With “The Croods,” an animated family film from DreamWorks (our review here), premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, lead voice actor Nicolas Cage was in town over the weekend, and we got to speak with him in a small group of journalists. About the experience of working on the film itself (“It’s like ‘Avatar’ meets ‘Yellow Submarine’ with these people who look like Neanderthals” he summed up) he had nothing but good things to say: “I feel like this is the best chance I’ve had to perform in an animated movie.” But he was also frank and forthcoming about other areas of his working life.
While some of his recent film choices have smacked of cash grabs necessitated by his fairly public financial troubles, the Cage we met was adamant that he stood by all his “experiments,” but also that, much to the anticipation of fans like us, he is right now steering his career in a new direction, that should hopefully see fewer derivative thrillers, and more work with the auteurs he admires. The conversation ranged far and wide, from future projects, real and potential to an overview of his approach to his career to date (and it does all seem to have been part of a plan), to the actors who excite him today, to the films of his that he believes have been the most wilfully misunderstood. Here are a few things we learned.
His next film, David Gordon Green’s “Joe” marks a return to darker material after the family friendliness of “The Croods.”
Nicolas Cage: Last night I had dinner and David Gordon Green came by, and we just did something together called “Joe.” And there was Jeffrey Katzenberg [of DreamWorks] who has entertained the world with these very positive and artistic and colorful movies and there we are together and I said to Jeffrey, “I think David and I just made one of the darkest dramas that might come out next year.” And Jeffrey’s like “Oh, you went dark again?” I love that dichotomy, that diversity. I have been blessed to be able to play both sides of the coin.
When we spoke to David Gordon Green earlier this year, he described “Joe” as “Nicolas Cage in a movie that’s not like anything Nicolas Cage has done before.” What does Cage make of this?
NC: Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet. I hope it is, and I’m sure he is right, my feeling is that David is an original and he is free as an artist. I loved “Prince Avalanche” [which won DGG Best Director in Berlin]. I thought it was just a remarkable film with just two actors… and I sometimes I didn’t even know why I loved it so much I just did. I think David had a vision of me for this movie, and he’s a young, enthusiastic artist who knew what to do with me and I think he found a new way of reinventing me. So if he’s says it’s a Nicolas Cage movie that Nicolas Cage has never made before… I’m excited.
In fact, Cage believes youth and freshness are valuable commodities in a director.
NC: I love enthusiastic, adventuresome filmmakers, not that older filmmakers can’t be that — they can. I think Werner [Herzog] and I worked well together on ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and I have some excitement about possibly doing something with some of my other heroes, but by and large the younger ones are the ones that haven’t had their dreams kicked out of them yet, and they’re still willing to take the chances.
[Later he talks about the upcoming “Tokarev” in these terms]
[Director Paco Cabezas is] another young, enthusiastic filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take chances. The movie of his that I saw was very brave with the storytelling and the camerawork, and I think he has an original vision. What’s frustrating about the internet is they judge a movie before they even know what it’s about, but the thing is there are elements in [“Tokarev”] that are very relevant today, especially in my country, and I don’t want to get into that because it would give it away, but there is something about the movie that I think is relevant to society.
Cage’s erratic, eccentric career path has been a result of wanting to challenge himself, and now he’s taking things in a new direction.
NC: If you look at the work carefully, there’s a ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and then there’s a “Knowing.” And there’s a “Lord of War” and a “National Treasure”…I’m always trying to make things eclectic. It’s just that now I want to really go back to my roots and reinvent myself again, and go back to “Leaving Las Vegas” or “Vampire’s Kiss” and do these smaller, independently spirited dramatic movies. That’s the direction I want to really zero in on right now.
I stand by my work, I like all my experiments, I like “Season of the Witch,” I like “Drive Angry,” these are all opportunities for me to explore and not get trapped in one style… But I do also like the dramatic work of the past and I want to go back to that too and maybe put that more at the forefront. A few years ago it was horror, and that’s what I wanted at the forefront, now I wanna go back. I’d like to do a Paul Schrader movie or another movie with Werner, I’d like to dig deep with David Gordon Green or Scott Walker of [the upcoming] "Frozen Ground." It would still be a reinvention anyway, even though it’s a return, because what would it be like now for me at 49?
One of the reasons why I frustrate critics is because they don’t know what to do with me. I don’t get stuck, I actively go against it. When I won the Oscar I made a point of actively going against that and doing adventure films like “Con Air” and “Gone in 60 Seconds,” not what would be expected….I’ve been very blessed to get the roles that I wanna play and to be in movies that coincide in some way with my interests.
Speaking of Herzog, a journalist mentions an interview in which Herzog claimed that, above Kinski, Cage was the best actor he ever worked with.
