It’s nearly midnight in Mobile, Alabama, and inside a dilapidated drug house, Nicolas Cage is stalking Russian mobsters.
I’m on the set of the 50-year-old Oscar winner’s new movie “Rage,” and through the steamy thickness of a Deep South summer night, I can hear the sound of shotgun blasts emanating from within the impressive façade of the Antoinette Apartments. The historic 103-year-old building, nestled within Mobile’s Oakleigh Garden District, is set for extensive renovations, but tonight, the gutted structure plays a sinister role in the story of a heartbroken man’s revenge.
Tonight, Cage is fully immersed in his role as “Rage” leading man Paul Maguire, a mostly reformed ex-member of the Irish mafia who, following an attack on his family, hunts down the miscreants of a Russian mob that may be responsible for the deed.
Just beyond the Antoinette’s large white columns and imposing entranceway, a thin staircase leads to the second floor where director Paco Cabezas and cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, notable for his work on “Pulp Fiction” and Reservoir Dogs,” are piecing together the next scene in Cage’s rampage through the Russian drug lair.
“Where do you want me?” I hear Cage ask, his unmistakable drawl cutting through the darkness of a nearby hallway. “Nic’s gonna fire two rounds,” someone announces from an adjacent room.
After a moment of discussion and calls for “quiet” from the production assistants, Cage comes barreling down the hallway, shotgun in hand.
Blam. He blasts a round at the floor and turns. Blam. He fires another. As Cage quickly wheels around into a crusty old bathroom, the voice of his victim screams out in terror and Cabezas cuts the scene.
From the top of the stairs, just to the right of the camera’s frame, I watch Cage wait as the crew resets the hall for another take. He is dressed in jeans, a thin grey hoodie and a brown leather jacket that one producer refers to as the character’s “revenge jacket.” Seeing Nic Cage in person is like experiencing the world’s most realistic 3D film – he is exactly as he appears on-screen and 10 times as intense. A makeup artist reapplies a bloody cut above Nic’s left eye as he stairs blankly at the wall. In keeping with his reputation as the most method of method actors, Cage maintains the fury of his character’s emotional state. As he silently broods, the actor walks back and forth across the bathroom, repeatedly checking his hair in a mirror and holding his revenge jacket open in front of an oscillating fan.
Producers insist that Cage is a kind and pleasant man off the set, but within the sweltering confines of the Antoinette, it’s hard to believe that the scowling man in front of me is capable of a smile.
Nic films another take. Blam. Blam. Turn. A production assistant retrieves the shotgun as the star makes a beeline for an adjacent room.
“Pardon me,” he says as he slips through the crowd and disappears.
I make my way down the stairs and outside as the crew resets to film Cage’s shootout with a pair of mobsters inside the aforementioned bathroom. Tonight’s sequence is near the end of Paul Maguire’s riotous tear through the house, which began filming the day before on the first floor. There, Nic tangled with a mobster in the filthy den of their lair, where pizza boxes cover the windows and lines of meth (made of baby powder and corn starch) coat the coffee table. Although the crew has moved on to the next scenes, the ransacked room remains untouched until filmmakers are absolutely certain they don’t need to reshoot.
Despite the late hour (on a Tuesday, no less), a group of more than a dozen fans have gathered on the sidewalk outside the Antoinette to get a glimpse of Nic Cage. A local police officer tells the group that Cage has, in the past, taken time to pose for photos and sign autographs after he finishes filming for the day, and asks that they remain orderly.
A short while later, a black SUV pulls up to the house and Cage suddenly exits down the large stone staircase, strides across the front lawn and hops in the passenger seat. As the waiting fans snap pictures of the actor, the car speeds off. Did he go home for the night? No. In fact, the car simply pulled around to the back of the apartment building where, I was told, Nic waited out the scene change in the comfort of air conditioning.
Just as suddenly as it had left, the SUV returned and Cage exited the vehicle.
“We love you, Nic!” a fan shouted from the sidewalk.
“Thanks, guys,” the still-brooding star offered as his heavy boots slowly, wearily stomped up the front stoop.
Back inside, filming picks up with Cage’s alter ego entering the grimy bathroom and diving for cover at the base of a clawfoot bathtub. The camera, now positioned inside the lavatory, points towards the area where I had been standing to view the previous shot, so I remain outside the Antoinette and watch the action on a set of monitors. Aside from avoiding the camera’s frame, I stay on the lawn for safety reasons as well. The wall just behind Cage and his bathtub – the wall separating Paul Maguire and a pair of angry Russians – has been rigged with 60 explosive rounds to simulate a flood of gunfire passing from one room to the next.
With only one shot at triggering the explosives-laden wall, the crew must get the scene right in a single take. As the production team readies the charges, Cage practices the choreography of this moment over and over, carefully calculating each element from the placement of his legs to the post-dive withdrawal of a pistol from his back waistband.
The scene is finally set and Cage crouches, awaits his cue and channels a fury that seems to perpetually bubble just beneath the surface. He stares blankly at the floor, silently fuming at the faux mobsters just beyond his reach, as a deafening hush falls over the Alabama night.
From somewhere in the house, a loud snap startles the action star into thinking the explosives had triggered early. His angry eyes shoot up to the camera and I read his lips as they ask, “What was that?” Cage shakes his head and, without another word, returns his gaze to the creaky wooden planks beneath his feet.
Moments later, Cabezas calls “action” and Cage thrusts his body towards the porcelain shield, pressing his back to it as a hailstorm of “bullets” blast through the drywall just above him. A small bathroom mirror shatters, sending a cloud of glass and dust raining down upon the vengeful father. Amid the barrage of fire, Cage withdraws a pistol and roles onto his back, facing the wall, ready to meet his opponents on the other side.
From a new angle, the camera captures the actor’s eyes as they dart intensely from left to right, covering the doorways on either side of the dimly lit bathroom. Sensing the duo of baddies moving behind the bullet-ravaged wall, Cage readies his weaponry with steady hands and follows each gangster as they split up to surround him. His pistol moves to the left. His shotgun moves to the right. The tension builds as Paul Maguire prepares to fight for his life and—
“Cut!” shouts Cabezas.
It’s just after 1 a.m. and the imposing veteran is done for the night. Cage removes his revenge jacket, relinquishes the weaponry to his stand-in and wearily thumps down the Antoinette’s narrow stairway and out the front door. Drenched in sweat, covered in fake bruises and pulsing with the emotions of his merciless character, Cage still stops to pose for photos on the front lawn before silently hopping into the passenger seat of a waiting SUV and speeding off.
Inside the dilapidated drug house, amid the stifling heat of summer in the Deep South, the action rages on.
“RAGE” is now available with XFINITY On Demand before you can see it in theaters. Click here to begin the process of ordering at home.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.