Nicolas Cage's Wildest Movie (Had Real-Life Death Threats And Werner Herzog)
Nicolas Cage is obviously known for his gloriously unhinged performances in movies like Face/Off, Snake Eyes, and the anti-bee propaganda hit job that was The Wicker Man. You know an actor is uniquely wild when the film in which they literally kidnap the President of the United States at his own birthday party in order to solve the Lincoln assassination features one of their more understated performances. But there's one bonkers Cage movie that doesn't get the cult love it perhaps deserves; 2009's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Directed by legendary filmmaker/Baby Yoda enthusiast Werner Herzog, the film tells the story of a New Orleans cop who hurts his back, gets hooked on Vicodin, and then gets hooked on … pretty much every drug you could possibly imagine. The resulting scenes make Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance seem downright quaint by comparison. Of course, creating this gonzo sleaze fest required a whole lot of fake cocaine, real iguanas, and even incurring death threats from other filmmakers …
The project began with two unproven film financiers looking to "break into the business." For some reason, they really wanted to remake Bad Lieutenant – the acclaimed, highly controversial 1992 drama directed by Abel Ferrara, starring Harvey Keitel as a nameless self-loathing police officer. He attempts to medicate his existential torment away with drugs, violence, and sex. It's hard to believe that this is the same dude who showed up in Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg later that same year.
The backers approached Edward Pressman, the producer of the original who still owned the rights to the title. Pressman was "dubious" about the idea but went along with it. Then they tried to recruit Ferrara and Keitel, which fell apart when Ferrara rejected the script by a former Law & Order and NYPD Blue writer and attempted to give the writing gig to one of Keitel's relatives instead.
Their next logical choice for this pulpy cop movie? Werner Herzog, for some reason. Herzog loved the script and insisted on casting Nicolas Cage in the lead role. While they had never worked together before, Herzog had once tried to cast Cage in an unproduced '90s biopic about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés, and weirdly, he had met Cage when the future Con Air star was only a child, either seven or eight years old, at Cage's uncle Francis Ford Coppola's winery. Cage recalls that Herzog showed off his skull tattoo in the back of a car – we'll pause for a moment while you all Google Image Search "Werner Herzog Skull Tattoo."
There's a reason why Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans feels like a standard crime drama but where the real star was kidnapped and replaced by a strung-out improv sketch comic who just murdered their way out of rehab. The screenplay, by William Finkelstein, began as a more conventional police procedural – but when Herzog and Cage came on board, it became a one-way train to Crazytown, U.S.A.
Some changes were more superficial; the action was shifted from the streets of Detroit to a post-Katrina New Orleans; a change made for both "tax purposes" and because Cage owned two (soon-to-be-foreclosed) "multimillion-dollar homes" in the city at the time. Cage's self-described "extreme" performance, with the help of Herzog's direction, took the character to strange new places. Take the scene in which Cage shows up at a seniors' home and threatens the grandmother of a missing witness. Finkelstein had structured the scene as an homage to the classic 1947 film noir Kiss of Death, and specifically the notorious moment in which a psycho crook pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.
In Herzog's version, Cage comedically enters the scene after hiding behind a door, where he is inexplicably shaving, and he proceeds to call this poor grandma the C-word, yank out her oxygen tube, and shove a gun in her nurse's face. Finkelstein initially thought the scene, as filmed, was "terrible" – but eventually learned to love it in the context of the finished film. Herzog, meanwhile, called Cage a "gift from God" and was so convinced by his acting skills that he actually questioned whether the actor had substituted the prop cocaine for the real stuff. Cage claimed such authenticity was achieved thanks to an Australian doctor who prescribed him a "cocaine solution" to cure a sinus infection.
Perhaps the best example of how Herzog pushed this story into the realm of the avant-garde is what can only be described as the iguana scene. While the final shooting script contains not a single reference to iguanas, Herzog pauses the story for a prolonged sequence in which we get several extreme close-ups of an imaginary iguana, which is one of Cage's hallucinations.
Herzog had to scrap an entire action scene (a "coke-fueled fight" at a gas station) in order to make room for the iguana moment. He even drunkenly confessed to Cage one night that if he was forced to cut out the iguana, he would "never make another movie again!" The iguana ended up biting Herzog, but that's hardly the worst thing he's had to put up with on a film set.
We haven't even mentioned the ending, in which Cage urges Xzibit to shoot a dead guy because his "soul is dancing" – again, this wasn't scripted. And, oddly enough, the role of the victim was played by Finkelstein, creating a, perhaps inadvertent, allegory in which the soul of the screenwriter of the film is murdered in a wild divergence from what he actually wrote.
When the movie came out, people were … confused. Was it a remake? With the Port of Call New Orleans subtitle, it kind of seemed like a straight-to-video sequel in the vein of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Jr. Herzog himself was adamant that it wasn't a remake; telling the press that "the films have nothing to do with each other." He also claimed that the producers were eager to start a "franchise," which was true. They envisioned a future of additional Bad Lieutenant movies, each with a wacky pairing of star and director, like "Aronofsky and Pitt" or "Michel Gondry and Bill Murray."
Herzog warned them that using the title Bad Lieutenant was a "mistake" that would "backfire." He suggested going with Port of Call New Orleans, and in the end, they were left with a "strange hybrid" title. Finkelstein later suggested that the two films were connected, but only in the same way that James Bond films are – which is an odd comparison, except for the fact that they're both film series about law enforcement agents with massive substance abuse problems.
Things really got out of hand when Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara (who, remember, had previously passed on the project) was asked about the new movie. He responded with a death threat, telling reporters at the Cannes Film Festival: "I wish these people die in hell" – which is an awful thing to say, but also just very confusing. If someone is in hell, aren't they already dead? Where do you go if you die in hell? He then added: "I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up." Which, again, is very perplexing. Is the streetcar also in hell? What's going on here, Abel? Ferrara later stated that the original movie was written by a "genius" (the late Zoë Lund) while Herzog's was penned by an "idiot" and that Harvey Keitel had warned him not to "say anything stupid."
Herzog defused the situation by – wait, no, sorry, he did the exact opposite of defusing the situation. Not only did he claim he'd never seen the original, Herzog also said that he'd never seen any Abel Ferrara film and indeed had "no idea who Abel Ferrara is," questioning reporters: "Is he Italian? Is he French? Who is he?" As for its franchise potential, sadly, the movie made less than half of its budget back at the box office, and the producers' planned Bad Lieutenant Cinematic Universe never actually came to fruition.
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Top Image: First Look Studios