NC: Well, I think Werner and I did something magical together. And thank you for sharing that with me, I’ll listen to Werner Herzog before I’ll listen to Owen Gleiberman [of Entertainment Weekly]. But you know, hey, I’m a fan of Klaus Kinski… I think because of Klaus Kinski I was maybe going in that direction with Werner because I knew something special would happen if I sort of embraced the Kinski attitude. I was very vocal on the set about my feelings… but I have so much respect for Werner. It was interesting because he sounds like my great grandmother, the voice, the accent, so that was powerful, just recalling how frustrated I was with her. But I have a love for Werner because of that. He’s a great man.
Herzog is not the only auteur he’s like to work with — and he came close with William Friedkin on the now-defunct “I am Wrath”
NC: Billy [Friedkin] knows how important he is to me. It didn’t work on that one, for whatever reason, but I’m hopeful that one day it’ll happen. “I Am Wrath” is not going ahead, but not because of Billy — other issues came out of the whole process. But there are a lot of people I’d like to be reunited with: Paul Schrader, Werner, these are heroes that I know I’ve done good work with and I know I could again, and I have no doubt that Friedkin and I would get up to something special. I’d love to work with Tim [Burton] — that didn’t work out on “Superman,” but is Tim one of my favorite directors? Absolutely.
For different reasons, he feels “The Wicker Man” and “Bringing out the Dead” are among the most unfairly overlooked or maligned films he has done.
NC: "Wicker Man" is probably the best example of a movie where people are mystified because they think for some reason that we did not know it was humorous, even though I am dressed in a bear suit, doing these ridiculous things with the matriarchcal society on the island — how can you not know that Neil [LaBute] and I knew that this was absurdist humor? But okay, have at it. That was a misconception.
I think “Bringing Out the Dead” with Marty [Scorsese] is one of the better movies and this is another movie that, largely because of the way it was promoted and it was sandwiched between some of my action/adventure films, that people were expecting to see something on those lines. Whereas the truth is that movie critics understood it, but he public didn’t quite understand that this was more of an esoteric adventure into the imagination of this burned-out paramedic…this was an artistic adventure, but the public didn’t know how to gauge it.
Another frequently misunderstood aspect of Cage’s process is his “shamanic” approach to acting.
NC: The idea is that you don’t have to live the part and do the method thing. You don’t have to gain the fifty pounds, you don’t have to stay in character all the time and only be called by the characters’s name. You don’t have to do that because you have your imagination. And with the imagination, if you really invest yourself in it, if you stimulate it, if you listen to your dreams, whatever you need to do — take a weekend and have a drink and channel something, whatever it is, or find an object or something that stimulates your imagination — then you’re not really “acting” anymore, it’s not a lie anymore, it’s a truth. That’s what I’m trying to get to.
All actors originally were the shamen of the village. They don’t know that, though I would suspect that somebody like Joaquin Phoenix or Ryan Gosling knows exactly what I’m talking about. You are there — believe it, believe in the imagination and lose yourself in the part. That’s all I’m trying to say.
He has a passion project with Roger Corman ready to go
NC: I had a great idea, and I tried to get it made. I said, “Roger, I want to do a 1960s Roger Corman film right now, I want to do everything the same, it’s an experiment. I want the same costumes, I want the same fog machine, I want the same blood and I want to go somewhere with you and make a classic Roger Corman film in 2013 or whenever.” And we had a great meeting in New Orleans and it was good to go. I was up every night watching "Masque of the Red Death" and “Premature Burial” and I was like, “this is so artistic and psychedelic and fantastic — I gotta be in that movie!” And he is still with us! It’s like, “Come on guys, this guy is a legend — let’s make a movie together!” And I can’t get the money.
[It’s suggested to him that he takes the project to the newly reestablished Hammer Films shingle] They just sort of became new again, right? I should do that, that’s a good idea. I will.
But as to what he thinks about the lack of money around to make movies these days, he doesn’t believe the outlook is so very bleak.
NC: I love “The Master,” I love “Drive,” I think Ryan Gosling and Joaquin Phoenix are the most exciting actors out there — I think [U.S. film is] in good shape.The problem is, because of the economy, and I know this better than anybody, nobody has any money. And it’s hard to get these little movies made. But the fact is they got made, it happened, “The Master” exists, “Drive” exists, David Gordon Green’s “Joe” exists — it can be done. It’s just everyone has to be a little more creative about how to get it made. You gotta cut your price, you gotta pull together, but always good things have come out of that.
Look at “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” — the reason why they made those cardboard cutout sets and resorted to German Expressionism is they didn’t have the money to build the sets, so they had to be really creative about how to get it done. If you look at it historically, the more you have think about it and be creative about how you make the movie, chances are you might stumble onto something really imaginative. Gee, look at Anthony Burgess with “A Clockwork Orange.” He wrote that book because his wife was sick and he didn’t have any money, and he had to get her well, so he’s like, “well I’ll write a book” and he wrote one of the greatest books in fiction. It happens time and time again.
“The Croods” is released on March 22nd, “Joe” is being shopped to distributors now.