(Photo by Paramount Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)
There’s a lot to be said for consistency, and for film fans, the ability to count on reliably great performances from an actor can be the difference between pre-ordering tickets weeks in advance or waiting until a movie comes out on home video. On the other hand, there’s also an undeniable excitement that comes with unpredictability, and Nicolas Cage‘s filmography is a perfect case in point. From toking up with Sean Penn’s Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to waging chainsaw vengeance against the cultists that murdered his wife in Mandy — and beyond — Cage has racked up more than 100 film credits over the last several decades, delivering performances that range from Oscar-winning (Leaving Las Vegas) to wildly over the top (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) and starring in blockbuster fare (The Rock, National Treasure) as well as acclaimed indies (Raising Arizona, Joe), and we wouldn’t want him any other way.
Most recently, he’s gotten career-best accolades for the drama Pig, and the meta Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Nobody captures the camera’s attention quite like Nicolas Cage, and to honor all those years of singularly entertaining achievement, we’ve rounded up all of his major film roles, sorted by Tomatometer. Read on to see where your favorites rank, and remember: Not the bees!
The 2010s have not been an easy time for Nicolas Cage, preeminent cultural icon and reigning king of esoteric movie choices. The Academy Award-winning former box office champ has spent much of the decade churning out an endless series of action movies both regrettable and forgettable, most of which go direct to video or receive token theatrical releases. Things seem to be looking up for him as of late, however. He can currently be heard as the voice of Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies , (Certified Fresh at 90%), and this week he appears in the horror thriller Mandy (Certified Fresh at 98%), which has earned near universal praise on the film festival circuit.
In other words, it’s the perfect time to single out a whole slew of Cage cult oddities that may not be as well known as The Wicker Man, Adaptation, Wild at Heart, or Face/Off, but are definitely worth checking out, particularly if you don’t mind films of varying quality.
(Photo by Universal Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)
Nicolas Cage was perhaps the only hungry, talented young actor of the day who did not appear in 1983’s The Outsiders, despite being the nephew of the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. He scored a nifty consolation prize, however, in the role of Smokey, a distractingly shaggy member of Matt Dillon’s crew, in the film’s companion piece, Rumble Fish, which was shot back-to-back with The Outsiders with the same crew and source material from the same author, young-adult lit goddess S.E. Hinton.
It seems fitting that Cage would end up in the artier and more agreeably demented of the two projects, a film noir-leaning black-and-white movie for teenagers that finds Cage holding his own against a cast that includes heavyweights like Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rourke at the height of his androgynous beauty and magnetism, and Tom Waits. Rumble Fish proved that even at the very beginning of his career, there was a whole lot more to Cage than just being related to a legendary filmmaker.
(Photo by Hemdale Film Corp. courtesy Everett Collection)
When it comes to fusing the belligerent aggression of the archetypal 1980s businessman with pure, monstrous old-school evil of the Dracula/Wolfman variety, Patrick Bateman of American Psycho could learn a thing or two from the lunatic Cage played in 1989’s Vampire’s Kiss.
In this pitch-black horror comedy, a belligerent, narcissistic literary agent played by Cage gets bitten by a mysterious stranger during a one-night stand and becomes convinced he’s a vampire. Vampire’s Kiss soars as a demented ’80s riff on George Romero’s Martin, with the squirmy vulnerability and aching sadness of Martin‘s fake vampire replaced by the deranged narcissism of a dude who was a monster and a threat to everyone around him even before he got bit. It also brought us a couple of the finest Nic Cage freakouts ever and inspired a well-known meme.
(Photo by Astro Distribution courtesy Everett Collection)
As Wild at Heart indelibly illustrated, the young Nicolas Cage could be a scorchingly sexy actor. But he’s the hilarious antithesis of that as a sexual adventurer whose goatee, soul patch, and mustache combo makes him look like he’s perpetually wearing a Guy Fawkes mask in the wonderfully warped, direct-to-video 1991 “erotic” thriller Zandalee.
Cage’s sex maniac shamelessly pursues the titular unsatisfied wife of his impotent best friend Judge Reinhold with rowdy come-ons like, “I wanna shake you naked and eat you alive, Zandalee.” Who could resist a line like that? Yes, Zandalee is perversely unsexy, but it is, scandalously and unintentionally, a laugh riot.
