Private eyes in the underworld: Joel Schumacher and Nicolas Cage

Mar 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

"All entertainment is manipulation and exploitation," responds director Joel Schumacher when asked about the fine line that 8MM (Eight Millimeter) treads.

"A sweet, cozy movie that’s making you cry is exploiting your sentimentality," he continues in Los Angeles, "so I hope we are manipulating you in some way and disturbing you."

Schumacher isn’t so much defensive as genuinely baffled by the nature of the questions asked him, as well as the negative advance comments directed at his film from, of all people, Larry Flynt. But considering the subject matter, strong reactions seem inevitable.

The milieu of 8MM isn’t the mainstream porn industry of Boogie Nights, but the layers beneath it, particularly the illegal netherworld that could produce the sex-torture-death scenario of a real "snuff film" – Schumacher says he’s never seen one, and most people he encountered in his research deny they actually exist.

In showing this world, Schumacher insists he was "vigilant about not making this in any way, shape or form glamorous or attractive. I had to show it as sordid as it really is (to make) anyone who sees it feel the evil."

But strictly on narrative terms, Schumacher views 8MM as a contemporary version of an old story: the hero’s journey.

"There’s always been a tradition of protagonists going into worlds that are extremely corrupt and terrifying," he explains. "(Tom Welles) might be investigating domestic terrorism or crack cocaine. But I think once sex gets involved, it’s always a different discussion."

This choice catches 8MM in a cultural bind peculiar to a post-sexual revolution America, where S&M imagery has gone mainstream, yet debates concerning regulation of the Internet revolve around the availability of sexually explicit material to children. Nicolas Cage discusses that dichotomy.

"I’ve always had a side to me that appreciates Francis Bacon paintings, Edgar Allan Poe, horror films," Cage explains, "and if I deny that side of myself, I’m denying a certain aspect of my expression."

Playing Tom Welles, he also found "something that I’ve been feeling over the years watching the news as a parent: that powerless, hopeless feeling that one gets seeing the horrible things that can happen to young people in our country, feeling angry and not knowing where to put the anger because nothing ever seems to really get done about it."

And in taking action, Welles uncovers a monster inside himself.

"I don’t think he had any idea that (rage) was really inside him," says Nicolas Cage, "and that probably scared him more than the creepy people that he was surrounded by."