After creating the Fox TV comedy Ghosted, Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten set themselves a challenge that required arguably even more faith than a belief in the supernatural. They wrote The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, an incredibly specific movie about Nicolas Cage being paid to appear at a Nicolas Cage superfan’s birthday party, which leads to the star getting involved in a CIA sting operation.
Like Being John Malkovich, it’s a movie that could have been derailed at any moment if its intended star said no. (Though they had an equally outrageous Plan B, as you’ll discover.) Thankfully for them, and for fellow Cage fans the world over, he was happy to play along, willing to laugh both at and with the perceptions audiences might have of him.
But how do any two people start pitching a story about Nicolas Cage...to Nicolas Cage? And once you have him, then what? Gormican, who directed, and his co-writer, Etten, spoke to The A.V. Club about the Cage of it all, as well as their intended backup plan, a deleted scene we hope to see one day, and what Paddington Bear has to do with all of it.
AVC: I’m going to begin by quoting the great man himself, and say how—in the name of Zeus’ butthole!—did you guys come up with this and think it was going to get made?
Tom Gormican: [laughs] We just thought Nic was going to pop back somewhat into the zeitgeist at some point, given that he was just like too talented to remain out of the spotlight and he is such a magnetic character. I think deep down in our heart of hearts, when we were writing this over the course of one year that we had taken off to write a movie that we wanted to see... [but] I think deep down, we never thought this thing would ever get made in a million years. It just sort of made us happy.
Kevin Etten: I said to Tom at one point that if we get to have lunch with Nicolas Cage, that would be a win for me. That was really all I wanted, so when that did essentially happen, it was crazy. It was great.
AVC: How complete was the script when you pitched it to him?
TG: Well, we wrote the entire script on spec. We had the entire thing and we had done a little work with his manager and agent, based on some notes off things that might eventually bump him, but we presented him the entire project. But before doing so, because I kind of came out of the independent film world for game development, I thought, we need to go get money behind this offer before we let him see it. ’Cause they were like, well, let him read it, and I thought he’s gonna pass. And so we ended up circulating it to all the various studios and production companies, producers, financiers everybody to try to get some backing behind it. Because I thought, that is the only way he is going to take this somewhat seriously, to the extent he’s going to take this serious at all.
And one by one, the studios started lining up wanting to make the movie, and were willing to buy the script and willing to make offers to Nic. Eventually, I forget who it was, maybe it was New Line, asked, “Has he actually heard about this project?” And we kept saying, “He’s generally aware of it,” but eventually we just had to give it to him with an offer on the line.
AVC: In terms of trying to get money for this, was there any hesitation on financiers’ part? Or did they think that because there has been this meme-ification of Nic Cage that there would be a bigger audience for that?
KE: I think that the reasons Tom had us going forward with the script was that when we told people the idea, they had, we felt, this kind of great love for Nic, this deep well of people just loving him and wanting to see him in the biggest way possible. And so when Lionsgate got involved they had the exact same reaction. Nicolas Cage is one of our iconic American personalities, actors. We want to celebrate him in the biggest way we can. So I would say there was not any hesitation really.
AVC: Is there any other actor besides Nicolas Cage that would work for something like this? The only one that comes to mind for me is Jeff Goldblum and I was thinking a sequel with Goldblum and Cage would be amazing.
TG: Well, it’s funny that you’re hitting on that. We were weirdly thinking about that this morning, we’ve been watching The Big Chill a lot with this other project we’ve been doing and Goldblum is so amazing in that. But the one thing that Goldblum has that Nic has, that I think you’re putting your finger on, is that there is just a widespread sort of enthusiasm and love for that guy. Where not a ton of other actors could have this groundswell to meet them, that people want to see them do well and want to see them succeed. And I think the tide had turned on Nic in some way, and then turned back a couple years ago.
KE: I think what they both have, and I do like that, I do love Jeff Goldblum, I think what they both have is this sort of inner strength and inner confidence to kind just go, ya know what? I don’t really give a shit what anybody thinks, I’m doing whatever movies I want to do and following my own muse. I will say when we were talking about the movie and when we were developing it and when at times it looked like maybe Nic wasn’t going to attach to it, our friend had a very funny idea for who else it could be. And it was for Daniel Day-Lewis in Nicolas Cage prosthetics.
