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Tom Gormican And Kevin Etten Discuss The Unbearable Weight And Getting Nicolas Cage To Play Himself - Exclusive Interview

Getting big stars to cameo as themselves in films usually yields positive results with audiences, making for unexpected moments that are good for a laugh in a one-off scene. However, director-writer Tom Gormican and his fellow writer Kevin Etten had a much different idea of a star playing himself and catapulted the concept to hilarious new heights with "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," a film the duo created specifically for film icon Nicolas Cage. As fans of Cage's work already know, the "Leaving Las Vegas" Oscar winner has built up an impressive resume of action films apart from his acclaimed dramas and comedies, and Gormican and Etten conceived the idea out of respect for — not a mockery of — the actor's talents.

In "The Unbearable Weight," opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, Nicolas Cage plays a heightened version of his persona named Nick Cage as well as a brash, younger version of himself. Nick, despite his previous success, is in a career dry spell and has some cash issues, so he takes up an offer for $1 million to appear at birthday party of billionaire superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) on a remote island. On the sly, Javi really invited Nick to hand him a screenplay, but he failed to divulge a much bigger secret: He's the infamous leader of a drug cartel. 

Seizing an opportunity for a perfect sting operation, a pair of CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) recruit Cage to be a government informant to bring down the cartel. However, as circumstances get more intense and the cartel kidnaps Nick's wife (Sharon Horgan) and daughter (Lily Mo Sheen) and bring them to Javi's estate, the actor begins to channel the heroes in his classic action movies and inadvertently creates a real-life movie scenario with life-or-death implications.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Gormican and Etten discuss the origin of the meta-movie project and how they landed Cage and Pascal for the film. The filmmakers also revealed their favorite Cage films, Pascal's "Mandalorian moment" during filming, and more.

A letter from Gormican and Etten convinced Cage to join The Unbearable Weight

When you first conceived the idea, was it about a heightened version of Nicolas Cage or did you have more of an "insert big star" here blueprint? Could the film be about a heightened version of Tom Cruise, or could it have been a heightened version of Keanu Reeves — or was it always Nic from the very beginning?

Tom Gormican: This one was always Nic from the very beginning. It was very carefully constructed around him. I will slightly object to the idea that you can do a heightened version of Nicolas Cage [Laughs], because I don't know if there's any higher than actual, real Nic Cage. It was always Nic, and the more we thought about it, the more it couldn't possibly be anyone else.

Kevin Etten: The only idea we talked about very briefly — a friend floated it — was the idea of a Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis in Nic Cage prosthetics, playing Nic. Christian Bale as Nic Cage was the one thing we were willing to

Gormican: Which would be incredible.

It would be incredible, and I think those guys could pull it off, too. I understand that it wasn't easy to get Nic to sign onto this project, and he turned you down a couple [or] three times. What was the clincher to get him to sign on?

Etten: We ended up writing him a letter that explained our intentions and explained that this was really a love letter to him, to his work, and that it would be a chance for him to play with people's perceptions or beliefs about who he is versus who he really is versus who he puts out there. It was this opportunity to do this big, weird performance art piece. If there was one kind of actor who might do something like that, Nic is the guy who would take on something that brave.

Cage takes the work - but not himself - seriously

I've been blessed having the opportunity to do this for a long, long time, and one thing I've observed, at least, is that the key to longevity and success in this business is to not take yourself too seriously. Clearly, Nic Cage doesn't take himself that seriously — and that has to be another reason why he actually did the film. Would you agree?

Gormican: I think so, and we try to take this from Nic: He takes the work incredibly seriously but doesn't take himself that seriously. That's the key here, and it's the key to success. The work part of it ... We didn't realize that Nic was going to be so incredibly prepared and so deeply thoughtful about the movie that we were making, and he was. He does take that part of it seriously, which is the other component to longevity and success here.

Several of Cage's movies led to idea of The Unbearable Weight

I love the fact that this film has several references to Nic Cage's body of work. Starting with you, Kevin, was there any particular film of his that sparked the idea of "The Unbearable Weight"?

Etten: My mother loved the movie "Moonstruck." I remember seeing that at an early age and remember his performance in it and how electrifying and funny and real it was, and then into my teens, when "The Rock" came out ... that movie, still to this day, if it's on, I won't turn it off.

