Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Director on Nicolas Cage’s Talent – The Hollywood Reporter

[This story contains minor spoilers for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.]

Nicolas Cage offered a suggestion to filmmakers Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten. It came while filming The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the movie where Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself. He approached writer-director Gormican and writer Etten prior to filming a scene where, in an existential fever dream, he was set to act opposite a younger, more bombastic version of himself (think Wild at Heart).

“Nick came to us that morning and said, ‘I’d like to have young Nick deeply French kiss me,’” remembers Etten. The scene was originally scripted with the younger Cage giving the elder statesman a polite kiss on his cheek. Gormican recalls, “We’re just like, ‘Yes.’”

It was more than two years earlier in 2018 that Etten and Gormican, coming off working together on the short-lived Fox comedy ghosted, sat down in earnest to write a screenplay that played off of the real life and career of Cage that would see the Oscar winner being paid to attend the birthday party of an uber-fan (played by Pedro Pascal) only to be enlisted by the CIA to spy on said fan, a supposed homicidal crime boss. “We were writing the movie that we wanted to see,” explains Gormican.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent shot during the pandemic, with Budapest in the fall subbing for Spain in the summer. After a raucous SXSW premiere—where Cage fans donned shirts, hats, and, in one case, a full suit with the actor’s face on it—the movie is set to arrive in theaters on April 22. Ahead of the film’s nationwide release, Gormican and Etten talked to THR about how they got Cage to star in their movie as himself, what draws fans to the actor and why Paddington 2 plays such an important role in their film.

When you guys were writing, were you thinking about the hurdles you would have to jump to actually get a project with this premise made?

Tom Gormican I think deep down in the core of our being we felt that there was no fucking way to do this project. But we were having such a good time writing it that we were like, “If all that happens is we give this to our friends and maybe they laugh” — that was the baseline: Maybe it makes a few people happy.

Kevin Etten Practicality-wise, it was like maybe we get it on the Black List or whatever. [The script did appear on the 2019 Black List.] We get rewrite work out of it or we get other projects.

Gormican [Kevin] mentioned this before, but we were just like, man, if we could get a lunch with Nicolas Cage. We just, like, wanted to have a salad with him.

Etten We did think if there was anybody out there who would kind of have the courage and be wild enough to do this, Nick is one of those five or whatever people. Like, “OK, I want to do a weird performance-art piece where I kind of play myself, but it’s not really myself.” I was like, “There is a chance that Nick goes for this just because he is that kind of artist.”

Were you watching his movies by way of research?

Gormican What we found very instructive for us in the creation of this movie was to watch a lot of interviews and read a lot of interviews. You start to get closer to the core of who Nicolas Cage is and the way he speaks [in order] to try to inject both the things that he says and the way that he talks into the script, all in the hopes that when he’s reading it he [thinks]“Oh, they talk about [The Cabinet of] Dr Caligari and I’d mentioned in an interview it is one of my favorite films of all time. They’ve done some research.” I think you always have to try to do that for actors, but in this case, it was very important when you’re saying: “Here’s who you are.” And he’s saying, “That is not who I am.”

Etten His [Late Night With David] Letterman appearance is pretty amazing where he talks about his pet snakes.

Gormican He said he would go into a room and there was a big chair in it and he would drink a giant glass of red wine and watch his cobras dance for him. And then, eventually, they would turn around and hit the glass of the cage that they were in and it would scare the hell out of him. Dave said he was like his favorite guest of all time. No one else is living that version of a life. And then the Wogan [a British talk show that was broadcast by the BBC from 1982 to 1992] show when he goes on, when he’s younger and he somersaults out and does a roundhouse kick and he’s completely going wild. That was the basis for the Nicky character. And Nick is like, “I find that guy so obnoxious, I want to play him again and make him the villain in the movie.”


What was your reps’ reaction when you told them about the project?

Gormican Their immediate reaction was like, “That’s cool. What do you guys want to do next in television?”

Etten They were like “There is a staff job on —”

Gormican “Should we drop them?”

Etten But once the script came together the enthusiasm for the script and the love for it kept us going through all the various hurdles until we got to the studio because there was a sizable time where it was nothing but a pipe dream.