(Photo by Roxie Releasing courtesy Everett Collection)
Cage ably plays a film noir archetype — the drifter lured into a world of sin and seduction, murder and greed — opposite J.T Walsh, Dennis Hopper, and femme fatale Lara Flynn Boyle in John Dahl’s terrific, darkly funny 1993 neo-noir Red Rock West. This overachieving little thriller was slated for a direct-to-video/cable burial before a California theater owner helped finagle a richly merited, albeit modest, theatrical release. But Red Rock West wasn’t just worthy of a theatrical release: it was one of the best films of the year it was released, and today it occupies a place of pride in the pantheon of great latter-day film noirs alongside other Dahl triumphs like Kill Me Again and The Last Seduction.
After Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader continued their exploration of driven, intense protagonists facing down bleak personal personal reckonings with Bringing Out the Dead, their electric adaptation of Joe Connelly’s novel about a depressed paramedic and the death-haunted, surrealistic world he inhabits. Cage’s big, soulful eyes powerfully express his character’s bottomless sadness and aching longing for tenderness and connection in a world gone mad.
(Photo by Paramount Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)
Director Gore Verbinski took a break from directing mega-budgeted spectacles like the Pirates of the Caribbean with 2005’s The Weather Man, a deftly handled character study about a vain, narcissistic Chicago weatherman (Cage) with complicated relationships with his father (Michael Caine) and his family. It’s an unexpectedly small-scale, life-sized movie from a director and a star used to splashier, more flamboyant fare. Cage doesn’t play relatively normal men for understandable reasons (he’s insane and over the top, in the best possible sense), but he’s quite good at it, and The Weather Man is a low-key charmer.
(Photo by The Weinstein Co.)
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 project Grindhouse represented an audacious attempt to recreate the mood, vibe, and stoned, surreal experience of catching a double feature in an impressively disgusting drive-in theater with a gallon of moonshine and a few jazz cigarettes sometime in the 1970s.
To make the evening a full-on experience/freak out, Tarantino’s Death Proof and Rodriguez’s Planet Terror were augmented by fake trailers from simpatico, sleaze-loving souls like like Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, and Rob Zombie, the latter of whom contributed Werewolf Woman of the SS, a hairy, cheeky, supernatural spin on the sex- and violence-saturated Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. The faux trailer concludes by promising a boffo cast of B-movie favorites like Shari Moon Zombie (no points for guessing who her husband is), Udo Kier, Sybil Danning, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s Tom Towles, Bill Moseley, and, of course, Nicolas Cage as a deranged Dr. Fu Manchu.
Granted, Werewolf Woman of the SS isn’t an actual movie, but Cage is so beloved among trash culture aficionados that his mere appearance in Grindhouse prompted cheers and howls of laughter. It’s tempting to imagine how a feature-length version of the film promised in Zombie’s trailer might look and feel, but it’s doubtful it could have lived up to audience expectations.
(Photo by First Look Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)
Some projects become huge cult movies before a single frame is even shot. That’s true of 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, whose status as a cult classic was clinched the moment beloved filmmaker Werner Herzog signed on to direct Nicolas Cage in a New Orleans-set reboot/reimagining/riff on Abel Ferrara’s iconic 1992 independent cult classic Bad Lieutenant.
Cage and Herzog amplify each other’s madness in this mind-bending dark comedy about a cackling, coke-snorting, lucky crack pipe-toting madman who is a crime-fighter in dirty, lawless New Orleans, an astonishingly prolific criminal, and an all-around degenerate. Only a lunatic would be audacious enough to follow in the footsteps of Harvey Keitel at his most punishingly intense and fearless. Thankfully, Cage is just such a lunatic, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans not only matches the stoned brilliance of Ferrara’s rightly revered original, at times it surpasses it.
(Photo by Summit Entertainment courtesy Everett Collection)
Cage scored a surprise hit with Alex Proyas’ demented 2009 science-fiction mind-blower Knowing. The movie begins as a relatively straightforward conspiracy theory about a widowed professor (Cage) who discovers that a time capsule from 1959 contains numbers relating to a series of future calamities, including September 11th. Knowing gets bolder and more audacious as it goes along, leading to an unforgettable ending that takes the movie’s brazenly loopy premise to its surrealistic extreme in a manner at once biblical and apocalyptic.