Really, he has such a wide body of work. He's done every kind of genre. When we were talking about this idea, Tom had sparked it off by saying, "What about Nic Cage playing Nick Cage?" I immediately said yes because I had such a love for, not only his movies, but also him as an artist, as a guy who follows his own path in his own way and doesn't care what anybody thinks.

Do you feel the same way, Tom? What film is it that lit the spark for you?

Gormican: There's two performances that Nic gives that I always come back to, that I really love, and they're indicative of the types of character we had him play in this film. It's "Raising Arizona" and "Adaptation." In "Raising Arizona," it's this big, broad comedic performance that you're drawn into on an emotional level; and in "Adaptation," you've got him playing two different characters, which we do in this film. There's [two] characters in this film, but it's split, and that was a big influence on us. That performance is really nuanced and detailed and very small and natural and real, and I thought those are two very different versions of Nic Cage that we tried to channel in "Unbearable Weight."

The 'Young Nick Cage' character was inspired by an unusual talk show appearance

Well, "Unbearable Weight," like you mentioned, has more than one performance by Nicholas Cage. What inspired the younger Nicky Cage? Because I'm looking at him thinking, maybe he's "Moonstruck" or maybe even going so far back as to, say, the pre-Cage Nicolas Coppola in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High."

Gormican: Ooh, going with the deepest cut. [Laughs] It was actually the "Wild at Heart" era. He went on the "Wogan" show [in the U.K.], and he was promoting "Wild at Heart." He has the "Wild at Heart" T-shirt on underneath his leather jacket, and I don't know if you've ever seen that performance, but it's worth a Google. He comes out and does a giant somersault, gets up and does a spinning roundhouse kick, and he's throwing money around. Nic came to us, and he said, "Okay, I find that guy so obnoxious, that I really would like to get back into his skin and present him as the villain in this film." That was Nic pointing us [to] the right version of himself.

Pascal wanted to be in the film because he's a true Cage fan, Etten says

It's so wonderful seeing Pedro Pascal, who is very funny in this picture. We're used to seeing him in more serious stuff, obviously, "Narcos," and even "The Mandalorian." What sparked the idea that you could bring this guy in for a comedic role?

Etten: We had lunch with Pedro, and when we got there, he said, "Guys, I don't really care whether or not I get the role. Obviously, I want it," but he's like, "I want to talk to you guys about Nic Cage because I'm a true fan." As we were making the decision, we kept coming back to the fact that A, Pedro's a great actor, and B, there's a real fanboy to him. It worked on both levels.

Gormican: Yeah, and we hadn't seen him do this before. That's another important aspect of it. There is a sweet funniness to Pedro the person, and we thought, "That's exactly how we want Javi to present."

Pascal had a Mandalorian moment during The Unbearable Weight

One of the reasons you got Nic to do this picture is because you're a fan of Nic Cage, and I would imagine you're fans of Pedro Pascal as well. Did you pull him aside at times and say, "Hey, can you give us a little intel on 'The Mandalorian' Season 3," or didn't you go down that route?

Etten: What was interesting is, where we were shooting in Dubrovnik in Croatia was maybe a half a mile from where Pedro had done his big death scene for "Game of Thrones," the viper scene. He was able to bring us back and go ... He was doing "Game of Thrones" tours over there.

Gormican: Yeah, that's right. He was. There's a funny "Mandalorian story." Pedro was walking across the set, and there's a goofiness to him in real life. He ended up tripping over a C-stand [camera mount], and everybody was watching. We were like, "Oh no, is he okay?" He stands up. He's totally fine, and our head of our makeup department, Bill Corso, who's very funny, he broke the ice and he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Mandalorian!" as Pedro was standing up. It was a great moment of levity, [and] that's the closest we came to any insights on who the Mandalorian actually is. [Laughs]

Clearly, you guys have a gift for filmmaking and Pedro is perfect in this. I'm wondering, Tom, as a director, could you pull Pedro aside and say, "You know what? How about I direct a future episode of The Mandalorian"? Is that something you'd like to do?

Gormican: I would love to. Pedro had a good time on this one, so maybe he'd be up for that. We'll probably work together again in the future.

"The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, April 22.

This interview was edited for clarity.