Heavy Heart, Heavy Art: To Make a Genre Film With Feeling, Embrace Imperfection and Personal Pain and Work With People You Love, Says Mandy Writer-Director Panos Cosmatos

Mandy wouldn’t exist without the influence of my parents. My dad, writer-director George P. Cosmatos (Massacre in Rome, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra, Tombstone) showed me the ropes and my mom, sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos, showed me how to cut them.

The writing and development of Mandy and my first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, began at around the same time, driven by a newfound clarity of purpose after the sudden illness and death of my father, which compounded on the passing of my mother 10 years earlier.

Because of this, the films ended up becoming companion pieces to one another. Once I started to realize they each dealt with different aspects of my grief, how I was processing it, and how I was remembering and missing my parents, each film began to crystallize more purely into what they wanted to become. One was repressed, one primal. One was sterile, the other teeming with life.

I’d describe my creative process as “iterative.” I start with a broad concept within the genre I’m interested in exploring—in the case of Mandy, a Revenge movie with a capital “R” that orbits around the essence of the person being avenged, named after them, and for them, like a love song—then begin building asymmetrically around that, accumulating a catalog of images, sounds, and textures.

I like to think of my movies as custom hot rods. Films are a purely sensorial experience. When you start building a project from scratch, the goal isn’t simply to tell a story, but to build a kind of pop-culture artifact or moving sculpture that incorporates a certain aesthetic and sonic textures. The story is ultimately in service of this end.

“On a low budget, you’re painting a picture in a sealed room that’s quickly filling up with water. Directors have one of the shortest life expectancies of any profession for a reason,” says Mandy writer-director Panos Cosmatos of indie moviemaking. Photograph by Guillaume Van Laethem

Over the course of this process of iteration, Mandy gradually metamorphosed from a straightforward take on the revenge action film (albeit one with a heavy metal attitude) to a phantasmagoric horror-fantasy with shimmers of rock opera. The goal was always to reach beyond the starting point, but when I began I wasn’t exactly sure how this would manifest. (I hope I’m never sure of that.)

While the iteration happens, I run what I like to call a “story subroutine” that ties all these disparate elements together, so anything that works in the appropriate context gets filed where it needs to go—if not with the current project, then another more suitable one I may be compiling, or into a miscellaneous bin of misfit toys. But like a custom hot rod, the story is the fuel and without it the vehicle won’t run. It’s always idling in the background.

If I were ever to work on something conceived by someone else, I’d run this iterative process on the story that person creates. But as it currently stands, the gathering of images and sounds is deeply, intimately tied to the creation of the story itself.

After Beyond the Black Rainbow was finished and released, it was time to get back to work on Mandy. I quickly realized I didn’t want to relive the crushing solitude and bottomless psychic vortex of writing alone, so I asked my close friend Aaron Stewart-Ahn to join me. Once Aaron and I had completed a draft we were happy with I passed it on to production house SpectreVision, who read it and became officially involved with the project.

SpectreVision had seen Beyond the Black Rainbow and came to me to express interest in being involved with my next film. Of all the people I had spoken with, I connected to their deep and knowledgeable passion for genre cinema the most. Finding a producer who would have my back and nurture the film in a non-corrosive way was at the top of my list of priorities. Most producers promise these things, though, so in the end it’s always a leap of faith. In the case of SpectreVision they practice what they preach. (Also, I just liked them as people.)

Loved and Lost: Cosmatos drew from his own grief to write the titular Mandy’s (Andrea Riseborough) doomed fate. Courtesy of RLJE Entertainment

Over the next few months we honed the script based on some very perceptive notes from SpectreVision’s head of development Daniel Noah, and on the looming specter of pragmatism. (One sequence as written would have cost four times our total eventual budget.) Since Beyond the Black Rainbow was made in a vacuum, I had strong apprehensions about notes. Hearing the countless horror stories of my moviemaker friends my fears weren’t unfounded, but SpectreVision’s approach was always respectful, thoughtful, and in tune with the film.

Back in the ’70s my father used to find ways to sneak scripts into movie stars’ hotel rooms. He got Richard Burton to be in Massacre In Rome that way. If you tried something like that these days I suspect you’d end up in a cell. In 2016, our way into Nicolas Cage’s hotel room, figuratively speaking, was Elijah Wood.

Early on, I had floated the idea of Cage as the villain of Mandy, Jeremiah Sand. Cage read the script and passed on it. My dream was dead. But soon after, Elijah was making a film with him and convinced him to take another look. I met with Cage in a hotel lobby in Vancouver a few weeks later. We sat down, ordered coffee, and he said “I want to play Red”—the protagonist. My stomach sank. I had been fixated on him as Jeremiah for months. I couldn’t picture him as anyone else. We chatted for a while. I really liked Nic but in my mind him as Red was a non-starter. Luckily, my id had other ideas: A few weeks later, I had a strange yet beautiful dream of Nicolas Cage as Red Miller. It felt right. The gods had spoken. I woke up and immediately texted Daniel: “Were we crazy to pass on Cage as Red?” His response was simply, “Yes.” Cage was in and we had a movie.

I did one more pass on the script with Cage aboard. I couldn’t resist rewriting some of Red’s dialogue to tailor it to Nic, mostly just because I wanted the pleasure of hearing him deliver it. Ironically, when Cage playing Sand was a distinct-if-brief possibility, I had re-written much of Sand’s dialogue with an ear to him. It gave the character more of a demented rock star flair, so I never changed it back. Linus Roache ended up rendering the character beautifully and I can’t imagine anyone else playing either part now.

