Why Nicolas Cage Rules, According to the Co-Writer of One of the Best Nicolas Cage Movies
Mandy co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn talks about why Nicolas Cage is more than your meme.
Aaron Stewart-Ahn was there to witness Nicolas Cage’s big comeback. The place? The 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The movie? Mandy.
“I was there at Sundance when he saw it for the first time,” Stewart-Ahn, who co-wrote Mandy with director Panos Cosmatos, tells Inverse. “I think he was surprised by it a little bit.”
You could argue (correctly) that Nicolas Cage never went away, but following the dual flops of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), he starred in a string of straight-to-digital releases so bad rumors began to spread the actor was desperately taking every role he could to pay off his mountains of debt. Then came Mandy, a psychedelic revenge flick that might have otherwise been written off alongside Cage’s other VOD chum, if not for the raw, soul-baring performance the actor sprung on audiences.
“It had been a while since he really had a movie that hinged so much on his emotions and in a really raw way,” Stewart-Ahn says. And it didn’t hurt that after a string of VOD movies, Cage was watching Mandy with a “packed movie audience” that couldn’t get enough.
Ahead of Nic Cage’s scene-stealing performance as Dracula in his new movie Renfield, Inverse spoke to Stewart-Ahn about why Mandy was so pivotal, whether Cage is aware of his internet meme status, and why the divisive actor is actually the best.
Why The World Was Ready for Cage Again
Cage stars in Mandy as Red Miller, a recovering alcoholic and logger who lives in an isolated cabin with his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough). When she refuses the advances of a religious cult leader, the cult breaks into their home, murders Mandy, and severely injures Red. In a grief-stricken (and later, LSD-addled) rage, Red gets his bloody, trippy vengeance.
Mandy was arguably the turning point for Cage. It brought him back into the public’s good graces, leading to beloved turns in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Pig, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and, most recently, Renfield. While Cage still didn’t turn up his nose at VOD movies (starring in a whopping five direct-to-video releases in 2019 alone), Mandy reminded audiences that he could still be great.
Why this movie? Stewart-Ahn doesn’t have a precise reason why Mandy was that turning point, but he muses, “We don't really consider how an actor's career is shaped by timing and opportunities that are so out of their control.”
But he does bristle a little at the idea that Cage was at any point “relegated to being considered this VOD actor” because of something so cheap as financial struggles. “He was still doing interesting stuff in between here and there,” Stewart-Ahn says. “He did have Bad Lieutenant with Werner Herzog in the middle of that period. He was trying to help Paul Schrader have a career renaissance that has now finally flourished.”
“He goes into the scene and just dissolves into it and creates something you weren't expecting.”
Stewart-Ahn has his own personal theory about Cage’s wildly inconsistent filmography: “To me, he just said yes to all this stuff for love of the craft and the process more than anything else. I think there was something really pure there.”
If you ask anyone who knows him, they’ll tell you Cage is a notorious movie lover. Stewart-Ahn is no different, raving about how Cage is a “true cinephile.” When Stewart-Ahn first met him, Cage was collecting 35-millimeter film prints and binge-watching a “broad, esoteric range of movies” every weekend. “Then we'd come back and discuss them after his weekends from around the world,” Stewart-Ahn recalls, joking that Cage would fit in well on Film Twitter (don’t even say that, I plead)
But more than anything, he’s waiting for Cage to finally make the leap to directing.
“He's just very, very acutely aware,” Stewart-Ahn says. “I talked to him, ‘You should direct,’ because he's one of those actors from a tradition. He can talk to the camera operator. He is like, ‘Where's six feet focused?’ And he actually knows where to be from that. He knows where the boom mic is going to be and what it's doing. He's fully, completely aware of the mechanism around him. And then he goes into the scene and just dissolves into it and creates something you weren't expecting. Something beautiful.”
Why Nicolas Cage is More Than a Meme
I asked Stewart-Ahn the question that everyone has when it comes to Nicolas Cage: what are his thoughts on his reputation as an over-the-top meme generator?
“I have a complicated response to that,” Stewart-Ahn says. “He is aware that there is that aspect to his career now, and that there is a generation that has turned moments of his performances out of context into memes.” But Stewart-Ahn ultimately doesn’t care. “The work stands on its own,” he says, “and separate from all of that … he has self-awareness and can be funny about himself and understand the joke.”
It does feel like Cage’s recent performances, more than anything, have leaned into that self-awareness. In Into the Spider-Verse, Cage plays a self-serious Spidey perplexed by color. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent cast the actor as a fictionalized version of himself, even lampshading his immense real-life debt and cinephile nature. And of course, Mandy has that typical “over-the-top” Cage performance — before it pulls the rug under you and gives the audience one of his most gutting turns ever. They all play with a type of meta-commentary that make you wonder whether Cage is in on the joke.
“And then he was like, ‘You want to make a meme? Take a picture of me right now. We'll make a meme.’”
But Stewart points to a story on the set of Mandy that proves Cage is aware of his meme status, and how he embraces it. They were filming a scene where Cage’s Red Miller wakes up in a ravine, covered in gore and mud and ready for revenge. When Cage climbs out of the muddy ravine, he starts casually chatting up Stewart-Ahn about his weekend. Here’s how their conversation played out.
Nicolas Cage: “Hey, hey, Aaron, what'd you do this weekend?”
Aaron Stewart-Ahn: “Oh, yeah, we're working on the script and stuff. What did you do?”
Nicolas Cage: “Well, I went to a film festival in Kazakhstan. And I became a fucking meme over the weekend.”
You might remember the meme. It’s the image of Cage in a traditional fur-lined robe and hat, the actor posing for pictures with a far-off look that instantly demanded meme status. But rather than being irritated, Cage was delighted.
“We were laughing about it,” Stewart-Ahn recalls, “and then he was like, ‘You want to make a meme? Take a picture of me right now. We'll make a meme.’”
Why Nicolas Cage Rules, Actually
Stewart-Ahn has many, many stories from the set of Mandy that paint a picture of Cage as the coolest person alive: that time Cage calmly walked away from a real, raging fire after a controlled stunt went awry; that time he broke his ankle before production and still insisted on shooting the film’s brutal fight choreography (battle axe and all); that time he destroyed his voice doing 30 variations of the bestial howl during the climactic fight against Mandy’s antagonist (Linus Roache).
But what Stewart-Ahn wants to emphasize the most about Cage was something he brought up after we finished our chat, telling me in an email: “In Bogdonavich’s great interview book This Is Orson Welles, Welles talks about how for film acting there is no limit to what an actor can do, they should never play down. He cites Jimmy Cagney and Toshiro Mifune as ideal movie actors who would’ve blown the back walls out of a stage theater. That’s exactly what I’d say about watching Cage work in front of the camera.”
“We’re in an era where it's just what's memorable has become so important, and what he does is memorable.”
Cage has a reputation for being too big and too over-the-top in a way that sometimes undercuts the fact that he is, in fact, a really good actor. But though that reputation may precede Cage, Stewart-Ahn — like many of Cage’s biggest fans — thinks of it as part of the whole package.
“We’re in an era where it's just what's memorable has become so important,” Stewart-Ahn says, “and what he does is memorable.”