TIFF 2013: Nicolas Cage & David Gordon Green on Joe

This is my big get for the Toronto International Film Festival. I begged and fought for an interview with Nicolas Cage, and understandably his schedule remained in flux until the day before. At the premiere of his TIFF movie Joe, with director David Gordon Green, Cage told the audience that this was his attempt to create a character by taking things away, rather than putting things on top which he clearly does in many of his famously outrageous performances. Cage has often described that style as nouveau shamanic.

Joe (Cage) is the boss of a work crew that includes Wade (Gary Poulter) and his son Gary (Tye Sheridan). When I met Cage and Green, Cage introduced himself as Nic and Green invited me to come party, so I got right to it.


CraveOnline: Nic, I respect your return to this more realistic style of acting, as you said last night, taking things away rather than putting things on top. I hope that doesn’t mean the nouveau shamanic style is done.

Nicolas Cage: Not at all. I think Joe was very nouveau shamanic.


Good, I did too.

Nicolas Cage: In that I didn’t have to act, but go into my imagination and my memories and be.


Things like Joe’s frustration with the dog, and teaching Gary the faces to make, would those be nouveau shamanic moments?

Nicolas Cage: Sure, absolutely. What’s your understanding of nouveau shamanic?


As much as you’ve explained in interviews… I guess I should have looked up the quote and brought it in.

Nicolas Cage: The concept being, and it’s not my invention. It came from a professor named Brian Bates who had a book called The Way of the Wyrd and also wrote a book called The Way of the Actor and he put forth the notion that all actors, whether they know it or not, are really no different than the shamans of villages thousands of years ago, pre-Christian times. When the village would want an answer to a question, they would ask the shaman or the medicine man to go into the flight of the imagination to come up with the answer.

Film acting is no different than that. The idea being that people go to movies and they may be going through something in their own life and they see a movie and it correlates with their own life experience and they get an answer. Actors, their greatest tool, their greatest resource is imagination. You can take things, power objects, you can recruit your dreams, you can access your memories and get there. So the idea is not to act but to just be. That was where I was coming from and also with Joe, I felt that I could access my memories and I could access the life experience I’ve been through and use my imagination to get there in a way where I didn’t feel I was having to act.


You have in the past been critical of the Academy and such organizations for not recognizing supernatural, comic book or genre performances. Is that still a problem?

Nicolas Cage: I don’t know that I’m critical. I do know that I have never had a selection process where I use trophy season to determine what movies I was going to do. Someone like Vincent Price or somebody like Christopher Lee, they never won an award and it doesn’t matter. They’re cool. And I like their charisma and the charm of Hammer horror films and the charm of Roger Corman’s movies with Vincent Price so I wanted to explore that.

An award, that’s a nice thing because it does wonders for a movie and it’s also a great way for people to say, “Hey, great job, my hat’s off to you,” colleagues that are in the same business. That’s not to be slighted or denigrated but my point is don’t let that get in the way of your process. That’s all I’m trying to say. The same goes for something like Stanley Kubrick, who is arguably the greatest director of all time, never won an Oscar for direction. That’s what I’m saying. Be thankful for it but don’t let it get in the way of your process.


For both of you, portraying this job of forest clearing, did you get to explore a sort of manual labor that both of you may not do very much as artists?

David Gordon Green: I’ve explored a lot of manual labor in my life. I think there’s a separate side of me outside of my filmmaking career that’s renovating homes at all times or in my jobs of dunking doorknobs into acid and working medical supply assembly lines and insulating attics. All these kind of strange jobs that I’ve had I think go into a great appreciation for the working class and salt of the earth characters that I’ve met and some of the beauty and poetry that I’ve heard come out of the mouths of some of these guys that I’ve worked with over the years. I think if anything, it just gives me an excitement to work on films that have portraits of people that know how to roll up their sleeves and bust their ass and sweat in jobs that may or may not be as elegantly appreciated as others.

A good friend of mine is a backhoe driver and he’s an incredible backhoe driver. He can do shit on a construction site you wouldn’t believe but there’s no Olympics or Academy Awards or NASCAR appreciation for what he can do in his job. So I find it invigorating in the opportunities of my profession to use them as a portrait in a project.

Nicolas Cage: Again, I have a very active imagination and a life in my imagination. That’s where I go to explore. I can spend time with a tree or with a deer and within five minutes I have a connection with a tree or a deer and I feel like I know what to do to be convincing as someone in a job like that.


Is the relationship between Gary and Joe more that Joe is treating Gary as an equal, rather than a mentor?

Nicolas Cage: My father once said, “If you’re in the desert and you’re dying of thirst, are you going to drink a glass of blood or are you going to drink a glass of water?” I think what he was trying to say, interesting coming from by blood father, is sometimes there are people in your family that can be toxic. You still love them, you still care about them but maybe you have to love him from a far. Maybe your potential, your success is an insult to them in some way and they take it personally and they don’t want you to succeed.

Tye’s character, Gary, is living in a blood family which is toxic and it isn’t until Joe brings the glass of water to him and sees the potential and wants him to succeed.

I saw it more like that. You can choose your family sometimes. You can choose people, it could be a teacher, it could be a professor, it could be someone you work with that actually genuinely cares about you and wants you to succeed.


How does it up your game to have an untested presence like the late Gary Poulter to work with?

David Gordon Green: It actually doesn’t even change the skill set. You have an actor, a performer who regardless of his background, nontraditional or untrained or trained, when you have personalities in front of the camera that you trust wholeheartedly and you want to explore their instincts, and they can take direction, then it’s just an incredible creative collaboration.


I wish we’d gotten to meet Mr. Poulter.

David Gordon Green: Absolutely.


Nic, I know how important voice is to your work and my favorite is Vampire’s Kiss. I would love to one day have a screening of Vampire’s Kiss where you’d do a Q&A if that film is still important to you.

Nicolas Cage: Extremely important.


Good. What were the subtleties of Joe’s voice?

Nicolas Cage: I spent a little time with Dave discussing that. We both admire Robert Mitchum. I have kind of a strange backstory with Mitchum because my mother dated his nephew and because I was the only blue-eyed person born in a family of brown eyes, there was a bit of concern that maybe I wasn’t a Coppola but a Mitchum at one point, so he was always interesting to me. I am my father’s son but Robert Mitchum was kind of in the back of my head. I also thought about maybe Joe having a bit of a Mojave drawl which I have but within a southern context so that maybe he had migrated to Austin early on but he originally came from Mojave. But it’s really whatever you want it to be.

We would go to bars together and I would meet guys that were from Mojave drinking in Austin and they had that sound. I remember there was that one guy in particular. It was that kind of lower Bob Mitchum/Mojave drawl but still relevant within a southern context.


How weird was it doing Get in the Cage with Nicolas Cage on “SNL?”

Nicolas Cage: [Laughs] Well, I thought that was a great night. I like Samberg and I think he’s just so good with an audience. I wanted to riff off of what his presentation of me was so it was kind of like what a valley girl would call a tripindicular experience, or in Picasso’s style you could call cubist. It was like layer upon layer and it was a bit like performance art for me, so I enjoyed that night.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.