This post contains spoilers for Serial and This American Life’s “S-Town” and should be read only by people who have finished all seven chapters of the podcast.
Not every podcast deserves to be even a single episode of a TV show, never mind a movie. “S-Town” may be such a podcast, though it depends how a studio would do it. One major obstacle is that the story doesn’t have the sort of “third act” (loosely, a film’s final 30 minutes) that Hollywood prefers; after luring in listeners with an apparent murder investigation, the story turns out to be about reckoning with the meaning of the life and death of single person. That means you need precisely the right actor to play that person; lucky for us, that person exists.
They should only make “S-Town” if Nicolas Cage plays John McLemore.
There are two main reasons for this. The first relates to something Brian Reed, the narrator of “S-Town,” told The Guardian:
Everybody has a story, but very few have a story that should be told on the radio or in a podcast. With John, it was the way he spoke, but more than that, it was the experience of that first phone call with him. You can build moving, amazing radio stories out of interviews where people are just telling you the story of something in the past. But then there’s this other type of radio tape, which is more exciting … when something is literally happening in the tape. And that first phone call with John was one of those.
Reed is talking about something others call “star quality.” A star’s performance leaps off the screen (or radio) and grabs you even when you don’t mean for it to. To project star quality in a film, you typically need a star. And very, very few stars can really do that smart Southern breathless sincerity thing that John does in every episode of “S-Town.” John is a 49-year-old white guy when he meets the journalist in “S-Town,” so that rules out Jeff Bridges on the one end and Lupita N’yongo on the other. Matthew McConaughey is a little too reserved, too mellow, too aware of his own effect on the room. Kevin Spacey would do a great job, but he wouldn’t seem as erratic or as naturally depressed as the real John. Woody Harrelson or Billy Bob Thornton could probably pull it off, but there’s something razor-sharp and dangerous about those guys that doesn’t quite apply to the basset-hound-eyes of Cage. Reed said, “With John, it was the way he spoke…” and no star but Cage can quite simulate it.
The second reason relates to the first, but goes beyond it.
As an over-summary, we see a star’s newest performance through the lens of their former movies (and, sometimes, their offscreen behavior). Do you think Michael Keaton would have played the lead in Birdman if he hadn’t once starred as Batman? And the movie wouldn’t have made as much sense if Keaton had had Travolta-like success after walking away from Batman…Keaton is not only playing a forgotten actor who is making a bold creative leap to get people to rethink him, he IS that guy. Matt Damon was perfect as the lead of The Martian, not only because he projects intelligence added to gallows humor added to some physical competence, but also because we have a history of “saving” him in other movies, so what’s a few more billions to do it this time?
Nicolas Cage has played the smart, misunderstood redneck almost too many times to count. But what makes him an even better for an “S-town” adaptation is that we, as a society, have pretty much written him off. This ain’t the 90s; who’s lining up to see a Cage movie anymore? When you see him onscreen these days, as in Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden, you think: oh, him again? Why is anyone bothering? Look at that goofy hair, the silly mannerisms.
That’s exactly the way you want audiences to think about John…at first glance. In many ways, the story is about mistaken first impressions, about both John and “Shit-Town.” Those come before you learn, as Aja Romano put it in Vox:
John is all of the following: a queer liberal conspiracist who socializes with neighborhood racists; a manic depressive consumed by predictions of cataclysmic global catastrophe; an off-the-grid hoarder of gold who takes in stray dogs; a genius with a photographic memory who’s spent his whole life caring for his mother while designing a massive and elaborate hedge maze in his backyard; and one of the most skilled antique clock restorers in the world. All that, and he may be sitting on a fortune in buried treasure.
I have no doubt that Cage can take viewers into the surprising nuances of John, and deliver a three-dimensional performance that may even shine more light on John than John did himself (the best actors do this; think of Denzel Washington playing Hurricane Carter). Current kids may not realize Cage didn’t always phone it in. I direct their attention, as a start, to Red Rock West, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation. In the latter, for which Cage was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Cage plays a pair of identical twins that have the exact same (horrible) hair and overall look. Yet even when Charlie and Donald aren’t speaking, they breathe differently, they shrug differently, they sweat differently. Not for one second does the viewer mistake Cage’s Charlie for his Donald, or vice-versa. It’s virtuoso work.
