“Dream Scenario” is here.
The Kristoffer Borgli movie, produced by Ari Aster and released by A24, is now in theaters nationwide. And that’s good, because it’s the type of movie that you’ll want to discuss with as many people as possible afterwards.
Nicolas Cage stars in “Dream Scenario” as a dumpy professor at an anonymous northeastern university who starts popping up in people’s dreams. Not just people he knows, but total strangers. And while it is good and fun to begin with (Michael Cera, as an ad executive, wants to use his ubiquity to sell Sprite), things soon curdle. And what started out as a dream soon becomes a nightmare. (You saw that Aster was a producer, right?)
Through this high concept lens, writer/director Borgli subtly investigates memes, cancel culture and the way that we connect in 2023.
TheWrap spoke to Borgli about where the idea for “Dream Scenario” came from, how Cage was cast and his approach to visualizing the dreams and nightmares of the characters.
Where did the idea for “Dream Scenario” come from?
This was written at the beginning of 2020. It was written at the same time the pandemic was slowly becoming a pandemic. The first seed for this movie was actually the character. I’ve been thinking about a middle-aged academic who felt entitled to recognition for work that he hadn’t done. And I had heard these podcast interviews with a professor who was fired and he thought it was mislabeled – he was actually a genius and he had been robbed of a Nobel Prize, but he hadn’t actually done the work. I thought that was really funny, that delusion and that entitlement. And I wanted to do something with that. I didn’t have a story yet. And then … I’ve always wanted to do something with dreams.
“Sick of Myself,” my previous feature, also goes in and out of dream worlds or fantasy worlds. I wanted to do something that was even more about dreams. I was reading about the collective unconscious, the theory of Carl Jung, which is a theory about how we operate on a sort of hive mind, that maybe our consciousness or subconsciousness lies not in our bodies, but we’re connected to some sort of cosmic unity. I thought that felt like a horror movie idea on its own. Then I thought, of course, “Nightmare on Elm Street,” which feels born out of a Jungian idea. And I felt like, wouldn’t it be interesting to take such a concept and rip it out of its genre and put it somewhere it doesn’t belong?
In the time that I was writing this, I was studying how our culture was responding to the new massive phenomenon of people who accidentally got famous. There seemed to be a pattern that I could map my movie from.
Nicolas Cage is so phenomenal in this role. When did you start to think of him?
I didn’t have anyone in mind when I was writing it. I hadn’t even made “Sick of Myself” yet. I didn’t even have a wish list of actors. Once the film was set up with A24 and we got a budget and I had Ari Aster as my producer with Lars Knudsen, I thought, OK, maybe now it’s realistic to reach the level of a Nic Cage. And it was actually Ari Aster who reached out to him for me, and he responded very quickly. He felt that this movie was dealing with issues that were personal to him and he signed on immediately. Once he was on board, it was so obvious and it felt like no one else should ever be thought of for this part. He’s the most suited person to play this. And the film gained the meta layer from him coming into it.
He’s been so memed to death. Did it feel like he was working through stuff?
Exactly. I think he got to exorcise some demons and he got to use his personal experience in the project. He knew what the character was feeling, he found a way to make the character feel authentic. I think he’s always looking for his personal angle for the movies he does. And I think with this one, it was just easier to find that personal angle.
And what was the experience like working with him?
Really great. He’s extremely focused, and he creates this grand architecture for our performance that evolves over time. He keeps that in mind throughout the whole thing. If he comes up with body language for one scene, he finds a way to repeat that in the latter half of the movie to make the character feel completely deliberate and thought out and alive and authentic. And we collaborated in the way that this on paper is the most bland, random and unremarkable person on the planet, in a way. And we’ve cast maybe the most recognizable person on the planet and who has natural energy and charisma. We just needed to make sure that he shaved off his natural qualities and became this awkward beta male.
And that was a combination of hair and makeup. He’s bald, he has a prosthetic nose on that most people don’t really notice because it’s very subtle, and he’s wearing extremely bland clothing. He’s wearing clothing that signals that he’s an outdoorsy person without ever seeing him in the nature. I just wanted to make him feel like a random suburban dad. And I wanted him to embody the secondhand embarrassment I felt from my own father.
Have we not seen him bald before? Whose idea was that?
It was actually his idea. I think he said he read the script seeing a bald character, and I felt that that was brilliant and also a way to make the character look even less like the Nic Cage we usually see.
Can you talk about your approach to the dream sequences? Were you inspired by any dream movies in particular?
I was feeling like a lot of the dreams in the movie “Mulholland Dr.” felt like they never really announced themselves. You’re not really sure when you are in reality and when you’re in a dream. And I felt like I wanted to not really follow tropes of how dreams are represented in cinema, but more I wanted the audience to experience what it feels like to be in a dream. And when you’re in the dream, your logic is turned off, your skepticism is turned off, and everything makes sense to you. And so there was a limit I thought, on how absurd a dream could be before it just starts feeling ridiculous for everyone who’s watching them, because they are awake and they have their skepticism turned on. That was a guide for me in terms of the dreams. And then once I had that sort of formula, I started feeding it with my own dreams.
I have one recurring nightmare of being chased through a pleasant and bright suburb, and I’m being chased by some strange person and I don’t know why. And there’s no one around, no one can help me. And no matter how fast I run or how many back alleys or backyards I cut through, he’s always right behind me. And that dream I could just take right out of my own head and make it into a movie scene, which felt great.
Also, the slow punches that you see in the movie, that’s something I constantly have, I’m fighting something off. My punches are so weak and slow that nothing’s happening. It felt great to focus on my own dreams as an inspiration more than other movies about dreams.
And the “real world” parts of the movie become so heightened by the end that you wonder if you’re still in a dream.
That’s great. I do want to welcome the investigation of where does the movie turn into a dream or where’s it reality? I think there’s a surface level of reading that feels very clear the way that your first initial read. But in my head, there is multiple points of the film that I consider might not be real. I want that to be on peoples’ minds.
“Dream Scenario” is now in theaters nationwide.