False Prophet: Cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) mistakes his followers’ worship for love in Mandy

One of the first people to express interest in working on Mandy was our composer, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. This surprised the shit out of me. As much as I admired his work, I pictured him as a very cold, academic person—one who wouldn’t respond to the slow-motion meltdown of Beyond the Black Rainbow, let alone Mandy. But he had seen Beyond the Black Rainbow and happily, I was wrong. There was an Icelandic barbarian alive in Jóhann’s heart, already sharpening his battle axe, blood lust gleaming in his eyes. 

Then, Nicolas Cage saved us. Again.

The biggest hurdles when making a movie are money and time. We didn’t have enough of either. (Do you ever? How many times have these exact words been written in these pages?) To paraphrase David Fincher, “Directing is like trying to paint a picture with a 20-foot brush while people bombard you with questions.” On a low budget, you’re painting a picture in a sealed room that’s quickly filling up with water. Directors have one of the shortest life expectancies of any profession for a reason.

Our intrepid producer Josh Waller and I were in Belgium hurtling toward our rapidly approaching start date that was locked in stone to Cage’s schedule, and it quickly became clear that we didn’t have enough time for all the departments to prepare properly.

In a heroic act of selflessness Nicolas Cage accidentally broke his leg on another film, buying us some desperately needed time.

We had been granted a reprieve, albeit one filled with new dread and uncertainty—not least of which was the possibility that Nic’s leg wouldn’t heal in time. Despite our newfound breathing room the accident had given us, the delay also threw crew availability into question and we lost our cinematographer. Luckily, we got the great Benjamin Loeb to come aboard. When the dust settled we had managed to retain all of our other keys and thankfully, Nic’s leg healed in record time. He showed up ready to go and was an open-minded, creative collaborator. Working with him was a real joy.

Getting His Axe Together: Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) finds momentary peace of mind in welding an axe to exact revenge in Mandy

Still, we were getting terrifyingly close to our first day and we still had no Mandy—the most important character in the movie. My first choice to play Mandy had always been Andrea Riseborough. I was floored by her performances in National Treasure (the 2016 British TV series, not Cage’s film) and Birdman. She evoked both a medieval princess and a hard-as-nails ’80s metal fan. I thought then—and now more than ever—that she is one of the great chameleonic actors working today. At the 11th hour we got word Andrea was willing to talk with me, but… about me directing something she was producing.

My heart imploded. Shattered, I got on Skype, wracked with nerves. I expected a put-together, Shakespearean actor but she has a punk, off-the-cuff quality about her that disarmed me. Goddamnit, she was more right for the part than I ever thought. Andrea had just worked on a film that had left her with a testosterone hangover and she was understandably reticent about our shoot being more of the same. I must’ve blacked out because I don’t remember a word I said. The next day she agreed to play Mandy. It was a Christmas miracle.

Logistically speaking, the shoot was extremely ambitious. The pinnacle was our two biggest fight scenes: Red’s fight with Skratch (played by Ivailo Dimitrov) and the chainsaw duel. We had one short summer night to get each sequence. (Those words seem insane to write in hindsight.) The most efficient way to get the coverage was to shoot each sequence on dolly tracks from three axes. This way we’d get all our coverage and maintain our camera design, which was all locked on sticks and track. Loeb concurred and added a second camera and dolly to each track setup for good measure. Once we had run the fight from one axis to our satisfaction, we’d move the setup to the next axis and repeat the process.

Once principal photography was complete, our indispensable editor Brett Bachman and I holed up in a basement for two weeks of cutting, then moved to Brussels to lock the cut and go into the final sprint of color correction and sound mixing before Sundance.

Jóhann kept composing and delivering music even as we mixed up to almost the final day. We made it by the skin of our teeth (and our sanity) and Josh hand delivered the DCP to the festival.

There’s something I like to call The Tyranny of Perfection. Is a die-cast ’70s Chogokin action figure innately inferior to a modern version because its sculpt is less detailed? Is a silver age comic worse because it’s printed on bleeding, pulpy matte paper instead of smooth semi-gloss? Is 8K better than Super 8? To me, “imperfection,” for lack of a better word, is a portal that allows the mind to evoke more—to dream beyond what is presented. There’s still something to be said for texture over fidelity, and I hope Mandy shows that there always will be.

To direct movies, you have to be firm, but you also have to be flexible. If you’re able to pivot and adapt when needed, you’re more likely to find magic where you didn’t expect it, salvage situations that seem beyond saving, and ultimately—most importantly—make a movie you’re proud of. I still like to imagine I’m in the backyard making Super 8 films with my friends. So, invite the people you like over to your backyard. You just might live longer. MM 

Mandy opened in theaters September 14, 2018, courtesy of RLJE Entertainment. This article appears in MovieMaker’s 2019 Guide to Making Horror Movies, featured inside our Fall 2018 issue. Featured image: Tiger By the Tail: Losing the love of his life makes Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) a dangerous man in Mandy. All images courtesy of RLJE Entertainment.

1 Comment

  1. Mickey

    October 9, 2018 at 10:48 am

    What a beautifully written article. When I first watched Mandy, (as a filmmaker myself) I immediately felt that it had this young Kubrick-esque trajectory and feel to it. Not style-wise, but career-wise. Mandy is one of those films that comes out of nowhere once every decade and that has a unique voice, creating milestone for cinema. I absolutely cannot wait to see more of what Cosmatos creates. His father would be overwhelmingly proud.

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