Writer and director Kristoffer Borgli talks about his ‘wild, grotesque’ new horror-comedy, which follows a socially awkward professor as he inexplicably starts to appear in strangers’ dreams
The internet is so full of Nicolas Cage memes that if somebody made that point to you, you could send the “YOU DON’T SAY” GIF from Vampire’s Kiss in response. Whether it’s his eye-bulging freak-outs (Face/Off, Con Air, Mandy), deranged speeches (The Wicker Man, Wild at Heart, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans), or more nuanced work (Adaptation, Pig, Moonstruck), Cage is an actor so embedded in our public consciousness that he practically lives in our minds rent free. But what if he didn’t want it that way?
In Dream Scenario, a nightmare comedy written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a meek, socially awkward professor who becomes an overnight celebrity when he inexplicably appears in strangers’ dreams. Instead of questioning why, though, Paul welcomes the influx of students to his lectures. After all, his cameos in people’s slumber are initially incidental, usually with him silently walking in the background like an extra who’s stumbled onto the wrong movie set; if he gets hands-on, it’s more pleasurably hands-on, as per a claim from Dylan Gelula’s Molly that he’s responsible for “very intense sex dreams”.
All that changes when the reveries transform into traumatic bloodbaths. Friends, friends of friends, and practically every stranger in the world envisions, in their sleep, Paul as a Freddy Krueger-esque murderer and rapist. Paul, in waking life, is subsequently spat on, asked to leave restaurants, and uninvited from watching his daughter’s school play. Everyone knows Paul isn’t responsible, but with his physical presence triggering violent reactions, he’s placed on leave from his university gig. What starts as a quirky comedy about 15 minutes – or, at least, a REM cycle – of unlikely fame swiftly leaps into a piercing social satire about an everyday human judged for actions taken out of context.
“I was thinking of dragging a horror idea out of its genre, letting it live in our real and somewhat banal times, and looking at how it played out,” writes Borgli, via email, the week Dream Scenario hits cinemas in the UK and US. “In a sense, the current moment is a co-writer, how we discuss and dissect complicated issues on a large cultural scale these days. I just followed what I thought would be the natural order of things, elevated and curated for comedic effect. In that way the movie works as a snapshot of a very specific moment in time.”
Borgli, a Norwegian filmmaker who lives in LA, has often explored media manipulation and the absurdity of fame. In Sick of Myself, which came out earlier this year, a failed artist deliberately develops a skin disease to attract online attention, while Drib, a sort of doc from 2017, details a comedian’s attempt to go viral via a fake energy drink. Dream Scenario, though, flips the script: whereas the protagonist of Sick of Myself has an orgasm while fantasising about her mass-attended funeral, Paul is mortified to be asked by a publicist, Trent (Michael Cera), if he could collaborate in a marketing campaign for Sprite.
Funnily enough, Borgli has directed commercials for clients such as Twizzlers, Sweetgreen, and Adidas. “Having been inside the sausage factory of advertising definitely made it easier to write all the stuff relating to the conceptual marketing firm they call ‘Thoughts?’ in the film,” he says. “There’s a specific language and energy that lives inside of meetings like that.”
A hint for where Dream Scenario is headed is that it’s produced by A24 and Ari Aster’s Square Peg; by the time Paul is slicing and dicing victims in their nightmares, the comparisons with Hereditary and Midsommar are already apparent. Of course, with a story centred on dreams, Borgli takes advantage with wild, grotesque sequences that involve alligators, levitation, and buildings collapsing like the climax of a disaster thriller or one of Cage’s more expensive movies.
Deliberately blurring the lines between real and unreal, Borgli shoots the dreams as if they’re ordinary scenes, meaning that the viewer doesn’t realise it isn’t actually happening until, for instance, Cage pulls out a sniper and murders another human being. Conversely, for real-life scenes, the director often tinkers with the soundscape, highlighting background noises to create a foreboding atmosphere. “I’m glad you noticed that,” says Borgli. “There are definitely multiple ways of reading the movie, of what’s a dream and what is not. The physics of dream logic is a clue!”
“I was thinking of dragging a horror idea out of its genre, letting it live in our real and somewhat banal times, and looking at how it played out” – Kristoffer Borgli
Adding to the confusion is how Dream Scenario unfolds from Paul’s perspective, and yet each dream and nightmare takes place inside another character’s head. Was Borgli excited to mess around with movie logic like that? “I don’t think that has ever crossed my mind!” he says. “It just felt intuitive.”
Either way, Borgli’s name is certainly on the rise. At the end of 2022, John Waters named Sick of Myself as “pretty fucked up” and the fourth-best film of the year; since its TIFF premiere, Dream Scenario has also earned acclaim, garnering praise in particular for Cage’s performance. Notably, the cult actor, who isn’t shy about criticising his own work, has repeatedly declared that Dream Scenario is a “masterpiece”, even comparing it to Citizen Kane.
As for his own relationship with fame, Borgli doesn’t seem to be chasing the kind of notoriety faced by Paul. “I’m happy for the work itself to take on a life in the public consciousness, and doing interviews is fine as long as we’re discussing the art,” the director says. “But, personally, I’d like to live in as few people’s heads as possible.”
Dream Scenario is out in cinemas on November 10