To me, film has always been as much about us disappearing into a trance-like state as being told a story.
“Mandy was conceived at the same time as my first film Beyond the Black Rainbow, right after the death of my father—when my world as I had known it came completely to an end and the grief I had surpassed after the passing of my mother a decade earlier came flooding to the surface. Rainbow dealt with my feelings of regret and guilt, with letting go of things I can never change. Mandy is about the feelings of rage and helplessness that followed… There’s a lot of my mother and my father as I knew them in these two movies. They are two halves of the same whole.”
This is an excerpt from Panos Cosmatos’ director’s statement. Needless to say, his sophomore feature Mandy—a hallucinogenic mashup of Satanic-cult horror and revenge thriller—is imbued with intense feelings of the maker’s soul-baring self-sacrifice upon reading it. At the same time, it enriches his 2011 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow—a drug-trip of a movie that you no doubt watched while, well, tripping on something yourself—with kaleidoscopic human dimension. Once tethered by visual and sonic sorcery, and conceptual flourishes, they’re true companions at last.
Mandy is a sight to behold, and it’s not quite like anything else out there. A glimmering font establishes the phantasmagoric rural setting as “1983 AD.” Red Miller (Nicholas Cage) is a lumberjack living humbly in a woodland cabin with the love of his life, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Unluckily for them, a cult pitches up in the area and their would-be prophet Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) earmarks Mandy as a potential disciple and then uses an artifact to summon a trio of demons to abduct her. This sets in motion a grisly downward spiral, which provides the besotted, incandescent Red with more than enough reason to exact untold revenge.
Mandy hits select theaters on September 14th.
I remember watching Beyond the Black Rainbow at Tribeca back in 2011. It was obvious to me then that you’re a visionary. It just surprises me that Mandy came out of the same person because it moved me in ways that I didn’t expect, on top of marveling at the visual spectacle.
Now I know that these are companion films born out of real tragedy. Do you feel like making these movies did help you in your confrontation of the trauma of losing your parents?
I realized in retrospect that writing Beyond the Black Rainbow was work that subsumed and repressed my feelings and my grief about my mother, and I consciously realized that I had to work on something else that’s the antidote to that, which was about recognizing those emotions and feelings and letting myself feel them. That’s kind of what Mandy did because it’s about the expulsion and purging of those subsumed and repressed feelings.
How much changes from conception to execution? Do you push it more? Pull back a bit?
In the process of creating these things, they changed a lot. Black Rainbow changed pretty radically from when I first came up with the idea to the final script. By the time it reaches the final script stage and I have a crystallized idea about what it is I want to do, the writing of it and the conceiving of it has stayed super liquid and changed radically as I felt they needed to, you know? When I’m creating a film, it’s not like coming up with a story and writing it in a screenplay format. It’s an iterative process of building a model kit from scratch and building the parts and slowly layering onto it the living things, and finding the aesthetic and the sonic color. It’s like building a custom hot rod and the story is the fuel that will drive it.
When you guys gave the group interview for Kevin Smith at Sundance, Nic Cage said that Mandy was about “youth versus age” at its core. In a red carpet interview, Andrea Riseborough said it’s about “Mandy’s soul and spirit at its molten center.” What is it to you?
I like that the actors found their own areas that mean something to them in the film. For me, the core idea was to make a revenge movie and having the revenge orbiting around this spirit and essence of the person who’s being avenged. So it was kind of like a love song or a concept of an album about that person’s essence as much as it is a revenge movie. The “youth versus age” thing was a theme that I flirted with for a time when we were looking at maybe making Red Miller significantly younger. That would’ve created the theme about “youth versus age,” but with the religious cult manifesting more as a remnant of an old ideology. Maybe that’s still present in some form, but it’s not really intentional anymore.
Making any movie is a Herculean task, but the scope of your imagination and the magnitude of your worldbuilding is on another level. Just how difficult was it to get this made?
It took a very long time with a lot of false starts. I like to describe it as a morbid patience. I just feel like you get stuck in motion and you patiently wait for all the pieces to fall into place—and maybe they never will. A part of me at the back of my mind had a sort of strange fate, for the lack of a better word, that this was something that was interesting and bleak enough that, eventually, it would catch somebody’s eye. It just took a long time for that to happen, as far as the actors and money were concerned. I did what they tell you to never do: dump all of your eggs in one basket. I’m always writing material and assembling ideas for many things, but I stubbornly focused on Mandy the entire time. It’s probably more of a mental illness than a plan. [Laughs] But it naturally panned out—miraculously.
