For filmmaker Kristoffer Brogli, his latest feature is a dream come true in an almost literal sense.
The darkly comic fantasy Dream Scenario sees Nicolas Cage giving a powerhouse performance as Paul Matthews, an academic whose life is turned upside down when millions of strangers suddenly start seeing him in their dreams. Before too long, things begin to take a nightmarish turn as he goes from pop culture hot property to a nightmarish pariah.
“All of the dream sequences were mini-movies,” Brogli enthused. “I had the freedom of not needing exposition, and I didn’t need the story to take me there. I could jump in and out of a moment at its peak when it’s the most visually interesting. In that sense, it was a playground for me as a director.”
“There’s a scene where there’s a chase scene through a suburb, and that one felt so good because I’ve had that dream so many times of running through a nice suburban neighborhood in the middle of the day. There is nothing threatening, no people around, and someone is chasing me, but there’s no one to help. Having had that dream so many times, it felt so good to finally put it into something, watch it, and solidify it.”
Cage’s performance is a career-best turn to the point where it is genuinely almost impossible to imagine another actor in the role.
“We didn’t send it to many people,” Brogli recalled. “We were trying to figure out who would make sense for the movie. It’s a character that is portrayed in many different ways because one is the reality, and then it’s how he appears in people’s dreams, which changes over time in the movie. I needed someone with range that could go small, beta male and socially awkward, and then extremely confident, sexy and intimidating, and also violent, aggressive, and big. Nicolas Cage certainly has the ability required for all of those qualities.”
“The other thing was that when we talked about potential candidates, it wasn’t lost on us that this movie also could feel like a sort of allegory for Nic’s life and his place in the culture, how he’s been meme-ified, how he’s been turned into a mythical icon, and that his persona has taken on a life outside of Nicolas Cage’s control. Casting him meant we’re going to add a layer to the movie, which felt exhilarating.”
The filmmaker uses several motifs to build out the characteristics of beaten down Paul and the world he inhabits. One of them is a trademark anorak he wears, which Brogli wanted to be almost like a trademark or catchphrase for the character. Like Cage himself, it plays a significant role in Dream Scenario, which is now playing in theaters.
“I have no idea what happened to it. We never saw that jacket again,” the creative mused. “It was such an important and big part of our lives for a moment. For some reason, it kept not showing up to some of the sets, and everyone stressed out because I wanted that jacket always to be part of his repertoire.”
“Sometimes there were scenes where he was supposed to be inside, and people think, ‘Well, we don’t need the jacket for this location,’ but I always asked, ‘Where’s the jacket? He never takes it off. Please bring it.’ It was like a stressful piece. If we saw that jacket now, it’d be triggering; it would be like the scene in the movie where they use exposure therapy. I think we would need to look at it from a distance and then gradually get exposed to it to accept it back in our lives,” Brogli joked.
Cage also took the idea of finding Paul’s voice to heart, creating a whiny, annoying, beta tone that proved invaluable.
“I didn’t ask for him to change his voice but just described the character in detail and the awkwardness and emasculated quality of his life,” the writer-director recalled. “He had taken his wife’s last name and was almost like being a second mom in the family home. It was part of what he drew from when coming up with the voice. He has said that this character is the least like him out of any character he has played, so Nic needed to remove himself a little bit from the character, and the voice was one of many things he could do.”
Brogli is a filmmaker who likes to film almost entirely on location and, with Dream Scenario, used some of the places extensions of the characters who inhabit them. The family home was a big piece of the puzzle for Cage’s Paul.
“It was the toughest location to find because it’s an important part of the film. I think we spent 10 out of 29 shooting days in that house, so it was the most important location by far,” the director explained. “I was trying to think about a place that wasn’t my taste because my personal sense of style and taste and architecture might be different from this character. I wanted the integrity and authenticity of the character to be the most important thing. I was looking at houses with a suburban quality, an East Coast, academic suburban family, and what that looked like was important to me. This house felt like the one that ticked off the most boxes and had everything.”
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. “We also ran into problems,” the director confessed.
“It had a great backyard, and I intended for the opening scene, the dream sequence when Paul’s daughter starts floating into thin air that was supposed to be her dream, was supposed to be located in their yard, but we couldn’t fit a crane into that location. Suddenly, I was like, ‘What am I going to do? We can’t shoot the opening scene there. It doesn’t make as much sense anymore.’ But then one of the other houses that were shooting, Richard’s house, Paul’s academic rival, had a beautiful backyard with a pool. I thought, ‘Well, she’s dreaming, so she doesn’t need to be physically present in their backyard. That dream could take place in A backyard and still make sense.’ It ultimately became a good decision to shoot that scene somewhere else with that swimming pool that looks so cool. In that way, like the locations, change the vision slightly.”
There was one location in the movie that Brogli and his creative team couldn’t find in the real world so they had to build it from scratch in the basement of a building. The location that needed to be created was the elevator at a creative agency.
“That’s absolutely true. How did you know that?” he asked. “It’s hard to find a real elevator, and it’s also very easy to build something that looks like an elevator. For that one, we decided that was a location we could just build, and we could make it visually interesting. Everything else was on location. I love natural light and the authentic quality of using windows and seeing the real world outside. Those are things that you can’t really do in a studio.”
While the dream sequence at the Matthews family’s pool offered a challenge, it wasn’t the only one. Another was having the time and resources to pull off what Borgli had in mind’s eye.
“The earthquake dream was definitely one that we had limited runs and resetting it,” he said. “I wanted to shoot everything practically in camera, so you have an earthquake with explosions and people falling from the higher levels and about 300 extras, all of them running around and down stairs, falling over, and then you have explosions. Getting all of them in place and resetting all the explosions and all that was a huge undertaking, and we think two runs at it for each angle, and there are only two angles in it.”
“It felt like we got to shoot what I wanted to shoot, and if there was anything that was a bigger problem, I could solve it in the script. I changed some scenes in the script to make sense of the schedule, and that was a better way to deal with things than feeling limited when we were on set. When we’re on set, I want to make sure that if we’re spending $200,000 today, I want to make sure we get it right. I felt I could experiment, test, and work things out on the set. It didn’t feel pressured in that way, but I did have to shave off some of the script to fit the schedule.”
Brogli’s trademark darkly comedic tones are delicately laced throughout his script, offering moments of absurdity. One such example is Paul’s creation of the phrase ‘ant-tilligence’ when referring to the smarts of the insects, something he wanted to explore in a book.
“I just thought of him having coined a term nobody uses,” the writer-director laughed. “I felt that was funny. I was playing around with ant puns, and ant-tilligence came about, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is stupid enough.'”
The desire to have ant-tilligence catch on is reminiscent of Lacey Chabert’s Mean Girls character, Gretchen Wieners “trying to make fetch happen.” It’s not the only connection Dream Scenario has with the 2004 classic.
“There’s another connection through Tim Meadows because he plays the principal in that movie and also as sort of a dean in this movie,” Brogli enthused. “We did think about Mean Girls as a reference. Also, one of the actors from Mean Girls was our reader for the auditions. He read every line opposite everyone who auditioned. There’s also National Mean Girls Day, and that was literally his birthday, so we spent that in the casting room together. That was completely unintentional.”