(Photo by Daniel Smith/Lionsgate)
Chloë Grace Moretz got most of the acclaim and the attention, creepy and otherwise, for her star-making turn as gleefully profane 11-year-old killing machine Hit Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s action comedy, a nasty, misanthropic adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s comic book Kick Ass, about everyday weirdos who decide to become real-world superheroes.
But Cage played just as big a role in the film’s creative success as the appropriately named Big Daddy, a good cop who turns his daughter into a fearsome weapon of vengeance against a mob boss who has framed him. In Kick Ass, Cage’s justice-seeking patriarch is, paradoxically, the moral center and the trembling, beating heart and soul of a fundamentally amoral movie that fatally lacks any heart or soul otherwise.
(Photo by Richard Foreman Jr./Summit Entertainment)
All that needs to be said about Drive Angry (other than, you know, it’s a 3D Nicolas Cage movie called Drive Angry), is that at one point, Cage’s character has sex, swigs whiskey straight from the bottle, and engages in a gunfight – all at the same time! That, friends, is multitasking.
Cage plays a tough guy too badass even for Hell, so he steals the Devil’s own gun and sets out to prevent his granddaughter from from being sacrificed by a Satanic cult. With a premise and a star that nuts you don’t need 3D, but then again, Cage’s aesthetic has always been about crazy excess, so why not bring the lurid B-movie thrills in all three dimensions?
(Photo by Linda Kallerua/Roadside Attractions)
Thanks in no small part to the films on this list, Nicolas Cage reigns as the king of movies that are so bad they’re good. But every once in a while the stars align perfectly, and the eccentric trash movie icon will find himself in a movie that’s just plain good.
That’s 2014’s Joe, a riveting coming-of-age drama from David Gordon Green that casts Cage in the challenging and juicy title role of a grizzled, troubled, and extremely hairy alcoholic who becomes the unlikely father figure to a young boy played by Tye Sheridan. The film serves as a much needed reminder that, in the right role and the right film, Cage can be a great actor, not just an irresistibly big personality.
(Photo by Freestyle Releasing)
Cage’s career hit yet another nadir when he was cast as a pilot who learns a little something about the perils of eschewing a Godly path in 2014’s Left Behind, the feature film adaptation of the Rapture-themed series of best-selling conspiracy novels that were previously adapted into a trilogy of motion picture vehicles for Kirk Cameron.
Despite an Oscar winner in a lead role, 2014’s Left Behind is surprisingly much more modest than the Kirk Cameron movie. Instead of a globe-trotting adventure, it’s essentially the film equivalent of what is known in television as a “bottle episode,” which takes place primarily in a self-contained single location. The main action in Left Behind is limited to a wonderfully stagy airplane set where the crew and passengers of a flight slowly but surely piece together the nature of their loved ones’ not-so-mysterious disappearances (spoiler: it’s God), with unintentionally hilarious results.
Left Behind had two core audiences: Christians psyched to see an actor of Cage’s caliber in Godly entertainment, and secular smart-asses excited about an opportunity to laugh at Cage’s expense. Left Behind‘s wonderfully hokey storytelling and over-the-top proselytizing should have satisfed both groups, but, like so many of Cage’s films these days, it flopped, and a planned trilogy was nixed. That means, at least in this instance, Kirk Cameron actually succeeded where Nicolas Cage failed.
(Photo by Momentum Pictures)
The pairing of Cage and beloved cult weirdos Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor (Crank, Crank: High Volume) on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, a sequel about a flaming motorcyclist from Hell, promised a crazy abundance of kitschy thrills and delivered almost nothing.
Cage fared much better when he re-teamed with Taylor alone on the demented 2017 horror comedy Mom and Dad. The film cast Cage and Selma Blair as quintessentially corny parents whose long-buried resentment over sacrificing their own needs and happiness for the sake of their children comes to a raging, psychotic, murderous boil when a meteor inspires otherwise sane mothers and fathers to murder their own children for a 24-hour span. It’s a role perfectly suited for Cage’s late-period combination of cornball dad dorkiness and unrelenting, violent intensity.
