Tom Gormican remembers seeing Raising Arizona and being struck by Nicolas Cage’s hyperbolic performance. It was a formative moment for the writer and director, who says he “just attached to Nicolas Cage as a performer.” Gormican’s life-long love of the actor shaped his latest feature, a hilariously meta film titled The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which stars Cage as a hyped up version of himself. Gormican, who co-wrote the comedy with Kevin Etten, sees the film as a new chapter in his own career.
“That’s part of the reason I joined up with Kevin,” explains Gormican, whose last feature film, That Awkward Moment, was released in 2014. “We were both looking for for a break from our past. We just sat down and said, ‘Well, if we’re doing this idea, let’s just write the movie that we want to see, and let’s never really waver from that.’ We held that as the compass.”
In the film, Cage plays Nick Cage, a washed-up actor facing financial ruin and an impending divorce. After losing out on a coveted film role, Nick accepts a $1 million offer to attend a super fan’s birthday party, suddenly finding himself entangled with the CIA and an international crime group. The movie, which also stars Pedro Pascal, Tiffany Haddish and Sharon Horgan, is uproariously funny, deeply self-reflexive and sees Cage gamely embracing his past tropes. Gormican and Etten wrote the story specifically with Cage in mind and ultimately got something far wilder than they could have anticipated. At its core, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a love letter to the actor from his greatest fans.
“There are so many different aspects of fandom out there,” Gormican notes. “And a lot of that takes place in online discussions, which is can be really nice. But we thought, ‘Our skill set is writing, so why don’t we take that fandom and just put it into the movie?’ And then we [got] Pedro Pascal to just basically say the things that we wanted to say to Nic and then watch it happen. Which is really fun for us.”
Here Gormican discusses writing for Cage and what it felt like to direct his favorite actor.
Originally, how did it occur to you that a fictional Nicolas Cage would be a good subject for a movie?
I had this general sense that there would be this Cage-aissance. He was always there. It’s not that he went anywhere, right? He was always around. He was always doing fantastic work, even in movies that didn’t necessarily turn out how he or the filmmakers had wanted it to. He’s unbelievably talented and I just had the sense that there was going to be something that would make him pop again. And maybe the best way to do it is to just have Nic play Nick.
But you’d never met him?
No. I was just a fan. The whole movie is like an avatar for Kevin and I’s personality—we just really like Nicolas Cage. We were talking, like, “Okay, what’s the worst case scenario we’d be happy with?” And we said, “If we get to have lunch with Nicolas Cage I feel like that’s enough.” Like, “I want to have a salad with Nicolas Cage somewhere in Los Angeles, and if that’s the only thing that happens, it’s worth our time.”
And did you have a salad with him somewhere in Los Angeles?
Not only did we have the salad, which was truly weird, we ended up getting to make the movie. So it was kind of the best case scenario, not the worst. But we had a general sense that [because] he’s such an interesting, thoughtful media personality and such an incredible actor he was going to pop back into the zeitgeist.
Did you have another actor in mind that you could have done this story with, just in case?
No, it was just so specifically constructed for Nicolas Cage. A friend of mine, a producing partner who used to run Scott Rudin’s company, called me and he said, “Man, you know, as a pure business decision this is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen anyone spend their time on. There’s one guy, who is famously mercurial [and] he’s not going to necessarily engage in a project. Are you sure?” And we thought, “It’s worth it.” We just were having so much fun writing it to be honest.
Once Nicolas Cage was on board, did the script change at all?
It changed a little bit in terms of line tweaks. We tried to capture the cadence of how Nicolas Cage speaks. Certain little things that he was interested in. But there was one particular plot thread [we changed]. He said, “I’m willing to discuss financial difficulties, where I’ve gone as an actor and coming back, but I’m not really willing to present myself as an absentee father. Because I had to work really hard not to be.” And that was the initial relationship with his daughter. So he asked us to dig in a little bit. And what we landed on together was the idea that he’s trying to shape his daughter into a little version of him via his taste and not realizing the massive amounts of pressure he’s putting on her. I actually think it’s quite bit more interesting and a new version of like a broken parental relationship.
Did you write into the script that he would make out with Nicky, a younger version of himself?
