Fall Arts Guide 2021: Art Is Political
The making of one of the year’s best films, Pig, is a tale of taking big risks to tell a humble story. The film stars Nicolas Cage, in a role where his character isn’t built on the foundation of a boisterous performance, but of smaller, quiet scenes that are no less impactful. The director didn’t know Cage would be a part of it, or that it would catch on how it did. Yet it has done just that, resonating with audiences who have connected with how Pig handles grief and the idea of whether you can find a new life for yourself after losing everything.
Set in Portland, it follows Cage as Robin "Rob" Feld, an acclaimed chef returning to the city where he used to work. It is a heartfelt, delicately paced film that traces the path of Rob’s old life in order to recover the one thing he still cares about: his beloved truffle pig. The film’s use of Portland is a rarity: city in the northwest actually plays itself, as opposed to just being Vancouver in disguise. The location, with the past it represents for the character, is a crucial part of the narrative— the area’s culinary history which Rob has defected from is actually baked into the meaning of the film.
So how did this unexpected film come to be such a profound piece of art? This is the oral history of how Pig, a film told in three parts that resemble the course of a meal, was created and shared by the people that crafted it: writer-director Michael Sarnoski, writer-producer Vanessa Block, editor Brett W. Bachman, as well as composers Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein.
Part 1: It all started in search of a truffle pig
The decision to set the film in Portland was one that originally stemmed from practical considerations. After being inspired by a photo of a man he had seen on a porch with his truffle pig, Sarnoski had to consider where there would be someone working with a porcine friend to gather the edible fungi.
“There was a brief moment early in coming up with the movie, where I was wondering ‘Should this be in France? Should this be in Spain?’ But it felt very important that it take place in the states,” Sarnoski said. “The Pacific Northwest is one of the few areas where there actually is a truffle industry, where the truffles grow naturally.”
In Oregon, truffles are an entire industry where the expensive delicacy can cost up to $800 a pound. It was that reason that Sarnoski initially looked to the area, though he soon found himself drawn in even beyond that.
“The more I researched Portland and the culture and the places there, it just became a character of its own,” Sarnoski said. “Vanessa Block and I started taking some trips up there to scout spots and to write certain specific places into the script.”
For Block, the connection between the texture of the city and the brokenness of a character wandering through the echoes of his past was critical to creating a feeling of a larger-than-life myth.
“Portland really represented this amazing collision between commerce, city, food, but then also the scenic beauty of wilderness and a way to exist on the fringes of society,” Block said. “We wanted the film to be this marriage between something very grounded and naturalistic, always knowing that we wanted to give it this heightened, not quite full magical realism quality, but just this mythic fable-like quality.”
Block said the film was crafted so that it felt like Rob is passing through various “realms” after emerging from the wilderness outside the city to return to his old haunts.
That’s where editor Brett W. Bachman came in. Bachman grew up just outside of Seattle, which contributed to him coming up with the idea to have Cage’s character say “Fuck Seattle” at a key moment.
He is no stranger to working on a project in which Cage starred, having edited the visually striking films Mandy and Color Out of Space. He also worked on the outstanding character-driven horror The Vigil from last year.
Bachman’s work guides our journey from the outside world surrounding Portland into the “realm” of Rob’s old life, fading across shots of the connecting struts of the Broadway Bridge into the landmarks of the city. The famous “Portland” sign that is displayed outside the historic Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall makes an appearance as Rob looks at how the city has changed, just as he has too, since he has been away.
“The approach came from a desire to put us in Rob’s subjective state, what he would be feeling at that moment,” Bachman said. “We had quite a bit of coverage of driving through downtown at night and the lights and the bridges. We could have taken an approach of straight cuts, but we were thinking we wanted something different, something that would have a bit more of an impact. Something that was a bit more subjective and oddly terrifying and hallucinogenic in a way.”
The realms of the films are also established in the film’s musical composition by Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein. The duo worked to create a differentiation in the score between the natural wilderness and the man-made world of the city.
“The challenging thing was to create a world for Rob in his natural habitat and environment which is him with the pig completely secluded and away from civilization. We were trying to find a sound that would match that world that would create the proper emotions and feelings,” Grapsas said. “That’s where more of the minimalistic, acoustic instruments that are warm sounds are happening. We experimented with a lot of sounds until we landed on something we liked.”
Most notably, this includes a baritone violin that the film makes excellent use of in the sweeping yet subtle moments where Rob is at peace. The peace is temporary, so the score must change as Rob leaves behind his safe home to return to Portland.
Klein, who came on later to work alongside Grapsas, expressed how it was important to create different worlds through their music composition.
“I think Michael was always keen on having a very clear divide between that world that Rob lives in where he’s in the woods and he’s in his happy place with the pig. He’s away from the stresses and the life that he previously had,” Klein said. “There was always a discussion that we needed a break in the music to delineate these two worlds.”
As the film’s creators discussed how they navigated that bridging of the two worlds, there was shared universal praise for the performance of the film’s lead.
Part 2: A peaceful, committed Nicolas Cage
The veteran actor and enigma that is Nicolas Cage has certainly had a varied career, though he had never been in a film set in Portland before Pig. Cage was so taken by the film’s script that he found himself making his first cinematic appearance in the city.
It turns out, there might have been a film where Cage was not cast as Robin. As the film was low-budget, Sarnoski said he would have been willing to work with a lesser-known actor to get the film made. However, when Cage came on board, the actor really “tapped into” the role.
