One of the most intriguing, and certainly weirdest, titles at this year’s Sundance was Prisoners of the Ghostland, a surreal, dystopian sci-fi Western samurai action epic starring Nicolas Cage as a prisoner tasked with finding a sleazy warlord’s missing step-granddaughter (Sofia Boutella) in an atomic wasteland populated by mannequin-faced time slaves. (I’m simplifying.) The actor might have attracted the initial attention (with some reason, since he’s phenomenal in the film, going big in all sorts of special ways), but it soon became clear that Ghostland was very much the work of its director, the legendary and prolific Japanese auteur Sion Sono. His controversial, eclectic career has encompassed everything from a four-hour epic family melodrama about upskirt photography (Love Exposure, 2008) to a horror movie about hair extensions (Exte, 2007) to a postapocalyptic Japanese martial-arts hip-hop musical (Tokyo Tribe, 2015). Is it any wonder that Sion Sono calls Prisoners of the Ghostland his “Disney film”? Speaking through his translator and producer Ko Mori, we talked about making his first English-language movie, the trick to working quickly, and the very special way in which Nicolas Cage says “testicle.”
Tell me about casting Nicolas Cage. People have come to appreciate him a bit more in the last couple of years, realizing that a lot of these seemingly crazy roles he takes are, in fact, quite special. What was it about him that drew you?
Whatever other people might have said about Nic Cage, for me, Nic Cage is Hollywood itself. He has Hollywood vibes all over his face and his body and everything that comes out of him. But he’s very humble. He never acts like he has this whole career and an Oscar. You know how young actors who’ve just started their careers are very nice? He never acted like he was a star. That was great about him.
There’s a really wonderful line reading that Cage gives during a rousing speech. He says, “Had I known that today I’d be standing before you with one arm and one testicle …” But he isolates the word “testicle” and yells it out with such pain and anger — “TESTICLEEE!” It’s hilarious and shocking, but also quite sad. How does a line reading like that happen? Is it in the script? Do you direct him to read the line like that? Does he come up with it on his own?
Actually, by the time we shot that scene, we were getting along so well and understood each other really well. I’d say one thing and Nic would understand and give me another thing. It was a great communication. Sometimes, after we discuss a scene, Nic will give me a surprise — something that he wouldn’t tell me ahead of time. And this was one of those lines. He never gave me any indication ahead of time. I was quite surprised, but it worked out.
You’re a very prolific filmmaker, but your films are also visually striking, which is not something I associate with prolific filmmakers. What is the secret, in your case, of being able to work so much and so quickly, while making movies that remain so visually elaborate?
As you might know, when I was younger, I wanted to be a poet. I love poems, and also short stories. Those are rather fast-paced — they’re created quickly, whereas filmmaking seems to take more time. But for me, creating poems and creating short stories is the same as filmmaking. All filmmakers should be like that. Once something hits your mind and your head as a visual image, or any creative idea, you should be able to just create, to let those ideas out right away. That’s why I only take a short amount of time. I’m not afraid of making mistakes. When I’m making a movie, I’m not trying to make something that is 100 percent convincing. I’d rather try to make movies one after another, without being afraid of mistakes or anything like that. Because, number one, that gives me more motivation for the next film — to keep shooting, keep filming, to take the next step. Also, at the end of the day, whether something is a failure or not, it’s not my decision. I can’t really tell. It’s other people — the audience — that will tell me if it’s great or not great. Since I can’t judge it that way, I’d rather just keep filming.
You don’t care if something is a failure or not while you’re shooting, but when you look at your earlier films, or scenes, is there anything you see now and think was a mistake?
The truth is, I’ve got a whole bunch of mistakes. Even now, I look back and think about it, and there are so many. But if I think too much of it, that doesn’t help. That doesn’t give me any motivation. And all I’ll do is suffer with all those thoughts of mistakes. So I try not to think about it.
Your style of filmmaking can be very extreme at times. Prisoners of the Ghostland is at times very brutal, but also very funny and surreal. Do you ever look at something and think you’ve gone too far and that you might lose the audience?
Actually, for this particular film, I tried to not make things too extreme. Because I was thinking maybe this is going to be brought to a wider audience internationally. I tried not to make this too art house. I focused on entertainment. For me, this is what I would call a family movie. So this is for grandma, grandpa, little kids. For me, it’s more like a Disney film. Maybe for my next project, I’ll try to have a little bit more of myself.
You’ve wanted to make an English-language film for some time. Tell me about how this came together.
I’ve been trying for 15 years. I’ve had a number of projects. One of the better-known ones was called The Lords of Chaos, which I tried to make about ten years ago. I grew up on American movies. I watched a lot of American movies as a kid, and I always believed that one day, I’d get to direct an English-speaking film in Hollywood. So it’s come true, finally. It wasn’t about this particular concept; I’ve been trying to make an English-language film for so long, I thought this might be my very last chance to do it. So when my producer Ko [Mori] sent me the script, I trusted that he’d send me something great — so I thought, Whatever this is, I should probably take it.
What were some of the American films that inspired you?
This is a very difficult question because I have seen so many films. I couldn’t even count. Maybe let’s start with John Ford and his Western movies. Then all the way to the recent ones. I can’t really pick any particular films, but if I had to pick a filmmaker who influenced me a lot, it’d be Paul Verhoeven. He came from Holland and did all these great works in Hollywood. That’s somebody I look up to.
Aside from the language, what was the biggest challenge of this movie?
I tried to have as little CGI as possible. So the biggest challenge was to create something on a large scale. Maybe once you watch it you’ll feel like we are using a lot of CGI, but the truth is that I tried to shoot it practically as much as possible. I put a lot of energy into the production design, as well as costumes, anything visual that you see on the big screen.
It’s interesting that you were thinking this would be your big audience film. It’s coming out at a time when we’re still concerned about COVID, which will make it hard for many people to see it theatrically, with audiences.
Yes. I grew up on watching all these films on a big screen. On the flip side, streaming and VOD, those are not quite the films that I have known. For me, films should always be seen on a big screen. If that goes away, then I will be less motivated — at least, that’s what I’m afraid of.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.