"I wanted it to sound like a disintegrating rock opera," Panos Cosmatos says of his second feature film, the surreal horror-thriller Mandy. It's a fitting description of the score to the pre-destined cult classic; its atmospheric metal guitars and proggy synthscapes dictate the aura as much as any linear plot line. Where story is concerned, Mandy follows a reliably untamed (and surprisingly vulnerable) Nicolas Cage as protagonist Red Miller, who — after the murder of his titular metalhead wife at the hands of a "Jesus freak" cult — embarks on a mind-numbing revenge odyssey against demented hippies, crack-smoking biker ghouls and his own internal demons.
The film is laughably impossible to categorize, fusing together elements of psychological dread, Lynchian darkness, Malick-like visual grandiosity, two a.m. B-movie slasher camp, bleak humor, and the gleeful delight of watching Cage wield chainsaws and a massive crossbow dubbed "The Reaper." The music is inextricable from that singular cocktail, and Cosmatos had a distinct vision for how it would evolve.
While developing the project, the Canadian writer-director amassed a sprawling playlist of material as a reference guide. And a few key tracks and tones — Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack, the synth sound of Van Halen's "Sunday Afternoon in the Park" — became sonic touchstones for the collaborators he roped in, notably soundtrack producer Randall Dunn (Sunn O))), Boris, Earth) and Oscar-winning composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (who died at age 48 in February, one month after the film's world premiere).
"I feel really lucky that we got Johann," Cosmatos says. "He wasn't really on my radar as someone I thought would want to do it. I'd admired his work a lot from afar, but I didn't know he'd be interested in doing some weird movie ... about something like this." He laughs. "But it turns out he'd actually seen [Cosmatos' debut film, 2010's] Beyond the Black Rainbow and was into it. He told [production company] SpectreVision that he wondered what they were doing with me and asked if he could be involved. I talked to him, and I didn't even know if he had a frame of reference for something like this. I thought of him as kind of out of our league almost. But after talking to him for a few minutes, he told me he was in metal bands and that he had a similar frame of reference growing up.
"The first thing he asked me to do was send him this little playlist of songs I'd whittled it down to," he continues. "While I was writing, I had a playlist that was hundreds of songs long — some of it was for inspiration, and some was for trying to find the right songs for the opening and closing credits, just having many options. He was into all of this stuff."
Dunn came onboard through a previous collaboration with Jóhannsson, though he was familiar with Beyond the Black Rainbow through his connection with Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt. "It was about three or four months out from when the film was getting ready to start production, and [Jóhannsson] started talking to me about producing for it and picking some of the players," he says. "We were kind of strategizing on what kind of soundtrack to make and who to involve."
"Johann wanted my help to make what Panos was wanting, which was like a rock opera," he continues. "We knew he wanted more of a rock band sound for some of it, and we wanted that to meld with Johann's sound. And Johann had a team in Berlin, including Yair Glotman. They started making demos, and we were mounting ideas back and forth about how to translate those demos into the score. The team ended up being Johann, Yair, and myself. And at the very end, the musical director was involved in sewing it all together."
Dunn refers to himself the "liaison" between the various musical factions — a process not dissimilar from his typical production role. In addition to performing various synth parts, he helped coordinate a unique hodgepodge of musicians that may have otherwise never appeared on the same track, including veteran session drummer Matt Chamberlin (Tori Amos, Pearl Jam) and Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O'Malley.
"We knew we wanted the score to sound like a rock band had done it, like it had come from a singular thought," Dunn says. "The original thinking was that we were going to do it live with a lot of musicians who are on the soundtrack, but it didn't come to life that way. We were going to do it much more live and collaborative, but we dialed that back because of budget. We tried to make a score that sounded like an old prog band had done it. [Jóhannsson] was referencing a lot of stuff like Marillion and Alan Parsons Project and all these cool ideas. A lot of the really early stuff, and there's some of it released in the film, didn't feel appropriate and didn't make it. If we were going to do rock and metal stuff, we agreed that we wanted it to be authentic."
And Mandy is, indeed, authentically metal — from O'Malley's thundercloud guitars in the film's final act to the various visual references to iconic bands (like Mandy's Black Sabbath and Mötley Crüe T-shirts). And a few lucky breaks helped the director achieve maximum metal-ness. "Just like with any music thing, you reach out to the bands and hope for the best," he says. "We were able to contact some people who knew Ozzy or were friends with Ozzy or Sharon, and that's how we were able to get permission to use the Black Sabbath shirt really quickly," Cosmatos says. "Nicolas Cage is friends with Vince Neil, and that's how we were able to get permission to use the Mötley Crüe shirt really quickly."
Tracking down King Crimson, whose haunting prog piece "Islands" anchors the film's hypnotic opening credits sequence, was a bit tougher. "I had so many different thoughts about the opening credits song," the director says. "I'd never really been a King Crimson guy, to be honest, but my wife's father was a huge King Crimson fan and had all their LPs, so she'd grown up hearing all their records. At some point, she played me that song, and I realized it was right for the opening credits.
