Nicolas Cage didn’t walk the red carpet at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, but his name was everywhere. At the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, the actor’s wild-eyed performance in the revenge saga “Mandy” reminded cinephiles that while his penchant for overacting can border on parody, he’s a true creature of cinema. Sundance audiences embraced it as a genre experiment; the Cannes reception took it global. “For years, Nicolas Cage’s more extreme performances have been derided as a blight on cinema,” wrote Robbie Collins in The Telegraph, “but it turns out that cinema just had to catch up.”
Directors’ Fortnight, where Cage won similar approval two years ago as the self-absorbed criminal with a Humphrey Bogart obsession in Paul Schrader’s “Dog Eat Dog,” proved to be only one of several ways for the Cage brand to remain current at the world’s most prominent film gathering. Several Cage announcements trickled out of the Cannes market, proving that nearly 25 years after his Oscar win for “Leaving Las Vegas,” he has become a singular brand uniquely suited to an ever-changing marketplace.
In addition to “Mandy,” Cage also stars in “Between Worlds,” a supernatural mystery in which he plays a lonely trucker helping a woman who can commune with lost souls. After screening at the market, “Between Worlds” sold to Saban Films, just days after another upcoming Cage project was unveiled at the festival — Japanese director Sion Sono’s first English-language feature, the apocalyptic “Prisoners of the Ghostland,” an upcoming production from “Mandy” producers XYZ Films. That same week, Millennium Films announced yet another Cage project: “Kill Chain,” a so-called “detective noir” from “Numb3rs” director Ken Sanzel. Millennium also provided Cage’s latest role, as an almost-retired cop in the police drama “211,” which opens June 8.
For many audiences, it has become easy to write off Cage’s ubiquity in pulpy material as the sad byproduct of a once-prestigious actor who’s saddled with debt and grasping for work that could turn a profit. The actor himself once confessed, in an email to Schrader, that he was “an A-list actor doing a A-list work who is being forced into B-list presentations because I had some hits in action films a million years ago.”
However, reports that Cage plans to retire from acting to spend more time behind the camera have been exaggerated. “He has no intention of retiring from acting, so his fans can breathe easy on that front,” the actor’s longtime manager, Stride’s Mike Nilon, said in an interview. “He has directed a film [2002’s “Sonny”] and would like to direct in the future. He’s produced quite a few films and would like to continue doing that, but not completely at the expense of his work as an actor. It’s all a part of his evolution as a storyteller.”
No matter often he’s parodied, Cage remains enmeshed in his process, and declined an interview request for this story because he’s currently learning how to play the piano ahead of shooting the mob drama “A Score to Settle” in Vancouver next month.
“Sometimes people say things that have nothing to do with his work, that aren’t all that kind,” Nilon said. “I think Nick uses his full repertoire in all his performances. It’s never like, ‘I need to do my explosive thing here or people will be disappointed.’ He crafts each role based on how he wants the character to be developed.”
To some extent, Cage’s talent requires the right vessel. As the vengeful centerpiece of “Mandy,” director Panos Cosmatos’ expressionistic Sundance midnight sensation, the actor unleashes his penchant for excess, guzzling vodka as his character mourns his murdered wife in one scene and later skull-fucking a villain to death as he proclaims, “I am your god now!” No matter the ridiculous B-movie extremes of these moments, Cage operates in tune with Cosmatos’ otherworldly aesthetic, transforming the grindhouse material into a kind of gnarly heavy-metal poetry.
“If you’re somebody that really likes to see Nick be explosive, you’re going to be very pleased with the last 40 minutes of that film,” Nilon said. “He gets to showcase that in a remarkable way. At the same time, he is a much more contained person at the beginning of that film. You get to see a bit of the balance.”
Cage’s flamboyant performances have allowed him to retain a currency that eludes many movie stars as they approach middle age. He’s ideally suited for the VOD market, where name talent can bring more immediate commercial viability than in the studio arena. “Nick has built a solid VOD base, which allows him to continue to work in features while other actors have migrated to long-form television,” said Schrader, who directed Cage in two projects.
The actor’s instant VOD marketability has helped stranger projects like “Mandy” find their way. “From a business standpoint, he’s an incredible asset because he’s still enormously popular around the world at a time when the sales model is beginning to break down,” said Spectrevision’s Daniel Noah, a producer on the project. “His attachment was the element we needed to bring ‘Mandy’ to life with the full scope of recourses we needed to realize Panos’ vision.”
Unlike many established names, Noah added, “Nick is a very rare bird in the landscape of film actors in that he has no inherent biases against genre. In ‘Mandy,’ he brought a depth of feeling that gives the film an almost religious quality, elevating the experience to something truly sublime.”
Because Cage’s involvement guarantees a certain amount of profitability on VOD, his projects tend to come with pricey backstop deals that cause many traditional theatrical distributors to shy away — even when his films find widespread critical support. “Mandy” ultimately went to RLJ Films, a primarily digital company that runs the British streaming service Acorn TV and is owned by AMC Networks. The company also released “Dog Eat Dog,” Cage’s last acclaimed project.
Nilon said that the backstop deals happen on a case by case basis. “It can be necessary to meet the strike price for the film,” he said, referring to the figure set by the sales company upfront. “Backstop deals are definitely part of the business these days and help films get made.”
While that arrangement may relegate Cage’s output to the VOD arena, Nilon disputed the characterization of Cage as a VOD star. “I wouldn’t buy into that label myself,” he said. “I do think it is worth noting that the landscape of how feature films are made and consumed is, for lack of a better word, evolving. It’s part a business that isn’t completely understood or necessarily given its due. If Nick is in that world to a certain degree, that’s good, because he’s part of diverse storytelling.”
One potential upside: Cage has the freedom to take risks on wacky projects without fear of commercial failure. Even when they’re campy and outrageous, it still enhances his clout. Audiences at a Cannes market screening were at once baffled and energized minutes into “Between Worlds,” when Cage surfaces covered in a thick beard and unkempt, overgrown hair to rescue a woman being choked in a gas station bathroom. Knocking her assailant to the floor, he bellows, “We don’t treat women like that in the South!” The crowd went wild, transforming a seemingly bizarre moment into the makings of a new cult classic.
Filmmakers attest to the thrill of watching the actor let loose with unconventional material. “It is like a form of documented performance art in many respects,” said “Between Worlds” director Maria Pulera. “Nicolas Cage is so engaging and he maintains the tricky tone of the film, which takes some aspects of the traditional thriller but creates a surreal tone throughout that is strangely comical and very enjoyable. This is his magic.”
Schrader pointed out that the actor can’t take full responsibility for the outcome of every role he takes on. “As an actor, he always provides that Nick Cage ‘spark,’” Schrader said. “Nick will always provide the spark. It’s up to the individual project how best to use it.”