Cage was singularly compelling as an angry, crazy young man. He’s similarly magnetic in the bonkers dad roles he’s been playing as of late, and he’s sure to make for a fascinatingly warped granddad, as long as he can find roles deserving of his singular genius and mad-dog charisma. Considering Cage’s inscrutable taste in material, though, there’s no telling what we’ll actually get, and that also feels perfectly appropriate.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin
What can we say? This isn’t a very robust week for home releases on video, so we’ve done the best we could to come up with some noteworthy (in one way or another) choices. Not all of these are going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are at least a couple of entries that should be widely appealing, if only for nostalgic purposes. The two selections competing for most interesting this week are a Werner Herzog-Nicolas Cage collaboration that many critics felt was Cage’s best performance in years (if not his entire career), while the other is Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy (do we even need to specify it by name?). We made the best of what was out there, so hopefully something here strikes your fancy.
Werner Herzog has stated in so many words that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is not intended to be taken as either a remake or a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film Bad Lieutenant. While the films do share a title, as well as a central character who is a corrupt cop that regularly indulges in gambling and various drugs, Port of Call New Orleans takes on a slightly campier tone, what with Nicolas Cage in the lead. Here, Cage plays a Louisiana cop who injures his back and becomes addicted to prescription drugs as a result; as he tracks down suspects in a post-Katrina murder case, he sinks deeper and deeper into the dirty underworld of New Orleans. Critics largely praised the film, helping it to a Certified Fresh 85% on the Tomatometer, and many singled out Cage’s performance as one of the best of his career. Port of Call New Orleans didn’t open very wide, though, so if you’re curious to see the movie that many feel Cage was perfectly cast for, then you can pick this up this week.
Another classic hitting Blu-Ray this week is Barry Levinson’s beloved sports drama The Natural, starring Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, and Kim Basinger, among others. The inspiring story of a young baseball player who meets with tragedy early in his life and attempts a professional comeback as a 35-year-old was adapted from a novel of the same name and is considered one of the best sports films ever made, incorporating elements of baseball’s grassroots origins and historical significance, and creating a sort of mythology of its own. The new Blu-Ray comes with the same extras found on the standard definition Director’s Cut DVD, which include several featurettes on the making of the film and baseball in general, with appearances by former players like Ryne Sandberg, Don Mattingly, and Cal Ripken, Jr, as well as a featurette on Eddie Waitkus, the former MLB player who was shot by a stalker and who was one of the inspirations for the novel upon which The Natural was based. Fans of great sports films, Robert Redford, or Barry Levinson will all enjoy the movie, which you can pick up this week in its Blu-Ray reissue.
In 2004, a classic sci-fi TV series from the 70s was resurrected with updated special effects and storylines that regularly referenced or paralleled current world events. The result was a highly successful new show that developed a bit of a cult following all its own and ran for four seasons. Now, the complete series of Battlestar Galactica has already been made available in Blu-Ray before, but that set came in a large box with a collectible Cylon head included. While many fans thought, “Free memorabilia? Cool!”, there were obviously some who just wanted the discs themselves in more traditional packaging. Well, that time has come, as BSG is being released in its entirety in a simple box set that’ll be available this week. If you held off on picking up the series before because you had no interest in the nifty Cylon, then now’s your chance to grab the set in a box that isn’t so hard to file away next to your other DVDs.
Its proof of powerful cinema that we can’t talk about slaughter on camera without invoking the ghost of one particular shower-related slashing from 1960. Well, Hammer Studios did for the post-Victorian button-up-your-collar prescriptions of Jolly Old England what J-Horror does for the uptight codes of Japanese business and society. However, Hammer Studios made more than BLOOD AND BOOBS pictures, and the fancy thing about this DVD box set (an international package out on Region 1) is its interest in Suspense over Gore or Fantasy. Cyril Frankel’s Never Take Candy from a Stranger, the Box set’s rarest inclusion, is a class-conscious drama about an elderly child molester with impeccable standing in the small town where he does his (ew) work. Plus, well after Michael Powell got publicly lambasted because of the release of his masterpiece Peeping Tom (aka The British Psycho), Hammer producer and executive Michael Carreras made Maniac (1963), a serial killer tale with plenty of nods to its British expat’s precursor. But the jewel in the crown may be Joe Losey’s 1964 These Are the Damned (aka The Damned), and it rolls around in all the angst of the classic exploitation film: backwater teens, atomic anxiety, technology-imposed human mutation, etc. There are six titles in this box, each of them skating lines of social acceptability; gotta love what’s borne of repression.
