’m a dirtbag Michael Mann or something, in my mind [laughs].
Of all the Michael Mann films, Manhunter is still my favorite. It just has this incredible dreamlike quality. Even in the beginning, when I just rewatched it most recently, the first shot is kind of this oblique establishing shot of the Tooth Fairy’s van, and the camera kind of lands on the weird bulbous orange lamps on the top of the van, but it’s framed in such a way that it’s almost abstract. It’s almost sculptural.
We ended up with the tiger because it was a beautiful classic low-budget scenario where, in the script, it had originally been a mandrill. And it turned out that it was impossible to get a mandrill. The only people who had mandrills were the Russians, and even they wouldn’t work with mandrills anymore because of how horribly mutilated they got when they worked with them. So we ended up with a tiger from France, which was a beautiful animal, and we fell in love with him.
Despite its nightmarishness, Mandy has flashes of surreal humor, such as the “Cheddar Goblin” mac-and-cheese TV commercial. Was it important to offset the film’s doom and gloom with levity?
I felt there was a lot of humor in Beyond the Black Rainbow as well, but nobody seemed to pick up on it [laughs]. In this film, I felt like more outward-facing humor fit more organically into it. I like humor in films; I feel like it gives audiences a sort of portal to feel more open and at home in the world of the movie, and what the characters are going through. One of my favorite directors is John Landis, easily. So I was very excited about incorporating more humor into it.
The score is such an integral part of the film’s energy. How did you decide on the late Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, Arrival) for composing duties, and, given how it’s so inextricably tied to your images and editorial structure, how did that collaboration work?
We started talking about it pretty early. He was one of the first people that became involved—and I’m sure in some way, having his involvement also helped the movie to move forward. I had never thought of Jóhann for the movie. I loved his music, but I never thought he’d even want to do this film. From afar, I thought of him as more of an academic mind. But it turned out that he’d seen Beyond the Black Rainbow and loved it, and reached out to SpectreVision about working on this.
After talking to him for five minutes, I realized that, despite his ethereal, beautiful output for the most part, at heart he’s an Icelandic metal head, basically [laughs]. I told him that I wanted the soundtrack to become like a disintegrating rock opera. We were both on the same page about not wanting to ape things that had influenced us; we wanted to interpret them from the present.
Andrea Riseborough has this unreal aura as Mandy, which is accentuated by your focus on her eyes. What drew you to her for the part?
She was essentially my first choice for the part. I’d seen her in this show called National Treasure—not the Nicolas Cage movie, it was a British TV show—and also the way she looked in Birdman. She seemed to me like a combination of a medieval princess and an ‘80s metalhead woman. Some of the earliest inspirations for the character of Mandy came from these weird women that I’d encountered in my childhood and teenage years that were just straight-up ‘80s metalhead women that were subcultural people at the time. She seemed to really evoke that to me.
The final maniacal smile that Cage gives in the car is unforgettable. Was that in the script, or did it come about during production?
One of my favorite things to shoot, for some reason, no matter what, is just when you’re riding around in a car or a car rig, and you’re crammed in the backseat or the trunk, with a monitor, talking to the actors as they drive. He was supposed to turn and smile at her [Riseborough], and he went, “Hey man, do you mind if I try something?” I said sure, and he did that smile, but times ten. And I was like, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! [laughs] I was just in heaven. So we did a few versions, and I think we ended up with the one that was one notch below the maximum.