Your New Favourite Visionary – Panos Cosmatos (The VH Interview)

It’s unlikely you’ll see another film like Mandy this year. Or even next year. Hell, maybe not for the next 8 years – the time that director Panos Cosmatos took between his first feature, Beyond the Black Rainbow, and now Mandy. That’s because there’s not really anyone making films quite like Panos – whose latest film owes as much to Iron Maiden as it does to John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. Having finally seen Mandy, we can confirm that it’s everything you’d hope from something with roots as idiosyncratic as this.

We spoke with Panos ahead of its UK release and premiere at the London Film Festival…

Was there a single concept or seed that grew into everything else, or was it a much more general approach?

Panos: The original seed was basically the idea of making a revenge movie that kinda revolved around the person that was being avenged, and their absence in the world… how that absence is felt by the person that was avenging them, you know. I watched a whole bunch of revenge movies in a row, and when you watch a bunch of stuff from one genre you’re given the chance to ruminate on its mechanics.

You may go into Mandy expecting this overpowering, shredding carnage – which the second half absolutely is – but the first half often feels incredibly delicate. Was this a contrast that you had planned, in terms of the transition halfway through?

Panos: I think eventually it became clear that the movie was two halves – or actually three sections. I don’t generally believe in the three-act structure, but often things just end up panning out into that structure.

Well you’ve got the three intertitles, of course.

Panos: Exactly. I just really wanted the audience to be lulled into a sense of warmth and comfort, so people get a sense of what it’s like to be around them [Mandy and Red] as a presence in the world. So when she’s gone, you really miss her.

It’s that transition from this ethereal, almost idyllic world, into what then becomes this nightmarish descent. It could seem incongruous, but it’s a credit to you that it works so well.

Panos: I think of that whole scene where the cult shows up to the house as almost like the ‘house party from hell’ in a way. Right down to forcing you to listen to a shitty record you don’t wanna hear (laughs).

I’ve seen it described as “John Wick on acid”, is that a take you’re aware of?

Panos: I’ve not seen that. I’ve seen the first one [John Wick], and to be honest it didn’t appeal to me that much – but I really liked the set-up, I thought the concept was brilliant. After a while it started to seem to me like a… Ed Hardy t-shirt of a movie, you know (laughs).

It brought me onto thinking about your casting of Nicolas Cage – you’ve said before he wasn’t initially envisaged for Red, partly due to his age. 

Panos: Yeah it was weird because I just couldn’t see it at all [Cage as Red]. Then I had a dream, a while after I’d met him, where I was watching the movie Mandy with him in it. Then it became clear to me that we could do something very interesting.

The bathroom scene has got so much attention. How much fun was that to shoot? 

Panos: It was actually three takes. It was enjoyable to shoot, but maybe not for Nick cause he really worked himself into a really emotional, crazy place. But it was a simple scene to shoot, in the sense that it was one set-up, which tends to make filming a lot more pleasurable. I kinda thought of that scene as a bizarre, off-Broadway, one-act play that we just stumble into and see some guy performing his play that he wrote himself. Which I thought could be a great way to present someone feeling completely dislocated from reality.

The film’s practical effects, both with the Black Skulls and the driving shots, seemed really distinct. How important was this tangibility for you?

Panos: Absolutely. With this and Beyond the Black Rainbow, I wanted to do as much as humanly possible practical. Speaking of fun, one of the funnest things that there is to shoot on is driving rigs. It was almost like a Xanax experience being out at night, riding around on cars – so I think I automatically wrote a lot more of it just for that reason (laughs).

The costume design for the Black Skulls is really striking. The Hellraiser influence has been mentioned a lot, but is there anything else that helped create them?

Panos: This actually also came from a dream. I had a nightmare where I was in this strange, old, abandoned farmhouse with these men that were covered in black tar that just oozed… I could just sense their cruelty and malevolence.

Mandy and Red’s bedroom – the way it’s designed with these big open glass walls. It’s initially beautiful, but as soon as the home invasion begins the bedroom is completely terrifying.

Panos: Well you always see in these architectural magazines that show these amazing houses in the middle of the woods. They have no curtains, they’re just giant, glass fishbowls. And the first thing I think when I see something like that is not ‘what a beautiful house in the forest’ – I think ‘murderers’ and ‘just get some fucking curtains’ (laughs).

I wanted to ask about masculinity in the film, that ‘machismo’ which it puts on show. The scene I keep going back to is where Mandy’s taunting Jeremiah as he’s masturbating, and he’s screaming at her, “don’t fucking laugh at me!”. Given the current climate, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Louis C.K… Which made it incredibly uncomfortable, but what I think Mandy did a great job of was foregrounding this and dressing it down. This entitlement is shown up as pathetic, ridiculous.

Panos: You know, I worked on that scene for a long time, and it was finally my wife that helped me realise how to do it. I wanted Mandy to defy Jeremiah in some way that really shattered his ego. We realised that laughter in the face of this man was the most damaging thing she could possibly do to him. Trump and Pence became President and Vice-President shortly before we started going into production, and at that point I started to realise that there was some real resonance. Something that I felt more compelled than ever to magnify. I actually started to think of Jeremiah as if you put Trump and Pence into the Brundle telepod, and they came out the other side as the one merged creature, Jeremiah Sand (laughs).

Well, there’s that scene at the start of the film when Red’s driving home from work. On the radio they’re talking about “the bedrock of American values” being under threat, which Red tellingly switches off.

Panos: Yeah, that was definitely something chosen after the election. I felt reinvigorated by those aspects of the film, because of the strange, I think virulent, resurgence of fundamentalist religion, you know.

You worked with Jóhann Jóhannsson on this film. Could you tell me about your experiences together?

Panos: I felt like the minute I started talking to him on the phone, I felt an instant connection with him. I was surprised that he wanted to work on the film, to be honest, but it turned out that he’d really loved Beyond the Black Rainbow. He also grew up as an Icelandic metalhead.

I’ve listened to a lot of his avant-garde solo work, which is way more in tune with this film as with his other scores, perhaps.

Panos: He was very interested in exploring these weird textures and sonics that I wanted to explore myself. We talked a lot about the synthesiser sound on Van Halen’s “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” (laughs). There’s a moment I’ll never forget – we were having a long conversation about a scene, I wish I could remember which one it was, and he asked “well, how do you want this to feel?”. And I said I want this to feel like you’re 13, and you’re sitting in the backseat of your big brother’s Camaro, and he’s smoking weed – and it’s kinda scary but it’s also exhilarating. There was a short pause, and he said “I know exactly what you mean” (laughs).

Have you got any plans for what’s next? There was an 8 year gap between your last films, should we expect a similarly gruelling wait?

Panos: I’m always working on a bunch of weird, new ideas from notebooks. But right now, I just wanna hang out with my wife and my cat.

Mandy is in UK cinemas from Friday 19th October.