When Nicolas Cage agreed to play a rambunctious, self-absorbed version of himself in the Lionsgate comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” the actor had plenty of opinions about his character should behave. However, none surprised director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten more than when Cage suggested he make out with a younger version of himself.
“I wouldn’t even have thought to suggest it,” Gormican said in an interview, “but it’s exactly the sort of Nicolas Cage choice that led us to write this movie.”
Among the many meta elements that “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” offers as it explores Cage’s attempt to retake control of his life, the movie concocts a younger version of the actor — whom he dubs “Nicky” — that goads the older Cage into reclaiming his wilder days. And in a key moment as Cage bickers with this living inner monologue, the pair actually lock lips. That required a body double.
“Nic came to us and said, ‘Guys, I have an idea, I’ll french kiss myself,'” Gormican said. “By the way, it’s was COVID … so I had to figure out how to do this without anyone getting sick.”
The movie tracks Cage’s experience when his agent talks him into spending time with a wealthy Spanish playboy (Pedro Pascal) as his birthday guest. While grappling with the pressure to retire from the industry, Cage revisits many of the highlights in his career. As a comical espionage story enters the plot, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” features playful references to everything from “Gone in 60 Seconds” to “Leaving Las Vegas.” But none of the Cage pastiche stands out more than Nicky himself, a de-aged version of Cage based on his early ’90s persona.
The filmmakers based the character on an infamous appearance the actor made on talkshow host Terry Wogan’s program in 1990, when the actor was promoting David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart.” Cage burst onto the set with a somersault, tore off his shirt, and tossed money at the studio audience.
“He looked insane,” Gormican said. “For Nic, he had to find the moment in his life where it felt like things were changing and he had all the bravado of youth, without the crushing criticism that happened to him quite a bit later on.” When Gormican brought up the clip with Cage, Gormican said, “Nic was like, ‘That’s the guy I want to play again. I want to take him down with this film.'”
Earlier, while Cage was going back and forth on whether he wanted to commit to the project, he decided that it was the Nicky character that won him over. “It was my favorite thing about it,” he said in an interview. “When they said, ‘We’ve gotta land this movie at 100 minutes or whatever,’ I said, OK, I’m going to fight for Nicky. That was the character that stole the show, made me laugh the most, and that was the guy that made me want to say yes to the movie.”
Bringing him to life, however, required a bit of innovative 21st-century artistry. In the aftermath of “The Irishman,” de-aging technology has become de rigueur in Hollywood, but the $30 million budget from Lionsgate didn’t provide room for too much fancy CG trickery. Gormican teamed up with the digital makeup team at CoSA, which has worked on de-aging actors on major Hollywood productions like “Captain Marvel” (where Samuel L. Jackson had to look 30 years younger) and also counts “The Revenant” among its credits. In this case, the company only required stage makeup and a wig. Cage shot both sides of his conversations with himself, starting with Nicky, and had the audio from those scenes playing in an earpiece when he performed as his modern-day self.
“I was actually able to shoot it in much the same way I’d shoot anything just with a different actor. That was all done in post,” Gormican said. “There was a tremendous amount of technology but also a ton of after-the-fact artistry … I would notice, ‘Oh, the beard shadow he always had when he was young is gone.’ When we added it, it started to look more like Nic. People are doing this, but a lot of people who are doing de-aging have a lot more money than I did.”
Gormican, who has a background in independent production, said he took nothing for granted once Cage was onboard — no easy process, and one that he felt mandated writing an entire script and getting an offer on the table before Cage assessed the opportunity. “I see how hard it is all the time to get these things off the ground, to get actors’ attention,” he said. “In a world where streamers are overpaying for people’s services, it’s even harder.”
He never considered providing Cage with a proposal that didn’t include the entire script. “If I were Spike Jonze or David Lynch, maybe I would bring a proof of concept,” Gormican said. “If I did that, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a meeting. So for us, it was like, ‘Let’s have all the assets we could possibly make for free,’ which was our sweat equity.” He spent an additional eight months securing financiers before approaching Cage’s agents at WME. “We thought, ‘He’s going to put the script down unless he has an offer and the sense that this could be a real project,'” Gormican said. “It got people’s attention because it’s a comedy.”
Cage said he appreciated that Gormican put a lot of thought into the outreach. “I got a letter from Tom, a smart letter, a well-written letter,” he said. “This was not a stupid person. He went on about some of the early work and his genuine enthusiasm as a cinephile of sorts, a film enthusiast who appreciated movies like ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘Face/Off.’ He was somebody that seemed to be coming from a genuine place in terms of the early work.” He also appreciated that the Cage character in the script was a genuine movie buff. “If you want to talk movies, I’ll talk with anybody,” he said. “I’m that kind of film enthusiast where if you’ve got ideas for movies or recommendations, I’m going to go listen.”
Once Cage committed to the project, Gormican said, he wasn’t precious on set. “When he decides to buy into you as a director, he treats you like every other director that I admire that he’s worked with,” he said. “He decides you are that guy. He never makes you feel like you’re less than Scorsese or David Lynch. You feel like you’re on an even playing field.”
Cage said he committed to the challenge in part because it allowed him to double-down on the performative exuberance that has become a touchstone of his work. “As over the top as some people want to call it, it’s genuinely filled with true emotion, which is important to me,” he said. “I do feel that the work I’ve done has been sincere, even though not all the movies have worked as a whole.”
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is now in theaters from Lionsgate.