Only a few inches from the moral decrepitude and gaudy confusion of Hammer Horror we have Madonna’s Sticky Sweet Tour blu-ray. Those not in the know about Madge’s tours on DVD will think this is a sequel to Truth or Dare, but it turns out it’s the singer’s most extensively attended tour yet. Something like 3.5 million fans in 32 countries saw this Live Nation production and now Live Nation is helping the other bajillion fans and facebook gripers fill the gap in their soul left by missing that tour live. Ah, the magic of Blu-Ray. Fancy bit: the show was shot in Argentina and the highlight of that particular stop was a stand-alone performance of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Classics like “Material Girl” and “Borderline” are present along with newer titles like “Beat Goes On” (reportedly featuring Kanye) and “Get Stupid.” Behind the scenes bonus features included. And yes, that’s right, you just read an RT on DVD writeup for a Madonna concert DVD… Don’t blame us; blame the studios for releasing almost nothing this week!
Another 1980s phenomenon finds its way to Blu-Ray this week, as Ron Howar”s 1985 sci-fi tearjerker Cocoon gets its first high definition rerelease. For those unfamiliar with the film: the story revolves around a handful of senior citizens at a rest home who discover strange alien pods resting at the bottom of their pool; when the seniors decide to take a dip anyway, they discover they feel rejuvenated in both mind and body, and this creates a stir amongst the rest of the residents. Starring a slew of distinguished older actors, including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Wilford Brimley, and more, Cocoon ultimately won two Oscars (including a Best Suporting Actor trophy for Ameche) and even spawned a sequel three years later. Special features include a Ron Howard commentary as well as featurettes on the actors’ underwater training, how the Antareans (the aliens) were created, and a general making-of special.
Peter Jackson made a name for himself when he adapted one of the most beloved (if not THE most beloved) fantasy novel series of all time, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. None of the three epic masterpieces he crafted received any lower than a 92% Tomatometer rating, and the series culminated in a multiple Oscar-winning finale with 2003’s The Return of the King. Now, watching the entire series in one sitting would be quite a feat, but if you really wanted to, now you can finally do it in Blu-Ray, as the LOTR trilogy is finally available in high definition. For those who haven’t yet experienced Middle Earth in all its glory and intrigue, what better way to make the introduction than on Blu-Ray? One thing to note here is that the box set contains the theatrical versions of each film, so you hardcore fans out there may have to wait just a little bit longer to get the extended editions in this format, but if you liked the theatrical versions just fine, then you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to snatch this up right away.
Written by Ryan Fujitani and Sara Schieron
This week at the movies, we’ve got hot teen vampires (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson); a football family (The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron); and some interplanetary mishaps (Planet 51, with voice work by Dwayne Johnson and Jessica Biel). What do the critics have to say?
Ok, Twihards, we all know you’ve already bought your tickets to New Moon, so you don’t care about what the critics have to say. However, for the uninitiated, the scribes offer few saving graces to this second installment of the teenage vampire chronicle. Kristen Stewart is back as Bella Swan, but this time she’s on the outs with blood-sucking Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She falls into the arms of Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who, needless to say, has some secrets of his own. The pundits say that diehards will swoon, but everyone else will be mystified, since New Moon is turgidly paced, unevenly acted, often unintentionally hilarious. (Check out all our New Moon-related features at RT’sTwilight Corner.)
Just when you think every last inspirational based-on-true-events sports story has been adapted for the screen, along comes The Blind Side. And though critics say it has plenty of problems, they also say it’s well-crafted and sharply acted. Quinton Aaron stars as a troubled high school football star who’s taken in by an affluent suburban family; naturally, lessons are learned on and off the field. Some pundits say Sandra Bullock is excellent as the family matriarch, and Aaron shines as well – both infuse a formulaic plot with plenty of humanity. However, others feel the film is overly schmaltzy and doesn’t fully address the tricky racial issues at the heart of the story.
It seems obvious, but we’ll say it again: animated features need more than great visuals to work – they also need strong stories. Unfortunately, critics say Planet 51 is mighty short on plot, along with a whole lot of other virtues. Dwayne Johnson stars as an astronaut who lands on a faraway planet and soon discovers he’s not alone: this strange world looks like 1950s America, only with little green men. The pundits say Planet 51 apes classic sci-fi flicks without adding much in the way of wit or satire; in addition, it’s flatly-paced and has a strange, off-putting preoccupation with bodily functions.
