This Nicolas Cage Movie Had A Huge Impact On Directors Justin Benson And Aaron Moorhead

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead may be most recently known forĀ directing episodes of the "Moon Knight" television series on Disney+, but the filmmaking duo started off in the indie world. Their pre-Marvel outings are notable for their genre-bending elements, films that use a sci-fi horror premise to focus on human relationships and drama. Despite their very specific filmography, however, the two cite "Adaptation," the Spike Jonze-directed meta-narrative starring Nicolas Cage in dual roles as the actual screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictional brother, as one of their biggest influences.

Kaufman, also known for penning "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," has become cinema's king of meta. His works often revolve around lonely, socially awkward men who longingly yearn for a relationship their own sense of self-pity won't allow them to seek out. In the case of "Adaptation," Kaufman places himself as the main character of his own screenplay, as he struggles to find a loving connection in both his personal life and creative endeavors.

Adapting Adaptation

The screenplay for "Adaptation" was initially supposed to adapt journalist Susan Orlean's non-fiction book "The Orchid Thief," but Kaufman's struggles to write a coherent story inspired him to instead pen a script about his own writer's block. The film mixes true elements of "The Orchid Thief" and Kaufman's own experiences with exaggerated and fictional elements meant to dig even deeper layers in the film's meta-narrative. For instance, Charlie's brother Donald Kaufman, also played by Nicolas Cage, is both a character in the film and credited as a screenwriter despite not actually existing as a real person. The film's third act climax, which takes a turn into crime thriller territory, is also completely imaginary, acting as a purposeful commentary on the nature of the third act climax as a storytelling concept.

Benson and Moorhead's debut feature, "Resolution," is a meta-narrative in its own right, subverting horror movie cliches in order to explore the bloodlust of the horror genre's own audience. Another of the duo's films, "The Endless," takes place in the same setting and carries the idea further, daring its main characters to take control of their own destinies and escape a literal cycle that an outside force (the audience, perhaps?) has imposed upon them. It's difficult to talk about the cryptic themes and messages of these films without spoilers, but suffice it to say that they share a few similarities with "Adaptation."

From meta-narratives to Moon Knight

In an interview with "Outtake," Moorhead explained how "Adaptation" has informed his own screenwriting:

"[It] works because it's all about itself. That's what the crazy thing is. It's all about itself. And the idea that even in the third act, he almost deliberately tanks his third act just to be true to the actual idea of his... brother helping him on the script. It's a really good turn. I remember that there's this quote in there that doesn't have to do with the meta-narrative part of it, but it actually has informed my life a lot: 'You are what you love, not what loves you.'"

Moorhead points out that the poignancy of that line goes beyond the film's meta commentary, but it certainly applies to the relationship between art and artist, too. Moorhead and Benson have the classic indie filmmaker tendency to ignore genre conventions and audience expectations for the sake of their own personal emotions and original ideas, not unlike giving up the task of writing an adapted screenplay in order to channel inner frustrations into an entirely different story. As Benson observes about "Adaptation":

"I recently rewatched it at a friend's house a few months ago, and I realized, very sadly, that this relationship that the main character has with screenwriting, I don't feel that way exactly, but do I see people who write scripts that just kind of embrace exploitation elements for it to do better financially? Absolutely."

Not every entry in the filmography of Benson and Moorhead embrace the meta, and even the ones that do prioritize human drama and character arcs above the commentary. Ultimately, though, "Adaptation" seems to have inspired the duo to ignore all preconceptions about storytelling and enjoy the moviemaking process, from micro-budget passion projects to large-scale Marvel shows.