“It’s a bit unbelievable to me again that Prisoners of Ghost Country even been done ”, Nicolas Cage, star of Prisoners of Ghost Country said at the end of our conversation. “It almost wasn’t.” He then explained how Prisoners Director Sion Sono’s dream of making his English debut and making a film abroad for the first time was almost dashed after a heart attack. Cage shared that this “experience made me ask him to make a film in Japan, because I didn’t want anything to happen to him. He’s not only a great filmmaker, he’s also my friend.
I didn’t know what I would get myself into when I first watched Prisoners of Ghost Country. Cage has been playing since 1981, and as he said in our conversation, “I’m trying to give you something unique, because I have to stay interested.” That would explain it by choosing projects like pink horror Mandy (2018) and another critical darling, 2021 Pig, which many equate to John wick. Even still, Cage’s anonymous protagonist in Prisoners grapples with the gruesome crime that had him locked up while trying to overcome this situation, where he is sent on a suicide mission to save a woman from a dystopian desert. This hero (as he is called) must do all of this in a matter of days, while wearing a suit equipped with explosives in vital areas of the anatomy. Sundance Film Director Tabitha Jackson praised the film’s “imagination” and “energy”. The film, which is now in theaters and available on demand, is described by Cage as the “wildest” movie he has ever made, and for good reason. It is a film that must be seen to be believed, and deep down, should be appreciated for the limits it pushes to realize a vision.
For those of you who dare to take a trip to Ghost country this weekend, we recommend you revisit that conversation, in which Cage not only talks about Sono (whom he affectionately calls “Sono-san”) and how they executed the vision for this movie, but he gives an overview of his approach to cinema in general. Some of his projects may sound gonzo, but you have to appreciate those that intentionally go against the trend. Cage is on his own way and leaves an interesting trail of projects behind him. When all is said and done, Prisoners of Ghost Country could be the one who has come closest (so far) to the realization of his vision of cinema.
I have heard a lot about this film. Before Sundance, I spoke with Tabitha Jackson, who spoke about the imagination and the energy inside Prisoners of Ghost Country. I also read that you called this movie your craziest movie to date. By following your career you’ve made a lot of wild movies, that’s a huge statement. Made Prisoners closest to ticking all the boxes for you when it comes to what you expect from a movie?
I think it’s a bit of a turning point in that regard, because unlike Pig, I was working with – I call him Archangel Michael [Sarnoski, who co-wrote and directed 2021’s Pig], which kind of rediscovered me. I knew it would take a young filmmaker with a vision to figure out how they could use me, so I’m very grateful for that. But again, it was a calmer, more meditative approach, I call it a “haiku” approach to performance. While Prisoners allowed me with Sono-san and his wonderful, unique and magical vision to explore what I like to call my more “Western Kabuki” style of performance, which is more… And it’s quite designed. Everything is reflected and stretched, and my voice is my instrument. My body is my instrument. What kind of movements can I do? How can I almost get lyrical with the word “testicle”, for example.
It was refreshing to start exploring again where I had kind of tried to go with the limits of cinematic performance in terms of thinking outside the box, going more to opera, as opposed to the natural photorealistic style. But I’m happy to have both because they complement each other because, especially in such close proximity, I try to give you something unique, because I have to stay interested. You know, since I was 15, I’ve been doing this for 43 years, and if that doesn’t interest me, you won’t be interested. So I have to find things that galvanize me. And that’s what happened with Prisoners.
I watched the movie twice and this read “testicle” line, in particular, made me laugh on both views. How do you approach a line read like that? What was the motivation?
I think any man can understand what a nightmare it would be to lose a testicle, and I love words. I thought it was a funny word, and so I could really get it out of the stadium, pun intended. We can all have pain with that, us guys with the balls, so I thought I could play around with that line.
What was it Prisoners who initially pushed you to work on this project?
Sono-san, Sono-san, Sono-san. Prisoners is more of a surreal mashup sort of sort of a movie wizard and Sono-san. I can’t really categorize it. It’s his own caliber, it’s his own thing, which is hard to do. I mean, it’s really amazing that it even exists, but all my job was to protect Sono-san and his vision, and it allowed me to explore the performance style.
It was an interesting genesis. The samurai element was extremely, extremely important to Sono-san. He wanted me to fight like a samurai, and I said, “I don’t have time.” “Because you fight more like a boxer.” And I said, “Let’s use that.” And it has become as if East meets West, it is a Western pugilist who meets the samurai. I always thought it was interesting. Went to the live screening, open stream of Muhammad Ali’s fights [Inoki], because for me it was interesting. It was like the first example of MMA, and it was fascinating. For me, the meeting of different styles kind of developed in front of the camera as we went along.
Sono-san knew how much I was a fan of Charles Bronson’s performance in Once upon a Time in the West, and I was just trying to – I’m nothing like Charles Bronson, but I was trying to kiss my inner Charles Bronson. So that immediately created a ripple effect of the spaghetti western, if you will, going into the movie. And so it was kinda like a samurai spaghetti western
Was this sequence one of the most difficult to achieve on camera?
I was fortunate enough to work with a large group of people and Tak [Sakaguchi, who plays Yasujiro] is as good as it gets. He really knew what he was doing in terms of the time we had and what we could or could not achieve with the means we had and the time we had, so yes and no to answer your question. I was in very good hands with Tak and he got it to work, but I was a little worried we weren’t getting everything, but we did. And that’s literally because of him.
I know you are in an interesting area right now. Part of your job is to work outside of the mainstream Hollywood scene. But this movie will be available on Friday. People will be able to watch it in theaters or on demand. Do you even follow how people react to your job at this point? I imagine you heard the love for your recent job as Pig and Mandy, but you are really attached to Prisoners. Are you looking more than usual for what critics or people are saying about this movie?
Well, in regards to the fact that this is a defining moment for me, I like the framework which is Prisoners of Ghost Country, especially in polarity contrast to Pig like Archangel Michael, in terms of how he might use me. And then to tell that in the cinema sorcerer Sono-san is a blessing. I am very grateful to have been allowed to push the boundaries of what may or may not be achievable with cinematic performance. I was lucky to be able to work with Sono-san because he was open to my western kabuki fantasies about my performance and he really gave me a lot of freedom. I think everyone who cares about cinema knows my passion [for] and will be thankful that a movie like this exists.
Prisoners of the Ghostland is now in theaters and on demand.