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Film The story behind Mandy, the year’s epic Nicolas Cage freak-out masterpiece

Mandy director Panos Cosmatos.

Guillaume Van Laethem/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

When it premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival, Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy was hailed as a breakthrough in midnight-movie madness. Sundance buzz can often be misleading, though, with so many critics suffering from the hot-house environment of the festival and its high altitudes.

But Mandy is the rare case of the hype matching reality, as the film is in fact a psychedelic nightmare of epic proportions – a 1983-set revenge thriller that opens with the full-length version of King Crimson’s Starless and only intensifies in its resolute strangeness from there. If you need further evidence: It stars Nicolas Cage in full freak-out mode as Red, a man hunting the cult that tortured and killed his wife. (There is also a pack of drug-dealing demon-bikers, for good measure.)

Ahead of Mandy’s Canadian release on Sept. 14, Cosmatos spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about nostalgia, grief and the secret genius of Nicolas Cage.

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Both this film and your first, Beyond the Black Rainbow, are specifically set in 1983. So, what were you doing back then?

My family had just moved to Canada, and I was in elementary school, probably watching He-Man cartoons. But it was also when I discovered heavy metal. There was a kid in school a year older than me who I worshiped. One day, I asked what he was listening to on his Walkman, and it was Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil. He handed me the cassette, and I remember very clearly saying to him, “These are the ugliest girls I’ve ever seen.” And he replied, “Those aren’t girls. That’s Motley Crue.” And something in my mind just snapped – music could be like this? I was in it for life.

Did you always think of 1983 as fertile ground to set films?

That didn't come about until my father passed away a few years ago, and my mother a decade before that. I'd been suppressing my grief and not coping with it. I finally went to therapy, and that helped me look into my past, and reconnect with what I loved when I was young. I started delving back into comics, music, the films I watched. I realized this was the material that meant the most to me, and I formed this psychic landscape around that.

Was making this film an act of emotional catharsis, then?

Making Beyond the Black Rainbow definitely was, because that was my first film, and I had to go out into the world and make it. With Mandy, it’s more about completing something. These movies are companion pieces to each other, and have the same state of mind. Now that I’ve made it, I’ll never make another movie ever again. [Laughs]

How do you think it fits in with the heavy nostalgia these days for the eighties? There’s Stranger Things, but also another film debuted at Sundance alongside your film called Summer of ’84.

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When I was growing up in the eighties, there was a real nostalgic streak for the fifties. Look at Back to the Future. But I think there’s two-dimensional nostalgia and then there’s what I’m trying to do, which goes beyond just recreating an era. I’m trying to mine my state of mind at a different time.

How did working with Nicolas Cage fit into that?

It felt like working with an old friend. We were aligned creatively and instinctively understood what each other was trying to achieve. I originally wanted him to play the villain, but after he came on wanting to play the hero Red, I recoiled. So much of my mind was fixated on him playing the bad guy. But then I realized it would be a gift from the heavens to have an actor as creative and who has such a deep emotional well that he can draw on here, since Red is quite simple. This is an opportunity to make that character resonate on a whole new level.

This film and last year’s Mom and Dad seem to tap the full potential of Cage, which he hasn’t been given the opportunity to do so in the past few years.

Cage has a certain Dadaist sensibility, and I think to not allow him to explore that is watering down something amazing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Mandy opens across Canada on Sept. 14.

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