The stars of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes and Jennifer Coolidge – held court in the Four Seasons together with director Werner Herzog last week. The movie got its US premiere at the AFI Festival and the positive reactions there and in Toronto promise a good showing in theaters.
Cage plays a drug-addicted, procedure-ignoring police lieutenant in New Orleans just post-Katrina; Mendes is his high-class prostitute lover; Coolidge is his booze-sodden stepmother; and Werner Herzog is one of the world’s greatest living directors, famed for his visionary features of the seventies (Even Dwarves Started Small, Aguirre Wrath of God, Heart of Glass, tho little to match that work since 1982′s Fitzcarraldo) and for his idiosyncratic documentaries (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, My Best Fiend, Grizzly Man). In response to various members of the press, here’s what they had to say for themselves:
At what point did Bad Lieutenant become part of the title? Originally you had Port of Call New Orleans so when did the Bad Lieutenant come in?
Werner Herzog: No, Bad Lieutenant was the title of the screenplay and it was an idea by one of the producers to start a franchise – apparently they owned the title to it. So I never liked it and tried to have it changed into Port of Call New Orleans and now we have a hybrid. But the question about remake is off the table since people have now seen my film. Sometimes people still speak of the original, which doesn’t really happen when you look at Scorsese’s film about Jesus Christ; it’s not the original and Mel Gibson’s film is not remake of Scorsese’s, so I think the question’s off the table now.
Your movies aren’t exactly comedies, but in this movie there is a lot of humour that seemed intentional, like you were trying to create some comedy elements. The sequence with the iguanas is a really funny scene and at the same time trippy, hallucinogenic.
WH: Yeah, I think we always sensed that there was a dark subversive humour in the screenplay. However, in a way we emphasised it and there was always a quest out there that as vile and debased as the character gets, the more he should enjoy himself; so there’s such a thing as the bliss of evil, we discussed, Nicolas and I, and Eva also. You have to enjoy this. And then it creates a strange humour – it becomes hilarious almost – and people laugh and respond and this is wonderful to see. The iguanas: what shall I say? I love to cast animals in important roles in my films and of course it is a demented fantasy, which I like to create. It came more or less spontaneously but we always kept things open for the unexpected. For example Jennifer Coolidge and Eva Mendes when they are fighting over the handbag and the drugs; there’s not much scripted in it. Yes, there were some lines of dialogue but otherwise the two young ladies had to sort it out themselves. You cannot really direct it bit by bit. Or Nicolas Cage very often had complete liberty, like in jazz music, to have his own voice, to improvise. So those are the real convincing and strong moments in the film.
Mr Cage, when you read the script, how did you feel about this character, how would you describe him? Is he a good guy or a bad gay?
Nicolas Cage: He just is. I don’t judge him. I don’t think of him as being bad or good. It’s more existential. It’s not a part of any kind of religious programme, which is what I think separates it mostly from the other film. It just is.
You were instrumental in having the film set in New Orleans. What is it about New Orleans that inspired you and led you to talk to Mr Herzog about having the film shot there?
NC: I felt that I had to go through a catharsis, that I had to face my fears. New Orleans is a very potent city in my life for various reasons. It’s a combination of different energies – African, French, English, Spanish. There’s a lot of magic there and I had experiences there so I wanted to go back and confront it. And I knew that I would channel that. Anything could happen: it could either be a disaster or it could be something beautiful, so I was up for the challenge.
You went balls-out in this film: did you have a lot of fun letting loose?
NC: I just felt that I was in the zone and I came in prepared and did what I had to do and I thank Werner for letting me go. I didn’t need to be pushed, I didn’t need to be pulled, I just came in and did what I had to do and I thank Werner for having the guts to let me do it.
Eva Mendes: I think the fun was being had by me watching him – he was so inspiring – and watching him act at, I think, his best. I was really excited by that, so I was having fun.
You’ve described this performance as impressionistic whereas something like Leaving Las Vegas was more photo-realistic – could you expand on that and the jazz analogy?