What was the process of actually getting the script in front of him?

Etten We were told that Nick has done these projects before and he’s not wild about Nick as Nick. And we weren’t two guys who had a huge body of work that you could point to and be like, “No, trust us.”

Gormican We aren’t Spike Jonze.

Etten We knew that we needed to have a real offer to go along with the script. So eventually we got studio interest and once a couple of studios came on board, that’s when it started to become real.

Gormican But the funny part about that was we have a bunch of studios interested in the script, and ordinarily as a writer you’re going, “Oh my God, this is like the best possible version of how this could have gone.” But there’s an asterisk on all of this, meaning, if he doesn’t want to do it, your sale goes away. Like, “By the way, we don’t want this fucking thing if he’s not in it.” There is no other version of it. When he was reading the script it was like this sort of double anxiety. It’s not like if he doesn’t do it, we’ll offer it to somebody else. It was gone.

I had a little candle with Nick as Jesus. We lit one that day and we were like, “Well, we hear he is reading it.”

When and where did you finally meet him?

Etten We got our salad.

Gormican At the Pacific Dining Car restaurant in downtown [Los Angeles]. He shows up, he’s in jeans and a T-shirt, and he’s just a cool guy. And we’re talking about this thing and we’re like, “This is very weird for us.” And he’s like “Weird for you? It’s weird for me.” Later that night he has an opening, I think it was for Color Out of Space and I go see him there and he’s in his full Gucci leather jacket and leather pants. He had transformed into like, a Nick Cage costume — but he’s the exact same person. He’s the same guy, but it was a suggestion of the versatility of Nicolas Cage as an actor.

Do you think there is any other actor where you could have theoretically swapped into the story?

Etten There were times when I thought I, more than Tom, was trying to talk myself into other ideas. The only actually good idea — I don’t know whose it was — was to have either Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis playing Nick Cage. But really, no. Nobody else who really has a mixture of the super high talent he has and the goodwill of people wanting him to —

Gormican — to succeed.

Was there a moment on set that has remained particularly meaningful to you?

Etten One of the most powerful moments on set where I got kind of emotional was I think Tom had COVID. So, I was talking to Nick, and Tom was on an iPad directing [the film] that way, but I was there. It’s the final scene where Nick is with his daughter, and they decided to watch Paddington 2— and Nick gets really emotional. I found myself getting emotional, and I looked over and I saw these old, grizzled crew guys getting emotional. I went, “Oh my God, this guy is very good at acting.”

Gormican He’s not saying anything. I just started crying.

Was the Paddington 2 reference always in the film?

Etten Day one.

Gormican We’re just big fans of that film. The only identifiable flaw that film has is that it does not have Nicolas Cage in it.

[Our] movie was not just the celebration of Nicolas Cage, but it’s a celebration of making things, of making movies. We thought that this movie should feel like what it means to celebrate that thing. And Paddington 2 is such a great example of a perfect, emotional and hysterical film for us. We just wanted to include it.

I know that scenes had to be cut from the film for time. Is there anything you would like to see in an extended cut of the film?

Etten The one for me that I miss is there’s a scene when we first meet Javi [Pascal] and he’s showing Nick around his place. Nick asks what the Wi-Fi password is. Javi kind of stops and there’s clearly something bothering him, and then he starts “NATION” and you realize it’s National Treasure 2. And he’s so mortified. And he goes, “National Treasure Two colon Book of Secrets.”

Why do you think Nicolas Cage inspires the fandom that he does?

Gormican I asked him once, “I know that you’re interested in expressionism; I know that you’re interested in these larger-than-life, like wild performances: What is it? Because I’ve seen you do the subtle, nuanced naturalism that I’m interested in.” I asked, “Do you get bored?” And he came back the next morning and said, “I’ve been thinking about this all night. And I want you to know that I’m never bored when I’m acting. I love acting. I do these things because I think that it’s exactly the right choice for the script and the moment that I’m in. I think about them very hard.”

There’s an authenticity, and he feels like a person who just does what he wants without regard to how it’s going to be received. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. We all have, in the back of our minds, “Are people going to like this? Are they going to like us?” He operates seemingly outside of that. I think people attach to it and find it inspirational. I know that I do.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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