'Mom And Dad' Director Brian Taylor On Unleashing Nicolas Cage [Interview]

Brian Taylor's high-adrenaline style of filmmaking probably couldn't find a better actor to pair with than Nicolas Cage. Cage, who's described his seemingly unhinged performances as punk rock, gets the chance to let loose again in his second collaboration with Taylor, Mom and Dad. Cage is the dad and Selma Blair is the mom, and both actors bring a lunacy and realness to Taylor's original story about parents losing control of themselves and attacking their children.

Taylor is the co-director of the unforgettable Crank films and Ghost Rider: The Spirit of Vengeance, which also starred Cage. But Mom and Dad is his first feature without his frequent collaborator, Mark Neveldine. However, the pitch dark outrageousness Taylor brought to those movies is still infused in his latest film, as well as his new TV show, Syfy's Happy! We recently discussed both projects with Taylor. And yes, we talk about Nicolas Cage a lot.

Did you write the script with Nicolas Cage in mind?

You would think so, right? I actually didn't, but he was definitely the guy. From when it came time to try to put the movie together, he was definitely the guy. Even though I didn't write it with him in mind, he personalized it and got the script right away. He just came back and he's like, "This is me." So he added a lot to it. It's like he brought something to it that I think transformed the script.

I guess he does with every movie. He'll turn every movie into a Nic Cage movie. But more than that, I just think he took this one personally and he brought a lot of himself to it. He's so inventive, right? So you're probably always gonna get invention, but I don't know that you always get personalization like this with him.

How did the character on the page compare to his performance? 

One thing that was really interesting for me was, I think all dads are a little bit crazy. It's just sort of the process of fatherhood and the way that it sort of like forcibly contains your more wild impulses. It drives all fathers a little bit crazy. I think maybe in the original script, the first part of the movie, I think Nic ... I always knew what he would do with the second part of the movie. But it was really fascinating to me to see how he played the first part of the movie and how he sort of played, not the over the top genre movie craziness of the second half, but how he would play a normal dad, and how does he play the more subtle craziness of the normal dad that all fathers can relate to. In that respect, I couldn't picture anybody else doing it quite like him.

When he breaks the pool table, it's great seeing him hit these wild notes and then take it to a real place where you actually kind of empathize with him. What was that day like on set?

It was awesome. When he rehearsed that scene, I actually was getting a little emotional watching him rehearse it. [Laughs] You start getting a little teary even watching him do it because it was so obvious that the pain ... You know, the pain in that scene is like real pain, and he was doing something really personal with it. Because this is the movies, there's also a technical aspect of it that makes it even more challenging to get to that place.

Pool tables are really hard to break [Laughs]. Really, really, really hard to break. Doing that scene was like a long process. It took forever to assemble the thing and it took even longer to break the thing down. Those things are sturdy. It's almost like destroying a car with a baseball bat. It takes him a long time and he wanted to do it all. So by the time we got through building that thing and then breaking it all down, he was really a wreck. He was like just exhausted and spent. So yeah, making a movie is bad.

It's a challenge. So for him, that day was an emotional challenge, it was a physical challenge and we all felt like we'd really accomplished something when we got through it. It was a big relief to get through it. I think that shows in the scene.

Having worked with him before, with Mom and Dad were there certain qualities he has as an actor you wanted to tap into or unleash? 

The main thing about Nic is he's just so creative. He's got so many ideas and you really just want to ... The challenge with a guy like Nic is, you can't do all of them. You can't do all of his ideas because if you did, the movie would be completely untamed. But you don't wanna shut all of his ideas down either because you want him to feel really free because that's when he does his coolest stuff. That's when he does his most interesting stuff. So the process of working with him is sort of like ... I compare it to Cyclops's visor. If you take the visor off, then you're gonna shred the entire building. So he's got this visor on, and you're the visor, the director is sort of the visor. So you're just trying to focus these beams of intense energy in order to do the correct kind of damage. You know what I mean?

[Laughs] Yeah, completely.

I mean he was just super fun to work with that day.

I just watched Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance yesterday for this interview. I can't think of another recent superhero movie with that kind of lead performance. 

Yeah. I mean that was a movie that really needed to be rated R, you know? There's a lot of things about that movie I really like. I mean, the design of the actual Ghost Rider was a lot of work. I put a lot into that design, so it was kind of a bummer when they brought Ghost Rider back for the TV show and they kind of went back with the same kinda stupid looking electric company version with just like this white skull, and it looked really fake. I think we did a lot of things right on that movie. I don't know if it completely worked, but there are certain things about that movie I'm really proud of and I think it's still really fun to watch.

Watching it after seeing all the superhero movies of the past few years, though, I did appreciate how different it is.

It's totally different. There's nothing really like it and there are parts of that movie that are think are fucking genius. You know, I love it. But I definitely feel that the brakes are on that movie all the time. But yeah, that's Nic. That's Nic, man, and he's a force of nature. There's really no other actor like him. But that can create an impression that he's just pure chaos and he's out of control, but it's not the case. He is so micro-focused on every little thing.

Do you have an example of his micro-focused approach with Mom and Dad?

So the car in the movie, Grandpa's car, in the script it was a Trans Am. Unable to find a Trans Am, I wanted to get like a Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am. We weren't able to get the exact one that I wanted, so it ended up being a Firebird, but not the same kind of Firebird. So the line in the script changed in a subtle way. Now, instead of referring to it as the Trans Am, he would refer to it as a Firebird. And that was like a big thing for him because he was just like "You know, the way that I was gonna say that word, now I have to say that word a little bit differently," and it threw us. We just had to work through those dialogue moments for him to get the right rhythm that he wanted to get and the right inflection that he wanted to get.