NC: Yeah, well a lot of people like to say things like “over the top”. You can’t say that about other art forms. You can’t say “over the top” with a Picasso or “over the top” with a Van Gogh. And why can’t it be the same with acting? So when I think about it in those terms, in Leaving Las Vegas, you know, I had a couple drinks. I wanted to. I had prescribed scenes where I said I’m going to get drunk and anything goes, and I’m glad I did it. But with Bad Lieutenant I say that this is impressionistic because I was totally sober and I was looking at a landscape from over twenty years ago. And I wasn’t sure I could do it. It was a challenge. But I believed that the filter of my instrument would give you something more exciting because it was impressionistic.
What is your process? Do you like a lot of rehearsals? Do you like a lot of takes? And the way you like to act, did it meld with how Mr Herzog likes to direct?
NC: I think that Werner and I had a perfect marriage. He moves very quickly; my best takes are my first two takes; he has confidence in what I’m going to do and I have confidence in what he’s going to do, that he’ll get it. Sometimes I do love to rehearse; I always switch it up depending on who I am working with. I know Werner likes to do as little rehearsing as possible because he likes the freshness and the spontaneity and I appreciate that.
This is your second collaboration with Ms Mendes and a very different kind of movie from the first one – what did you learn or discover about each other working together a second time?
NC: Well I just feel that Eva has evolved, that she was excellent in Ghost Rider but there’s a new kind of more liquid, soft Eva Mendes that’s very fluid and spontaneous in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and I’ve been a fan of her work and am becoming an even greater fan as I continue to see her growth and I hope we’ll work together again.
EM: For me, as fun as Ghost Rider was I knew going into it that it was a big popcorn comic-book film, and I’d been a fan of Nic’s since I was really young, from like Vampire’s Kiss and Wild At Heart and all that stuff. I loved that Nic – I love this Nic as well – but that to me is as fearless as you get and that’s what I strive to be in my work and I still feel like a student of acting, I still go to acting class and I study withIvana Chubbick , my acting coach. So for me the opportunity for me to work with him on a film like this where he’s just soaring, he’s just doing it, completely fearlessly, for me it was just like school. In the best way possible.
Ms Mendes, yours was a very sexy character – how did you connect to her in that regard? And at the end of the movie she seems to rediscover who she is, to rediscover the joy within herself – did you draw on something from your own past experience?
EM: Well the only way I really connected to my character was that I am a survivor and she’s like the ultimate survivor. Thankfully in my life I haven’t had to make extreme sacrifices and decisions like her – she’s the extreme version of me. But she’s just trying to survive, and I never judged her for the choices she made. I don’t know about her as far as the end of the film when she’s pregnant. I love that there’s hope – new life is always redemption, hope – and I love that it ended on that note. I’m not sure what kind of mother she’s going to be! And this little warped family that they have, I always found that interesting. I’m not sure what’s to come – it’s a little scary. What gives me joy? Honestly, working with people like this. Collaborating with Nicolas Cage for a second time on something this amazing, and working with Werner Herzog who’s been on my hit list for so long. That’s what gives me joy: work, stretching myself. And I look forward to one day really truly, you know, playing the bad lieutenant myself. That’s what brings me joy. And my dog Hugo.
WH: I would like to add one thing because we have these individual actors, individual roles, it must not be forgotten that there’s always a texture, a chemistry between the characters that really makes this wonderful ensemble, and if you isolate one character and the way of acting too much from the other, you would not do justice to the entire ensemble.
Were there any taboos connected with this film where you couldn’t go? What was the atmosphere like down there and what was it like to work in? Are they still in recovery mode?
WH: Taboos – not really, although I always had some hesitation to go too far into drug-taking. I have no experience with it and I do not like the culture of drug-taking, so that was one thing – I wouldn’t have shown someone injecting heroin into a vein or so. It’s not my sort of thing, that I would like to have in a film. New Orleans, yes there is a strong sense of recovery and I do remember very often when we were filming outdoors people would come by and say, are you making a film here? welcome! and, it’s so wonderful that music is coming back, movies are coming here and thank you for doing this. You had the sense yes, there was a void that had to be filled and the void is culture, vibrant culture. So that will probably ultimately be the guiding light of New Orleans’ recovery.
Could you speak to the significance of the breed of fish at the murder scene and any symbolism that it might have?
