Nicolas Cage in "Between Worlds"

Interview: Maria Pulera on Pushing Herself to New Places with “Between Worlds”

There was real electricity on the set of “Between Worlds,” as any production involving Nicolas Cage is apt to have, so it was distressing to say the least when Maria Pulera got back to the editing room to find that much of that, generated when she would let takes go long to let the actors loose, had been trimmed back to something more traditional.

“My producer brought somebody to do an assembly for me during the shoot and I was horrified,” recalls Pulera. ”I’m like, I can’t watch this. What the fuck is this? I’ve got to walk out of the room. I was hopping mad. It was really upsetting to me, even talking about it now.”

In fact, audiences still might say “What the fuck?” when they watch “Between Worlds,” but for the reasons Pulera had always intended with the lurid and surreal thriller. Fortunately, Pulera’s producer also knew of Tim Silano, an editor more attuned to her star’s unique wavelength, having worked together previously on Paul Schrader’s “Dying of the Light,” and they’ve made turned one of Cage’s wildest performances in recent years into the centerpiece of the writer/director’s eye-popping sophomore feature. Naturally, Cage is already in the middle of the action as Joe, a long-haul trucker en route to Biloxi when he happens upon a rest stop in Alabama where he senses an assault is taking place in the bathroom. While he thinks he’s rescuing Julie (Franka Potente) by busting down the door of a stall where she is being choked by another trucker, it is Joe who finds himself over his head, first when he learns that Julie invited the choking with the belief that she leave her body and enter another realm when she’s rendered unconscious, thanks to a childhood incident, and that she’s doing so to commune with her twentysomething daughter Billie (Penelope Mitchell), currently comatose at the local hospital following a motorcycle accident.

Yet that is hardly the craziest thing that happens in “Between Worlds,” especially once Billie eventually awakens and almost immediately wants to get into Joe’s pants, creating tension with her mother who also has eyes for him and reminding Joe of his late — and much younger — wife (Lydia Hearst), who died in a tragic fire. Pulera surely had a particular audience in mind when tucking in scenes of Joe reading a book of poetry called “Memories by Nicolas Cage” and the actor writhing around like a puppy being hosed down in slo-mo at one point by Billie. But as far as she takes things, the film is grounded both in her own upbringing, inspired by the truck stops she grew up hanging out around in Wisconsin, and a sense of where all the madness will ultimately lead, with Julie’s suburban home becoming a tinderbox on the verge of explosion with potentially galaxy-altering implications. With the film arriving in theaters and on VOD this week, locked and loaded with Cage’s volcanic turn, Pulera is threatening to thrust every room playing it into a similar predicament and she recently spoke about how she embarked on making an instant cult sensation, making the most of her collaboration with Cage and keeping her vision intact.

Nicolas Cage in "Between Worlds"How did this come about?

I’m crazy all about the supernatural and I grew up in Southern Wisconsin [with trucker culture], so the combination of the two came to this and then it became this love triangle [where] this tension built up between the characters, so it all came together like that.

How’d you end up filming in Alabama?

Alabama’s awesome, man. They had a really great tax credit they offer for filmmakers, but they had a great community there [and we could film in] actual locations. It was hot down there and there were three hurricanes around us – [fortunately] we got missed by every single one, which was amazing, but when we were shooting, we had people in the hotels driving up from Florida because the hurricane was there and then Hurricane Maria went to Puerto Rico, so it was pretty crazy.

Of course, you’ve got another force of nature in Nicolas Cage – how did he come aboard?

I wrote it with Nicolas Cage in mind because who else could play such a crazy wacky character? And he took it to a whole another level, more than I could’ve ever imagined. I had a vision, and part of that vision is also in the casting, so when you cast Nicolas Cage, there’s a certain awareness that I had of him as an actor and a certain vision of how it would all play together. My producer David Hillary had just done “Dog Eat Dog,” Paul Schrader’s movie with Nicolas Cage, so he was able to bring Nicolas onboard and then after that we got Franka Potente and Penelope Mitchell, and Hopper Penn and Garrett Clayton, a chameleon of a character – I was really lucky to have such an awesome cast.

