'Mandy' Director Panos Cosmatos on Unleashing Nicolas Cage as a "Demigod of Wrath"

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at the Macau Film Festival, Cosmatos reveals the many production challenges behind his psychedelic revenge opus: "I just want to go into the woods with Nicolas Cage and a smoke machine — is that too much to ask?"
Courtesy of IFFAM
Panos Cosmatos at the IFFAM opening ceremony.

After premiering in Sundance in January, the action-horror movie Mandy has been a critical and fan favorite on the festival circuit this year, playing to packed houses everywhere from Mumbai to Sitges. This week, Mandy landed at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao (IFFAM) and director Panos Cosmatos and the film's irrepressible star Nicolas Cage were in the city to support the film. 

Cage was the center of attention at the third edition of IFFAM, both at the opening ceremony and a packed master class the Oscar-winning actor gave on Sunday, but it was Cosmatos who introduced Mandy to the Macau audience at the screening.

The son of the late George P. Cosmatos, the Greek-Italian director of '80s hits such as Rambo: First Blood Part IICobra and the 1993 Western Tombstone, Cosmatos made his directing debut with the sci-fi horror film Beyond the Black Rainbow in 2010 that has since become something of a cult hit. 

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Cosmatos in Macau where he talked about the long struggle to secure the financing to make Mandy, the joy of working with Cage and particularly "that scene" from the film and reconnecting with the films of his youth after the death of his father. 

There is a long gap between the release of Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy. Was there a particular reason why you took so long to make Mandy or is it just the way it happened?

It's just kind of how it happened but it was because I was being very careful about who I worked with because of the situation I got myself into. My biggest fear, especially with this film, which I thought could easily be misinterpreted by producers as something that was just a very generic action film. I didn't want to get in a situation where I ended up having to make massive compromises because it suddenly wasn't fitting what they had perceived.

So I wanted to make sure that I started out with a set of producers that intrinsically understood where I came from, where I was coming from and what I was trying to achieve. With [Elijah Wood's production company SpectreVision] I found that.

Was pitching Mandy to producers a challenge? 

It wasn't a hard pitch to [SpectreVision]. They had seen Beyond the Black Rainbow. They kind of understood what I was about and wanted to work with me in whatever I did next.

But what about other producers, particularly at the beginning of trying to find finance for Mandy

I think a lot of people had a very standard Hollywood response, that is, that there's too much violence. Which is ironic when it comes to cinema because I feel like television has gotten more violent than films in a lot of ways. And for some reason that doesn't make a ripple. If you're trying to finance a film, everybody is, like, really fucking sensitive of the violence all of a sudden.

But to me, the violence or the violent imagery in this film was a core aspect of it. It has to feel primal and kind of like a barbarian film from the '80s. Like the way I felt when I watched Conan the Barbarian when I was a kid — it was fucking terrifying and kind of a savage, primal, dark world, you know?

It's unsettling, for sure! 

Yeah. I needed to have that feeling. I wanted the movie to feel like I felt when I looked at the Conan poster when I was a kid which was like, "that's a fucking dangerous adult thing. It's not meant for me."

Nicolas Cage and you have both spoken before about how you originally wanted him to play the cult leader Jeremiah Sand rather than the hero Red. Whom did you have in mind to play Red originally? 

That was kind of up in the air. I had fallen in love with the idea of taking Nic into this full, dark universe as a villain. Because he has sort of flirted with villains, but they're all kind of positive —even though their villains are quite positive people. And there are those elements to Sand, but I really wanted to push him into a whole new level of being more evil onscreen. I'd really fallen in love with doing that. So when he said that he wanted to play Red Miller, I was just disappointed and I hadn't really spent any time picturing him as Red. 

Did you have to recalibrate the character?

Well, months later, I had a dream where I was watching Mandy, the final film completed, and he was playing Red Miller and it was really compelling and really awesome. And I realized that there was a lot more room in that character to sort of do some of the things that I wanted to do with him as Sand than I had maybe originally figured. The first thing I did when I woke up, I called up the producer and said, "I think we need to ask him again."

When Cage came on board, did everything start fitting together and making sense from a story perspective?

There was a time when we were having difficulty getting the film made and I was commiserating to my co-writer, I said: "I just want to go into the woods with Nicolas Cage and a smoke machine, is that too much to ask?" Once he came on board, then we got the money and I rewrote some of Red's dialogue and kind of tailored it to stuff that I really just wanted to see him say as a fan of his work.

You've always been a fan of Cage? 

I just have a huge amount of admiration for him as a performer and his range of ability. And having this chance to work with him, I really wanted to tap into almost every aspect of his ability. And hopefully in a way that feels organic and integral to the movie. But I really didn't want to miss this opportunity to play with Nicolas Cage. I mean, how often do you get a Nicolas Cage action figure to play with?

As a director working on only your second film, how much influence do you have on the performance of a veteran actor like Cage? 

