‘Nic Cage wanted to do the entire film drunk’: the self-destructive power of Leaving Las Vegas

Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy
Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy

Nicolas Cage wanted to drink through Leaving Las Vegas. “He wanted to do the entire film drunk,” says writer-director Mike Figgis. It was a level of realism, perhaps, that wouldn’t have mixed well with the low-key production. “The schedule was tight,” Figgis explains. “I told him, ‘I need you to be completely compos mentis…’ But he did one scene completely off his face.”

Released in October 1995, Leaving Las Vegas stars Cage as Ben, an alcoholic screenwriter who – after literally burning what’s left of his life – journeys to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. In Vegas he meets Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, a pure-hearted, also-damaged hooker. They fall in love – two broken, wandering souls who make an unlikely, inexplicable connection amidst the sleaze, smut, and artificial glow of Vegas. But there’s an agreement between them: Ben has come to Las Vegas to die; Sera must never ask him to stop drinking.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by American writer John O’Brien. Tortured by his own crippling alcoholism, O’Brien shot and killed himself in April 1994 – just weeks after selling the film rights.

As for Cage’s “completely off his face” moment, it comes during a scene around a casino blackjack table. A certain darkness erupts – a side to Cage’s suicidal drunk that has been bottled until now.

Having drank himself into a well of self-made despair, Ben flips the table in a sudden, unprovoked rage, and screams about his son, who, like Ben’s barely-mentioned wife, is long gone. (A family photo is one of the many things that Ben burns before hightailing to Vegas to die.)

“He drank a bottle of vodka before the scene,” says Figgis. “I was very angry with him because he didn’t tell me. Somebody got injured and he smashed the equipment. The pit boss was furious and was gonna throw us out until the audience, who were all propagandas, started applauding. We were within a hair’s breadth of being thrown out, because Nic had gone bonkers.”

Twenty-seven years after Leaving Las Vegas, Nic Cage relishes in a much-less-serious rep: a knowing exaggeration of his own artistic excesses, like the embodiment of every B-grade actioner, every ludicrous high concept, and every glint of wild-eyed mania. His latest film, the nudge-and-wink action-comedy, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, is a celebration of that particular strand of cranked-up Nic Cagery.

It's sometimes forgotten that beneath it, Cage is a tremendous, uniquely-spirited actor. He won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Leaving Las Vegas, one of four nominations for the film.

Cage’s casino outburst is merely one facet of the performance, which is more a multitude of personalities: a convulsing, cold turkey addict, struck by fits and so physically out of control that he can’t write his own name; a jubilant drunk, dancing his way down the supermarket booze aisle, prone to sharp-witted, Cage-like eccentricities; and a frightening portrait of self-destruction.

But between them all, Cage is also the film’s broken heart – sedate, self-aware, pensive, sick. It's this part of his character that’s tempered by Elisabeth Shue’s Sera. “You’re like some kind of antidote that mixes with the liquor and keeps me in balance,” Ben tells her.

Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue with Mike Figgis on the set of Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy
Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue with Mike Figgis on the set of Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy

Shue’s performance is multi-faceted too. As Sera admits, she puts on a performance – for her punters, for her pimp. It’s only with Ben that she’s entirely herself – lonely, vulnerable, alluring. “The joy of having Elisabeth Shue as your pivot cannot be underestimated,” says Mike Figgis. “Her performance is as good as Nic’s. She allows him to be compassionate by her evident love for him. She’s nothing but heart.”

Figgis credits an old dear friend for passing him the original John O’Brien novel. “Dear friends often give you a book and usually they’re crap,” he laughs. At the time, Figgis was working on Mr Jones, a bipolar drama starring Richard Gere. “I was in LA on a long, laborious post-production fight with a studio and losing the will to live,” says Figgis. “I responded to the book because it was very dark material. It was what I was supposed to be doing on Mr Jones, which was about bipolarity and manic depression and turned into a Hollywood farce. Leaving Las Vegas was the real deal. It was about a troubled individual who can’t fit in and is self-medicating himself to death.”

