'Mandy' Director Panos Cosmatos On Pitting Nicolas Cage Against Evil [Interview]

The unnervingly beautiful and grotesque worlds born in Panos Cosmatos' imagination are remarkable. The writer-director showed with his directorial debut Beyond the Black Rainbow that he knows how to keep an audience's eyes glued to the screen, but he can do far more than compose piercing images and an all consuming atmosphere. The visuals in Cosmatos' new film, Mandy, which feature Nicolas Cage wielding an axe and going after a pack of demonic bikers, are bolstered by a real sense of pain and loss.

Cosmatos and Cage have said before that Mandy is a movie dealing with loss – a loss that fuels Red Miller's (Cage) journey. There's some genuinely heart wrenching moments in Cosmatos' sophomore effort that make it a revenge movie with a real punch. Yes, seeing Cage going toe-to-toe with evil makes for some epic iconography, but Mandy's moments of pain and intimacy are just as enthralling to watch. Cosmatos recently told us about making his second film, crafting a large sense of scope with limited resources, working with Nicolas Cage, and more.

What were some of the earliest visuals that came to mind when you first started imagining the world and the characters?

That's a really good question. I don't know. The way I work is I'll basically become kind of fixated on a very stripped-down genre, like revenge or something like that, and just start layering on top of that and entering in thoughts and ideas, and then the story just kind of builds up that way. And kind of, sort, of assemble a model kit without instructions, you know? I think maybe one of the first things that I realized I wanted done was probably the chainsaw fight.

But, it just, you know, started to seem very natural to the movie having that, I mean sort of chainsaw fight, but I wanted to see more. You know, usually chain saw fights are sort of cumbersome feeling using heavy machines, but I wanted to try to keep that but also give it a more, sort of barbarian and sword fight kind of feeling. A lot of the movie just started with Mandy and just kind of building around her and her sort of perception of the world and her character, you know.

You really feel the closeness between Mandy and Red Miller in that first act. How did you want to visualize how much they love each other? 

Well, I just wanted to be honest and almost feel like they're there in the room with them, you know? So it was all kind of very intimate and like you're a strong part of their private conversation, you know? It's one of those things, while you're shooting, you know, our schedulings have been all about how to shoot this scene of them watching TV into basically one setup. I think that actually made it feel more warm and inviting in a sense that we all have a habit in common with these days with the person just sitting around eating, watching TV [Laughs].

[Laughs] It's kind of like in Fargo where they're watching TV or eating Arby's and it's mundane but also romantic. 

Right. I mean, most peoples' love stories aren't riding around on horses and shit. They're watching TV.

You've said before you prefer stories with more character and themes than plot. What themes did you want to explore in Mandy?

Well, I feel like I kind of fixated on the fact manacle men, having their self-image kind of stripped away or how they present themselves to the world like Barry Nyle and Jeremiah Sands. So that was an early thing that kind of came into it. But usually these things kind of just come up organically as you start building the model cast so to speak. And then you decide which one you're going to highlight and which ones you're gonna just completely move into a more, sort, of background process.

After Nicolas Cage passed on the role of Jeremiah Sand and accepted the role of Red Miller, where did you two go from there? What was discussed in your earliest conversations with him about Red and his arc?

When Nic was finally able to come Belgium after his leg started to heal and he finished the other film, we spent time together and just went through the script and immediately laid down this track of his character starting on a normal path and then when all that shit goes down and his venire get stripped away, revealing a sort of animalistic, raw nerve of a creature. And then after he takes the drugs, he sort of has modified into this sort of demigod-like, gazing war beast, gollum, sort of enacting pure will on the mortal coil. And that's how the progression came out, of just sort of sitting around talking with him.

How was it filming Red Miller's breakdown in the bathroom? Did you want to create a certain kind of atmosphere for Cage to go there? 

I mean, when you have an incredible compact, low budget schedule, you don't really have that luxury creating the mood. You don't have time to create a mood. You only have time to move and if you're not in the mood, you know, but I try to create buffer zones where the actors will be able, for specific scenes especially, would have the time to, sort of, feel free to interpret these monologues and scenes in a number of ways without feeling under pressure to complete it, you know?

And that was one of them. It turned out, we only had to do two tapes of that. He did one take, and then I gave him some notes and modulation on where I want to transition rather quickly, and he did it again and it was magical. But in that scene, in that shot, when he was actually pulling the towels out of the drawer, he threw the towel onto the dolly track and so as we were dollying forward, the dolly go caught on the towel and, we realized it pretty quickly and we reached out and pulled it out of the way, but you can actually feel the dolly stopping as it stops on the towel, but I end up only being able to take so much to the site that it was kinda beautiful so.

That's a nice happy accident. Having to move as fast as you did, what challenges come with filming a chainsaw battle when time is limited? 

Chainsaw fight? I would describe that as a living hell. We had one night to shoot that scene, which is just completely insane and, even saying that out loud, it feels psychotic. But basically, early on, we kind of concocted a missive for how we're going to do it and we stuck to that. Miraculously, we've been able to pull it off with the crew and Derby working super hard. I didn't help myself, you know, we needed a wind machine and smoke the entire time, and the wind machine kept breaking down and it didn't really feel like it was worth it because, to me, that is a disaster dimensional path of elemental fury, you know?

The work you and cinematographer Benjamin Lowe did is really something. What were some visual references for you guys? 

Well, Ben wasn't even on my list originally because I thought he was Canadian and needed a European DP or person with a European passport. So I hired Bob [our original DP] and then, late in the game, basically after Nic broke his leg, you got a delay in the schedule, which actually saved our asses because we needed the extra time very badly. But, as a result, we lost our DP at the time and so we starting gathering a list of people, and eventually I saw Ben on one of them and I said, "Oh, holy shit, I didn't know that he was European." It turns out he's Norwegian, I had no idea. His accent was nonexistent. He had worked with my DP and he spoke very highly of him and so I was drawn to him.

As far as the look of the film, we do have reference folders and stuff, and the same thing we did on Beyond the Black Rainbow. Partially because of our insane schedule and, you know, the minimal number of resources were, but a real reference reference I showed was The Sword and the Sorcerer.

Even though you were working fast and not a huge budget, the grandness of the images and Miller's journey make Mandy feel like an epic at times. How do you achieve that sense of scope with limited resources? 

Well, take the matter of what you don't show, you know. Often on a low budget, one of the first pieces of advice I've took to heart when I was younger and thinking a lot about making movies and keep seeing foreign film, and I wish I could remember where I read it, but the person basically said, "What you don't show is as important as what you do show" and, to me, I took that to mean that you could create the feeling of a much larger scale by being very precise about what you did show and is there a build in the audience's mind that the scope is a lot larger than it actually was, realistically.


Mandy is now in theaters and available on iTunes.