WH: I think it’s not so much symbolism; it was not in the screenplay, like a few other things, but I had the feeling the little note in the schoolbook of the boy, that his only friend was a fish in a pathetic little water glass, and all of a sudden although you never see the kid who was murdered, you get a sense of what has happened at this murder scene. And of course it is also important for the lieutenant. For him it is not just a case that has to be solved with DNA samples and this and that – all of a sudden there is a real life that was wasted, that was extinguished. There is something real for him where he has an emotional contact, and that’s why we have this notebook with the little thing about the fish, and I really like to have moments like that. For example, the scene with the sterling silver spoon and the pirate treasure: those things were originally not in the screenplay but they really give you an emotional context between Nicolas and Eva, something of more depth, something as if he was handing over his whole childhood, his dreams as a child, when he finds the spoon. So those are scenes which I think are very very strong and very necessary for the story.
There’s a lot places in New Orleans that have not been completely rebuilt yet; did you do a lot of filming there or did you do a lot of set design to mimic right after Katrina? And the opening sequence, with the guy who is drowning in the prison cell, was that in the original script?
WH: No, the original script was written for New York and it started out in the subway with a suicidal man throwing himself in front of an incoming train and the lieutenant saves him, and I thought number one, in New Orleans there is no subway and number two we should start it as vile and debased as it gets, with the two detectives placing bets how long it will take for the prisoner to drown. However, Nicolas jumps eventually and saves him. Set design, no, very little – that was the only real set design; we couldn’t flood a real prison tract, so that was actually there. And otherwise, destroyed, yes, there’s whole areas that look like real open landscape with bush and tall grass and you see a concrete rectangle which was a garage and then 100 feet away the next rectangle in the middle of the grass and bushes, another garage. But we never filmed in an area like that because it is completely deserted; it’s like freed landscape.
Mr Cage, your working relationship with Val Kilmer created a great chemistry, but it seemed as though there might have been scenes missing, or was that the whole thing?
NC: Val Kilmer and I have an interesting relationship with each other in that we have mutual respect for one another and have corresponded over the years. We didn’t have a real friendship per se, but we would write to one another, from one actor to another to say, hey I loved what you did in Tombstone, I loved what you did in Leaving Las Vegas. We always kind of knew that there was a camaraderie there and I would say that probably the best actors of my generation, the two geniuses for me, would be Val and Downey. So to get a chance to work with Val was a good thing, and I hope we’ll have more to do together; he is my brother, in many ways, as a fellow artist, and I hope we’ll find another movie to do together.
You mentioned earlier that the idea with this was to create a franchise; has there been any…
WH: It was not my idea
NC: Now hang on, Werner did say on the telephone with me, he had this idea [slips into passable Herzog impression] “it’s very interesting, Nicol-ars, we could have Bad Lieutenant Bangkok or Bad Lieutenant in Guam“. You did say that!
It would be interesting to see what Frankie is like as a mother or how he erupts in the next Bad Lieutenant.
WH: Yes, why not, but I think I wouldn’t be on board. I am not the man who would do Rocky 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or Aguirre 2, 3, 4, 5. So, yes it is thinkable because the character is fascinating enough to continue and place him in other situations. It’s fine to have Jesus Christ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or, say, James Bond in a variety of stories and in a variety of set-ups. In that case I think yeah, there is something valid about it.
Mr Cage, you get to act in big Hollywood spectaculars as well as being in smaller indie films – what are the difference for you as far as acting in two different genres?
NC: I have been blessed to be able to be eclectic and I am grateful for that. As I became older with my work I became aware of the responsibility of film and I feel one of the best ways I can apply myself as an actor, in terms of going beyond whatever it is to be an actor, or quote-unquote movie-star blah blah blah, all the vanity and BS, is that these movies, these so-called popcorn movies, or these family movies, actually provide something quite beautiful and something quite necessary, which is a family bonding experience. So god bless to popcorn film, especially movies where you can take the kids because I remember looking forward to seeing these movies with my parents and if I can give that back then I’m going to do it. I don’t care if people have criticism toward it or not; I think it’s a good thing. And I still have interest in the midnight audience. I want to make movies for my roots – people that like to see Bad Lieutenant at midnight, or Vampire’s Kiss or Bringing Out The Dead or Wild At Heart. So I’m going to do a little bit of everything, and keep doing that.
You had to have his bad back through most of the film – was that you doing it or were you coached to do it? And what about the southern dialect you all had to deal with?
