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Brutal Finality: Panos Cosmatos Discusses “Mandy”

The director talks about Nicolas Cage’s sensitive side, creating his film’s visceral experiences, and dealing with personal loss.
Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy has already known incredible success in the U.S.: Although the film was released there on a day-and-date basis (meaning, simultaneously on streaming/video-on-demand platforms and in cinemas), the number of people buying tickets to see it on the big screen has been unpredictably great. This popularity, combined with the fact that only a few, non-multiplex cinemas allow for day-and-date movies to play on their screens, has meant that screenings have been selling out for weeks. The film is now out in the U.K., and already set to break records of cinema attendance there, with already 1500 tickets sold at just one of the few cinemas showing it. U.K. viewers will only be able to stream the film a few weeks later, and they don’t seem ready to wait that long.
The film’s main attraction is of course Nicolas Cage, who delivers one of his most deliciously hysterical performances of recent years as Red, the husband and soul-mate to the eponymous Mandy. Played by an ethereal Andrea Riseborough, Mandy is a deeply soulful and sincere woman who spends her days reading fantasy novels and sketching drawings of moons, wolves and fairies—the beauty of her soul and her imagination infuse the film like a perfume that stays in the air long after she has gone. For although Mandy is a gory and fun revenge movie, it begins as a heartfelt love story.
Through both its first, calmer part, and in its more crazed and violent second half, the film maintains a heightened style to make us feel first Mandy’s love, then Red’s rage, on a visceral level. Striking visuals draw us in, while the score from late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson hypnotizes us into an ecstatic state where we’re almost afraid to blink. When this intensely absorbing style is transfigured into an explosion of outrageous violence, the film delights in a completely different way without losing its soul.  
We talked with director Panos Cosmatos about casting Nicolas Cage for his sensitive side, creating his film's visceral experiences, and dealing with personal loss.