We had long conversations where we formulated the progression of his character from scene to scene to scene. He starts off as this sort of normal, if a little bit tortured, man. And then after what happens to Mandy, he kind of becomes like an animal creature. And in the third act he takes the character and he modifies it into a sort of a demigod of wrath who is enacting revenge on the mortal plain, like a sort of golem, or something, a golem.

So, yeah, I found him to be an incredibly thoughtful and methodical actor, and he's capable of going through these more expressionistic realms. 

You wanted him to dig deep into that expressionistic method? 

Absolutely, but I wanted it to feel like it was coming naturally out of his state and with what was happening in the film. Because sometimes it's misused, but I really wanted it to feel an organic part of this character in the world of this film. So I was careful about that. I think some people maybe these days perceive him as a Tasmanian Devil or something, where you just let him go and he just runs amok all over the set or something, but he's actually an incredibly thoughtful, methodical actor who really puts a lot of time and energy into preparing and modulating these things.

Going back to Beyond the Black Rainbow, that film feels quite constrained whereas Mandy is very much more explosive, in a way. Was it like that during the production process?  

It was a lot more fun to film Black Rainbow. I thought that Black Rainbow was a hard shoot, but I didn't know what the hell I was talking about until I shot Mandy, which was really difficult. Logistically a very, very, very difficult shoot. Actually, there is so much night driving in Mandy because my favorite part of shooting Black Rainbow was the night driving scenes. There was something almost zen-like about being outside at night on a car rig and driving around. And so I kind of, unconsciously I think, put a ton of night driving in Mandy.

But, Mandy is the flip side to Black Rainbow

How do you mean? 

Black Rainbow is about control and your emotions being repressed and controlled, and Mandy's about all a volcanic eruption! I still constructed it all in a methodical way, but there's a lot more catharsis in Mandy, which was a lot of fun to shoot, things that are cathartic, things blowing up and stuff like that. 

OK, let's talk about the bathroom scene, the scene that everyone is talking about from Mandy. How did that come about? Could you break down that scene for us?

I think we shot it late afternoon, early evening. It was on the page, literally, if I recall correctly, it's been so long since I actually read the script. The script said he's that [Red] is just guzzling vodka and having an emotional breakdown, so after talking to Cage a little bit, I decided that I wanted to film it in one shot, a static camera. I wanted it to almost feel like an absurdist one-act play, an off-Broadway play. Because [Red's] life has kind of disintegrated that you feel like ... when your life disintegrates, you feel like that the world isn't real anymore, that you're having an out-of-body experience, where you feel like you're looking at yourself in a strange room. I kind of wanted to have that almost artificial feeling to it, in a sense, and let it play like that in one shot.

We had a fairly stripped-down crew that day, but there was maybe still a dozen people around. If I recall correctly, we did it three times. 

What did you say to Cage to get him ready for that scene? 

You know that's the great thing about him, he's such a professional, capable actor that for those really heavy scenes like that, and when he's watching Mandy die, he would come to set completely prepared and completely in the zone for what was required.

When you're working with an actor who's prepared and brings it when you need it, it's just a very validating creative experience. 

Despite the small budget, Mandy looks epic and huge in scale on the screen. How did you achieve that? 

I read a quote years ago and I wish to god I could remember where it was or who said it, but it was basically along the lines of, "It's as important what you don't show, as what you do show." And from my very first super-short film, I really always was kind of inspired by that because by isolating a certain part of a room or an environment you can make it feel like it extends a lot. If you choose the right wall and the right frame, you can let the audience fill in the gaps in their mind, and it can make some things seem a lot larger in scope than it actually is, literally.

Mandy is set in the 1980s, and has a very obvious '80s vibe in terms of the look and score and you talked before about Conan, are the '80s really important for you? 

In the '90s, I kind of put aside all those things I loved in the '80s and I got really into watching foreign films and art films and stuff like that, and sort of soaking those up. But then after my father died, I realized that I needed to reconnect with all of these things from my youth, that made me happy. It was just kind of an instinctual return towards these things. It was a conscious decision, I started just watching all of the stuff from my childhood again and it made me happy, like a security blanket. 

And just reconnecting with these things, but with more life experience, I realized that these things were a core part of me, and so I wanted to express myself through those genres. 

Did that reconnection inform the casting of Bill Duke in Mandy

Oh, yeah. I really, really wanted somebody that had iconic gravity to them for that part. He was surprisingly open to it, and it was a real thrill to work with him. I'm a huge fan of his film Deep Cover, so it was awesome to just talk to him about that. (Laughing.)

So what's next after Mandy?

I'm not working on anything. I need to just take some time and sort of meditate. I need to go look at one of my weird notebooks and see what jumps out at me and what I connect with, and what comes at night, what I can get obsessed with. I feel happy working in the low-budget realm, doing stuff that is a little bit more esoteric, and personal.

And will you be working with Nicolas Cage again? 

Absolutely, yeah. We've talked. I know we would like to work with each other again.