Nicolas Cage’s latest film, Outcast, opened last week on VOD (our review), but while his once great and occasionally still mesmerizing career has become something of a scattershot punchline over the past decade the man’s early years are a fantastically fun mix of memorable roles and movies. One example is the 1988 film, Vampire’s Kiss.
Of course, I say this as someone who’s never seen the movie until this past weekend because it always appeared to be some sort of broad, over the top comedy. The marketing certainly seemed desperate to play up that angle, but having now actually seen the film it’s clear there’s far more to it than a zany performance by Cage. To be clear though, he’s pretty damn incredible here as a highly unlikable character on a fast descent from obnoxious prick to insane prick. There’s just a hint of pathos to his character but never so much as to obfuscate that he is a villain.
Cage sat down in 1999 to record a rare commentary track, and was joined by the film’s director, Robert Bierman. The two hadn’t seen each other or discussed the film since its production, and their conversation is filled with shared recollections and reminders of their experience making this oddly wonderful film.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Vampire’s Kiss.
Vampire’s Kiss (1988)
Commentators: Robert Bierman (director), Nicolas Cage (actor)
1. Bierman recalls meeting Cage and getting on very well only to discover a week later that the actor had dropped out of the film. Cage was coming off the high of Moonstruck’s critical and commercial success, and he was getting a lot of outside pressure from his agent to choose something with more prestige. “I responded to the pressure and I broke,” says Cage, “but then I realized it was a mistake and I called and asked if you would have me back.” Judd Nelson was brought in to replace him, but obviously that wasn’t meant to be.
2. Cage sees this as a brave role to play, saying “I’m glad I did it, and it emerges as one of my favorite performances.”
3. Bierman feels that most of the cast understood the film they were making, but he says the distributor, Hemdale Film, had no such grasp on the material.
4. Multiple cuts were suggested to the film outside of the director’s control, and Cage felt the lost scenes represented some of his best work. He longed for the opportunity to restore the film to its extended version.
5. The film was a non-union production, and the scene where Cage and Kasi Lemmons leave the bar to hail a cab apparently was shot with dozens of union members just out of frame harassing the filmmakers with bullhorns.
6. Cage appreciates that Bierman chose Paul Smith suits for his character as it gives the film a timeless quality that prevents it from feeling dated.
7. “Normally I don’t like to let the secrets out,” says Cage in regard to the voice he chose for this character, “but I want to here because I want people to see this movie and rediscover it.” He says it’s in some ways a nod to his father who chose at some point in his life to speak with distinction. “It used to be this very continental sound,” he says, adding that he felt it appropriate for a literary agent in NYC. Bierman says the producers approached him after viewing rushes to express concern about the voice.
8. They both praise Lemmons’ performance here as well as her current career as a director (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine).
9. The arrival of the bat in Peter Loew’s (Cage) apartment triggers Cage to mention an “altercation” he got into with Bierman over the scene. “It was important to me that the bat was a real bat, and I didn’t want this remote control bat, and I kind of went off my rocker a little bit.” The reason, he says, is that at the time he was still very much a method actor. The artificial bat was crafted by an unnamed effects guy who also worked on Star Wars, but Cage was having none of it and instead made his assistant go out into Central Park in search of a real, live bat. The stalemate came to an end when Bierman convinced Cage that if he was bitten by a real bat he would most likely die.
10. Bierman feels very few people actually understand what the movie is about. Cage says he’s always been a “big believer in the ambiguous and letting it be about whatever people want it to be about,” but his own take on the film is as a tale of loneliness driving a man insane.
11. The director layered in the idea of the city driving Loew crazy through its omnipresence, and he accomplished this by constantly featuring the buildings of NYC in Loew’s frame. Early on for example, Loew sits in the doctor’s office with the city in soft focus behind him, but later as he grows more insane the city comes clearer into view. He wanted to “extend the movie beyond just a one-dimensional plane.”
12. Bierman finds an odd entertainment value in how cruelly Loew treats Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), and he recalls that most of the test screening comment cards expressed love for those scenes.
13. The night club where Loew first meets Rachel (Jennifer Beals) reminds Bierman of how violent a place NYC was in the late ’80s. “There was a dead body in this place the morning that we shot, and they had to cart out the dead body before we went in.” Cage agrees citing how this was filmed “pre-Giuliani” as compared to when he shot Bringing Out the Dead (1999) and couldn’t find any crime.