There were a lot of things like that. There was a thing where at the end of the movie, and the Mom and Dad are tied up and the Dad's like halfway dead and just barely hanging on, and he says this "buddy!" to the kid, and it's so funny the way he says it. His voice cracks a little bit, and he did a version of it in rehearsal and I said, "Yeah, maybe you should say it more full voice, you know. It sounds a little off. I think it might be distracting you." He says, "No, no, no. I have exactly the way. I haven't done it yet. I'm gonna do it on the take and then see if you like it." So when we actually rolled and he did it on the take, he hit this exact note with it, that's just so pathetic and funny at the same time. He knew exactly what he was gonna do. He's very, very precise with the way he controls the chaos. He's like Dexter. He's a serial killer, but he's a very neat and precise and disciplined serial killer.

brian taylor interviewDid you let him and the other actors improvise on set?

The way that I've always been is, I want to do it the way that it's scripted, one or two times, until I get it. Or three or four times. You know, until I get it exactly the way, and then I like to let them improv. I love improv and I usually end up using the improv. The whole hokey pokey thing was an improv. That was Nic just bringing something to the table, and it actually caused us some problems, because it's so great, what we didn't realize, at the time was that, hokey pokey is not a public domain song. You have to buy that song. So we ended up imposed with this moment that was obviously so cool, we couldn't live without it. Then we found out that we had to go get the rights to it, which luckily we were able to. But, yeah the answer is, I love improv. When you have a guy like Cage, you're really doing yourself a disservice if you don't open yourself up to that. A lot of magic moments happen like that.

So much of your work has such a high energy to it. In the writing, shooting, and editing, what's it like trying to get that pace and rhythm right?

It's always hard, I don't really know any other way to do it. I think a lot of that just comes from my own sort of ADD. You know, I get bored with things really quickly and I get things really quickly, so I assume everybody else does too. But then there are other moments that you really want them to slow down and take your time and let it land, you know. In Mom and Dad, in particular, there was a lot of ... One of the things that I really love about the movie is the way that the pace fluctuates. For instance, it'll be in the middle of just being an action sequence and then it just slam cuts you to something that's very slow and measured, and it takes time and it'll just slam you right back into it.

So something like that really excites me as a filmmaker. I love things where, you know, quick change of paces. I love tonal shifts. Creating tonal shifts. I love to go from straight drama to complete absurdity just with no chaser and no warning.

Like everything else in this process, it just kinda comes out of your own sort of idiosyncrasies and the way that you see your world and the kind of things that get you excited. You just hope that everybody else ... Well not everybody, but you hope that enough people feel the same way and that people will enjoy it at the end of the day.

What were some of the initial reactions to the script? What sort of feedback did you get?

The initial reaction was complete horror and head scratching. My agents had no idea what to do with the script. They thought I was crazy. You know, my own kid when I told him about the movie, he was like "Dad, what the fuck is the matter with you?" So yeah, it's one of those things where when you read the logline, it seems like it could be just so dark that no one would ever wanna watch a movie like that. But I knew that there was a fun movie in there, and it was just a question of finding people who kinda got that. Who got that humor and got the satire and could sort of see through the dark logline to what the movie would eventually be.

Luckily the actors, Nic and Selma got it right away. They really got the satire. They personalized it and they embraced it just from day one. They thought it was great. I was able to get those two on the page and then everything else kinda fell into place.

When people were scratching their heads, did you a part of you find that response encouraging? 

Yeah. Definitely 'cause the big challenges are to do something original, something that hasn't been done before. You always feel that that's the motivator. Often you run into a situation where you just hope this isn't one of them where you find out really quickly why it's never been done before. I know trying to get the movie financed, there were definitely moments where I was like, oh this is why nobody's ever done this movie. I understand because people were just like completely terrified of it [Laughs]. On the other hand, anecdotally, whenever I told somebody about it, like a normal person, not somebody in the business, but just like a normal civilian, when I told them about it, no matter conservative they are, how religious they were or how sort of mainstream they were, universally, I would always get, "Ah shit, I would see that movie. Always wanted a film like this".

You know, the reaction I got was always so positive and so not threatened by it. The only people that were really threatened by it were movie people. So I knew that there was something there, and I knew if we could just get the right group of people together to execute this tone in the right way that it would be a fun movie.

I think you raise a good point, too, that the business or film world sometimes can be in a bubble and not reflect what most audiences think. 

I definitely know what you mean. Yeah, you run into it a lot of times. Even like, I'm doing a television show right now [Syfy's Happy!] and sometimes it's amazing the things that they'll let through, but then other things will scare them. I'm always telling them, I'm always saying, "Do you know what people are like out there? Do you know the kind of things that people are exposed to on a daily basis? This is nothing. You know the world is scary. Movies aren't scary."

The show doesn't feel compromised or restrained, though. 

Yeah, wait 'til you see episode seven, that's all I gotta say. If you feel that way now, just wait 'til you see episode seven.

[Laughs] How's your experience been in television so far?

It's been great. The great thing about TV is like it's also making a new movie every week. The pace becomes so insane. Like the amount of work that goes into it, and the pace of production is so insane. We're still in post on episodes that are gonna air in two weeks, so because of that chaos and because of that pace, you can actually get away with a lot of stuff. Because they just really don't have time to notice. It's just out the door. The pace makes it really difficult, but at the same time, it lets you get away with stuff. I like that.


Mom and Dad opens in limited release and is available to rent digitally on January 19, 2018.