TG: Or Christian Bale in Cage prosthetics, but still, I do want to see that version of the movie.
AVC: If Day-Lewis would do it, I think you’d have to do it.
TG: Yeah. We also said a good version of that movie is that this would be him buying a castle and preparing to play for Nicolas. Like maybe it’s a totally separate movie, Daniel Day Lewis Prepares, directed by Werner Herzog, and we could just sit back and watch.
AVC: Some people who have worked with Cage say that he’s really quite shy in person. This movie is obviously using the character you think he is. How quickly did he plug into this perception of him as a character? Was there any tension there or did it just click?
TG: Nic’s interest, I guess I should say, lies in expressionism. Expressionist characters who seem to be larger than life, that he is sort of portraying sketches of who people are. And I’m more really interested in naturalism and stripped-down acting to try to find the core of the character, so there were a lot of times where we had to find that thing.
And I think Nic is credited as doing, I think, 118 films or so—now 119 films. He still really loves acting and he would come with these ideas and some were kinda off the wall crazy, “I wanna French kiss myself,” whatever his version of the form is. And he’s excited, he’s like, “I’ve got it, I can’t wait, can we start on my coverage?” And okay, like pre master shot, you’re starting on Nic’s coverage. He’s interested in doing that but he would always say to me, “And then once I get my thing out, whatever you think you need as a director, I will get you. I know that that’s my job as an actor.” So there was always kind of like this tension, but he would defuse it by saying “I’m going to try to give you exactly what you want.”
I think the most interesting moments of the movie were where the real Nicolas Cage and the character Nicolas Cage that Kevin and I had written intersected. And there is a lot of that in the first act of the movie, where he’s talking about financial difficulties, or potentially not getting the roles he once got, or whether he’s working too much, addressing the public criticisms that are levied at him constantly.
KE: The one area of the script that we worked on the most with him, based on his input, was his sensitivities around how bad of a father he wanted portray. Because I think originally in our first draft of the script we’d pushed the character into a really absentee father—a father who is incredibly narcissistic. Who is borderline unlikeable. And I think Nic came to us to say, “Guys, this just isn’t me at all. I am very much present with my children,” and it bothered him. So we reworked that part of the script so that the character became somebody who wanted to mold his child into a small, younger version of himself.
AVC: Is that also why the family is so obviously different from his real family? Is that why for instance you didn’t name his daughter Diana Prince Cage or something? [Cage has a real son named Kal-El, after Superman.]
TG: Right, yeah. That was always the case. We always said to Nic, in one of the pitches to him on this movie, when we wrote him a letter when he was thinking about doing it, you can take things from your real life and things that are not at all in your depiction and blend the two. This Nic is a performance art piece, where you can sort of take the reins out there in a large-scale way with a feature film, and I think that idea kinda turned him on a little bit. And he thought, okay, this is a big challenge. So we had always had that conception, real and fiction within the script.
AVC: I don’t know if the timing works on this, but when he puts on the makeup at the end to play that character with the accent, was House Of Gucci an inspiration at all?
TG: Haha, that wasn’t out yet; we didn’t know that was happening. Believe it or not, it’s so incredibly difficult to make Nicolas Cage look like anyone but Nicolas Cage and it took us forever to make prosthetics that actually transformed his look. And that was Bill Corso, who’s one of the great prosthetic artist make-up artists ever, working on our team. We tried lots of different versions, but I kept having this idea where I wanted him to look like an Italian football coach. So that’s the look we came up with. But his performance? No, that’s pure Nic!
AVC: Javi is interesting because superfan characters in movies are typically socially awkward, a nerd stereotype or whatever. Your superfan is the coolest looking guy, played by one of the coolest actors out there, Pedro Pascal. Was he a stand-in for you guys as the fans? And did you think, “We’re cool fans, we want a cool guy to play us?”
TG: Maybe? Maybe there’s a bit of that.
KE: I’m going to give you credit, I haven’t invested on that investigation on myself that that’s where it all came from, but I think you might be right.
TG: I think we do wish that we were Pedro, and that’s hysterical and no one’s pointed that out yet in any of the press, and try as he might to be completely awkward he sort of overcomes that by being an incredibly charming guy.