This is where the brilliance of Nicolas Cage comes in. Kevin and I had written it as Nicky picks him up and kisses him on the cheek. And Nic came in, as he always does, he was like, “I have an idea for you guys.” And we were like, “Oh, great. This is the best part of my day.” And he’s like, “I really think that Nicky should deeply French kiss Nick.” That was in the middle of peak, pre-vaccine Covid, so I had to scramble around to figure out how to shoot this thing. So that was a Nicolas Cage idea. No other actor is going to have that kind of idea for you. The reason why we wrote this movie is for moments like that. And it’s one of our favorite moments in the entire film.
I wish I could properly transcribe your Nicolas Cage impression.
I’ve been listening to him for so long, I can’t stop doing it. I really love it.
Were there particular Nicolas Cage films you wanted to pay homage to in this?
There were there were a couple that Kevin and I were just really in love with: Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, Face Off, Con Air, and Adaptation. Those were the big ones for us, which is really illustrative of the breadth of what Nicolas Cage can do as an actor. Those performances are all remarkable, but they’re all incredibly different.
At one point, Pedro’s character, Javi, shows Nick Paddington 2 for the first time. How did you decide to highlight that movie?
This is a celebration of Nicolas Cage and his filmography. At the same time, for Kevin, and I, it was also supposed to be a celebration of filmmaking and the creating process. I mean, we’re huge movie fans. Nic and Pedro ended up being cinephiles, constantly sharing movie recommendations. We had said to them, “You guys should really watch Paddington 2. It’s really incredible.” The only notable flaw that movie has is that it does not contain Nicolas Cage. So we just thought, “Let’s put this in there.” It was also funny, like “What would be a fun movie for Nicolas Cage to have to watch that he probably hasn’t seen?” And that one made us laugh.
Did he like it?
As it turns out, he loves the film. He loves all kinds of films. At the time we were shooting, I think he was obsessed with Japanese horror. But we were like, “Try this very sweet family film.”
When you’re such a fan of Nicolas Cage, is it ever difficult to direct him?
Yeah, I mean, it was intimidating. He’s worked with so many directors that I admire, from David Lynch to Scorsese to Spike Jonze to the Cohen Brothers. And so you’re going, “I’m not one of them. This is really intimidating.” But Nic, when he decides to do your film, he never makes you feel like any less than any one of those directors. He decides to trust you. And then he does. That’s a really important thing when you’re going into a film to have a guy like that. He would say to me, “Listen, I’m always going to come in with some ideas.” He’s very excited about acting, even a hundred—or whatever it is—movies in. Nic would come in with whatever he had to show us. He said, “I know that my job as an actor is to get you whatever you want and I will do that. But I just want to show you what I think it should be.” And that’s a great collaborative way to work on these things.
So there was no sense of disappointment in meeting one of your heroes.
He did live up to my expectations. This guy is fantastic. He’s really great to work with.
Is it thrilling to be on set when Nicolas Cage goes full Nicolas Cage?
Oh, yeah. And he would actually call it “the full Cage.” There’s a particular scene in the movie where there’s this wall and [Nic and Javi are] on drugs and they’re trying to climb over the wall. I’d ask them in that moment to play it like we’re in an old war film and they’re losing each other for the final time. So Nic ends up just screaming, like howling at the moon almost, and he’s pounding on the wall. He came out and I was like, “I really loved that one.” He was like, “Yeah, you got the full Cage.” He’s totally aware that’s a meme-able moment and he’s just giving it to you.
When you were writing the film you obviously knew this was an exciting idea. But have you been at all surprised by the really strong reaction that the film has gotten so far?
It is truly surprising. There was one thing that we fought for while we were making this film in pretty dark circumstances: that if we could keep an underlying sense of joy running through it as the backbone, we thought that we would be okay. And we thought that people might really want to see something that feels joyful and has a sense of love running through it. And I think right now we’re seeing that that’s true.
At first I was always thinking, “Oh, it’ll be really exciting for me if people were talking about the meta aspect and how cool that is.” But people often just say to us when they finished watching the film, “That was a lot of fun.” And there’s something really great about like giving something to someone so that they can have just a good time.
Have you started working on your next project?
We’ve started, yeah. We’re figuring out exactly what that is. What might follow this? We’d love for it to involve Nicolas Cage in some way, obviously. Because all the best projects do.