Nicolas Cage and Penelope Mitchell in "Between Worlds"I understand Nicolas Cage can be quite unpredictable on set, which is something you want, is it difficult to get everyone on the same page and making the same movie?

I’m very much for that spontaneity and catching that energy, because to me, you get a very visceral performance from the actor and that is the magic. It’s very true and I feel that not having a rehearsed and very stick-to-the-script style allowed me to get that performance from the actors, so I thrive on that and I found Nicolas Cage to be very inspiring and I love that unpredictability. And [it was up to the] other actors had to keep it on kilter so the film would stay on the rails. I took a lot of risks and I loved it, but throughout the movie, my producer’s going, “Maria, what are you doing? What’s going on here?” And I’m like, “Trust me, it’s all under control.” [laughs]

Did having Nicolas Cage onboard push you to more surreal places or was that always a quality of the film?

No, I have to credit Nicolas Cage with that. He’s my muse. I found him very, very inspiring in terms of pushing me to take the risks as well. It was like being in a car with a really fast driver, and just saying, “Okay, am I going to close my eyes or open my eyes here?” [For instance] I love Nicolas Cage getting sprayed off with a hose, giving himself a shower. It was just so unexpected and he did so many great takes of that particular [scene] and he did a lot of improv and did so many really bizarre, crazy awesome things, I could just watch that for hours. You could watch that guy work down the street and he’d make it interesting, or eat food because he’s so dynamic when he does things. That’s part of his ability as an actor to be a mesmerizing character.

Nicolas Cage in "Between Worlds"Speaking of dynamic, is it difficult to keep it interesting visually when ultimately the film is mostly set in a single location?

Absolutely. We shot most of the movie in that house and we really had to work within the confines of that to make it interesting, but that’s part of the art. And overcoming those types of challenges in a creative way are part of what I enjoy about filmmaking and working together with a great, great team and saying, “Hey, how do we do it?” I love it.

And the tone of the movie is unusual. It’s not so black and white, so you’ve got to get some reds and some yellows in there and [we also relied a lot on] the music to capturing that tortured, somber [feeling with] very unusual choices to make sure that we kept the tone consistent, but you’ve got to keep budget in mind. Songs are so expensive to clear the rights to, so there were a lot of limitations there, but we approached Angelo Badalamenti [who] rocked my world – he’s been David Lynch’s composer since “Blue Velvet,” and he really enjoyed the movie and wanted to participate so he gave us a theme and some really great additional music, [which] was probably the biggest honor I could have. Then Jason [Solowsky] was a really great composer who had worked with me on my first movie, so he came in and tried to go in the same tone that I wanted, and Nivek Ogre from Skinny Puppy wrote two songs for us and then we used a lot of Marilyn Manson.

Nicolas Cage and Penelope Mitchell in "Between Worlds"You also play around with the editing – was it always in mind to perhaps jump forward and back in terms of creating a sense of how this guy thinks?

It wasn’t. At the end of the movie, I thought we’re working with space and time and I thought it worked particularly well to really tweak it and not go with a classical [linear] style. Someone had done a movie where they show little flashbacks and [flash-forwards], and because at the end of the movie, you’re like, “What is it? Does he have the power to see into the future? Or is he nuts?” [I thought we could] tweak the space and time continuum and it left a lot of open for interpretation, which I like as a filmgoer. I like the viewer to have participation and I don’t like to make decisions for them, so it was a lot of fun to play with and with life and death, it is a space and time continuum, so to really manipulate and to demonstrate it as well in how we told the story is what we were going for.

When you’ve got a crowdpleaser like this, what’s it like seeing this with an audience?

It’s great because internally, you watch it and you’re like, “We like this” or “we like this,” but I was so apprehensive to see what an audience would really think of the movie. And the first time we showed it in Cannes, we were sitting with an international audience and they were laughing their asses off and we’re like, “Wow, it transcends cultural borders.” They got it, and not only did they get it, they liked it, so that was really fun. It’s a real experience when you’re in the cinema with someone because a lot of times I watch movies by myself, but being with people, it was really special because you share those moments with them.

“Between Worlds” opens on December 21st in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinelounge and in New York at Cinema Village. It is also available on VOD.

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