AVC: Absolutely. Was there a conscious effort to play it differently from the usual stereotype of fandom?
TG: Yeah, I think there was, I think as we talked about that character, it was wanting to stay away from what you have seen before, that’s the super nerd. And just find a different spin on it. So that was definitely a factor.
KE: And the movie plays like a love story, oddly. And we wanted someone to be like a counterpoint. It’s almost like the only one who didn’t realize we were in a love story was Nicolas Cage’s character, who’s doing his Charles Bronson while Pedro Pascal is sharing the court. It felt different and to us it felt somewhat real. You know, where super fans aren’t necessarily that guy, they’re just normal people like us who might just have an incredible collection of memorabilia
AVC: The press section in my screening of the movie practically gave a standing ovation when Paddington 2 was referenced. Were you guys aware of the Film Twitter love for Paddington 2, or was it just a movie that you happened to like?
TG: I don’t know we were aware of Film Twitter’s love for it. We both think it’s a perfect movie, the only discernible flaw being that Nicolas Cage is not in it.
AVC: Of course.
TG: I want to give us credit and say I think we used that reference before it became known as this film that is 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. And I’ve said this before, but I literally had a friend who called me and said you have to go see Paddington 2, and he said, “I cried through most of it and it made me want to be a better man.” And this was a friend of mine who was a real film lover.
KE: SNL just referenced it, and the film crew loved it, but we were just honestly huge fans of that film. And I think one of the things we tried to do was take the film and differentiate it from something that would be a parody or feel like a sketch comedy, but make you emotionally attached to the characters in various ways. Part of that was through Nic’s relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and through his relationship with Javi. One of the things that Paddington 2 does so well is like a beautiful combination of comedy and emotion, and it sort of wears that on its sleeve in a way that feels almost earnest. And for us that was an inspiration for the film.
AVC: Alright, so they did their top three in the movie. What are your top three Nic Cage movies?
TG: I’m gonna go Raising Arizona, Face/Off, and Adaptation. Wildly different Nicolas Cage performances, from the comic to the villain to Adaptation, where you’ve got this really detailed, nuanced version of Nic which is both dramatic and funny. Those are my top three. My favorite of all time is Adaptation.
KE: Ok I go, Number 3 Leaving Las Vegas, Number 2 Moonstruck and then Number 1 is The Rock.
TG: You do love The Rock.
KE: I love The Rock. When The Rock is on television I’m not changing the channel. It’s the perfect movie. What about you? What are your tops?
AVC : I think I’d have to put The Rock at Number 1. Between Worlds is really high up there, if you guys have seen that one. That’s the one where he has sex with a body-hopping ghost. And as I said in my review, I think Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans is maybe the only Cage performance that tops this one in terms of putting everything into it.
TG: We had a scene that got cut out of the film that didn’t quite work, but it was very funny, and it was Nic and Pedro. It was part of the sequence where they take acid and then they go into a church and they look up and Nic sees Jesus and then Jesus starts speaking to him, and Jesus goes, “You know, I’m so sorry to be this guy, but I am a huge fan and I just have to tell you I loved you in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.” Did not make it into the film. And Nic says, “Well, thank you, Jesus, I was very happy with how it came out.” Great film, though. Werner.
AVC: In the end credits, there was a credit thanking Sony for Ghost Rider, but I did not see the Ghost Rider reference in the movie. Can you enlighten me?
KE: When he was popping the wheelies?
TG: I think it’s the memorabilia room. We had Ghost Rider…I forget exactly what the memorabilia was in the room. I have to dig back in. But it’s a piece of memorabilia that’s a physical [item] in the room where Javi keeps all his Nicolas Cage stuff.
AVC: I think people are going to be freeze-framing that scene on the DVD quite a bit.
KE: Right, looking for the actual prop.
AVC: There is an infuriating trend now on Blu-rays with featurettes saying, “Here are a few Easter eggs...and which ones do you spot?” So if you guys do any commentary, can you please point out all of them?
TG: Absolutely. You know, we just did the commentary and we dug into almost all the references that were overt or subtle in the film. Like the swimming pool. Where he walks into the swimming pool and Pedro dives in is ripped from Leaving Las Vegas, and things like that.