January 24, 2018
Sundance 2018

Panos Cosmatos on the Origins of 'Mandy' & Why Nicolas Cage is a Magical Creature

The most buzzed about film at Sundance needs to be seen to be believed.

There has never been a more "midnight" midnight movie than Mandy. I think I came to this realization somewhere around 2 AM, between watching a devout cult member forcibly drop a special batch of LSD in her kidnapped victim's eye and Nicolas Cage engage in a chainsaw duel against a man with a larger, more powerful chainsaw. 

Panos Cosmatos' brutal revenge epic is a beautiful, and terrifying, thing to behold. At points you may feel as if you're hallucinating yourself.

While it's only the director's second feature, premiering eight years after the equally trippy Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos has a clear command for his own startlingly personal material. Though Clive Barker-esque motorcycle demons and cheddar vomiting goblins may not seem the most intimate of plot points, the themes of loss, loneliness, and love pulsate through the screen like power chords out of a metal song. 

Cosmatos deftly weaves in and out of genres to execute a vision that is completely his own. Part fantasy, part science-fiction, and part comedy mixed with a generous helping of horror, Mandy is set in the primal wilderness of 1983. Red Miller (played by Cage) hunts an unhinged religious sect who burned the love of his life to death right in front of his eyes. 

I sat down with Cosmatos, actor Linus Roache and Nicolas Cage briefly the morning after their movie premiered in Park City. Unfortunately, Cage had to leave the interview before we could get to anything substantial, but even physically absent his presence was impossible to deny. Cosmatos is a textbook example of using your past as fodder for your stories. We got to the roots of what made this crazy film possible.

"There are certain things in this film which are rooted way back in my past."

No Film School: Where did this insane project come from?

Panos Cosmatos: I started writing Mandy at the same time that I was writing Black Rainbow, after the death of my father, which was sort of compounded on top of the death of my mother, which I had sublimated and completely suppressed and not dealt with. I realized that I had to face these things and cope with them or it was going to eat me alive. It wasn't on purpose, but I realized in retrospect that they were both articulating two separate parts of the same thing.

Black Rainbow deals a lot with control, it's an expression of how I was pushing in my emotions and felt kind of trapped. Then Mandy is the opposite of that, the movie's a very emotional outward expression of those feelings. I've said that Black Rainbow's like an inhale and Mandy is an exhale. I became obsessed with the revenge genre around that time because it can be a very cathartic genre. I wanted to make a revenge movie that centered around the person in a way that was being avenged as much as the avenger.

"To me, actors are the most magical creatures in the process of making a film."

NFS: What was the collaborative process for you guys on this film?

Linus Roache: Panos had created this world, so you can imagine working with a director who would then say, "You have to do it my way, in my world." But he's so generous with what he's created and just invites you in to bring your best game, your ideas. If they don't work, then we talk them through and they don't work, but when they fit, he would lap them up. He was so open, which is incredible when someone's developed something and worked so hard to create it. People get very precious. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. You can't do it on your own. You rely on all these talents coming together. If you don't have a good leader, the talents don't come together.

Cosmatos: To me, actors are the most magical creatures in the process of making a film. You spend so much time alone when you're writing. You're inside your head creating these characters and imagining them and trying to give them life. When the actors enter into the process, however, they always invariably have their own ideas and approach to it, which are always super amazing and enrich it so much more. It's always a pure joy to watch something that you've built in your mind almost like a model kit actually transform into a fully breathing person, you know?

Nicolas Cage in Mandy
Nicolas Cage appears in 'Mandy' by Panos Cosmatos, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

NFS: In this eight-year time span from your last movie to now, you actually said you had an even more grandiose idea for what Mandy could be and you had to refine it. What did you cut in order to make that happen?

Cosmatos: Oh, listen, an early version of the script had a set piece in it that would have probably cost as much as this whole movie cost. Because I'm also a pragmatist, I realized this was actually going to be huge roadblock for us moving forward with this film. I'm a very adaptable person in many ways. I went back and I stripped it down, and the black skulls were kind of the end result of that, which I feel was better in the end because I felt like it played into the horror aspect of the film a lot more effectively.

"At a certain point, I just realized I really wanted to embrace the horror aspect of it."

NFS: What other strategies did you use to make it more of a horror film?

Cosmatos: At a certain point, I just realized I really wanted to embrace the horror aspect of it. From the point that Red wakes up in the basement through to him taking the skull, maybe even I sort of see that as a little mini-horror movie within the film, you know?

NFS: It seems like a lot of your ideas come from your past.

Cosmatos: There are certain things in this film which are rooted way back in my past. Red Miller was inspired by this neighbor that was around when I was a very young kid and we lived in Guadalajara, Mexico. One of our neighbors in this bungalow complex was a drug cop, like a narc. He had long black hair, and he wore aviator glasses and practiced firing his Magnum .44 at the outer wall of the complex. Nobody could do anything because he's a cop. He would run around on his Harley, and one day, I was out there and I was playing on the grass and there was a thunderstorm brewing in the sky. It was apocalyptic with gray clouds and lightning. He came burning around the corner on his hog with his lady clinging to his back. This was in the late '70s. He saw me and he went, "Wrr, wrrr, wrr." He came up, and he did a 180 right in front of me with lightning above him. In my mind, that was the genesis of Red Miller right there. 

NFS: Wow.

Cosmatos: And Mandy has a wholly different origin. When I was a kid, there was this shitty fair I went to in our town called the JC Fair. I was probably around 8 years or 10 years old. There was a stall that was selling ZZ Top wallets, or metal band wallets, velcro wallets. I was like, "Oh, they have a ZZ Top wallet." I went to buy the ZZ Top wallet, and this woman that was working selling the wallets, she was obviously a metal head. She wore glasses, and as a young boy for some reason, I fell in love with her. When I walked away I forgot the wallet. She was like, "Hey!" And my heart leapt. I was like, "Oh, she's calling back to me,, and I turned around. She's like, "You forgot your fucking wallet. You forgot your ZZ Top wallet, kid."

"When something is raw and cheap and kind of almost, I don't want to use the word amateurish, but it feels like there's life breathing within it, that I can connect with more."

NFS: What about outside influences from places other than these memories?

Cosmatos: Man, the list is too long to even begin. I don't know, I just surround myself with stuff. Lately, for genre stuff, I really am gravitating towards older and older stuff that's not so well made. I experience this tyranny of perfection where the perfectionist in me can actually make everything kind of a suffocating experience. When something is raw and cheap and kind of almost, I don't want to use the word amateurish, but it feels like there's life breathing within it, that I can connect with more.

Pre-production artwork for 'Mandy'. Artwork by Andrew Domachowski.

NFS: How important was your partnership with Spectrevision throughout the production of the film?

Cosmatos: There are genre elements in this film that could be done in a much more straightforward way, but that's not the kind of movie I'm interested in making. There's an old Ebert quote that always stuck in my head, which is, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it's about it." That's always really stuck in my head almost like a mantra. Making a film like this, the approach to it and the tone of it is everything, you know? I knew that if I brought this script to certain people that there would be a lot of pressure to make something that I had no interest in making. They'd want a much more generic cut and dry film. That's not the kind of thing I'm interested in making. Spectrevision knows that. They backed me the whole way. They were very patient. We were slow, steady wins the race.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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