John O’Brien died before Figgis could meet him. “I got very close with his ex-wife and sister and parents,” says Figgis. “He was brilliant and troubled – he was sick. His family said the book is entirely autobiographical.”

“He couldn't drink himself to death,” his sister, Erin O'Brien, told Esquire in 2015. “The reality was delirium tremens and sickness and an addiction that rightly or wrongly, that he couldn't escape on his own. I think that was his only escape. A violent suicide was the reality at the end of John's life. Leaving Las Vegas was the highly-stylized romantic fantasy, to me.”

Erin doubted whether the sale of the film rights and O’Brien’s suicide were connected. “I think that he just felt his alcoholism was so profound and so all-consuming and so horrible, that there weren't any options,” she told Esquire. “My guess is in the last few hours of his life the contract for that movie was not even secondary or third in line or fourth in line – just completely inconsequential. I don't think it had any bearing whatsoever.”

Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy
Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy

For Mike Figgis, Leaving Las Vegas was an exercise in escaping the Hollywood system: low budget and shot on 16mm – “The equivalent of shooting on an iPhone now” – with the distinct energy of a small crew. It was also somewhat illicit: refused permission to shoot in Las Vegas itself, Figgis had to sneak in what shots he could and work around the Vegas rules.

“The Las Vegas Film Commission’s job is to make Las Vegas look like a warm, family-orientated place,” says Figgis. “They really got upset at the idea that people are alcoholics or want to die there. I get it. If you work in PR there, I can’t see you doing a backflip at the script.”

Actors similarly balked at the story. Figgis mentioned the project in passing to Richard Gere and Andy Garcia while talking socially. “They both ran a mile from the material,” he laughs. “It was like, ‘Good luck with that one, Mike!’”

Figgis knew that he wanted to cast Elisabeth Shue after meeting her on another film. “I was totally in love with her as an actress,” he says. Figgis had previously met Nicolas Cage, too, when casting his 1991 film Liebestraum. That time around he didn’t give Cage the part. “Which he told me afterwards really pissed him off,” says Figgis. “Nic does take things personally.”

Cage saw the script for Leaving Las Vegas and sent a fax to Figgis. “It was under the name of Spooky Blue, which was one of his aliases,” says Figgis. “He said, ‘I want to do this, please don’t give it to anybody else. I don’t care about the money. I want to do it.’” (Richard Gere later insinuated that he had been offered the role first. “Nic was devastated,” says Figgis. “That’s just how Nic is. It just wasn’t true. I didn’t offer it anyone else.”)

It was an eclectic period for Cage, from off-beat, quirky roles – Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, Vampire’s Kiss – to winning the Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and amped blockbuster action: saving Alcatraz from skin-melting rockets in The Rock; swapping faces with John Travolta in Face/Off; and fighting a plane-full of hardened movie criminals in Con Air.

Cage’s ascent to the A-list was no coincidence, says Figgis. “No studio would cast him as a leading man before, because he ate cockroaches or used a funny voice – he’d always do a Nic Cage quirk thing,” says Figgis. “His fee was $100,000, I think – it was the same as mine and neither of us got paid because of various accounting creativities – and within a year he was up to about $20 million.”

Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy
Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas - Alamy

Making the movie while actually drunk was off the table, but Cage did drink to prepare for the role. “He hired an alcoholic friend of his – a lovely man, a friend of Francis Ford Coppola’s – called ‘the drinking coach,’” says Figgis. “Nic booked a suite at the Chateau Marmont and very generously gave that to me as our rehearsal room. We did all our rehearsals there, and, in the evenings, he would go drinking. A couple of evenings I went with him – to strip clubs, lap dancing clubs, drinking venues. He did drink a lot in the period leading up to the filming.”

