"Eight Millimeter" is about darkness, the deep of night when we discover that something deeper than night may lay at the heart of any of us.
Steeped in gloom and dread, its look is oppressive to a nearly decadent extreme, as if the fug of rotting vegetation were rising from the very images. It seems like a catharsis for director Joel Schumacher, who had in this decade - at least until the critical comedown of "Batman and Robin" - become a king of the glossy summer blockbuster. For star Nicolas Cage, it's also a switch from epic popcorn like "Con Air," and a return to the offbeat sort of roles he played in movies like "Vampire's Kiss" and "Leaving Las Vegas." Turning in a performance he says he modeled after the work of Steve McQueen, Cage plays Tom Welles, a fairly successful Pennsylvania detective and family man who is hired to find the identity of a girl who seems to have been murdered in a sex film left behind by a dead industrialist. "Eight Millimeter" is more straightforward than the sewer-of-sin that was writer Andrew Kevin Walker's last script, "Seven," but its charting of lost innocence through the urban legend of the snuff film has an emotional punch for its brute simplicity and its gorgeous-looking descent into hellishness.
Meeting the 59-year-old Schumacher, you figure why he has a reputation for protecting and supporting his actors: the twinkle in his eye is matched by sly comic timing and endless wisecracks. He does everything but roll his eyes and toss his shoulder-length gray hair when asked to talk about whether some viewers might find "Eight Millimeter" exploitative of the child-endangering milieu that it portrays. "Y'know, we'd have to define exploitative. I sound like Bill Clinton!" He laughs. "Look, all entertainment is manipulation and exploitation. A sweet, cozy movie that's making you cry is exploiting your sentimentality, too. So I hope we are manipulating you in some way and disturbing you."
It's a change of pace to see a Hollywood studio putting out a star vehicle studded with despicable characters. "Well, I know no one [I've talked to about the movie] would know anything about porn!" He twinkles. "I know it's really shocking. I feel for you. There's $10 billion spent in the United States on all of this, and you know what? I wonder where that one old man is in his trench coat. It must be someone big, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates must be doing it. It's on the Internet right now and you've probably never seen any images or your friends have never even shown you one or anything. It must be appalling what I've done!"
He pauses a moment, then continues, talking even faster. "I really see it as the story of a man who through his own ambition, takes a job which he thinks is a career boost and suddenly finds himself faced with true evil. Nic is very much like someone who goes to war in the sense that he leads a relatively normal life and goes out to fight the good fight and witnesses atrocities and evil that he had never confronted before. That's how I always saw it. What's interesting to me is that in this era, people keep saying 'But why would you make a dark film?' As if it's curious that there's darkness in storytelling. Is it that if you're not making a Prozac medication that makes everyone feel really good, it's a curiosity? That someone would actually make a disturbing story? Haven't there always been? Is 'The Silence of the Lambs' dark? 'A Face in the Crowd,' 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' 'Psycho,' 'Network,' I mean, y'know, on and on and on, 'Bonnie and Clyde.' These are all dark stories."
The L.A. porn scene confected for the movie distracts some viewers, but the same journey could be Welles unearthing child worker abuse in a sneaker plant in Ho Chi Minh City, I suggest. "Exactly. That's the way I see it. I think there's always been a tradition of investigators or protagonists going into worlds that are extremely corrupt or terrifying. He might be investigating domestic terrorism or child prostitution or crack cocaine, but I think once sex gets involved, it's, um... It's always a different discussion when there's sex."
The florid look of the film, at once sinister and elegant, plays off a story that cuts to elemental emotions, where the declarations run pretty much from "I love you"s to "I'll kill you"s. Schumacher was aware of the simplistic, fable-like character of the script. "Well, I tried to make a very bold, direct film, where we wouldn't be cute about it in any way. I wanted the visual style to be haunting so that it would draw you in. I wanted to do everything I could to make you feel you were going on this journey with Nic. And the biggest challenge, and I knew this going in, and it really haunted me a lot, was that I had to be vigilant about not making this in any way shape or form glamorous or attractive. It's so easy to glamorize sex and violence on film. We've probably all been guilty of it who make films. So I think we were successful at making anyone who sees it feel the evil. You see very, very little sex and violence in this film. I think that in our film, it's what we put into it. We know that this stuff is out there, too, so we're not just watching a fantasy."