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...on Bringing Out The Dead - Interview Nicolas Cage

It seems like Nicolas Cage just can't stay away from grueling roles these days, from 8MM and Snake Eyes to his current ordeal as a Hell's Kitchen, NY insomniac medic in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead. So what does Cage do for fun? From what he had to say, you might conclude that the star is pretty reckless on his down time too, getting a little relaxation going with some race car driving and surfing. That is, when he's pretending to risk his life in a movie like Bringing Out The Dead.


PRAIRIE MILLER: Hey, that's a positive start! Now, you once said your game plan for movies is to do three dark ones and then three light ones. Well, Bringing Out The Dead seems to be another adventure in your dark period.

NC: Right, right. Yeah, it is. I think 8MM, Snake Eyes and Bringing Out The Dead are a little in the dark period. But now I'm doing Gone In Sixty Seconds, which is a...lighter form of entertainment! And then I'll be doing Family Man, which is a romantic comedy. So I've decided to go into another place again.

PM: Then are your films kind of trilogies at this point in your life?

NC: Yeah. That began some time in the '80's, I think. There was Honeymoon In Vegas. And then I started exploring things in three's for some reason. I don't know if that's so much a conscious effort, as sort of the way the business works.

You know, in a lot of aspects the business can have tunnel vision. And they go off of whatever your last movie was. So when the offers come in, they very often are a repeat in style of what you just were successful at.

It's like, oh so he's doing comedies. So let's send him some comedies. Or he's doing action, so let's send him some action. But for me, it also helps me hone a style. When I first did the action genre, I was like a baby in it. I wasn't certain how to do it, and I really analyzed it and thought, well let's do it again and again until I master it. I think that tends to be what I like to do.

PM: You also got a chance with Bringing Out The Dead to work with your wife, Patricia Arquette.

NC: Well yeah, for the first time.

PM: How hard is it maintaining a professional relationship with someone you're emotionally involved with? Like how do you separate life and art on the set when it comes to Patricia?

NC: It was important to keep it separate for us. Because it was new for us, and we didn't want to let any preconceptions seep into the work, you know. So if it was separate, then we could just both focus on the work and act with one another, without that added pressure of, you know, like what did we discuss last night domestically. So we could just be in this sort of objective space.

And when you're acting with somebody that you're intimate with, it's very easy to say, well you're acting right now. That's not you, that's not real. So we were really like each other's truth barometers, in terms of performance.

PM: You mentioned Gone In Sixty Seconds. What's that about?

NC: Gone In Sixty Seconds, although it is a light movie, I'm playing a car thief! I steal cars in the movie.

PM: Any research for that role?

NC: No, no, I'm not going to cross that line!

PM: The kind of dark, graveyard humor that gets tossed around by the paramedics in Bringing Out The Dead may be a little jolting to outsiders.

NC: Absolutely.

PM: So what role does that humor play for these workers?

NC: Survival. Definitely. It's a necessity. And we're talking about the darkest kind of humor. I remember, there was one moment where we had just done like a four hour drive together. I was with all the paramedics on top of a roof at the fire station. We had just gone to a drive by shooting and I was saying, what if somebody had their face blasted off with a shotgun and you had to look at that? And then one guy just looked at me and went, cool! You know?

And that was his way of dealing with it. His way of meeting it head on and totally not accepting it. Just objectifying it and not getting entwined with it. And as dark as that sounds, I understood it. He was not going to get emotionally invested in it.

PM: How did these guys react to you as an actor on their turf?

NC: It's a welcoming kind of thing. I gave them the respect of letting them read the script, and giving them the book. Some of them were a little concerned. Like, how are you going to portray us, you know? But many of them read it and said this is reality we're talking about, this is it.

The one thing that I would like to say about paramedics is that it's such an important job, and these guys are like saints. Their job is killing them, for us. And yet they get sued more than any other job in our country.

They go in, and if the guy dies or anything happens because that's nature, then they're going to say, well they weren't here on time. And then they get sued. They're constantly being sued. So it's this strange kind of thankless martyrdom. And I think people should be aware of that.

PM: Let's switch to acting for a minute. How do you overcome being burned out as an actor?

NC: Oh, yeah. Well, I have to just find material that doesn't...burn me out! You know, I have to stay interested. I'm somebody who is very happy when he's working, and happy when I'm doing something that stimulates me creatively. And I think that's the best way not to become burned out. I have the little things that I do in my own life to relax and regroup, things like that. But mostly it's about the material you choose.