Also opening this week in limited release:
During his remarkable 40-year career, Werner Herzog has made some of world cinema’s boldest films — including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Stroszek, Fitzcaraldo, and a remake of Nosferatu. In recent years, he’s approached mainstream success in the United States, with the eccentric documentary Grizzly Man and the Vietnam war film Rescue Dawn, which starred Christian Bale. His latest, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, features Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes in the tale of a cop who tries to solve a brutal murder and keep his grip on reality while battling drug addiction, gambling debts, and familial woes.
It’s not just the quality of Herzog’s films that’s made him a favorite of movie buffs; Herzog has become legendary for his exploits both on and off the set. He once promised to eat his shoe if Errol Morris ever finished his documentary Gates of Heaven, and followed up on the bet when filming was completed. He was shot by an air rifle on the grounds of his home while doing an interview with the BBC. During the making of Fitzcarraldo, filming was interrupted by a border dispute between Ecuador and Peru; two members of his crew survived plane crashes; his original leading man, Jason Robards, was hospitalized halfway through shooting, and Robards’ replacement, the legendary Klaus Kinski, was so combative on the set that a group of native extras asked Herzog if they could kill him (these and other tales are detailed in Herzog’s documentary, My Best Fiend), and engineers told him it was impossible to pull a steamship over the side of a hill with the system of ropes and pulleys he was using — and Herzog proved them wrong. Even his latest release has generated its share of controversy: Abel Ferrara, the director of the original Bad Lieutenant, said he hoped the makers of Port of Call: New Orleans would die in an explosion — despite the fact that Herzog says the film is not a remake, since he’s never seen Ferrara’s movie.
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Herzog shared some of his favorite films, and discussed his attraction to film noir, how his films are “secretly mainstream,” and the differences between working with Nicolas Cage and Klaus Kinski.
It is probably the only film that I’ve ever seen which has something like a perfect balance, which does not occur in filmmaking very often. You sense it sometimes in great music, but I haven’t experienced it in cinema, and it’s mind boggling. I don’t know how [Akira] Kurosawa did it. It’s still a mystery to me. That’s greatness.
RT: I wanted to let you know that Rotten Tomatoes released our list of the best reviewed vampire films of all time, and your version of Nosferatu was number three.
Werner Herzog: Ah, and which is number one and two?
The original Nosferatu…
Oh yeah, that has to be number one, of course.
…and Let the Right One In.
It’s okay. I do not need to occupy number two, three, four, and five.
What was the impulse to remake Nosferatu?
Well, I needed to connect to the great films of the grandfather generation, because our parents, our father generation, was a complete disaster and many of them sided with the barbarism of the Nazis. Somehow, you can only really make films embedded in the history of your own culture, and history was disrupted dramatically by the most barbaric regime you can ever find anywhere. So for me it was important to get some solid ground under my feet, connect with the grandfathers, connect with the greatest of them, and in my opinion, the greatest of great films is Nosferatu by [F.W.] Murnau, which I should include in the greatest five films of all time.
Next, Herzog talks about creating working with Nicolas Cage vs. working with Klaus Kinski, and what he thinks of critics.
RT: What initially attracted you to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?
Werner Herzog: Well, it’s funny because I think Rotten Tomatoes was only for audiences venting their anger and their disgust. [laughs] I’m surprised that you’re asking serious questions. No, I can make it short. Number one, shooting in New Orleans. Working with Nicolas Cage, I think it can’t get any better. It was clear very, very quickly that we would do this soon together.
While I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that Nicolas Cage had some of the same intensity, the sullen eyes, of Klaus Kinski. Was that intentional?
No, no. They had nothing to do with each other. Kinski’s so different, we can only say very few in film history who have this kind of presence on the screen and this kind of intensity. Maybe early Marlon Brando, Nicolas Cage, Kinski, and you’re almost at the end of naming others. But, you see, Kinski never had any humor; in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, it is absolutely hilarious. He’s so vile and so debased that it really connects with an audience, and there’s a very dark humor about it. It’s the most hilarious film you can ever see. When you see Kinski, it’s never hilarious; he’s just driven by whatever. And Nicolas Cage, I told him there’s such a thing as the bliss of evil; that’s what we are heading for.