“There were a couple of scenes where I really wanted to be hammered,” Cage admitted in a 2015 interview. Cage’s “drinking coach”, the actor and poet Tony Dingman, stayed close by on set. “I would watch him,” said Cage. “He would say the most drunken, poetic things.” Cage borrowed Dingman’s strangely eloquent outbursts, dosing the film with an off-balance comic energy: stumbling around, losing his way, falling over spectacularly, bursting into song. “You’ve been drinking all day,” complains one hassled woman, put off by Ben’s boozy breath. “But of course!” he replies, pleased as punch.

“I think you have to prove to Nic that you know what you’re doing,” says Figgis. “Once he trusts you, he will push things that you ask him to push in a really interesting way. I wanted to be very clear that I wasn’t going to abdicate and let him do a quirk-central performance. He has the tendency to piss on the tree in that way. All actors want to do that. Nic’s an extreme example. The film was so quirky anyway. I had an idea of the physical extremities I wanted – he then ran, crawled, convulsed with those ideas.”

The spectrum of Cage’s character is captured in a musical sequence, as he burns his belongings and heads out to Vegas. The song, a Michael McDonald cover of Jackie Wilson’s Lonely Teardrops, is a bit of naff, club singer-style, white man’s soul. But set to Cage’s breakdown, it becomes a punchy jolt of melancholy. Elsewhere, Figgis’s own jazz score leads the mood – sombre and seedy.

Though barred from officially shooting in Las Vegas, one local character made the crew an offer that they almost couldn’t refuse. “A clearly dodgy person with interests in, how do we say it, organised crime,” says Figgis. The individual, apparently enamoured by Nicolas Cage’s family link to Godfather-director Francis Ford Coppola (Cage is Coppola’s nephew), invited a location scout to a meeting, offering access to the top casinos.

“He said, ‘You’re making a film with Nicky… yeah Francis, I love the Coppolas, yeah, no problem,’” recalls Figgis. Cage, however, begged Figgis to decline. “Because next thing it’ll be like, ‘You need to put my niece in the movie,’” recalls Figgis. “So, we passed on that offer.”

Even shooting outside casinos was a problem. “Every time we tried to set up a tripod on the sidewalk,” says Figgis, “we got stopped by security who said that they own the sidewalk in front of the casinos, so we couldn’t film there. I said, ‘Do you own the road in front of the sidewalk?’ ‘Nope, technically we don’t.’ ‘So, if my camera is in a car, on the road… can we do that?’ ‘That’s fine…’”

It brings to mind a scene in film: Ben necking a bottle of vodka while driving, then swiftly putting the bottle out of sight when a policeman pulls up alongside.

After getting an authentically down-and-dirty Vegas experience – “The motel was so cheap that my room had blood-stained footprints on the wall!” says Figgis – the production travelled to the nearby resort town of Laughlin to shoot casino interiors. “Which is kind of like a retirement version of Vegas, but they were happy to have us,” says Figgis.

Leaving Las Vegas is not, in its darkest corners, a remotely comfortable experience: its sex is confrontational and violent; its sweet-nothings are coarse or obscene; and its ultimate destination is inescapably grim. But it captures a fundamental truth about the sudden, mysterious, awkward experience of falling for someone. It’s a pure love story, but surrounded by darkness. It’s counterintuitive, almost – the heartbreak is so profound, so emotionally ravaging, that its tragedy is somehow beautiful.

Even Figgis was stunned by the film’s success. Distributors, like Richard Gere and Andy Garcia, “ran a mile”, until the film got support from veteran producer John Calley and critic David Thomson. “It immediately went bonkers – I was totally unprepared for that,” says Figgis. “I went along for the ride in a Zen state of consciousness – to the Oscars and beyond. It was the last thing I expected. I just wanted to make the film and get the f––– out of that system, just get my soul back. Then that happens... You suddenly realise that pretty much everyone knows an alcoholic or a f––– up that they loved or tried to help, or watched helplessly as they self-destruct. I think it touched everyone’s heart in that way. It’s not clinical, it’s emotional.”