Mandy director Panos Cosmatos on Nicolas Cage and MacGruber

Led by Nicolas Cage, Panos Cosmatos' phantasmagoric Mandy is a "volcanic eruption of emotions." We speak to the writer-director about his metal and prog-influenced revenge tale, working with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, and... the SNL movie MacGruber

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 08 Oct 2018

Panos Cosmatos doesn’t make films that are easy to define. This may seem a bold statement concerning a filmmaker who currently has only two features to his name as a writer-director, but those movies are so singular as aural and visual experiences, quite unlike anything else contemporary, and, though they share a through line with some other media of the past, difficult to group together with much that’s come before them. And ‘experience’ is an apt description. “What I’m trying to make with these two films is an immersive audio-visual experience, more than just a traditional narrative,” Cosmatos tells us over the phone. “Every decision is weighed in a qualitative realm of creating this dream state.”

The first of these films was Beyond the Black Rainbow from 2010, which skipped a British theatrical run but has developed a fervent cult following. A sci-fi and horror hybrid told through the eyes of a heavily sedated protagonist, its aesthetic saw plenty of ‘acid trip’ descriptors thrown its way by critics, both positively and negatively. If that film roved in a psychotropic territory, bigger budget follow-up feature Mandy is pure phantasmagoria. Co-written with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Cosmatos says he “would describe it as a psychedelic rock opera.”

The film sees a loving couple – Red (Nicolas Cage) and Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) – have their peaceful woodland home existence destroyed after Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the leader of an unhinged religious sect, takes a shine to Mandy after a fleeting glimpse of her, enlisting both his followers and a mysterious group of bikers to abduct Mandy for his own sordid desires. What follows sees Red venture on one of the maddest trips of revenge depicted on screen, featuring chainsaws, tigers, pyramids, beheadings, copious amounts of LSD, and brawls with figures who look like new members of Clive Barker’s villain roster for a Hellraiser tale. You may struggle to remember the last film so stuffed with sadness, glee, humour and genuine terror, all within a few minutes of each other. As Cosmatos puts it: “I really wanted this movie to be a volcanic eruption of emotions.”

Both Mandy and Beyond the Black Rainbow are set in 1983. In the case of Mandy, it’s a cute coincidence that 1983 happens to be the year in which star Cage had his first major roles in Valley Girl and Rumble Fish. Cosmatos explains, however, that the choice of year has a personal resonance: “In 1983, I was a kid and sitting down on the carpet watching He-Man playing on television. So when I was writing Black Rainbow and was essentially about to start writing Mandy, I was exploring this idea of creating an imagined film from my youth – reading the back of VHS boxes and looking at the covers of horror films I wasn’t allowed to watch at the video store. And so that started to grow and became an exploration of this idea of my imagination back then merged with now. To me, 1983 was a mythical landscape of my childhood imagination.”

A lot of Cosmatos’ cinephilic education came through his father, the late George P. Cosmatos, best known for directing Tombstone, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II. “I learned about films in general from him,” he tells us. “He had a giant Betamax collection that he taped off of The Z Channel, Showtime and HBO in the early 80s and obsessively added to. There was no rhyme or reason to his organisation. If you wanted to find a specific film, you could spend over an hour trying to find it. Often, growing up I would just pick a random cassette off the shelf and watch it, and I ended up watching movies from every era and every genre, every filmmaker imaginable, from this crazy, broad cross-section of cinema history.”

Concerning cinema history, though 80s genre films and metal and prog music inform Mandy’s textures and pace, some attentive viewers may spot a sneaky nod to a contemporary cult comedy deep within Mandy’s final stretch. It would definitely be a spoiler to explain the homage fully here, but one specific line from Roache’s villain in the last act would appear to be an explicit reference to, of all things, MacGruber, the 2010 feature spin-off of a Saturday Night Live skit. “Me and my wife are huge MacGruber fans,” Cosmatos tells us, sounding amused that we picked up on it. “I thought a little bit of MacGruber would be appropriate there.”

Speaking of Roache, while Mandy contains a great Nicolas Cage performance (and, interestingly, one of his most dialogue-light lead roles), the man playing his nemesis offers some of the film’s most surprising pleasures and skin-crawling moments. It’s a fascinating character and a chance for the British actor to go full Dennis Hopper, perhaps a necessity when playing against an eventually rampaging Cage. “We had to pull a certain portion of our cast and crew from European talent,” Cosmatos says. “After talking to Linus for a few minutes, I realised from the time he’s spent over in America that he’s encountered people like Jeremiah his whole life and had this very intimate understanding of the state of mind of somebody like that; really understood the dark humour of it and the toxic quality to this kind of person. I was so thrilled with how he fleshed out the character.”

In the title role, fellow Brit Riseborough also shines: “It was a dual thing of having seen her in Birdman, and being mesmerised by her in that, and National Treasure – not the Cage movie, but the British TV show. And being blown away by what a chameleonic transformation it was from one part to the other, and realising that I’d seen her in all these other films and not even known it was her. From a distance, I perceived her to be a buttoned-down Shakespearean actor, but after talking to and meeting her, I realised she had an almost punk, freewheeling vibe about her. Luckily, she’d seen Beyond the Black Rainbow and understood where this movie was coming from.”

Regarding collaborators, we would be remiss not to mention that Mandy’s astounding soundscapes come via what’s sadly one of the final scores by the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who passed away in February this year. “After talking to him,” Cosmatos says of their first meeting, “I realised that, aside from being this incredibly accomplished avant-garde composer, he grew up in Iceland as a metalhead and really had a deep emotional connection to all this stuff driving the aesthetics of this film. To see him interpret that through his incredible skills would be something really remarkable.”

Speaking of metal, we wrap up by asking if Cosmatos has any favourite films that are also strongly influenced by heavy metal. “To my mind,” he says, “very few films have incorporated a heavy metal aesthetic in a way that pleases me. Not intentionally, anyway. I feel that a lot of films that are truly ‘metal’ aren’t referencing metal. And that’s one of the things I wanted as a kid. I wanted films that acknowledged and incorporated metal in a way that I felt understood it and weren’t just putting guitar riffs on top of something. For me, The Road Warrior is a metal movie.”

He adds that the latest Mad Max film, Fury Road, would also count, though the classification of Beyond Thunderdome is less clear. “Maybe not,” he determines. “Parts of it, for sure, but maybe Thunderdome’s a bit more of a Bon Jovi ballad.”

Mandy is released in UK cinemas 12 Oct by Park Circus and out on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Download 29 Oct