Are you uncomfortable with comparisons between your new work and your older work?
No, but what sort of insight would it give us?
So you think that each film should be taken on its own.
No, not necessarily, because of course, when you look at the films i have made… I just had a big retrospective in Paris as the Centre Pompidou; they showed 56 or so of my films, and all of a sudden you get the feeling that yes, they all belong together somehow. In which way, I don’t know; it’s still mysterious to me. But it’s obvious they belong together.
You’ve answered a lot of questions about whether or not Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a remake. Obviously, other than some underlying themes, there aren’t a whole lot of similarities with Abel Ferrara’s film.
It’s not a remake. It was simply that one of the producers had the rights to the title, and they hoped for a franchise. I’ve never seen Abel Ferrara’s film, but what is wonderful about moviemaking is that he came out swinging. [laughs] He’s quite a character, apparently. And I enjoy a baseball game where the benches clear and the manager of the team rushes up to the umpire and yells at him from five inches apart, and then steps back and kicks dust — well, you see, that’s baseball, and I love baseball for it. I hardly understand the game, and I hardly follow who is winning and why, but those are the moments that are the greatest joy you can have in a ballpark. And I think it’s similar with show business, with movies. We are into moviemaking, and that’s wonderful — and of course, Ferrara by now apparently has seen the film and has been reconciled. But, whatever, I’ve never met him.
So you didn’t take it personally when he came out swinging.
No, no, no, because I knew it had nothing to do with his film. But now everybody knows it.
Obviously there’s a film noir-ish element to this movie.
It’s a real noir, but it’s a new step in film noir.
I think film noir, when you look at the late 1940s, early 1950s — Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, whom I love, and others, James Cagney — the abyss of the human soul is always something oppressive, oppressive on human beings, oppressive on society, something really dark. And here, there’s a lighter touch to it, something that gets so bad, so debased, so vile, that it’s just completely hilarious. The joy of doing evil. [laughs] And not the feelings of guilt to do evil, and not feeling oppressed by the evil.
Your last couple of films have been slightly more Hollywood, or at least within the system to a greater degree. Has that changed your filmmaking process at all?
No, I’ve always made mainstream movies. Some of them have been, as I call it, “secretly mainstream.” Let’s say, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God — it’s a film I made in 1971 — that was probably at a time when the parents of those accessing Rotten Tomatoes just left high school, and nobody wanted to see the film at the time. Today, it’s sort of a household name, and it has reached very wide audiences worldwide. So in a way, I think I’ve always been mainstream, and some of the big Hollywood movies seem to me bizarre and marginal in contrast to me, as if I were the center and they were all bizarre and marginal.
Bad Lieutenant is a noir, and your next movie, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is a horror film. Are you now trying to play with cinematic form?
No, no. You see I never planned a career like others would do. [Movie projects] are coming at me like burglars in the night — uninvited guests, home invasion.
So making a horror film isn’t some sort of next step. It’s just sort of how it develops.
Well, My Son, My Son is based on a long-dormant screenplay that I wrote together with a friend, and the time was right to do it right away, so I made — actually in the last 11 months, I’ve made three films, and I’ve staged an opera in Spain, and I started my Rogue Film School, and I released the English version of Conquest of the Useless, my book [about the making of Fitzcarraldo]. Anyway, so I’m not hectic; I just work steadily and I love what I do. But while we are talking, five or six other films are pushing me already, and I don’t know how to deal with it quickly enough.
So what else are you working on?
Give me two hours and I’ll tell you. No, there’s quite a few projects pushing me already.
Is your approach any different when you’re making a feature film and when you’re making a documentary?
In some cases, yes, but let’s face it: Many of my documentaries are feature films in disguise.
I’m sure people have asked you this before, but do you ever ask yourself, “Why did this crazy stuff happen while I was making this movie?” Do you think a certain amount of risk is part of the process?