14. Right as Loew sits down behind Rachel a man passes in front of the camera leading Cage to volunteer “There’s my brother.” Bierman adds that they couldn’t afford a lot of extras.
15. Bierman asks Cage if he remembers Beal to which he replies, “I remember her being very interested in photography, and I remember I went to a museum with her and we looked at photographs together, and very very intelligent woman, gorgeous, and very much in love with her husband.”
16. Beal was cast on a Monday and began filming on Tuesday. She was a late addition as the original actress cast, an unnamed “up and coming actress, the hot new actress,” pulled out because her fiance didn’t want her rolling around in bed with Cage. “Aww man,” adds Cage. Bierman recalls having a nightmare in which Cage, furious about the casting decision, stuck two needles into the director’s eyes.
17. Bierman remembers a real love/hate relationship on set between Cage and Beals to which the actor replies “Probably, I again don’t know where my head was at when I was making this movie.” He says part of the problem was that at the time he was not happy with his previous film, Moonstruck. “At the time I thought it was a little too soft, and I was into punk rock.”
18. Cage improvised singing a little bit of Igor Stravinsky, and because it was recognizable and not in the public domain (something Cage had assumed) the production was almost sued and ended up paying a large sum to the Stravinsky estate. “The trouble was you did it so well we couldn’t fake it,” says Bierman.
19. Cage comments how much he appreciates Bierman’s decision to cast similar-looking actresses (Lemmons, Beals), but the director says it was accidental. He was originally leaning towards Jennifer Jason Leigh for Lemmons’ role, “but she was about half your size, and it wouldn’t have worked out.”
20. Cage’s favorite line is the following. “Yeah, well fuck you too sister.”
21. One of the scenes cut by the studio was Loew’s first meeting with his psychiatrist after the vampire bite.
22. Cage recalls that the inspiration for Loew’s “Am I getting through to you Alva?!” improvisation was his high school acting teacher, Andy Grenier, who one day was putting young Nicolas down a bit too much. “At the time I was something of a hot-head and I got up and left, and he looked at me and went ‘Coppola!’ and he put his head back like that, ‘You’re not big enough or bad enough to pull that crap with me!’”
23. The waiter in the diner is a cameo by the film’s writer, Joseph Minion. The same shot also features a couple in a booth played by producer Barbara Zitwer and an unnamed prop man, again due to their extras budget being mighty slim. “Here she is over-acting,” says Bierman, “Sorry Barbara.”
24. The first appearance of the mimes prompts Bierman to reveal “I don’t know what this is about, I don’t know what I was doing, I haven’t got a clue.”
25. Bierman believes that often times when someone makes their first film they in many ways make the film that influenced them most. For him it was Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. Similarly, Cage feels he was most influenced by Marlon Brando’s performance in Reflections in a Golden Eye.
26. The scene where Loew goes nuts and destroys his apartment grew more elaborate and violent than originally planned as Cage broke nearly everything in there. None of the items were props meaning the shot couldn’t be re-shot if necessary. “How I let you do this I do not know,” says Bierman.
27. Cage says he used to rehearse in his hotel room which prompts Bierman to ask if he remembers the incident with the cat. It seems Cage had his cat Louis staying with him during production, and it tore up the hotel room at the Mayflower. “And you wouldn’t allow room service in to clean up,” says Bierman.
28. The pair talk about watching daily rushes, and Bierman comments that in the UK actors never watch them. He prefers it that way as he doesn’t think it’s beneficial to the performers.
29. The film was made for under $2 million, and only $40k of it went to Cage. “I took that money and bought my first sports car with it, and I still have it.” It’s a 1967 427 Stingray Corvette, “and the car’s still worth the same amount it was then, so I overpaid for it, but anyway, I’ll never sell that car. It was my Vampire’s Kiss car.”
30. Both men think Beals makes for a fantastic vampire. “She’s a bit animal,” says Bierman. “She’s got a very animal look about her. Her body, her face.”
31. Originally Loew was going to eat raw eggs, but Cage suggested he eat a cockroach instead because he wanted to shock the audience. “I saw it as a business decision because when people see the cockroach go in my mouth it’s like the bus blowing up in Speed, people really react, and it’s like worth $2 million in special effects and all I do is eat a bug. So it’s good business.” Bierman made Cage do a second take – and eat a second bug – but ended up using the first take anyway.
32. The scene at Alva’s home was troublesome for Bierman and the producers because all of them were allergic to cats and the house was full of felines.
33. Cage strongly feels that Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson watched Vampire’s Kiss in preparation for their film, Wolf.