Cage would have made a decent John even if Cage’s last ten years had been closer to Ben Affleck’s. But because they haven’t, Cage becomes an inspired, superlative choice for John. As audiences, we’ve turned our backs on Cage the way that the world turned its back on John (or at least, John saw it that way). We’ve consigned Cage to the sort of actor limbo that normally takes a Quentin Tarantino to alter. (People were similarly sick of actors like John Travolta, Robert Forster, and even Jennifer Jason Leigh before Tarantino cast them.) Imagine if Nicolas Cage died tomorrow in a real-life freak accident: the obituaries would be full of “oh, I really liked him the whole time”-like phrases that betray the purgatory to which Cage has been consigned. (Pictured above, John even looks a little like Cage, although we’ll dye Cage’s beard and hair, just the sort of thing actors love.)
When John dies, perhaps halfway through the film version, audiences won’t just be feeling the loss of John, they’ll also be feeling the loss of Cage in a way that they didn’t in any film where Cage’s character had died at the end. Dammit, viewers will say subconsciously, I should have appreciated him more, I didn’t tell him I loved him, I could have stopped his suicide. And that’s right where we want them.
As I began by saying, “S-Town” is going to be a difficult studio pitch because it’s a bit of a bait-and-switch: first a murder mystery, then an exploration of character, a deep dig into why John was the way he was. That’s one reason this will have to be an indie. Cage, who has certainly done his share of indies, has a star persona that papers over that problem. We know Cage has starred in his share of murder mysteries. We know it so well that it borders on disappointing for the unfamiliar film viewer – here we go with another big murder case and Cage. And then, lo and behold, it isn’t about that at all. It flips viewers of National Treasure on their head and makes them see the truth behind all the maze shots and clock shots.
In my ideal film version, the 53-year-old Cage of course plays the 49-year-old John who talks with Brian Reed of NPR in the film’s first half. In the second half, as viewers flash back to John’s life of horology and queer encounters, instead of using shots of Cage’s digitally altered, younger face, the film could grab a few shots of Cage from his actual older films. (Cage worked for every studio, so whichever studio’s independent division produces “S-Town” will have easy access to something.) This would underline one of the major themes of the movie: you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
Looking at photos of Brian Reed, I’d say go ahead and let Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill fight to see who plays that lead role. The role of Tyler has to be fairly attractive and beset upon by his too-many-children-too-young; someone like Aaron Taylor-Johnson could knock it out of the park. I suspect that the role of Reed’s wife will need some “beefing up” from the podcast, and could be terrific if played by Tessa Thompson or Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
Make no mistake: though Reed began working on this project years ago, this movie will be understood as a “Trump-era” film, as an “attempt to understand” Trump voters (though John never voted for him; he committed suicide a scant six days after Trump announced his candidacy). Cage, unlike some Hollywood stars, has always been, well, cagey about his politics, which will keep this film from seeming too much like a liberal treatise.
The moment feels right for a Cage comeback, now that he was the weekend’s #1 answer on a “SNL” parody of “Family Feud,” and now that a new, Netflix-empowered generation is in love with Luke Cage, the character Cage named himself after (he was born Nicolas Coppola). I don’t know that Nicolas Cage wants a second Oscar, but if he does, this project is as strong a possibility as any, especially if he winds up in the race for Supporting Actor. (We can all laugh at the Academy Awards, but the chance of winning one does sometimes have the effect of getting talented people off their couches.)
“S-Town” could be a pretty good movie with or without Cage. But the presence of Cage as John would elevate the project to a whole other level, where it resonates more powerfully with audiences because of how they know, knew, and underestimated the inestimable Cage. As Warren Beatty put it, “Casting is destiny. … Particularly in movies, because casting is character—and character is plot.” Cage would give a character-oriented plot the exact character it needs.