"But it came right down to the last minute with that song," he continues. "We literally got permission to use it the day that it played at Sundance for the first time. We put a credit in there and everything in anticipation of it, but the negotiation went from before we started shooting up to that point. I don't really relish the idea [of doing that] unless I have an insane music budget, which will never happen. It can be difficult to negotiate with mega-bands from back in the day."
"Johann had composed some alternate music just in case they couldn't get the licensing for it," Dunn adds. "Panos is such a specific filmmaker, and he really knows what he wants emotionally. He and Johann were having really detailed conversations right from the beginning about where this was gonna go."
Despite the film's numerous nods to heavy music of yore, the crew were adamant to never ape their idols. "It was really important for him to not do something pastiche or retro," Dunn says of Jóhannsson's approach. "[He wanted to approach] it like a prog band would today — not copying, like, John Carpenter. He wanted to create a hybrid of all of those sounds."
"We wanted to use these elements without them feeling generic," Cosmatos adds, detailing how the score deliberately mirrors the plot in its slow-burn intensity. "We wanted an interpretation of this stuff without feeling like it was a direct facsimile of it. We felt like these heavy, droning metal guitars should come in and some point, but we wanted to be very sparing about it and not overuse it ... Making movies like this, I'm so inspired by these things from the past, but my hope is that they feel kind of modern and new in a way, even though they're using language and imagery from a different time. A movie is its own dimension. Even if it takes place in a certain time period, you can draw from any time period. If you're listening on the radio, a fucking Britney Spears song could start playing on the soundtrack. It's like a god's eye view of music."
Mandy fucks with your head in that sense, both sonically and visually. Though the film is set in 1983, it feels fascinatingly displaced from time – and its most disturbing, buzz-worthy scene capitalizes on that disorienting dreamscape mood. Early in the film, cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) tries to seduce Mandy with the strains of a dopey psychedelic folk record that he himself recorded. It's equally hilarious and terrifying – and it took an impressive degree of prep to pull off.
"Very early on in the process, I had written a chorus for a song by Jeremiah, so I had that years ago in my notebook," Cosmatos says. "My editor and I had done our first cut of the film, and we were kind of paused before going to Belgium to do our final week or two of editing before sound mixing and color correcting and everything. There was a little window there, and we still didn't have the song. So I went down to Seattle, where Randall was at the time, to this studio. He brought in Milky Burgess from [experimental psych band] Master Musicians of Bukake. At this point, I actually asked my friend Dan Boeckner [Wolf Parade, Divine Fits] if he wanted to take a crack at writing more lyrics. So he wrote a bunch of them, and I took them and edited them down and combined them with my old chorus. I brought that down to Milky, and he was prepared. He'd had a couple days to experiment. He came in with this melody, and he shaped it around these lyrics."
As for the rest of the process, Dunn requests that we leave a little mystery behind this meme-worthy track. But Cosmatos is keen to tease Jeremiah fans with one bonus tidbit that happens to intersect with his own metal passions.
"There's actually a deleted, extended version of the scene where Jeremiah is talking to Mandy in the living room, and they're all tripping out," the director says. "He pulls the gatefold of Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil off the shelf and opens it and says, 'Those are the ugliest chicks I've ever seen.' It's actually something I said myself when I was a kid. There was this kid who was a bit older that I looked up to and thought was the coolest. [He] was always walking around with his Walkman, and one day I asked him what he was listening to, and he showed me up the Shout at the Devil cassette. On the cover it has that quadrant of [the band members'] photos. He said, 'Mötley Crüe,' and I was immediately captivated." Cosmatos laughs. "I asked to borrow it and took it home, and that was kind of the beginning of the end for me. That was the gateway — I got super into metal via that experience."
Mandy's zanier elements (like the Cheddar Goblin commercial) certainly provide a level of Rocky Horror popcorn entertainment. For one of his most batshit wild scenes (screaming "Did you rip my shirt?" to a demon"), Cage reportedly channeled the vocalizations of Dave Mustaine and Axl Rose.
"That's what I love about him as an actor," Cosmatos says. "He thinks about these things in a performative and artistic way and not just a realistic way. I love performances that tap into that kind of inspiration. It's funny – I don't remember ever talking to him specifically about the musical thing. But there's a scene in Black Rainbow where the villain is wearing what I call this 'fantasy outfit' and is coming down this corridor, calling out the name of the protagonist. On set, we had one version of it, but I wasn't satisfied, so the actor came in and we re-recorded it all in post. I basically built it as a vocal track in a song. Each time he calls the time, we built each layer until it sounded musical. I remember saying 'Freddie Mercury' to this actor, Michael Rogers."
Despite its occasional campiness, this tale of mourning and redemption actually originated from a raw, personal place for Cosmatos. "Black Rainbow and this movie basically came out of mourning my parents and trying to process that loss," he says. Cage's performance, meanwhile, is often unnervingly sad — including one crucial scene where his grief manifests into a series of maniacal bathroom screams.
"When I was in London, I was talking to this writer who's a huge metalhead going way back to the Eighties," Cosmatos says of the film's tonal balance. "He said he went to see it and people were laughing at parts that were bringing him to tears. I thought that was interesting. I think there's the potential for people to laugh at some of it, and that's OK. But some people are also connecting with on it on a level where it's resonating with them emotionally. To be honest, I wanted both of those possibilities."