Creative differences are generally where a project ends, not begins. And still, in the case of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten found themselves at odds with their would-be leading man over one fundamental issue: They wanted Nicolas Cage to star in their action comedy -- playing a heightened, colorful version of himself who becomes embroiled in international espionage involving the CIA, the cartel and a corrupt election abroad -- and Nicolas Cage did not want to star in said movie.
"What would make someone want to do something that, on its surface, seems dangerous career-wise -- with someone you don't know?" posits Gormican. "Something that seems narcissistic, and then playing a narcissistic character who would do something like this! I think for Nick, he was like, 'Wait a second, why do I want to do this?!'"
Gormican and Etten, who first worked together on the short-lived Fox sitcom Ghosted, knew that this was certainly a possibility when they were writing their screenplay, but the writing process proved so much fun that they simply couldn't abandon their script. When Cage passed on the project -- multiple times -- they briefly considered reworking the story to some other movie star. "But we knew there wasn't one," Etten says.
"There's this reverence for Nick and people who love him and think he's incredibly interesting in the way that he approaches his career. And [love that] authenticity to him of not giving a s**t about anything," Gormican explains. "He is such a singular figure that the movie doesn't work at all without him."
That was, after all, why they wrote the movie in the first place. They intended for Massive Talent to be a winking sendup of the more infamous aspects of his celebrity while also offering Cage an opportunity to showcase the full range of his acting abilities in a movie that's part indie drama, part buddy comedy, part thriller, part family film and, naturally, part action flick. Knowing the film was dead in the water without Cage, they took one last shot and wrote him a letter.
"To make him know that this is done out of love and out of reverence and to celebrate one of our great American actors' career, rather than something that feels like it's taking shots at Nick," Gormican says. Which is how they got Nicolas Cage to finally say yes.
Of course, Cage came with notes. Gormican and Etten originally scripted their fictional version of him as on the brink of retirement, feeling overlooked and underappreciated by Hollywood and facing financial ruin. At home, Cage's all-consuming obsession with his career had made him an absentee father to his teenage daughter. That latter script element drew objection from the actor.
"He said, 'I'm so not this guy that this does not make me feel comfortable,'" Etten recalls. "'I'm willing to joke about some of my financial difficulties and some of the more outlandish things I've done in the past, but I have a real sensitivity around this.'"
On camera, Cage does make light of notorious spending habits. He willingly references past films like Face/Off and The Croods: A New Age and plays up the absurd nature of his own acting techniques, including the nouveau shamanism he used on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. He even invoked his most-memed movie in a joke he improvised on set. ("Not the bees! Not the bees!") But he worried -- not unreasonably -- that the audience would conflate the Nick Cage they saw on-screen with who he really is in real life.
He is such a singular figure that the movie doesn't work at all without him.
Cage could play himself as an egomaniac thespian, he could play himself as an eccentric kook, but he couldn't play himself as a bad father. And so, they found a compromise: Nicolas Cage, the character, is still a narcissist who must learn to become selfless, but instead of neglecting his daughter, he became a dad who won't stop trying to mold his daughter into a version of himself. "But he's still trying," Etten says, "just in all the wrong ways."
In actuality, Cage's eldest child is his son, Weston, born out of his past relationship with actress Christina Fulton. In Massive Talent, Sharon Horgan plays his ex-wife, a makeup artist, and Lily Mo Sheen plays his daughter. One of Cage's ex-wives is Patricia Arquette. When asked whether the filmmakers had actually considered casting Arquette in the role, they suggest that that might have been a bridge too far.
"I'll say this: There's only one real person in the film," Gormican says. "Everything else is fictionalized. Like, there's no other actors in this who've been in a movie with Nick, because then it starts to get a little confusing. Like, 'Wait... OK, Nick is real. Patricia Arquette's real. But Neil Patrick Harris is his agent?' The rules get confusing. We tried to stay away from real-life people and actors that he'd worked with, just to make the rules line up."
Once on set in Croatia, Gormican had a realization: Directing this movie meant directing Nicolas Cage. And not just directing Nicolas Cage, but directing Nicolas Cage playing Nicolas Cage, a person Nicolas Cage presumably knows better than anyone else in the world.
"Frankly, it was just intimidating," the director admits. "You're with one of your cinematic heroes, and a guy who's worked with a million directors that I revere, but you're doing these things that are potentially sensitive. It can be terrifying, and you really have to listen to what he's willing to do."
"And Kevin and I would get into these discussions with him where he would come over and go, 'There's a guy who lives in Las Vegas who wears rings and leather jackets and he wouldn't say that thing.' And we'd be like, 'Oh, you mean you,'" Gormican recalls. "I'm like, 'Well, it's not you. It's a character based on you,' and he would be like, 'But he has my name.' And we'd be like, 'Just say the f*****g line, man! Please!'" He laughs, "That was just part of the process of making sure we were getting the best version of Cage, which he, of course, had an opinion about."
Etten chimes in, "You know what's so cool about Nick and what was so awesome about this experience? Is that if he decides to do a project, he buys into the creative team, and into the director and the writer, and he puts a certain amount of trust into you. And for us, that was amazing. Because we aren't the Coen brothers. We're not coming in with this body of work that Nick can go, 'OK, I'll trust you.' But he does trust because he knows that for a movie to work, he has to let go to a certain degree."
And, in the end, that's exactly what the filmmakers needed for this film to work. "He texted me after he saw the film for the first time, and he said, like, 'I want to thank you guys from the bottom of my heart,'" Gormican shares. "He was just like, 'I love it.'"