NC: Well I designed Terrance, let’s be totally honest. I came in with a vision. I designed him. I wanted him to have a back. I was thinking of things like Richard III. I like to get my body into it; my mother was a dancer so I like to use the body as part of the instrument of acting. So I saw this back injury as an opportunity to transform myself. So that’s where that came from. The dialect, Werner and I agreed we don’t need it. He could have been from anywhere. He is a New Orleans cop, his identity was New Orleans, he took pride in being in the South – he said “we don’t hit women down south” – so that’s his identity, but he could have been from anywhere. Just like me, you know?
EM: As far as my dialect goes, Frankie is not from the south; she’s from a big city so that’s why you didn’t hear one.
Jennifer Coolidge: I worked and rounded up everyone I knew in New Orleans who had a really strong accent before I went in there and then of course I got into the audition and I said “Werner, I hope you like this accent” and he said [rather good Herzog impression] “Oh no, we will not be doing that today”. Crap.
Ms Coolidge, you finally get to play a dramatic role – how does it feel? How did Mr Herzog cast you?
JC: Well I don’t know the answer to some of this stuff, but I was in New Orleans – like Nic I have a house down there – and heard that this movie was happening and so I auditioned down there. I don’t know if that helped me – there’s less competition down there, I don’t know.. But when I went to the audition it felt like it went so horrible. At one point I threw a paper bag and Werner was in the way and I didn’t know that the paper bag had a very hard like two year-old piece of bubble gum in it and I could have taken Werner’s eye out, and if he hadn’t ducked at the right moment it would have been terrible. But as I say you never know how you get roles – it’s such a flukey thing. But I’m so pleased because I just would never get a chance to be in anything like this; except for Christopher Guest movies it’s usually, you know, Cinderalla 5. I don’t really get opportunities so it was very nice.
It’s well-documented that ageism a big problem in Hollywood so Ms Coolidge, have you ever experienced this and Ms Mendes, do you worry about roles shrinking as you get older?
EM: No, I’m actually looking forward to it because maybe they’ll provide me with more layers and more colour and God, I sound bitter, don’t I? But I think that when you’re kind of in your twenties and in your thirties even and you look a certain way – and I’m not complaining because I certainly take responsibility and play into my image – but there’s a lack of colourful roles. Certainly in a lot of American films, anyhow. And what I look for is roles like Frankie: flawed characters. I want flawed characters, I want conflict, I want to stretch and grow and all that fun stuff. There is ageism – it does completely exist – but hopefully that with age as well I’ll be exposed to more colourful characters that give me more to do, whether its the role of a tortured mom or whatever it may be, I look forward to that. Hopefully it will happen.
JC: Well I wish I could say I love ageing and the roles just keep getting better and better. This really felt like a fluke; I mean it really felt like this incredible thing that came my way, but it doesn’t feel like this is going to happen everyday; I feel like this was this thing where I got lucky and it just happened. For myself it’s been depressing as opposed to what was coming my way seven years ago as opposed to now. I mean, I want to say something positive..
EM: Jennifer you’re killing me here! I was looking for the hope and the light!
JC: Like I say, this was an amazing thing and I just can’t believe I got to be a part of this whole thing and I can’t tell you how much I love this movie. It’s so exciting to be in a movie that you’re crazy about, and think it’s brilliant. But no – do I like the scripts that come to my door? A lot of them, no. And I guess I’m going to be honest: I even had a script sent to me where they offered me – they didn’t offer me, wanted me to audition for – the part of “Scary Lady”. Things like that – it does get depressing.
Mr Herzog, Nic mentioned the two of you have a perfect marriage with this film, but you also have a perfect marriage with your cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. Can you talk a bit about the collaboration that you’ve had with him over the years, and particularly with the film noir look of this particular film?
WH: Yes I have made my last twelve or fourteen films with Peter Zeitlinger, an Austrian, and I love him for his physicality. He’s a very strong beast, and he does handheld camera better than anyone would do with steadicam. And he is a man who would stop things for a moment and take the camera down and say “Werner, this scene has no rhythm”. No cinematographer before has spoken to me like that. And of course I sense he has this feeling of movement and feeling of flow of something and I immediately had to readjust things. Yeah, it has been a very fine collaboration and sometimes I would take things in my own hands when the style had to be completely different, the visual style like the demented imagination of iguanas. So those are small exceptions but otherwise I am planning to work with him on the next film. And on the next and the next after that.
