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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: How 'Massive Talent' avoids being gimmicky

May 13, 2022
4 min read time

A movie about Nicolas Cage starring Nicolas Cage — it’s almost the perfect role for someone like Nicolas Cage, who has been taking wild swings as a mostly straight-to-streaming actor of late. While he puts out several movies per year, the unique and compelling stories and roles his career encompasses have made him the stuff of legend.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent puts Cage in the main role as himself. He desperately needs a paycheck so his agent convinces him to make an appearance at a wealthy man’s party in Spain for an easy million-dollar job. Cage agrees and soon finds himself helping the U.S. government bring a notorious arms dealer (also Cage's number one fan) to justice. On top of this are several storylines, including finding a kidnapped presidential candidate’s daughter and Cage dealing with his own personal relationships and career choices. It’s a wild, somewhat trippy ride.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent stars Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Tiffany Haddish, Neil Patrick Harris, Lily Mo Sheen, and Sharon Horgan. The film was written by Kevin Etten and Tom Gormican, who also directs.

Here are your five screenwriting takeaways from The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

1. Who is Nick Cage as a character?

Nick Cage is a character. While there are many aspects true to Cage’s life, the character in the film is far from who he is in real life. For instance, his wife Olivia (Horgan) is completely fabricated. He has a daughter named Addy (Sheen) in the film, but in real life, he’s the father of two sons.

The movie is filled with Cage references from all the fan-favorite moments across his career. How he speaks about the direction of his career has the air of being cathartic, but whether or not he feels this way in real life is hard to tell.

What writers can see is how the film defines Cage as a complex character who questions his life’s trajectory, contends with his own demons, and struggles to make a living. Cage is relatable because the audience sees a vulnerability not often projected by film stars, and adds to the story because we can go on a Nicolas Cage adventure with the actor himself.

2. It can’t be a gimmick

How will you tell people you saw this movie? Will you tell them you saw The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent? Or will you share that you watched The Nicolas Cage movie? Most likely, it'll be the latter.

It’s a gimmick in its own way similar to Being John Malkovich or Neil Patrick Harris’s role in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. But a movie can’t rely on a gimmick alone. There must be a compelling story driving the narrative. Being John Malkovich wasn’t about Malkovich, but rather a struggling puppeteer who found a strange and exciting pathway into the actor’s head. Neil Patrick Harris plays a manic, sex-obsessed version of himself in Harold and Kumar. The movie wasn’t about him, but rather had an overarching plot about two stoners on their own adventure who just happen to run into Harris.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is no different. Having Cage as Cage is a gimmick, but there is a story to the film and it’s not just a ‘let’s see Nick Cage do Nick Cage-y things.’ From a screenwriting perspective, it's about taking a wild concept and arranging a narrative around the crazy.

3. How to create a buddy comedy

Javi (Pascal) wants to meet his hero, hang out with him, and pitch him a script. He has the means to pay for the adventure but initially struggles to get Cage to take this venture seriously. Eventually, they bond over movies and begin a relationship that involves them creating a story idea for Nick's next movie, one that Javi intends to write and produce.

These two go on adventures that include outrunning people who want Javi dead, jumping off cliffs, and car chases. The two are a great pair and it's easy to figure out how the filmmakers built a buddy-comedy relationship between the two that culminates in conflict as they learn more about one another and begin to question each other's motives.

4. The other stories

Cage is the protagonist, but there are other stories taking place that the film focuses on. The film opens with two youngsters watching the ending of Con Air. They’re suddenly attacked and the woman is kidnapped — turns out she is the daughter of a presidential candidate in Spain. We also follow the CIA team (Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) tracking her whereabouts.

Additionally, there is a growing conflict between Javi, the international arms dealer, and his power-hungry cousin Lucas (Pago León).

Cage touches each story in various ways while his own journey is filled with plenty of characters and conflicts to pull from, such as his troubled relationship with his daughter and wife, his career, and how he views himself. In short, writers should aim to make supporting characters critical to the story, as opposed to existing simply to support the lead.

5. The importance of being self-aware

Nicolas Cage gets it. He knows who he is and how the movie pokes fun at his life, from the debts he owes to his views on his talent. This adds to the enjoyment of the film because the movie is self-aware. It’s the feeling of a spoof in which the filmmakers understand what they’re doing the whole time.

This all comes out in various ways, such as in the constant movie references, Javi’s shrine to all things Nicolas Cage, and even the way Cage talks about himself — including hallucinating conversations with his younger self, Nicky (credited as Cage’s given name: Nicolas Kim Coppola).

Creating a movie like this involves research into Cage’s life, including the movies and personality that made him a star. There are countless references to his '90s films like The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. And just like a spoof, writers can see the level of pop culture knowledge and research that goes into creating a story like this one. It’s not enough to be a fan and write the story. It’s crucial to do the work and dive deeper into the subject you wish to cover.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is now in theaters.

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