34. Bierman and Cage argued about Loew’s increasing use of sunglasses with the director worried that they were shutting out the audience. In retrospect he believes Cage was right that this was a smart take on the character.
20th Century Fox
35. Loew’s first slurred use of “cunt” leads Bierman and Cage to agree that they couldn’t get away with that today (today being 1999). Bierman shot additional takes just in case, but they stuck with it. “I find it offensive,” he says, “but he is offensive, and you have to allow him to be an offensive character.”
36. Cage was frustrated with the prop gun during the basement assault scene, but Bierman had to remind him that a gun with blanks could still actually kill him. (Smart man as this was five years before Brandon Lee’s death.) Cage channeled his irritability into challenging himself to say “boo hoo” in a way that didn’t ultimately sound utterly stupid.
37. The scene where Cage runs down the street after assaulting Alva in the basement had to be re-shot because he was running too fast for Bierman’s camera. Cage told the director “Well if you want me to run slow I’m going to run like this!” and that’s the run that made the cut. He caught a lot of criticism from people saying it was over the top, but Cage gives that no weight. “’Over the top’ is one of those things that doesn’t work with me because I don’t believe in such a thing. It’s just stylistic choices.” He says that Bierman caught him during his more experimental phase, something he hasn’t really explored since. I would argue that Snake Eyes, a film he made a year before the commentary was recorded, was his return to form.
38. Bierman tentatively explains to Cage the slang meaning of “pillow biter.”
39. Per Bierman, Cage arrived on the first day of shooting with a pencil mustache. He asks Cage if he recalls this, and Cage “No, but that sounds very very uncomfortable.” The actor apparently wanted his character to sport it throughout the film, but Bierman explained it would conflict with the fake vampire teeth later in the movie.
40. Cage was quite proud of his ability to catch a pigeon in the park scene, but Bierman shatters his illusion by revealing that the birds were drugged. “Did you think ‘hey I’m a really great actor, I can catch pigeons’?”
41. Cage was in “a really strange mood” the night of the club scene, and he recalls really punching the doorman a bit too hard. He blames Bierman for directing him to actually hit the guy.
42. The woman Loew kills in the club is played by director Larry Cohen’s (The Stuff, God Told Me To) daughter.
43. Beals told Bierman that she really wanted to hate Loew and asked if she could spit on him. Bierman said yes, but no one warned Cage.
44. The shots of Loew walking down the street at the end, clearly mad and talking to himself, were filmed with a long lens from a distance. The people walking past him are actual folks unaware that a movie is being filmed. “They take no notice of you,” says Bierman, “that’s what’s interesting.” Cage agrees and notes that we’ve all seen people like this on the street, and he’s creeped out when they become verbally violent. He creeps himself out as Loew enters his building alongside the imaginary Sharon and suddenly yells at her.
45. They attempted to re-write the ending because the producers complained that the current one was far too dark.
46. Cage struggled with how to perform Loew’s death scene. “It’s one of the biggest moments for any film actor, I knew I just did not want to die quietly. I was sick of quiet, little deaths. Natural, quiet little deaths are such bullshit. You scream.”
47. Bierman isn’t clear why he added that final shot of Beals, perhaps that it gave the ending another edge, and he asks Cage for his thought. “Personally I think that once he dies and the hands open that was it,” says Cage. Bierman agrees.
Best in Commentary
- Cage: “I think that people might wonder what that voice is I’m using.”
- Cage: “I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be around while shooting this film.”
- Bierman: “When we made this film it was complete chaos from beginning to end.”
- Bierman: “No one really understands what this movie is about.”
- Cage: “Some of these moves, um, without mentioning names, are direct ripoffs from my certain family members, which goes to show you where I came from.”
- Cage: “This expression on my face is just absurd.”
- Cage: “ My entire motivation here is to see just how big I could get my eyes.”
- Bierman: “I don’t think most people got the joke in this scene because they just thought it was a rape.”
This is my first commentary track with Cage, and I’m unsure which others he’s done, but here at least he provides a fun, ego-free look at his work along with compliments for his director and fellow cast members. Bierman is overflowing with anecdotes and memories, and makes me want to find more of his work. Inexplicably, he only directed one other feature film, 1997’s A Merry War, and instead spent the rest of his career in television and shorts. Their collaboration here has quickly become a new favorite of mine – it’s very much a precursor to the likes of American Psycho and Swimming With Sharks – and their commentary makes for an entertaining and enlightening listen.