Is there an upside to waiting? When the time comes, you know it like the back of your hand.
Definitely. Time is never a bad thing to have, you know? The fact that I was able to dwell on it and think about it for so long, you really get to refine certain things in your mind and even out the pages a little bit over time. But there would be huge differences if things were made very quickly from conception to actually shooting it. A film would be radically different if they have years to think about it. Maybe it’s never a positive thing, but it never hurts to have time to dwell on your ideas. By the time I shot Mandy, I was so familiar with the script that I don’t think I actually looked at it while we were shooting.
You originally wanted Nic to play Jeremiah, which I know he pushed back against. When I was watching it—before any research—I thought you wrote Red for him. He just took this role and totally ran with it, which he’s prone to doing. What surprised you about him?
Nothing surprised me because he was exactly as I had hoped he would be as an actor and as a person. He’s just a very creatively open-minded individual, you know? Any idea I threw his way, I never felt like I was overreaching or asking him to do something that he would be uncomfortable with. He’s extremely fearless. It was just a pure pleasure to work with somebody like that. Originally, I had become so fixated on the idea of him playing Jeremiah Sand that, when he said he wanted to play Red Miller, I just rejected the idea outright. It was so firmly in my mind that I wanted to see him as this villain character. But then a few weeks later—I don’t remember if it was weeks or months—I dreamt that I was watching Mandy starring him as Red. Once I saw it manifested in my mind that way, I realized that he could bring something really unique to that character that nobody else could.
Linus Roache is phenomenal. He gave me chills. He’s now one of my favorite new actors.
I really love Linus. It was a perfect collaboration. Again, I’ve just been really fortunate to work with these actors. They’ve been super open-minded and creative people—and positive people. It’s the ideal, you know? It feels very much like playing and creating these things together, and seeing them bring their own thought processes to what made these characters alive. The way that manifested on camera is just pure bliss to see. You know—I wrote a short bio for Linus, and for most of the actors, to give them a little bit of a backstory that they could tap into. Linus ended up expanding his short bio into a very long journal that Jeremiah Sand supposedly wrote—Randall Dunn, the soundtrack producer and editor, recorded the narration and it’s online—and it came out really phenomenal. We met up for dinner and Linus read it to me in its entirety. It was amazing to hear him read this sort of journal of Jeremiah Sand in character.
[Laughs] Well, in reality, it was hilarious.
That’s another thing: I didn’t go into this movie expecting to laugh in any way, shape, or form. I was cracking up by the final act. Did you laugh on set while filming?
For sure. You laugh when you don’t expect to, you know? Also, sometimes when you see an actor just nail some kind of dark psychosis, it can be incredibly funny. There’s a scene in Black Rainbow where Barry Nile [played by Michael Rogers] is tormenting Margo [played by Rondel Reynoldson], his assistant, in her computer room. He’s kind of massaging her shoulders and being incredibly naive with her. I literally had to pinch myself so hard on the leg to power through that scene because I was laughing so much that I was going to blow all the takes. To me, it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. If I start laughing during a take, it’s almost like a guarantee that it’s going to be in the movie. [Laughs]
Andrea Riseborough was perfect casting as well. How did she enter your orbit?
I had seen her on a British TV show called National Treasure where she was so vastly different from anything I’d seen her in before, and her performance in Birdman and the way she looked in that just struck me as this kind of medieval princess. She’s the most diverse, chameleonic kind of performer. She’s always playing these interesting human beings. She definitely brought a very interesting approach to the character that I think made her an unpredictable presence in the film, and later, more endearing in a way, too, you know? It made her absence feel more devastating.
Chameleonic is right. I had seen her in Brighton Rock and then it took me a while to realize I was watching the same actress in a different movie. I can’t tell you what she looks like, really.
Yeah! There’s been a couple of times where I would start watching something and not realize it was her until a few minutes in. I’m just kind of floored that she can totally metamorphosize like that—even after working with her. [Laughs]
You have a cult classic on your hands, Panos. What are you going to explore next?
I really just want to create more of these visual, sonic experiences. To me, film has always been as much about us disappearing into a trance-like state as being told a story.
Are you writing something now?
I keep a notebook of many different thoughts and concepts, but I’m waiting to see which one will demand all of my attention and not allow me to ignore it. I’m amazed I was able to make one movie, let alone two so we’ll see what happens! I think I need a minute to gather my thoughts.
I sincerely cannot wait to see what comes next. I think you’re absolutely brilliant.
Thanks, man. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a thing. [Laughs]