I haven’t done interviews for very long, but my favourite ones are when the people very clearly adore what they do, and believe in the work they put out. And nobody encapsulates that energy better than Tom Gormican, the director of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
When I meet him, we excitedly talk about how fun the movie was — I tell him how it’s one of my favourite movies (if you don’t believe me, check out my five-star review for it), and note that Nick Cage the character — not to be mistaken with Nic Cage the actor — reminds me a lot of BoJack Horseman: the protagonist of one of the finest Hollywood satires I’ve seen in years. He agrees, describing the fourth season of the animated series as “one of the best seasons of television, like, ever.”
But we’re not here to talk about BoJack Horseman, and I’ve only got twenty minutes, so through a blurred, glitchy, Zoom call, we discuss how the critically acclaimed, self-referential action movie starring Nicolas Cage as himself came to be in a Q&A— here is the result.
The Digital Fix: The film’s writer, Kevin Ettan, has previously said that the film was written on spec — what made you want to push forward with the project despite its potential to be rejected (and the fact it was rejected, multiple times)
Tom Gormican: We were making a television show and not having the greatest time — we were being pulled in a lot of different directions which can often happen especially in LA when you’re making something, and so we had the opportunity when we stopped we had some time and you know, every now and again, you start writing something and you’re just having such a good time, sort of rediscovering what you like about both writing and about the creative process and about movies in general.
And I think in the back of our mind, we were thinking, ‘There’s no way he’s ever going to do this.’ You know, we got halfway through it, and we thought, we’re just having so much fun. We love this thing. And that was always the goal: to write something that we would see and never waver from that and hopefully, that gets us back on track. And so we kept going.
TDF: After being pushed back multiple times, what made you want to keep going?
TG: My background is in the independent film world and I worked my way up from my early 20s was assistant development. So I found that side of the business, my new role, my bosses and the people that we were making movies with everything took a tremendous amount of work and persistence never got the person on the first try. My producing partner used to run Scott Rudin’s company and he said to me, ‘Scott says your only job as a producer is to turn nose into yeses’, right? That’s your only job.
And I think that was sort of in the back of my mind where I thought this is a very difficult project to get made. Let’s approach this like an independent film. And let’s make sure that we have some money behind an offer before we give it to Nic. I don’t want him to read it until he knows that it’s a real project. And so we tried to safeguard it to the best of our ability all of the things that we could and then just keep pushing with the sort of unwavering faith that eventually we can get this person to say yes to the movie, you know, and that the momentum will snowball into a film.
TDF: So we all know you had to write a letter to get Nic Cage on board — what did the letter say?
TG: The letter said two things. One was, you know, you’ve done every genre of film equally well, which is rare. When you go back through his filmography you see everything from romantic comedies like Moonstruck, to hardcore heavy dramas, to detailed performances like adaptations or playing multiple characters. So in everything we said, if we do this project, right, we get a chance to do a lot of different genres in the same film, which is a challenge in and of itself, both tonally and genres because we’re shifting.
And the second part of the letter just said, ‘Look, we feel like in a world where identity is litigated in public, all day every day, this is an opportunity to take the reins of that narrative on like a large scale canvas and twist it into whatever you want to twist it into its performance art. And I think when you tell a guy like Nicolas Cage that it’s performance art he’s like, okay, you know, I’m listening now, and then he gets interested. And so that was the thing that I think locked him in.
TDF: How did you balance paying homage to Cage’s work and parodying/exaggerating some of his more eccentric traits?
TG: You don’t have to exaggerate his eccentricity if you’ve just put Nicolas Cage in the role. These things just start to come out, you know. And so I think that was part of it: just making sure that like there’s a groundedness to the character and, like, a humanity which Nick naturally brings as a dramatic actor, and then pushing it to its limit in terms of like, story design, and seeing how broad and crazy and funny you can get it by saying, ‘Okay, let’s have them take acid and see what happens.’ And that was kind of the balance that we tried to achieve.
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TDF: Aside from Nic, are any of the other characters in Unbearable Weight based on real people?
TG: David Gordon Green plays himself in the film as the director that Nick made the movie Joe with, but everyone else is just a fictional kind of creation. And, you know, certain actors like Pedro Pascal and his character, share a lot of similarities.
Javi is similar to the actual Pedro, which is why he presents quite a bit differently than I think people have seen him before, where he’s always playing this kind of hardcore macho guy, Pedro is a really sweet human being and I tried to take some of that aspect of his character and, and put it into the role of Javi which makes it even more complicated and confusing because you’re not sure whether he’s good or bad and, and Pedro can really make those turns where suddenly he seems dangerous.
TDF: Nic has said before that Javi is his favourite character — what’s yours, and why?
TG: My favourite character I think is Nicky, the younger Nick alter ego. For me, it’s like the exact representation of Nic’s insanity: his weirdness comes alive in that in that character. And I think yeah, Nic had a lot of fun playing him.
TDF: How would you describe the purpose/meaning of ‘Nicky’ in the movie?
