Fantasia Fest 2023 Interview: Yuval Adler on Seeing Red in “Sympathy for the Devil”

“Every now and then it’s okay to have a secret,” David (Joel Kinnaman) tells his young son in “Sympathy for the Devil,” allowing him to ride upfront with him in the passenger seat when the boy’s mother would disapprove if she knew. She isn’t in a position to be concerned, too busy in labor as David races to the hospital for when she gives birth, surely keeping some things to himself as he’s peppered with questions about what’s happening that may be too adult to get into with his firstborn. However, after dropping off the boy with his mother-in-law, he finds himself with a lot to answer for in Yuval Adler’s ferocious thriller, all unfolding in real time when upon entering the parking lot of the hospital, he is visited upon by an unnamed red-haired stranger (Nicolas Cage), who insists he’s seen him before in his native South Boston, though David has only moved once in his life, from Tuscon to Las Vegas where he resides now.

Far from the big lights of the Strip, Cage, whose character becomes known only as the Passenger, burns up the screen as the gun in his hands forces David to pull a U-turn from the emergency ward to an undisclosed location an hour out of town where the expectant father can only imagine what’s awaiting him, not knowing why he’s being mistaken for someone he isn’t in the first place and Adler, who has become an expert in taut globetrotting espionage thrillers since making his name on the world stage with 2013’s “Bethlehem” finds himself right at home in Sin City, packing as much as he can into a tidy 90-minute two-hander that makes the most of its charismatic leads and neon-soaked setting. With Cage showing off some dance moves in a roadside diner and a mean impression of Edward G. Robinson, the only part of “Sympathy for the Devil” that holds no mystery is why it’s so entertaining, nodding endearingly to the long line of hard-boiled crime stories that desire only to entertain while it runs at a fast, modern clip.

Not wasting any time from its world premiere at Fantasia Fest this past weekend before racing into theaters, Adler spoke about how it was hardly a speedy process getting the film off the ground after first becoming enamored of the script by Luke Paradise and putting up his own money to see the film through as it languished in others’ hands, as well as working with such an inventive actor as Cage and making a film set so much in a car feel as dynamic as it does.

This one is so much fun. How’d you get interested in it?

It’s a funny story. After “Bethlehem,” which was 10 years ago, I had this moment in Hollywood with agents where they send you 10,000 scripts to read and most of them are horrible. I read only a couple that I really liked and this was one of them, so I did a pitch and I didn’t get the film. And every two or three years, I would look and say, “Why aren’t they making ‘Sympathy’? I would look on IMDB, and I’d e-mail the producers like, “What’s happening?” “Yes, it’s here. It’s there. We’re waiting. We have this guy attached” – that kind of stuff. I’d e-mail every two or three years and then in 2021, they suddenly e-mail, “We lost the rights. They went back to the writer,” and I’m like, “Oh, how interesting.” So I e-mailed the writer myself and I and tried to convince him to sell it to me.” And I actually bought the rights to the film, which was weird. I’ve never done that and paid my own sweet scarce money for the rights. Then my manager sent it Alex Lebovici, a producer who really put it together quickly because Joel Kinnaman, who I made a film with, suddenly became available in the summer of and he has the same agent as Nic [Cage]. And things that can take years to happen happened in two months. It was crazy.

Were you attracted to the challenge of having just two main characters and limited locations or was it a bit intimidating to make exciting?

No, I thought it’s great because you have a lot of control. It’s just two guys, and you basically have three or four locations – the car is like 35% of the time, you have outside Vegas night in the middle of nowhere, and then you have the diner and outside the diner and that’s it – so visually you can control the look of it. Then with the actors, you have two guys who got along great and Nic was so invested and came up with so many ideas. He’s a fanatic – five weeks before production, he’s all over the film. He’s constantly sending you ideas and I was getting texts, “What about this line? Can we change this line? Can you look at this video?” We had a lot of challenges – we shot in 20 days, which is very, very fast and we had a limited budget – but that was the fun part.

What was it like actually seeing Nic Cage in character for the first time, with that South Boston accent?

And the red jacket and the red hair! It’s great. There was a week off that we were doing technical [prep], and we didn’t do rehearsal, so I was mostly texting him and calling him, but I didn’t see him and suddenly he sent me a picture with the red hair like, “what do you think about this? I want to be like this.” And we all were like, “What? This is crazy.” Then we saw a rehearsal with it and we all thought, “Oh my God, this is great.” And there’s a logic behind it. It’s not expressed in the film, but there’s a story of why he did that.

What was it like developing the chemistry with those two guys?

A lot of it came with improvisations. There would be a funny moment between Nic and Joel that they would start laughing or Nic would start doing something crazy that I would laugh behind the monitor and he would see me laughing and he would be like, “It’s good, huh?” [And I’d say] “Yeah, do more of that.” Because it’s supposed to be a very tense thriller but there’s this dark sense of humor in it and we went with this idea that The Passenger [played by Cage] wants to have fun. That night is a special night for him, so even though he’s torturing the Driver and he wants to get to the truth – and there’s a bunch of things he wants – he still wants to have fun. So we went with that and it constantly enhanced what we would do.

It’s such a colorful film, and one that must be difficult to make interesting when you’ve got to film in the car for so long. What was it like bringing the outside into this?

Because it has so few locations, the look of it is very clean. There’s black outside, there’s reflections in the car, there’s the red and blue in the diner and Nic’s red hair, and then there’s the parking lot with the fires – those are all the looks of the film, so you just hit them again and again and again and Steve Holleran, the cinematographer, and I really leaned into the expressive stuff.

And because we needed to shoot so much in the car, in Vegas, they have this incredible facility called Vu and we got to deal with them [where] they joined us in this journey and we did all the driving inside [a virtual production studio]. It’s a huge challenge because you have to first shoot the plates for it, so you drive the route that you’re going to drive [in the movie and film it in reality] and put cameras around the car and get all what the screen should project and project it on the screens and have it match inside the car and then drive with a real car outside and get the exterior shot and match them. Technologically, it was a big challenge, but once it worked, it’s amazing because you can literally shoot seven, eight pages a day as opposed to being on a truck and doing it outside, which would be much, much more difficult and not so visually stimulating because here you really control what you see, what you project.

The soundtrack also gives the film such life. Were these needle drops there from the beginning or was it a process?

I was obsessed with getting a great soundtrack and it was very, very hard because it was a very low budget film and we were out of budget when we got to the end. I had to fight on everything there. But the producers really came through because with no money, everybody reached into their pocket and we bought some of these tracks. Alan Vega, Scott Walker, this not very well known Israeli [singer] Charlie Megira, who’s playing this Americana guitar, we had him there. And my composer, Ishai Adar, did an amazing job. He’s also a DJ, so he helped me look for some of this stuff and we really put a lot of effort into it to get the right music for this. And then there’s the music that Nick dances to – that’s a whole different story…

I wouldn’t want to spoil that moment, but it’s a signature scene in the film now. What was it like getting to see him in action and get the choreography down?

That was great. It was a process getting this [specific] track and then when we shot it, I made a mistake that I’ll never make again. I told the actors in advance that I’m doing it as a one-shot and then I felt I want more coverage. Then it was like, “No, but we said one-shot and everything,” and I thought I’m never again saying something is a one-shot ever in advance, but it was a lot of fun.

“Sympathy for the Devil” will open in theaters on July 28th.

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