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May 24, 2022

The Unbearable Weight of Going Meta

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent both stars and is about Nicolas Cage. With an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this action comedy manages to pull off a meta-narrative surprisingly well. 

Cage plays himself in the role, which writer-director Tom Gormican wrote specifically for him. The script had been around for a while and had to undergo numerous rewrites as Cage's career changed. He had been out of the limelight for a time and had a few duds, but then Mandy came out and did decently with audiences, followed by Pig, a critical hit.

Riding on that momentum and the goodwill and meme-ificiation Cage has amassed over the years, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was released.

But as we writers all know, a premise is not a plot, and a plot is not a story. The movie can't just be the idea "Nic Cage plays Nic Cage," and this isn't like some cameo where a person is themself for a few minutes.

Nicolas Cage plays himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Tips on writing your meta-narrative

Whether you're writing parody, satire, or drama, here are some tips if you want to write a story in which a real-life person plays themself.

Write with empathy & write without judgment

This is the most important one and is honestly tip number one for all characters, whether meta or not.

It's a fine line, but the actor/character needs to be in on the joke, not the butt of it. You may not agree with the person's worldview or actions, but if you write from a place of judgment, the audience will not be on board.

If you're finding it challenging to write from that place, then ask yourself what interested you about the idea in the first place. It may not be conducive to the sort of meta-story you're telling because if you can't get behind your character's wants and desires and dreams…then neither will the audience.

Double down

Cage described playing himself in this film as looking into a funhouse mirror.

Famously distorting by stretching and thinning various body parts, funhouse mirrors provide a different view of things. But what's being stretched and what's being thinned? What's being distorted?

You can't exaggerate everything because you'll risk keeping your story grounded. So pick those elements you want to explore and uncover and then multiply them.

Think of it like throwing gas on a fire. The fire has to be there already for it to have any effect. So you're not inventing anything, so much as you're just expanding on and exaggerating what's already there.

Remember that it isn't a biopic. It's fictional. So you can take a few liberties in the exaggeration.

In this clip, Cage gives a performance that feels like the climax of another film he might've been in. It's right on par with his other performances, and there are very few "jokes" in it.

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Don't go for easy laughs

This is more about getting specific, which is an evergreen comedy note.

Unbearable Weight isn't just "Nic Cage is kinda crazy." It's about understanding the idiosyncratic decisions that drive the "crazy." (And I don't mean "crazy" in a bad way. Remember, no judgment.)

Additionally, the myriad of Cage films referenced aren't referenced loosely. Instead, they're woven in, and Gormican pulls out specific moments and lines from each that cut deeper. So for those who recognize them, it's funny and incredibly rewarding.

My personal favorite was a little reference to this scene. The line in Unbearable Weight wasn't scripted, but apparently, Cage felt he had to reference it.

What's under the meta?

Not only are you a writer, but you're an artist. And making art means making statements about the world. So what's underneath the meta idea?

When you hear people discuss the "depth" of certain films or television shows, this is often what they're talking about. What's the point? What's the meaning?

"What is the artistic value of Nicolas Cage playing himself in a movie about him?" is a question that every audience member will answer differently. And it's okay if we don't know the value precisely. 

One of the most delightful subplots in the film is Nic Cage's love of cinema. He references classic films and describes his love for them. And as he's writing a screenplay with Javi (played by Pedro Pascal), you see that he loves what cinema can be and do.

In this interview, you can learn more about Nicolas Cage's actual cinematic preferences from The Hollywood Reporter.

A tough sell

Artistically, writing a film in which a specific actor plays themselves as the main character can be fun and incredibly thoughtful. Take a look at movies like Being John Malkovich or JCVD, and of course, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

It can be tough to get these made, especially on spec, but that's for another article. But if you're moving forward with a meta script, these tips should help! Goodluck writing.


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The Unbearable Weight of Going Meta
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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