I was incredibly fortunate to have been able to experience Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy at its world premiere screening at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival this past January, and it’s a film that hasn’t left my psyche since. Cosmatos’ directorial follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow features stunning performances from both Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough, and is truly unlike any other movie that you will see this year (or really, ever).

In anticipation of Mandy’s upcoming theatrical release on September 14th, I had the chance to speak with Cosmatos about the influences behind his latest feature, his experiences working with both Cage and Riseborough, as well as several key creative collaborators, including cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, co-writer Aaron Stewart-Ahn and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who sadly passed away earlier this year, and why he never imagined getting back into the director’s chair after Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Congratulations on Mandy, Panos. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film since Sundance. There are so many amazing story elements at play in this film, and the way that you and Aaron made them all come together in the script and how they work in tandem with each other is just beautiful storytelling. Can you talk about the approach to this narrative?

Panos Cosmatos: The way that I generally work is I generate a gradual idea, and then I try to work that into a genre that I'm kind of fixated on at that moment. In this case, it was the revenge movie. And then, in thinking about revenge movies, I decided I wanted to make a revenge movie that essentially orbits around the person that's being avenged, as much as it does around the avenger. So, I came up with this idea of Mandy, and as I think about ideas for my movies, I see some of these things that I work into the story as pop culture artifacts, essentially, where I’m not just telling a story.

Early on, I came up with the title and the tone of it, and soon the story started to build around all of that, and I just started building a library of reference movies and images that inspired and were evocative of the final piece, hopefully. But that changes over time, so in this case, I had certain items that became apparent to me, where I realized that this was as much of a fantasy, barbarian movie as it was a contemporary thriller. Those elements are very inspiring to me, so I sort of let those bloom out, and I started to look at Dungeons & Dragons, all the modules and stuff like that.

At a certain point in the actual process of sampling all of these disparate elements and putting them into a screenplay with Aaron, I realized that the actual mechanical process of writing a screenplay is such an intriguing process. I didn't want to relive the experience of writing Beyond the Black Rainbow because that was rather isolating. With Mandy, I wanted to bring a joyful interplay and collaboration back into the script process.

With this film, you've got giant chainsaw fights, crazy weird biker gangs, Richard Brake with a live tiger, and of course there’s the Jeremiah Sand character, too. But I think, for me, the crux of what really makes this film work so incredibly well is that relationship between Nicholas and Andrea on the screen. It feels natural, it feels real, it feels tangible. Can you talk about working through that relationship with them as actors? It really grounds all these other bigger elements in Mandy.

Panos Cosmatos: Yeah, I was very, very lucky to have two amazing actors for this film who were just willing to dig in. And I think that in reality and in their performances, too—they felt comfortable around each other, and I think that came across on screen. But at the same time, they both had these very specific interpretations of their characters that they were getting into. As far as Nicolas Cage goes, we defined it early on, in my early discussions with him when he came on the film, that his character progresses from a normal man to this stripped away, raw nerve of a human being who goes animalistic, and then eventually he transmogrifies into this Gollum-like Jason Voorhees demigod that's enacting Mandy’s will on the Earthly plane.

And as for Andrea, I just wanted her to be this Northern California girl of that time. I did research and actually talked to people from Northern California, from this very specific region that I envisioned that character coming from, and it was amazing to watch that crystallize into something completely dimensional, this beautiful human being that Andrew just transformed into. It was magic.

On a visual level, it feels like there is a very specific journey that you were taking viewers on, where you have these different color-coded moments, these interstitials, and you even play around in various mediums as well. Can you talk about the process of developing the look of Mandy?

Panos Cosmatos: Working with [director of photography] Ben [Loeb], he’s incredible. And obviously, the visual aspect of Mandy is extremely important to me because overall this movie is about these sensorial, sonic experiences as much as it is about this straightforward narrative. So, I think it's important to have a cinematographer that understands your taste, and Ben really understood where I was coming from and what kind of movie we were trying to create. But also, there is a lot to be said for just taking a smoke machine and a bunch of colored lights out to the forest and adding a little flash, you know [laughs]?

For as much as this is a visual journey, this score that Jóhann Jóhannsson put together for Mandy is just completely on a different level than anything we have ever heard from him. It really pulls you in, in very different ways, and somehow it feels perfectly in the wheelhouse of what his career was, but yet it feels like nothing you've ever really heard from him before, either.

Panos Cosmatos: Yeah, I think he was expressing a certain part of himself that hadn't really been given a huge portal of expression before, which is that I think, at heart, he was an Icelandic metalhead. He really understood the operatic, heavy metal album cover feeling that we were trying to evoke in Mandy. We were extremely hard on that score, iterating and modulating the way that it works and interplays with the image. He created an incredible work of art.

Before we go, this film blew the roof off at Sundance, and you’ve been on this journey with Mandy over the course of the last nine months, and now, you're so close to being able to unleash it on all these folks everywhere—and "unleash" is the perfect word. How has this overall experience been for you?

Panos Cosmatos: It's terrifying and thrilling at the same time. I never thought I would make a second movie at all. Back when I made Beyond the Black Rainbow, that was supposed to be essentially my first and final film, and I thought that would be it. I never thought that I would be able to make another film again, so just the fact that we were able to make this story exist at all is like a miracle to me. I’m so grateful.


Editor's Note: In case you missed it, check here to read Heather's 5-star Sundance review of Mandy.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.