By Chris Lee
November 15, 2009In "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," Nicolas Cage portrays a cop of unwavering commitment: He never lets his duty to protect and serve stand in the way of a hard-core drug binge.
As a homicide detective policing the Big Easy's toughest precincts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he snorts cocaine at crime scenes, blows marijuana smoke in the face of a suspected perp and whips out his "lucky crack pipe" to the amazement of a local drug kingpin. Amped up, antic and crackling with chemical intensity, the performance moved movie critic Roger Ebert to observe: "Cage is as good as anyone since Klaus Kinski at portraying a man whose head is exploding."
Cage's tweaker technique was so realistic, it caused the movie's director, Werner Herzog -- who worked with Kinski on five films -- to call into question what the Oscar winner was really putting up his nose.
"We had prop cocaine. Nicolas would sniff it, and I would ask him to shift positions," Herzog recently recalled. "From the moment I would ask him to move, he would be acting erratic. All of a sudden, I had the feeling: For God's sake, has he taken cocaine?"
Nursing a martini at the Polo Lounge, just days after his father, August Coppola, had passed away of a heart attack at age 75, Cage darkened at the memory of Herzog's on-set interrogation. "I would be psyching myself up, using my imagination to believe I was really blasted on coke," Cage said. "I take this little vial of saccharine-type stuff, and I would snort it and try to build that fourth wall around myself, get all agitated so I could believe I was this crazy cop who was high. And Werner would say to me, 'Nicolas, what is in that vial?' I'd be like, 'You've got to be kidding!' "
Indeed, Cage and Herzog are odd movie-making confreres. But their unique chemistry is what elevates "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" above its genre niche. Almost impossible to classify, the film is a glorious mess: part "CSI"-style police procedural, part over-the-top B-movie and part surrealist character study in flamboyant dissolution. "Bad Lieutenant" was a hit with critics at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals and boasts a 92% "freshness" rating from rottentomatoes.com.
Still, for all its sleazy, loony brilliance, doubts about the film's ability to connect with a mainstream audience linger. Online canards at one point had the movie heading straight to video. But intrepid moviegoers will be relieved to hear that "Bad Lieutenant" arrives in theaters in Los Angeles through the micro-distributor First Look on Friday.
Just don't mistake it for a remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 "Bad Lieutenant" -- or even a "re-imagining" of that critically hailed crime drama, as the producers of "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" have termed the project. (Which arrives, not coincidentally, at a cultural moment when Hollywood has become obsessed with franchises, "pre-awareness" and branding.) As Herzog points out, the films bear little relation to each other outside their depictions of drug- and sex-crazed police rogues who flex the power of their badges in highly questionable ways.
"It's not a 're' anything," the director said. "I have not imagined or seen the other film. When I read the script, I had no idea Abel Ferrara's film existed."
Not a remake
As befits the movie's mongrel pedigree, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" started inauspiciously. Would-be film financiers Gabe and Alan Polsky, untested in Hollywood and looking to break into the business with their first film, approached veteran independent film producer Edward Pressman about remaking a property Pressman owns, "Bad Lieutenant."
Pressman admits he was initially "dubious" but couldn't identify any downsides to giving the Polskys a chance. "I was not thinking about a sequel. I probably wouldn't have done it," Pressman said. "But I had these fellows who were willing to pay for the financing. It was a long shot."
The producers' first choice for director was Ferrara. Negotiations with him broke down, however, when the outspoken Bronx native refused to work with the screenplay written for the project by William M. Finkelstein, a journeyman television writer-producer of such series as "Law & Order," " NYPD Blue" and "Brooklyn South."
"Abel walked away from it," Pressman pointed out. "He and Harvey [Keitel, who starred in the original] had an idea for another writer, a relative of Harvey's who was not that experienced. It was a creative mix that was not working. Technically, we offered Abel the opportunity to do it first."
Gabe Polsky reset his sites on Herzog, 67, a legendary international film figure variously regarded as a mad man and a visionary.
A consummate art-house auteur ("Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Grizzly Man," "Rescue Dawn"), the obsessive German New Wave writer-director-producer is infamous for pushing his actors -- mainly Kinski -- to blur the line between performance and psychosis. Herzog famously directed his first movie with a camera stolen from the Munich Film School and insisted on having a production crew haul a 320-ton steamship over a hill in the Peruvian jungle (resulting in injury and death) for his dramatic opus "Fitzcarraldo" (1982). But his major point of pride is to shoot movies fast and economically, frequently without official permits, claiming never to have gone over budget in his storied five-decade career.
"He had a reputation for dealing with these demented, strange, flawed characters that were extremely compelling," Gabe Polsky said. "He also has a reputation for being a renegade."
As Herzog tells it, he responded immediately to Finkelstein's script -- about a valiant cop with a bottomless appetite for drugs and sex, blackmail and high-stakes sports gambling who's pulled into a vortex of mayhem while investigating the massacre of a Senegalese immigrant family -- not realizing an earlier "Bad Lieutenant" existed. The director insisted on adding certain impressionistic aspects to the screenplay but resisted signing any contract until he knew he could secure the right person as the Bad Lieutenant.
In Herzog's mind, the only choice was Cage, not necessarily an obvious fit to anyone but the director.
After an early career punctuated by offbeat roles ("Raising Arizona," "Vampire's Kiss"), Cage ranks among Hollywood's highest-paid A-list movie stars. Despite coming off a string of middling mainstream fare ("National Treasure: Book of Secrets," " Bangkok Dangerous," "Knowing") that some industry observers dismissed as paycheck gigs, he is also one of the most debt-laden. Long one of moviedom's most profligate spenders, the actor owes the IRS $6.3 million in back taxes. According to published reports, over the years Cage bought two Bahamian islands, more than dozen houses around the world, scores of exotic sports cars as well as dinosaur skulls, meteorites and yachts (he's suing former money manager Samuel J. Levin and his firm for $20 million in Los Angeles Superior Court, claiming Levin fattened his own bank account while "sending Cage down a path toward financial ruin").