NOTEBOOK: One of the most striking aspects of Mandy is that the film showcases Nicolas Cage’s sensitive side, which isn’t what people usually remember him for. I was wondering how you cast him, how he got to play that part, and how you worked with these two aspects of his on-screen persona: one being very sensitive, and the other being this over-the-top, uniquely insane image that he is now famous for.
PANOS COSMATOS: As somebody who has seen his work going way back, I always thought that he was capable of that. The fact that he approached the sort of heartthrob lead in Peggy Sue Got Married in a lateral way, to make him a little bit more textured and fragile... There was a biopic by Alan Parker, one of my favorites, called Birdy; I always thought he had a very tender side in that film. I always thought that his range was quite vast, that he was capable of these sort of baroque stylistic flourishes, and given a chance to work with him, I wanted to utilize all of these different abilities. As an admirer of his performances, I wanted to integrate all of his abilities, hopefully in an organic way, into the film.  
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever consider another actor, or did you write this character thinking of Nicolas Cage?  
COSMATOS: Initially, I’d offered him the villain, and fixated on the idea of that because I wanted to see what he would do with that character. But eventually he passed on that and said he wanted to play Red Miller, the protagonist. I had been so fixated on the idea of him playing the villain that my initial reaction was to walk away. But after a few weeks, I actually had a dream where I was watching Mandy and Nicolas was playing Red Miller, and it was so undeniably striking and interesting, that the next morning I woke up and called one of my producers and said, “I think you need to go back to him.”
NOTEBOOK: Talking about dreams, the film is also such a visceral experience. There are these funny Cage moments, but also these very trippy segments that are very hard to put into words. How do you create these moments, how do you get the ideas for them and how do you put them together in the editing so that they trigger such a strong impression on viewers?
COSMATOS: Creating the film is an iterative process. Even the ideas, at a conceptual stage, I sort of work them over and over, and add layers, and take away layers, add elements or remove them if they don’t feel right. When you’re on set, it’s a very pragmatic reality where you have to capture these images to the best of your ability, in the circumstances that you have, and knowing that later you’ll be able to refine them and add sound and music and to again keep on layering these things like sculptures until it feels right.  
I work with a very specific script. The script is as specific as it can get. It’s almost impossible, even on a pragmatic level, to get a film made these days without a script that looks like a real script! I wish! I read about how Godard would basically have a five page narrative column, and shoot from that, which sounds lovely but, you know.  
NOTEBOOK: This is the first film that you've written with someone else. How did that come about, and how different was the process from writing alone?
COSMATOS: It was a lot more fun. Writing Beyond the Black Rainbow got so emotional and so dark and so solitary, when it came down to sit down and write Mandy, I pretty quickly realized that I didn’t want to relive that experience again so soon. I wanted to have somebody that I could bounce ideas off of, we could pass things back and forth. I wanted it to be a more joyful, playful kind of process. So I called Aaron [Stewart-Ahn], who’s a close friend of mine, and we started working on it.  
NOTEBOOK: Did that influence the way the film is structured, with the first half being very sincere and emotional, and the second part is being violent and funny?
COSMATOS: There’s a lot more of me personally in this film than in Black Rainbow, because that film was so much about suppressing things. Mandy is like a volcanic eruption of everything coming out. I felt more free to put more elements of the things that I love into it. I think the structure was pretty much there when Aaron came on board. It was just a matter of working out scenes that weren’t complete, and if there was a scene that hadn’t been written, we would pass it back and forth and just sort of write, rewrite, and rewrite.
NOTEBOOK: How did you work to make that leap from the extreme sincerity of the first half, to the quite different register of the second half?
COSMATOS: I like movies that kind of turn on a dime like that. It just felt natural, after the tragic event happens, for things to explode into more a phantasmagorical, deranged perspective on the world.  
NOTEBOOK: I keep saying the word "sincerity," but I think it’s also present within the story itself: the idea of someone being true, like Mandy or Red, or being false, like the villain Jeremiah Sand, seems to be the theme of the film. I think this is also why people are connecting with the movie so well. Why did you want to make a film about that?
COSMATOS: It’s really hard to answer that. When I write these things, it’s a very intuitive, almost subliminal process where these things start to manifest almost unconsciously in various ways, and certain themes that are interesting become magnified throughout that process. I find the idea of delusional self-image very interesting, so that turns up in both of these films. And that stripping away of that delusional self-image can be a dangerous thing when it comes to certain men. I’m not sure why it manifests that way, I’d have to go to my therapist and answer that with them and figure out the exact process of how that happens!
NOTEBOOK: The film is also a love story. Mandy, played by Andrea Riseborough, is the heart of the film and she disappears halfway through. How do you reconcile those tender feelings with the film’s extreme gore?
COSMATOS: When you lose somebody in your life that will never return, it’s a very savage and primal and brutal experience. I really wanted, in Mandy, to get a character that the audience would miss in a very elemental way. They would miss her presence in the world. From my own personal experience that I was dealing with when writing these films, it was about trying to deal with the brutal finality of somebody you care really deeply about being gone forever.
NOTEBOOK: Could you tell me about the fantasy imagery that Mandy draws and that is so present throughout the film?
COSMATOS: I wanted the audience to feel tangibly connected to her internal world and feel like it was reality a part of the reality of that film. I wanted her inner life and her creativity to bloom out into the world of the film.  
NOTEBOOK: How did you come to cast Andrea Riseborough? How did you create the character with her?
COSMATOS: I’d seen her in Birdman and in a British limited series called National Treasure. I was just blown away by how chameleonic she was from role to role, and there was a sort of mercurial quality about her that I found very fascinating, and which I thought would be interesting for Mandy. I also had some sort of touchstones of who Mandy was when I was writing the film, based on some people and women I’d encountered in my life. But there was a moment when we were doing hair-and-make-up test, and Andrea said, “I think she should be more androgynous.” The second she said that, I realized that I’d cast the right person, and that we were gonna be okay. That we both understood what this movie was about.

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