This past weekend, the 2022 SXSW Film Festival hosted the world premiere of the meta genre-bending comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which was directed by Tom Gormican and co-written by Gormican and Kevin Etten. The story is set around the iconic cinematic phenom known as Nicolas Cage, who is down on his luck and decides to take a gig where he’s paid to show up at a superfan’s (played by Pedro Pascal) birthday party and ends up getting mixed up in some governmental espionage where things get just a little too “real” for Cage and his new best pal.
While in Austin, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with both Gormican and Etten following the premiere of Massive Talent about the unusual project and whether or not they ever thought about what would happen if Cage had turned down playing a version of himself for the film. The duo also chatted about their experiences collaborating with Cage, why Pedro Pascal was the perfect performer to take on the role of Javi, the challenges of creating their Nicolas Cage Museum, and more.
So, coming into this, if Nick had said, “No, I don't think this is what I want to be doing,” what were you going to do in that case then? Because this is such a celebration of everything that we love about his career, and without him, there's no movie [laughs].
Tom Gormican: Yeah, there's no movie [laughs]. I mean, Kevin and I had talked about this when we were writing it and it was a palette cleanser for us. We were going to write this because we thought that it's a movie that we would want to see. This is something that we wanted, made us laugh. We loved writing this character. We were at a baseline. We'll give it to a bunch of our friends and they might call us and go, “That was really funny.” And if that's the baseline that we were okay with, we'd just plow through it. We kept having fun with it and kept falling in love with both the Cage character and the character of Javi. But we knew that if he said, “No, I don't want to do this…,” well, then we had to wrap our heads around this as a colossal waste of time.
Kevin Etten: To be honest, there were times in the process when it looked like it wasn't going to happen, and that Nick wasn't going to do it. And I think I was the one who was saying, “Well, could it be this guy? Could it be that guy?” But really, we kept coming back to the fact that it just couldn't be anyone but Nick.
Obviously, a lot of fans are going to show up to see this for all the Nick Cage references and all that kind of stuff. But I think you guys built a really fantastic story here as well, that taps into themes like legacy and friendship and how things evolve as you get older. Can you talk about finding that balance of making parts of this film that are going to be easily accessible to the fans, but also giving everyone in the audience a story that they can actually invest in? Because you could have just done 50 million Face/Off references and I still would've had fun, but there's all this other great stuff in this story, too, which is great.
Kevin Etten: I think for us, that was the key to the whole story. We thought that there was a bad way to execute this type of story. And I think Nick had even seen things like that before. So, trying to bring a sense of heart and groundedness to the Nick Cage character was essential to us. And when we landed on the family storyline and the storyline with his daughter and the things that brought this character, whom you might think of as this iconic, weird Nick Cage guy, down to the level of being just a dad and struggling with his life and career and getting older, it’s the same way we all struggle. In that way, this character of Nick Cage starts to become a real human being, and that was the goal from day one.
Tom Gormican: To speak to your point, Nick's character and Javi's character are these two figures who are really lonely in a certain way and they are in their own little worlds. With Nick, he's got his agent and his family to a degree, but he's alone and Javi is as well. So, their friendship is the heart of the movie, really. Everything is really about these two guys finding each other.
Nick was a key ingredient to this project, but can you discuss bringing in Pedro? I have been a huge fan of his for a long time, and I always champion movies like Prospect and Bloodsucking Bastards whenever possible. But I just thought he was so great here, too, and his performance was very surprising in a lot of good ways.
Tom Gormican: Well, we went to meet him for dinner one night. As you know, he usually plays these incredibly macho characters, like The Viper and The Mandalorian. But when you meet Pedro, there's this incredible sweetness to him. He was like, “I'm such an enormous Nicolas Cage fan. I don't even care if I get to have a part in this movie—I just wanted to say hi to you guys and talk about how much I love him.” And we were like, “Holy crap, Pedro is this guy. He is Javi.” Then we started to craft the character even more. But going into it, there wasn't any real indication that he could play that lovable character and be very funny, too. It was a bit of a gamble for us.
Kevin Etten: It was. But he really is a fanboy of Nick and of movies in general. The two of them, Nick and Pedro, really bonded over their shared love of movies. But I have to give my wife credit, too. She is a huge Pedro Pascal fan, and anytime we would talk about this character, she was just like, “What are you guys even talking about? Pedro is clearly the best one. You two are idiots; this is not even a real discussion” [laughs].
I know you had a script, but did you give Nic and Pedro room to play around a little bit during production?
Kevin Etten: They did have leeway to do some of that, but they stuck pretty closely to the script. We didn't know how much he was willing to put himself, the real Nick Cage, to the extent that exists, in the film. There were different levels of him being comfortable. Sometimes he would say, “Here's what I would do in that situation.” Those, I think, were the most interesting moments to us—where he would inject Nick Cage into this role. Then, the Nick Cage character and the Nick Cage human being would intersect. That was very fun. That was very cool.
I have to ask about the Nick Cage Museum that's in the movie. One, I was really excited to see the wax figure. When I first moved to L.A., one of my first jobs was working for Rob Hall. I know he passed away recently, but it was nice to see his work featured here. But, in terms of all the props and collectibles and other memorabilia, where on earth did you guys get all of that stuff? And was it all authentic?
Tom Gormican: By the way, just so you know, that's the most expensive room in the entire movie [laughs]. Hands down. Just being able to license all of that stuff was really difficult. All the movie clips, memorabilia, all that stuff. We sourced it from wherever we could find any of it. We had the wax sculpture built, of course. But, just trying to get all of those different props during peak COVID, where you couldn't ship anything anywhere, it was just unbelievably hard to source a lot of that stuff. But we ended up getting it somehow.
Was that the most time-consuming part of pre-production for you guys?
Tom Gormican: If you were to talk to the production design department, they would say yes. They were working up until the very final moments sourcing all of that stuff.
That is incredible. Was there anything that you guys wanted to get that you weren't able to get?
Tom Gormican: Yes, the snakeskin jacket from Wild at Heart. Nick told me, “I think I gave it to Laura Dern,” and I was like, “So, can we call Dern?” He said no [laughs].
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[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Katalin Vermes / SXSW.]