TG: You know, I think Kevin and I were just thinking a lot about the idea that there’s always like, a spectre of a version of yourself, especially in Hollywood that’s younger and sort of saying you should continue to be this person. And if you’re not this person, at the height of your career, you’re no one, and there’s like an obsession with youth and power. And I think, you know, a character really has to learn to leave those things behind in our story to be a better ex husband, father, actor, and human being, and we thought, if we could dramatise this in an interesting way, it’d be a nice way to show that a guy has to learn these lessons and leave these things behind.
TDF: One deleted scene sees Nick reprising several of his most iconic roles in a black-and-white fight sequence with Nicky. Would you be able to talk a little bit more about why that scene was cut, and what it was like filming it?
TG: When you’re making a commercial movie for a studio, you’re under some pressure shield to appeal to the most people that you possibly can. So it was kind of trying to figure out how it would fit into a commercial movie. And the studio and I had discussions many, many times over many many months. And they were under the impression that the scene wouldn’t quite appeal to everyone.
I fought back on this a little bit but in the end, you know, I think there was an aspect of Nicky’s character people really liked, and to see Nick chasing Nicky through an action sequence and killing him was very difficult for people to take in the end. So it ended up being this very shocking and surprising dispatch of this character so that he can go be the guy he’s supposed to be. And, you know, I don’t think it hurts the film by not having it in there. So I think the studio is right about that. But I thought it would enhance the film a little bit.
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It’s visually really interesting and really cool and something I love and something Nic loves, but it was not the easiest moment for the viewers.
TDF: What do you think of modern ‘fandom’ culture? Did that play into the movie at all?
TG: You know, it, it did a little bit. I think you know that. On one hand, it drives the industry, right? It drives so many people to continue to go see films with Marvel movies, DC movies, Batman movies. They drive people to theatres. I don’t see that as anything but a positive thing. The thing I don’t like is when people start taking filmmakers and actors who are just human beings and reading you these comments to task in a really, really negative way.
It’s part of what you sign up for, but I think there’s a version of fandom which is super positive and you know, hope that that’s sort of the thing that perpetuates. We wanted to make a version of fandom that was super positive in a pretty dark time when we were making it, and that’s the thing I hope people are left with.
TDF: What was your favourite scene to film, and why?
TG: One of them was Nick in the bathrobe, just sitting by the pool. I thought, let’s shoot this guy in this beautiful way, we’re just out in a chair looking like a true movie star but make him so depressed. His attitude is a complete juxtaposition to the rest of the story. That was a fun one for me because Nic got to go into full like, you know, Verner Hertzog mode.
TDF: What was the most challenging scene for you to film, and why?
TG: The most challenging scene for me to film was the Nicky stuff. there was just stuff where, for example, the scene in the bar where Nick is sitting with Nicky and Nick came in early that day and said, ‘I’ve got an idea for you. I think Nicky and Nick should like deeply French kiss each other.’
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So we had to figure out how to make that work. And there was some difficulty I think for that to manage both characters with doubles, and you know, all the tricks that we were using.
TDF: Are there other key moments in the movie that came from Nic?
TG: One of them is, he was supposed to say, “You’re Nick fucking Cage,” and we just call action and he starts going, “Nick FUCK-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE…. CAGE!” And the entire crew was looking around, looking at me and I’m just mesmerised by it. And we call cut, and he comes over, I pulled off my headphones and he walks over me and said, “I wanted it to be transcendent.” I just started laughing. I don’t have any other version of that scene. Because it to me it was so perfectly Nic, which you’re not getting from any other actors. It was so funny.
And so there were so many moments like that where Nic would bring himself like that. There’s a scene where there he’s helping Javi over the wall and they’re on acid. And, you know, Nic looked at me during one take and he goes,” Do you want me to go full Cage?” And I said, “I would like you to go full Cage.” And so he goes in, he’s screaming, and he knows what the audience wants and expects from him and he’s happy to give it to them which is pretty fun.
TDF: Why Nic Cage? Why not any other actor?
TG: We’ve talked about that a lot. And weirdly, I think it’s because like, in the cultural zeitgeist, Nic has sort of reemerged in a way that transcends being just an actual performer who falls in and out of favour, like, because of the magnification of his face. He’s this cultural icon. It’s like, you know, he means more to people: the sight of his face brings people happiness and joy.
People have cutouts so there’s a giant head at concerts that have nothing to do with Nicolas Cage, and you don’t get that with anybody else. So I think for that reason, there’s this love for him where people just want him to succeed and want him to be okay. And you really need that for a project like this to work.
TDF: What do you think are the ingredients of a ‘perfect movie’?
TG: I think for me, it’s the mix of plot-driven sort of action that drives a single character. But it has to be mixed with real grounded emotion, and that’s the thing that’s sort of fallen a little bit out of favour. And films these days. Because it feels earnest at times. For me, the films that I love the most, have a mixture of those types of things. And that’s something that I tried to replicate in this film.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is available on digital release now and on SteelBook, 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD from July 11, 2022.