Turns out Herzog had courted Cage in 1995 for a biopic about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés that never got off the ground. And their connection extends back further; the two had met at the winery owned by Cage's uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, when the actor was 7 or 8. "I think I might have been in the back of a car and he might have been showing me his tattoo of a skull with a top hat or something," Cage recalled.
Herzog reached Cage by phone in Australia where he was shooting the sci-fi mystery film "Knowing." And the two almost instantly reached an agreement to work together, thereby getting the project greenlighted. "We had a concordance of hearts that existed over 30 years, unbeknownst to each other," Herzog said at the memory with barely contained glee.
All of which did little to win over fans of writer-director Ferrara's 1992 "Bad Lieutenant." A gritty NC-17-rated crime drama with heavy Judeo-Christian overtones, that film follows Keitel as a corrupt New York cop with pronounced gambling, drug and sex addictions investigating the rape of a nun while navigating his own moral freefall. In the years since its limited theatrical release, the movie has turned into a bona-fide cult classic. And last year, when producer Avi Lerner announced that Cage and Herzog were planning to "remake" "Bad Lieutenant" -- a well-intentioned slip of the lip, according to the new film's producers -- many film fans simply thought it was a joke.
The excitable Ferrara, meanwhile, condemned everyone attached to the project. "I wish these people die in hell," he said at last year's Cannes Film Festival. "I hope they're all in the same streetcar and it blows up."
With less than three weeks set aside for pre-production -- to establish 40 shooting locations and cast 35 speaking parts -- and no rehearsal time, the movie moved ahead at a dizzying clip. Eva Mendes, Cage's costar in the 2007 comic-book thriller "Ghost Rider," was hired as his character's love interest, a high-class call girl, and Val Kilmer was installed in the role of a fellow homicide detective. Filming took place in and around New Orleans in summer 2008, a location chosen in part because Cage owned two multimillion dollar homes there before his financial predicament forced him to put them up for sale, with Herzog seldom filming more than two takes of any scene. Moreover, he forewent what is known in movie parlance as "coverage" (shooting a performance in different ways to enable editing options). And production wrapped by 2 p.m. on most days, to allow Herzog to edit the material on site to meet another deadline: Two weeks after finishing "Bad Lieutenant," he was scheduled to direct an opera in Spain.
"I was definitely a little concerned he wasn't going to get all the shots," Alan Polsky admitted.
Nonetheless, Cage was galvanized by Herzog's speed and confidence and delighted in extensively improvising his scenes -- stone cold sober, thank you very much -- to hilarious but also often poignant effect. "Because [the character] had the chemicals to explain his behavior, I saw this as an opportunity to go to more abstract places with acting," Cage said. "I tried to design a performance that would be more extreme."
Herzog also lived up to the producers' expectation by concocting one of the movie's most memorable scenes on the fly: a long, impressionistic sequence in which Cage's character hallucinates seeing iguanas while on a stakeout of a suspected killer's home. In keeping with a motif that runs through many films in Herzog's filmography -- man and nature vying for supremacy -- the actor is framed peering quizzically at the scaly beasts from the iguanas' point of view while primal rock music blares.
The scene proved to be a breakthrough for the director, one Cage remembers as "the defining moment" of working on the movie.
Herzog's epiphany took place at a party about midway through shooting. "Werner had had a couple of drinks," Cage said. "He said in this distraught voice, 'The iguanas are the best thing in the movie. And I must have five minutes of iguana time! And if I don't have my full five minutes of iguana time, I will never make another movie again!' " (Needless to say, the iguanas stayed in the picture.)
Exhibiting what the producers and Cage describe as an alternately freewheeling and deeply disciplined directorial style, Herzog still defied all expectations when it came to the finished product.
"I edited the final cut in less than two weeks, delivered the film two days before schedule and $2.6 million under budget," Herzog crowed. "You have to know from your guts. Avi Lerner wants to marry me. But I've always worked this way."
Now, two of the movie's producers have their sights set beyond just two "Bad Lieutenant" films. "When we were putting this together, we were like, Abel and Keitel. Interesting combo," Alan Polsky said. "Then you think about Herzog and Cage. Interesting combo. Why can't we do Aronofsky and Pitt? Michel Gondry and Bill Murray? Who knows? It can go in so many directions and be a whole new franchise."
One small stumbling block in that equation being Pressman. "That idea is not as plausible to me as it is to them," the producer said. "They don't own the rights, we do."
Although Herzog petitioned the producers throughout production to shed the "Bad Lieutenant" title (in favor of calling it simply "Port of Call New Orleans"), he has made peace with his part in what Pressman calls "an interesting experiment in cinema."
"It's a sexy title," Cage said, sounding somewhat impatient. "I had it on my trailer: 'Bad Lieutenant.' We were looking at it and I said, 'You have to admit those words look pretty cool.' That's the beauty of it. The audacity of it. Ultimately, Werner likes it."
So much so, in fact, that Herzog can find unexpected joy at the notion of Ferrara wishing upon him a fiery streetcar death. "I enjoy these moments," Herzog said. "It's the same joy when I watch a baseball game. The unforgettable moment is when the manager rushes out to the umpire and yells at him from 5 inches away from his face before finally stepping back to kick sand.
"It has nothing to do with the outcome of the game. But I love baseball for those wonderful moments. In movies, you sometimes have blissful moments like this."