Passed by the Deauville Festival, “Pig” is a moving and astonishing drama in which Nicolas Cage lives in the forest with a truffle pig. Which makes for a necessarily memorable shoot, as director Michael Sarnoski confirms.
On paper, Pig’s pitch had something to do with it. Because this story of a hermit leaving his forest to reconnect with civilization and the wounds of his past had everything to resemble an ersatz John Wick with a freewheeling Nicolas Cage. But no, because the first feature film by Michael Sarnoski is a touching drama about a man who reconnects with his humanity against a backdrop of gastronomy.
And it is at the Deauville American Film Festival that the director and screenwriter came to present this film, which would compete in Competition and reminds Joe of David Gordon Green (also passed by the boards) for the performance of its main actor.
AlloCiné: “Pig” was very quickly noticed thanks to his pitch and this funny idea of associating Nicolas Cage and a truffle sow. When and how was this project born on your side?
Michael sarnoski : I had this idea a few years before I started writing the screenplay. I have a folder on my computer with different script ideas, and then I had a simple little file that it was just written on “truffle” and “old man in the woods with his pig”.
It’s something that has been simmering in the back of my mind for a while and then one day I decided to go for it. I started researching truffles, Portland, the food industry, and all kinds of things. The film began to organically take shape from the central idea of the old man in the woods with his truffle sow. I wondered who this person was, why was she living in the woods with a pig, and it all developed organically from there. It was a little more complicated than that actually (laughs) But that’s the central idea.
You mentioned your research on Portland and the food industry, but I read that the film could have been set in France or Spain. For what reasons ? And why did you change your mind?
At first, when I was wondering where I wanted the story to take place, I first thought of Europe, because there are more places known for their truffles. But I ended up choosing the United States because I was trying to write something that was totally achievable for me. So it was more helpful for the story to unfold here.
But there was also the fact that Rob’s character’s truffle hunter activity would seem less unusual in a place like France or Spain. There is a truffle market, especially in the northwest of the country, but it is not as recognized and common. So there is something that makes the character look old-fashioned and makes it seem like he’s out of place because of what he’s doing. This is particularly why I wanted the story to take place in the United States, because it makes him foreign to what surrounds him, and makes us wonder how he could have ended up doing this. in Portland.
Nicolas Cage made things better, more real
When did Nicolas Cage arrive on the project? And what has that changed for you, in terms of script, production, budget?
His arrival didn’t change much. I finished writing the script in early 2018, and I believe he read it at the end of 2019. And he signed up pretty quickly afterwards. He reacted to it very positively and really wanted to do it, which allowed us to shoot at the end of 2019. But then we had to put it aside for about a year, because of the Covid, so we had completed the movie in mid-2020.
I don’t think having Nicolas Cage in the cast changed much to the script. I don’t remember rewriting anything because of him. He just understood the character as he was on paper, and obviously he brought a lot more nuance and humanity to it. But he reacted to the character and I liked him for that reason, so there was no real need to change things around him in any way. He just made things better, more real.
Did he nevertheless influence your way of directing the film?
The best part about him on set was that he was extremely professional, extremely prepared and really respectful. This is my first feature film, and it would have been very easy for the crew and everyone not to take me seriously. But he treated me with great respect. He really respects the classic hierarchy of the set, and knows that it all depends on the script and how the director wants to portray it.
He showed a lot of care and respect to me, and I think it spilled over to everyone else on the team. He set the example for how seriously we did things. Because it feels like a goofy movie in some ways, and the team could have taken it as such. But because of her focus, Alex’s [Wolff] and of all the actors, a lot of people watch someone like Nic Cage on set. I think that influenced how seriously everyone took it.
One of the most surprising things is how calm he is, despite being known for his expansive performances. Did you have to restrain him on set?
No, he was already perfect like in the movie. From the script, his character was described as someone very calm, with few lines, very content. So I never had to fight against an instinct, a desire to do more. I think he understood the character and wanted to embody it as it was written.
We associate Nicolas Cage with very strong performances because that’s what he was hired for. We also owe him a lot of calm and moving performances, but he has made a lot of action films, and he devotes himself fully to them. When he engages in any role he plays, he does so 100%. So if he’s a homeless truffle hunter who barely speaks, he’s going to go all the way. And if this is someone who wants revenge on someone who murdered his wife and is going to kill a bunch of people, he will go all the way with that too. I think it’s just that he’s very invested engaged.
That’s the impression I got of him anyway, and maybe it changes from movie to movie depending on the type of character he’s playing. But while spending time with him, I saw a thoughtful, calm and artistic person. I haven’t seen someone who is naturally loud and bombastic.
It’s impossible to lead a pig
How complicated was it to lead a pig? Even if we don’t see him very much in the film.
It’s impossible to lead a pig (laughs) The budget was pretty tight so we couldn’t afford to have a trained pig. So we found a pig on a farm, which we thought was cute and had a good personality. It was a lot for her to be on set. It does a lot for an animal that has never been on a set to experience it: lights are out of place all the time, there is a lot of noise.
The most important thing we did, when the pig was on the set, was to make sure everyone was very calm and there was no sudden movement. This was necessary for the sow to remain natural and calm. Then it was just a matter of putting food in certain places and making noises to get his attention. And Nic has spent time with her before so they can develop some kind of relationship. But I think most of the time she knew he was the guy who would give her food if she came to him. But it worked and she remained genuine.
You mentioned the budget: what impact has it had on production?
You always have to make compromises. And the most important thing, regarding the budget, was the time allotted: we only had twenty days for the shoot, and any budget can be smaller or larger if you reduce or increase. the duration of the shooting. So we really had to know what we were doing.
Many scenes consist of a single long take. It was a technique to have a very clear vision of how we wanted the scene to unfold, and to be able to shoot it the way we wanted, instead of doing multiple cover shots. It’s something we’ve always wanted to do anyway. But it was a useful way to cut the budget in a way, not having to redo the scene multiple times, and shoot it the right way knowing exactly what you want. It was helpful to be clear on what we needed to get, so as not to try to do more, because we didn’t have time for that.
In its second half, “Pig” develops an interesting discourse when it contrasts authenticity with soulless concepts, as this can be applied to different art forms, including cinema. Did you have that in mind while making the film?
Yes. I had never worked in the restaurant business, and I think cooking is an art form, but it’s not an art form that I personally have a lot of experience with. So I approached it like any art form. And, for me, cinema and storytelling are very important. In all forms of art. That’s why people react to or talk about certain scenes, because they know it’s not just about cooking and having a restaurant.
It’s about what excites you in your life and what you use to express yourself. So yeah, I think that’s just the thing Rob uses to express himself. It’s his passion. It’s the thing he’s sort of an expert at and uses to communicate and share with other people.
Why did you split the story into three chapters whose names appear on the screen?
There are several reasons. Notably because there was something of the order of fable and mythology in the way we approached this story. Like we want her to give off a little of that feeling. And these chapter titles give it a bit of that fable aspect.
It is also a very slow and quiet story. So it had to be given this structure so that people know where the breaks are and so that they know when to breathe a little, when to embark on something new. And the title cards are just the names of the dishes that are cooked in each section. So it doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re headed for, but it does allow you to get the big picture and ask yourself what you’re preparing for.
By the time of the second card, there’s a big change in tone in the movie, because that’s where things get quieter. This lets the audience know that the previous part is over and now we’ll move on. It’s a way of telling them to be ready for change.
Interview by Maximilien Pierrette in Deauville on September 4, 2021