Well, if there is a project where you know certain risks are involved, whatever is thrown at you, you have to deal with it, and you have to have the nerve and the courage to do it. But, for example, a film like Bad Lieutenant, I always work like it’s open heart surgery: very focused, very quiet, very quick — as a matter of fact, most of my shooting days were over in the early afternoon, because I only shoot what I really need showing on the screen, so I do not cover all angles and all those kinds of things. But in some projects, of course, I have attracted disasters that were not made or not self-inflicted. When you run into a border war between Peru and Ecuador, you cannot foresee it; nobody foresaw it in my camp that I had built for 1,100 people — mostly native extras — that were attacked and burnt to the ground. And I had two plane crashes. You see, you do not plan a plane crash, and then I had two. For example, I shot the film halfway, and my leading actor became ill, had to be flown out to the United States, and his doctors wouldn’t allow him to return, so we had to start all over again from scratch. So these are things which happen, but you have to cope with it and you have to have the perseverance and the courage to start all over again and finish it anyway. You see, I’m one of those who works and delivers, and I’ve never complained.
So there wasn’t any sort of wacky stuff on the set of this one, then. This was a relatively laid back experience.
Wacky stuff — you love to hear about these things, I know that. You’re Rotten Tomatoes, and you want to dig into the rotten apple. [laughs] No, I’m joking. What can I say? No, I have done films that had a certain ambition. If you have to put a huge steamboat over a mountain in the Amazon jungle, you know this is going to be complicated, there will be difficulties, there will be technical setbacks, there will be whatever. But once you are going for it, there is a point of no return. You have to take on whatever is going to come at you.
What did the shoe taste like?
I do not remember. I only remember that we stuffed it with a lot of garlic, and since I cooked it in duck fat, which was the main course at Chez Panisse, this famous restaurant in the Bay Area, but the duck fat actually heats at much higher temperatures than water when it boils, but it made the leather shrink, and it became tougher and tougher, and I could only eat it by cutting it in little pieces with a pair of poultry shears. So in order to swallow it down, I think I had at least or more than a six pack of beer to gulp it down. I only remember that I was pretty drunk after this whole thing, and I don’t remember much of the taste. The actual taste was more beer than anything.
Do you ever miss working with Kinski?
No. We made five films and as I said quite a few times, every grey hair on my head I call Kinski. [chuckles] No, it was also wonderful to work with him, even though he was the biggest of all pestilences, and I mean borderline paranoid, and throwing hysterical tantrums three, four, five times a day. But I always knew it was worthwhile, because he was such a tremendously gifted man. He had the grace of God upon him. Nicolas Cage is one of those who has some sort of grace upon him, and you don’t know where it comes from. There are few people who have it.
You’ve never had much of a use for the academic or critical side of cinema, right?
No, no, no. Of course not. Why should I? It doesn’t make a film better or worse. A good review doesn’t make a film better, and a bad review doesn’t make it into a bad film if it has substance, you see. Aguirre, the Wrath of God was voted the worst film of the decade in Germany. Back then I had the feeling, “They’re all wrong! They’re idiots! They’re all wrong!” But I’ve really never worried. I don’t worry about being exposed to the vitriolic sort of attacks upon me. I’m ready to take them on.
The film critic Lotte Eisner told you to keep going after some of your early films didn’t get the love you’d hoped for…
It wasn’t love. They were utterly, completely, desperately ignored, and nobody ever came! So she was a really encouraging voice. She kept me going for a decade by making a strong statement. And I travelled on foot from Munich to Paris when she was dying — I wouldn’t allow her to die. I walked, like, in a pilgrimage, and when I arrived she was out of the hospital. She lived another eight years until she was almost 90!
I know I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to ask you about some of these things that have happened to you. Do you ever tire of telling these old stories?
No, I haven’t spoken about Lotte Eisner for at least a decade. It just came to mind. Let’s face it: I’ve lived my life through the films, and there’s nothing wrong to talk about it and get it across to an audience. That is part of the profession of a filmmaker.
Okay, for everyone lamenting Nicolas Cage‘s decade-long slide into talent-wasting, hairpiece-abusing blockbuster mediocrity — this one’s for you.
Below is the production trailer for Werner Herzog‘s remake of Abel Ferrara‘s 1992 cult film — this time called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans — with Cage taking on the corrupt, drug-taking cop role made infamous by Harvey Keitel.
An aghast Ferrara had fired some unflattering words at Herzog and Cage a while back, but we have to admit, this looks kind of insane in a good way. Or maybe just totally awful — it’s hard to tell with Cage these days. Still, he does seem awake, Herzog’s no slouch in wrangling lunatic performances (Kinski’s the benchmark, after all); plus, there are lizards, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer and… breakdancing souls. This could go any way, really.