PM: The last time we talked, you were taking up surfing. How did that go?

NC: That went okay. But I didn't have the time to really follow through with it. Now I'm trying race car driving, and that's been pretty good. Because when you're race car driving, you can't think about anything except staying alive. It's like a different alternative for valium!

PM: This is the third time around you're working with Ving. What's that been like?

NC: Yeah. Ving and I, we always seem to come up with an interesting chemistry. I don't know what it is, I think he's just a great actor. I admire watching him, and we kind of give each other inspiration. So it's been exciting for me to work with him again. I remember when we did the rehearsals for Bringing Out The Dead, I said to Ving, well now we have one that we can show our grandkids one day, you know?

And working with Patricia was a delight for me because I got to really see her in the professional environment. I've worked with a lot of actresses, and I was excited to see that she's not only the great actress I always knew she was from her work, but that she is somebody who is generous, and is kind on the set, and supportive of other actors. So that was also exciting for me.

PM: What was your favorite scene in Bringing Out The Dead?

NC: Oh God, that's hard to say. I've only seen the picture once, and I'd hate to take anything out of context. But I really liked the sequence in the drug den. You know, where I'm trying to rescue Mary. And there's that hallucinogenic dream sequence. I feel like Martie really went to a new place, in terms of the visualizations and that hallucinogenic ichnography.

PM: Now that you've worked with Scorsese, what can you say about that magic he has, that brings out such wonderful performances in his actors?

NC: Well, I think he's very aware of not pointing out anything unnecessarily, unless it needs to be fixed. If something's happening organically, he's aware to just let it happen and not call attention to it, so that the actors do not become self-conscious.

Another thing that I discovered working with him, which in another set of circumstances I probably would not have been comfortable with, but because it was Scorsese, I was able to trust. And that is, you know he calls action, and we'll do the scene maybe five or six times before he says cut.

And that way, you can't let the thinking process come in, and constipate - for lack of a better word - the scene or the flow of the acting. So you go back, back, back, and you're just free. And then he's in the editing room, finding whatever nuances, I'm assuming, had the reality of life and spontaneity.

PM: There are a lot of movies lately about life and death, the afterlife, the undead, that sort of thing. Do you have any thoughts about that?

NC: I think right now the tunnel vision in Hollywood is obviously the fascination with horror films of an intellectual nature, as opposed to slasher horror films. And it's exciting to see, that people have a taste for taking their time and letting something unfold that's a little more eerie than just gory. And that's probably something which is derived from the '70's, when Polanski was enormous with Rosemary's Baby and The Omen. So there's a taste for that.

PM: How did you get into the head of your character in Bringing Out The Dead, and the kind of intensity that an EMS worker experiences every day?

NC: Yeah, that high stress situation of being a paramedic. I did a lot of research for this movie. You know, I used to say that as an actor one of my favorite parts of being an actor is sort of the foreign correspondent mode. You know, where you get dropped into a world, and you take notes. Not unlike what you do.

And this time around, I was dropped into a paramedic bus and was told to put my bullet proof vest on! And to just stay calm, that we're going into East L.A. and there's a drive by shooting.

And then I'm helping a young kid in the bus with a bullet shot through his leg. And the kid is saying, can you take the gum out of my mouth? So I'm taking the gum out of his mouth and putting a gas mask on him. And I'm not a paramedic, I'm an actor.

But it was such an adrenalized situation for me, I was terrified. So I imagine some of that went into the work, just the osmosis of that. And being able to ask question to the paramedics.

And what they would say is when you're in the moment, you know you're in a state of adrenaline and you don't think about it. It's when you're going home at night, and the images start coming back and haunting you. When you realize it could happen to your kids. That's what really stayed with me.

PM: Wait a minute. Here's a patient needing emergency medical attention and they look up and it's not a paramedic, but Nicolas Cage. So what kinds of reactions did you get?

NC: They didn't recognize me, actually. They're in such a state of anxiety, they're not really seeing. And I thought about that, I was concerned about that. Like maybe they're thinking, oh my God, that character from City Of Angels is here, coming to take me away! But no, they didn't recognize me.

