Kristoffer Borgli has been making films for some time and is constantly developing a voice that captures the zeitgeist but transforms the insights into something distinctive and often very funny. His latest film, Dream scenarioputs Nicolas Cage in the role of Paul Matthews, a painfully unremarkable college professor who becomes the center of attention when he appears in people’s dreams.
Soon the cultural machine that provides 15 minutes of fame turns against Paul, and things only get worse. One of Borgli’s greatest strengths as a writer/director is that he takes a premise that could serve as the basis for a sketch and stretches the proceedings so that no stone is left unturned. This commitment to the fantastic and the placement of the absurd within the ordinary has produced a remarkable variety of short films, music videos, documentaries, feature films, and other works that viewers should seek out.
In an interview with CBR, Borgli discussed his approach to making Paul small, how we engage in contemporary American culture, and more.
CBR: I want to know about modern concerns Dream scenario has in the heart; It has a very moving approach to a lot of ideas that people have tried to tackle in a very literal and heavy-handed way. I want to know about these modern concerns, I’m sick deals with similar things, such as the attention economy. Dream scenario deals with fleeting celebrity. How do you start with the core of an idea and decide to develop it further in such interesting abstract ways?
Borgli: With both films I thought about taking a genre element and pushing it into another area where it doesn’t belong. With I’m sick, it took the aesthetic, visual form of body horror and forced him to live in a kind of Woody Allen film. With Dream scenarioI have taken A Nightmare on Elm Street, a highbrow horror movie idea, and then forcing it to live in our current culture and just seeing how people would react to it. Don’t stick to any genre rules, just follow the logic of our time.
One thing that really struck me was the ordinariness of it all, particularly the color palette. It has an autumnal atmosphere. You mentioned Woody Allen, I’m thinking of the camera work and husbands and wives. How do you imagine Paul Matthew’s domestic life?
It was meant to appeal to American audiences. I wanted it to be a recognizable place. Since I moved here and wanted to appeal to American audiences with a first American feature film, I thought I should start with a starting point in a kitchen in an American suburb. It’s also about a life that’s just comfortable enough where, if you had the right perspective, you could enjoy the life that Paul leads. It’s a beautiful house and a beautiful family, and he’s a professor at a college. Everything seems to be okay. But like many of us, something is missing. We looked at the negative space of life, and he almost decided to make himself unhappy in the absence of unattainable goals. We meet Paul at a point in his life where this has become almost existential for him. It’s obviously a very strange point for a character to be so close to completely closing the door to the status and recognition he wanted in his career and then having that door open in a completely unknown and mysterious place and just see how he naively reaches into it.
It is interesting how much he wants recognition and to have his work and studies published in scientific journals. It might be applicable on a large scale, but it applies to a very small niche interest group. It’s fascinating that he becomes famous for something completely unrelated and tries to return to his main interest.
Yes, I think he is not fully aware of what personal branding is. Once you become a brand, it’s nearly impossible to reconfigure. It begins to take on a life of its own. It suddenly belongs to the public in a certain way. This film is a parable; the costs of engagement on a mass cultural level.
Having worked with Nicolas Cage, he’s now made so many films in his career that he has a fairly consistent number of toned-down roles that are more about nuanced tics and gestures. Then there are those who form the basis of his fame and who are louder. This Matthews character feels so real, so recognizable. How did you develop it on the site? And how did the collaborative process bring it to life?
I thought of a socially awkward person who is socially good. I thought of a beta male who desperately wants to be an alpha male, someone whose image of himself is far removed from the image everyone else has of that person. That was an interesting discrepancy that could be turned into a comedy. And it’s difficult to play a character that resembles one thing but performs a different thing. And also a character who starts out as a very defined thing, but then appears in people’s dreams as many different things. So I thought, “Okay, we have Nicolas Cage. I know he has a reach. I know that if I want this character to suddenly be very confident or suddenly very scary or extreme or energetic, we can put Nicolas Cage there.” And so we talked about how to take away his energy and charisma and make him more a background character, should make him more of a bumbling character and more of an inconspicuous character. And I feel that Nicolas Cage made even the most mundane scene a little more interesting through his choice of mannerisms, a body language of pauses. The way he speaks without ever violating the intent of the scene. I can’t even remember what was in my head when I wrote it. All I see now is Nic Cage’s solid performance. That’s the only thing I can see now.
It really is a standout performance, especially as it deals with the absurdity of the strange scenes in which he has to walk staggering through the forest with a crossbow in his hand. It’s very controlled and feels very calibrated. How can you even imagine starting in a place with this university on a hill, like a semi-idyllic American dream, and then taking us all the way to advertising and dreams? How, how do you develop that?
There were just enough things I wanted to deal with. This concept just felt like the perfect sandbox to play with all of these elements. Another aspect was the times when I wrote it and felt like a co-author. Culture as a whole and the way we react to things collectively and deal with things en masse have charted the course of history. It feels like I’ve seen a complicated topic, a new phenomenon, first loved and then hated, dissected, turned into a product, commodified and then thrown away and forgotten forever. It happened so often that it felt like I was almost following him. The playbook we designed together can be viewed as a snapshot of our present that I wanted to archive – the ephemeral state of life in 2022.
This is interesting because it doesn’t end with a neat bow, but it follows this very organically shaped progression. Everything comes as a surprise. There are certain things you recognize. The scene in the auditorium full of students looking at pictures of Paul has a touch of reality, but his journey feels like something different for comedy-horror; it doesn’t adhere to these things. How much do you consider conforming to a form? Do you think, “This is how I want to do it,” but then willingly throw away the rulebook when it doesn’t meet your needs?
Yes, I read the books, the McKee and Blake Snyder books, the formula. It helped me understand the general shape of things. If I feel it’s important, I might try to follow some of the best practices, but mostly I follow my intuition and feeling that I know how to tell a story. I don’t have to constantly look at the recipe, I can just follow my instinct. My two newest ones I’m sick And Dream scenario, genres collide. If I was worried, “Will this work?” then I wouldn’t have done it. I just had to try, I had to follow my curiosity and my natural creative instincts. They seem to work and pay off in unusual ways. If they don’t work, maybe they don’t work in interesting ways.
It’s fascinating to watch and refreshing to not see anything that makes you feel too comfortable.
I’d rather see an experimental failure than a perfectly safe form exercise.
This also seems to be Paul Matthews’ approach when he goes to this girl’s house.
Yeah, I think that’s actually my proudest moment in the film.
It’s really uncomfortable, but it feels real. It never becomes a theme that dominates the film. We’ve seen it 1,000 times, the movie where a man makes a bad decision and then that’s it. He makes a bad decision, but the way he is perceived publicly and by everyone around him is that he is only in their dreams and they become pretty scary.
Yes / Yes.
One of the things that caught my eye I’m sick and in various short films you’ve made, is that you take a concept and execute it. Stick with it for a while until you get a completely different result than when you started. But it all feels like a natural progression. How do you develop that voice?
It’s just as hard to quantify as, “Why does my signature look like that?” It’s never something I really intend to do. It’s just like, ‘Does it look like this?’ Likewise, with these scripts, I feel like I’m following something that interests me and feel like I haven’t seen it yet. I’m working on a tone that maybe isn’t over-represented, that feels unique. In fact, I worked for many, many years making short films and things like that. I think just through trying and working and re-working and even re-working old ideas until they’re perfected, at least in my eyes, what I consider to be my voice eventually emerged. I don’t know exactly how to quantify my voice or tone, but I can easily achieve it and feel comfortable with it.
Dream Scenario is in theaters now.