“He just really connected to the character emotionally,” Sarnoski said. “He was in a very contemplative, quiet place because of his character.”
Cage also spent time preparing for the food side of the character, training with local chefs Christopher Czarnecki and Gabriel Rucker. Though for Sarnoski, the real heart of the performance comes from his commitment to artistry of all forms.
“He is an artist and he is a craftsman. He knows how to channel that through whatever he is doing, so when he is cooking the technical stuff becomes secondary to just how much passion, and care, and focus he puts into it,” Sarnoski said. “He feels like a real chef, he feels like someone who cares about this food, and someone who cares about the minutiae of every one of these recipes.”
He does all the cooking with a sense of grace and skill, all despite his character taking quite a beating over his journey. Remember the heightened sensibility Block mentioned? This extends to how Cage carries himself even as he is bloodied, his wounds acting both as an armor of sorts to show he is not to be messed with while also revealing his mortal vulnerability.
“That’s why we can get away with some things like Rob being bloodied for the entirety of the film and going into restaurants without having anyone call that out,” Block said. “That was all intentional to give it this heightened sensibility.”
This extends to how the name “Robin Feld” is spoken with reverence and how Cage embodies a silent, almost mythical hero. However, even when you feel like he may take matters into his own hands through violent acts, the film upends some of our common expectations about cinema of this kind.
This occurs most notably in a standout conversation scene Robin has with a former employee who has compromised on a personal dream. It was shot in Portland’s now closed Saucebox that was disguised as an upscale restaurant called Eurydice. It is the talk of the town, though it is a restaurant devoid of soul or passion.
The scene is played delicately by Cage who, instead of launching into a violent rage, talks openly and honestly about finding something to care about in life. For him it is his truffle pig, and for his former employee it is getting to cook the food he wants in a pub. There is no sudden violence or over-the-top action. It is all about the candid conversation had between two people trying to figure out how to find happiness in life.
This was exactly how Sarnoski wanted it to play it: with honesty and reality at the forefront.
“It’s funny that people find it so surprising that it doesn’t go down the route of violence. I saw that coming, but it’s interesting that we default to that so easily…. I love me some Marvel movies, but oftentimes the solution is fisticuffs. In real life, that’s not usually how we solve our problems, or at least how we solve them in a long-lasting, productive way.”
Cage plays this all perfectly, something Sarnoski said was a credit to the actor as he didn’t need to be talked through what the film was going for. Instead, he slipped right into the role. Even if Cage may have some baggage for viewers from his prior performances, that all is soon forgotten the more he fades away into the character. When the actor came onto the project, Sarnoski didn’t change the approach to the story or try to subvert what we may think of when it comes to Cage. Instead, Cage was a chameleon of an actor and smoothly fit into the cohesive whole of what Sarnoski saw for the rest of the story.
“We were focused less on subverting everything people thought it was going to be and more on just knowing what it was and doing that justice.”
Part 3: A world shaped around loss
The film’s depiction of Portland, and its world as a whole, is one informed by loss. Completed in 2020, the movie was held until it was released this July when theaters were beginning to reopen. For Sarnoski, the wait and the timing gave the film an added sense of relevance.
“I’ve been thrilled with how it came out and how people are receiving it. Weirdly, I think the pandemic set it up in a way where people are in this place where we’ve all been coping with isolation and we’re in a very introspective spot. We’re trying to take stock of who we are, what our role and responsibility is for caring for other people. These are things that we’re all thinking about. It puts us in a headspace that fits this movie pretty well.”
“We’re all reassessing what matters in life, and what are the building blocks that make a good life and what do we really care about.”
What helped motivate and shape the film was someone Sarnoski cared deeply for and lost at a young age: his father.
“My dad passed away when I was a kid, and I was in my late 20’s when I wrote this script. I was at this point in my life where I was starting to see how my family and I had shaped our worlds around that loss. You come at it from two places. You have the plot element, the things that interest you about the story. Then that meets your soul, that meets what you’re thinking about on an emotional level and what you’re thinking about in your life. Then those two things grow together.”
In the process of working on the film, Sarnoski’s mother came to set in Portland, something that was important for the director as he was able to share his work with someone he cared about. She was present for the aforementioned scene when Robin encourages his former employee to start a pub as he always dreamed of doing.
For Sarnoski, even as the story is grounded in loss, this film is a triumph of personal achievement, as he considers it his own pub.
“Honestly, I think it’s hard to make your pub, but I think if it hadn’t been my pub, it would have fallen apart long ago…. The fact that this was something that I really cared about and something that came from within me, it was only something that I could make, was a real guiding force for me.”
The director doesn’t think his work is what he considers a “message film,” though he thinks it has something to say about connection and the lack of it we may all be experiencing.
“There is a lot of scary, sad stuff happening in the world. We can lock ourselves off and construct walls around ourselves to cope with that. Or we can acknowledge that we’re all constructing these walls for the same reason and find connection through that.”
“There is maybe a way to integrate our past tragedies into our lives and still keep moving forward in a meaningful, compassionate way. Most of our lives are spent trying to integrate our past into our present and find a healthy way of doing it where there’s no denial, there’s no ignoring it. There actually is a way of honoring it and honoring the things we felt. Knowing that those things are not around anymore, but knowing that we can still love those things and love new things.”