The only person that recognized me was the hot shot, kind of top gun doctor in the ER, who was down in East L.A. somewhere. He recognized me. He had seen me in The Rock, and he started going, well watch this.

And they were doing chest cracks on people, and there's like blood everywhere. You know, there's like two cadavers on the table, and I'm trying to be cool watching this. And he's going, what do you think of that Nick? You know, looking up at me and just showing off! Because this was where he was the star. This was his kingdom, you know? So this was a very few strange days in my life.

PM: Let's talk a little more about those cadavers and all that blood. What about the ick factor? Are you comfortable with all that stuff?

NC: Well, when I would go home I would...bathe! If that's what you're asking me. I'm not comfortable with looking at blood no, but you can't really think about that. The one thing that he did, he looked up at me and smiled. He was like this young Italian guy. He must have been about twenty-nine or thirty. He looked up at me and smiled, and he said you know, it doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter if you're a CEO, a movie star or a homeless man. You're all gonna come see us! At some point you're all gonna come see us. And that's the truth, that's the reality of the situation. Which I think is sort of what Bringing Out The Dead is all about. That eventually we won't go to that ER, hopefully! We might, but hopefully we won't. But eventually we are going to be in the ER, and that's life.

PM: What do you think is the vision of this film?

NC: I can't really speak for what Martin Scorsese's vision of the movie is. But I know he didn't see it as a slice of life so to speak. He saw it as an in depth character analysis. At least that's what he discussed with me.

PM: You seem to have a unique take on people who hit bottom. Many actors play it like they're all depressed, but your characters seem to get a hit of adrenaline. It's like they figure, I have nothing left to lose, so let's just enjoy the ride. Do you see it that way?

NC: Yeah, I do. And I think in some ways it's more accurate. Because many depressed people reach levels of mania. You know in depression, there is the high and the low. So sometimes when you're in the low, you're still reaching those manic episodes. That's why a lot of people with depression are very successful business people. Because in the mania mode, they get a lot done.

PM: Talk a little about working with Brian De Palma in Snake Eyes. Because I think some day his work may be seen as ahead of its time.

NC: That's nice to hear. Yeah.

PM: Can you say a little about that particular creative experience? And would you like to work with him again?

NC: Oh yeah. I have plans to work with Brian again on a Howard Hughes film. I don't know when that's going to happen, but we've talked a lot about it. My experience working with Brian Da Palma was that it was challenging, and it was demanding. The actor and the camera, everybody was going without a cut. And if you messed up, then you had to go back to the beginning and do it over again. So everybody was adrenalized, and it had a kind of mania to it.

I admire Brian's work because in a lot of ways it's similar to my own, in that it's very baroque. Sometimes my work can be ornate and baroque in style, and his work pushes that from his actors. I know Scarface was very much like that. And I for one enjoy it, I like that stylization. So I would love to work with him again.

PM: I hear you're getting into producing. What's the attraction to that?

NC: I get stimulated by creative people, and by meeting talented people. I like putting things together, and seeing how they work. And with producing, you can put talents together, and make like a meal out of it. So I can say, this guy has an eye as a filmmaker, let's put him together with this actor. And like how come Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich haven't made a movie together, two of our greatest actors? Let's get these two guys together.

So that's what it is. As a producer, you get to put interesting elements together. And hopefully you come with up with something that's exciting and different. Also, it gives me a chance to still stay involved in movies that need a little bit of a kick in the pants to come to life. And I've always wanted to do that. You know, help these alternative films that don't have any luck getting made at the studio level. So that's another way that I enjoy myself.

PM: Let's tie this in a little here with your thing for race car driving. These pursuits are physically challenging, and also flirting with danger and excitement a little. What does all that say about you?

NC: Well, I think it's part of my personality, and it always has been. As a kid, I was always trying to find ways to ride my bicycle over trash cans, and you know, do the Evel Knievel thing. I think that I've always been drawn to that kind of high action stimulation. Which is also why the action movies for me are a sincere expression as well. Because I like that stuff. I like going fast, I like the adrenaline that I feel. So I think that's just part of my personality.

PM: Do you feel you've achieved a balance in your acting between risk taking and the baroque style you described, with doing what's good for the project?

NC: Yeah, I think I have. Now that it's been almost twenty years since I've been doing this, I feel like I have a good barometer for knowing what serves the movie. So I can modulate that pretty well now.