Pig’s creators celebrate one of film’s most unique actors

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | July 29, 2021

The old man and the swine: Nicolas Cage is just straight-up excellent in Pig.

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For those of us who haven’t taken Nicolas Cage for granted his renaissance is hardly a surprise. Forget the disposable, low-budget digital-only releases. Cage continues (sporadically) to deliver boundary-pushing films like Mandy, Mom and Dad and Color Out of Space. His willingness to work with edgier filmmakers was bound to pay off eventually.

He just hit the jackpot. Pig has one of Cage’s finest, rawest performances since he christened his method of acting nouveau shamanic.

Pig is a character study disguised as a thriller that follows a reclusive truffle forager as he looks for his kidnapped pig. The pursuit brings the man back to the civilization he renounced `many years ago. Slowly, his truth is revealed: He was known as chef Robin Feld and used to rule Portland’s culinary scene. His disappearance turned him into a legend.

You wouldn’t know it from watching the movie, but Pig is director Michael Sarnoski’s first feature-length film. Sarnoski also wrote the script alongside documentarian Vanessa Block. You can feel her hand in Pig’s naturalistic approach at telling a story.

Pig is less an action romp than a meditation on loss and grief (though there’s some bareknuckle fighting, if that’s your kink). By withdrawing from the world, chef Rob is extending his sorrow. Nicolas Cage, bloodied, bruised and bearded, projects infinite grief, and not just for his pet.

Michael Sarnoski tells a story about Cage going for coffee in full makeup: “The waiter said nothing. No one commented.” Adds Vanessa Block: “Portland is known for being a weird place. Everyone has their own look and vibe, so he fitted seamlessly.”

I spoke to the pair recently for Planet S.

Do you remember the lightning rod moment for Pig?

Michael Sarnoski: I remember reading an article about truffle hunters sitting on their porches at night with a shotgun to protect their dogs and pigs. It felt really compelling. From there it was this gradual exploration of, “who is this guy?” “Where is he from?” That was the core idea. The theme came from my dad’s passing when I was a kid. As I got older — seeing the immediate effect of grief fall away and how my family members built their perception of the world around that grief — I wanted to explore that idea through this story.

What is it about dealing with grief through film that’s so compelling?

MS: It’s about saying stuff without having to put it exactly into words. No one has a thing to say to make grief better. It’s this complicated emotion we’ll always be sorting out. By exploring grief through art, you’re not necessarily coming to an answer but trying to understand it more deeply.

Vanessa Block: The making of a film is intensely intimate, but there’s also a degree of emotional removal from the process. That slight remove allows you to delve more deeply into the healing process.

Thanks to its trailer, media initially described Pig as a gonzo action film. The movie’s a lot quieter than that. How do you respond to this perception?

MS: I really don’t think the trailer falsely portrays the film. The “John Wick with a pig” thing is more the audience bringing their own history with Nic. The first third to half of the movie feels a bit like film noir and then transitions into something more personal. Hopefully it does it in a way that you find satisfying, even if you come expecting something bigger or louder. I’m sure some people will complain there wasn’t enough action, but others may be surprised [Pig] scratches an itch they didn’t realize they had.

VB: People forget that Nicolas Cage is an actor with incredible dramatic heft. [Pig] was an opportunity for him to delve into the introspective emotionality of a character and show his ability to do something meditative, almost silent. That shift in tone was intentional, reflective of the grieving process: we go through this range of emotions, from being proactive to moments of passivity and despair.

How precious were you with your script?

VB: One of the things that we found out with both Nic and Alex (Wolff, chef Feld’s truffle buyer and only link to society) is that they had a lot of reverence for the words on the page. We did a few a readthroughs beforehand and got a sense of how the dialogue was going to play. If anything didn’t ring true, that conversation would happen before shooting, which was important because we were so strapped for time. I was struck by how Nic has this barometer for what’s truthful and what feels like a distortion of the truth. He was an incredible asset to us.

MS: Nic was by-the-book with the script. He would correct me on action lines. Alex likes to play a little more and his character was looser. It was fun to see them interact and that dynamic comes across.

There’s a scene in which you see Nicolas Cage’s character at the end of the street and a squirrel crosses the frame. Happy accident or a trained squirrel?

MS: We paid $100,000 for the squirrel (laughs). Happy accident. I think that was the first shot we got of the entire movie. We were like, “cool, that’s a good sign. The squirrel gods are blessing us.”

VB: We all shrieked in glee.