Another rising local Louisiana talent is Lance Nichols: Mr Cage, could you talk about your scenes with him?
NC: He was pretty amazing to watch. He’s very funny, I mean the incredible scenes we had together. [to Herzog] I don’t know how you came up with those ideas – I remember Werner was really telling him what to do.
What are some of the influences that helped you develop the personality of your character?
NC: Memory. I was in Australia when I got the script and I was just trying to.. The strangest thing of all is that in Australia they still use cocaine to clear your sinuses and I had a massive – this is a true story – I had a massive sinus infection and I was trying to understand, recall something from, you know, a hundred years in the past and they sent me to the doctor and he did this cocaine solution thing and he put it in my nose and I just came out and I started taking notes, and noticed that my mouth was getting really dry and I was really like feeling very invincible and I started improvising the scenes and coming up with ideas and swallowing a lot. So then I was graphing it in the script like, ok well this is coke so this is what he’s doing here; there’s going to be a lot of swallowing, there’s going to be a lot of lip-smacking. And then this is heroin: he’s going to be itchy, he’s going to be nodding, he’s going to be a lot slower. The problem is, I didn’t know when Werner was going to cut the scene with me taking heroin or the scene with me taking the coke, so he totally like rerouted the whole direction of the performance.
EM: Do you still have the name of that doctor?
At this point in your career you can do whatever it is that you want to do, so what is necessary in a film or in a character for you to want to play it? Some actors have said with their character there has to be something redeeming about them; some of your characters have been dark and they’ve stayed dark – does it matter to you?
NC. I do have a kind of personal code that I try to apply. I may be alone in this, but I do sense the power of film, in that movies have the power to literally change people’s minds. That’s pretty powerful stuff when you consider that. So I try to be, in this day and age, responsible of what I want to project in terms of who’s going to see it, particularly when it pertains to children, which is a priority of mine. So I am trying to go away from, you know, too much killing and gratuitous violence and things like that, and if I do play a character like that I have to understand why he’s like that, how he got there to be that way. And then it’s just a matter of, is there some truth to it? Is there anything I can do to play the part truthfully? Can I give you something new, something unusual and have a bit of truth?
With regard to your comments about popcorn movies, you’ve always done an interesting job of bringing the kind of eclectic terms that you want to bring into popcorn movies. Do you plan it meticulously? Do you look at what would be an all-audiences thing and think, here’s what I can get away with?
NC: Thank you. Yes. Here’s the thing, I came out of independent film; those are my roots. An independent film is like a laboratory and I have used what I could discover in that laboratory because people weren’t going to lose millions and millions of dollars, and I cherry-picked the gold and I applied it to movies like Face-Off; so if you look at movies like Face-Off, which is a huge movie, there are bits and pieces from Vampire’s Kiss which I pulled out, because not too many people saw Vampire’s Kiss, but I really got a chance to infuse that into my work in Face-Off. And I keep doing that, you know. They work well together.
What validates the work for you at this point in your career? Do you know when you’ve hit it or do you need someone to still tell you?
NC: No, i don’t need anyone to tell me anything, really. I just feel it. It’s like I said earlier, it’s a zone thing. I mean it’s hard to describe these things because they’re pretty abstract, but if you can imagine there’s like a solid piece of wax inside of the centre of your heart and there’s a little needle that’s pressing through the wax and it gets out to the other side, then you know you’ve hit it, and that’s what it feels like.
Mr Herzog, what is the attraction you feel for the intense characters that you have? Even in Grizzly Man the guy was intense – not crazy but intense.
WH: I’m glad that you mention Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man because I did not create him. However, he’s immediately someone who fascinates me, who makes me tick. And it’s not so much the characters in the movies, it’s the people with whom I work like Nicolas Cage, or before with Kinski or with Christian Bale. It’s more the persons with whom I have to spend my time behind the camera, with them in fron t, and just stand there and marvel at the possibilities they create, and the insights and illuminations they can give to an audience. So in that respect I was blessed that I stumbled into the footage of Timothy Treadwell and of course I have been blessed that Nicolas Cage accepted to work with me. Not just spending time but creating things, and of course ultimately characters that fascinate me. But it’s more the persons with whom I want to spend my life and my time of work.
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Check out the film in theaters November 20.