Published Sep 14, 2018In 2010, Victoria, BC-based director Panos Cosmatos exploded on the scene with Beyond the Black Rainbow — a truly demented sci-fi thriller that was unlike anything else in genre filmmaking. Eight years later, he's back with an even more insane endeavour.
Mandy is a midnight revenge movie that stars Nicolas Cage, a sex-crazed cult, and a demonic motorcycle gang that guzzles liquid LCD. It's also, somehow, a way for Cosmatos to say goodbye.
Though it may come as a surprise due to their esoteric nature, both of these films were incredibly emotional journeys for Cosmatos, as they dealt with loss, including the death of his father, Tombstone director George P. Cosmatos.
"It came from trying to cope with the death of my parents and going into therapy," the director tells Exclaim! "They're both kind of art therapy. They're the cinematic equivalent of being in a room, watercolour painting on rolls of paper or something."
Around that time, Cosmatos became obsessed with Charles Bronson's Death Wish series. "I became fascinated with the mechanics and structure of the revenge film, and decided I wanted to try to create something that used that as the spine to grow something more outlandish and bizarre around."
Though he produced Rainbow first, both films were written and developed around the same time. Not coincidentally, they're also both set in 1983. But while mainstream pop culture is seemingly obsessed with cruising through the '80s, Cosmatos's films don't feel like nostalgia porn.
"It just comes down to my instinct and my personal taste," he says. "Certain things just rub me the wrong way. I think making a film is as much knowing what you don't like as what you do like, and avoiding the things that you don't like like the plague and making sure that they never appear onscreen in any shape or form."
That control is the product of Cosmatos's big-picture approach to filmmaking. "I try to look at the films as I make them from a distance, in a way," he says. "I think of them as kind of pop culture artefacts. I'll often make posters and tag lines as I'm working on them, and not just conceive of them as a story I'm going to tell, but as a whole, a piece — a whole object that exists in the pop culture realm."
Though his budget was modest, Cosmatos was able to deliver a fully formed and entirely immersive work in Mandy. Part of that comes from his early experiments growing up. "I think you have to be wise and know your limitations and know how to work within them," he admits. "I just think of Super 8 films that I made in my backyard, only with a lot more resources comparatively. If you're used to working with playdough and silly string, it's a world away from that."
Cosmaos also cut his teeth creating visuals for Victoria's fledgling music scene, completing graphic design projects for groups like Daddy's Hands and Dan Boeckner's pre-Wolf Parade project Atlas Strategic.
"Being friends with those creative people just influenced me as a human being," Cosmatos recalls. "I met most of them in high school and felt kind of relieved to have met a bunch of people that I felt came from a similar place I did emotionally and psychologically. I feel like if I hadn't have met them I probably would have drifted longer and further before I was able to get a sense of who I was."
Finding like-minded collaborators hasn't been a challenge for Cosmatos, whose Mandy cohorts also include Caspar Kelly — the genius behind the viral Adult Swim hit "Too Many Cooks." Kelly created Cheddar Goblin, a mac and cheese gobbling cretin who somehow manages to steal the film despite its multiple chainsaw fight scenes.
"Cheddar Goblin was a ridiculous idea I came up with in preproduction to make us laugh, and slowly me and the producer Josh became obsessed with Cheddar Goblin and realized we needed to put Cheddar Goblin in the movie," Cosmatos explains. "So we called Caspar and said, 'Hey man, we have a thousand dollars. Can you make us a Cheddar Goblin commercial?' and he said, 'Yes I can do that.' And shortly thereafter we had Cheddar Goblin in the movie."
Another important collaborator was Jóhann Jóhannsson, who finished scoring the film before his death at age 48. "I really loved working with him," Cosmatos recalls. "He feels like a merging of my father and my mother in that he was quite gruff, but also incredibly sensitive and artistic.
"I think what got him to decide to do the movie was I said this is essentially a rock opera," Cosmatos continues, "and I think he totally understood what I meant by that — to create a sort of feeling of a sweeping rock opera but without being pastiche or on the nose about it."
Jóhannsson's unexpected death was yet another loss in a film project inspired by grief. While it's undeniably tragic, the score stands as a truly crucial part of an instant genre classic.
Whether it means he'll make a Cheddar Goblin creature feature is yet to be seen, but one thing's for sure — Cosmatos is finally ready to move on. "I think Mandy and Black Rainbow are companion pieces that sort of complement each other," he says. "I think they sort of close this volume."
Mandy opens across Canada on September 14.