Norwegian-born writer/director Kristoffer Borgli is having a a hell of a year. Earlier in the year, his 2022 feature, Sick of Myself, finally made it stateside to great reviews, and now his newest work, Dream Scenario, starring Nicolas Cage, has been racking up great notices since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival in September. In it, Cage plays tenured professor Paul Mathews, an expert in biology who is deeply bothered by the fact that his expertise hasn’t led to greater fame in his field; he even confronts a former colleague about a book she’s about to publish that includes ideas that they worked on together years earlier, for which he receives no credit.
One day, Paul finds out that he’s been appearing in other people’s dreams as a mostly passive character while something traumatic is going on to the dreamer. His presence is non-intrusive as he stares at the fantasy or nightmare scenario without comment or action. But when he starts showing up in more or less everyone’s dreams, Paul becomes an overnight celebrity, with news stories about him and talent agents (including one played by Michael Cera) clamoring to meet with him. But after an upsetting event in Paul’s real life, people start seeing Paul in their dreams as an aggressive force—the attacker, the killer, the tormenter, and worse—and he becomes a pariah to the world at large, even though he’s done nothing wrong.
Dream Scenario is a smart, funny work about the dangers of becoming famous for doing nothing, for not contributing anything to society or the world at large. It’s much easier to hate someone you used to love if they never actually did anything good for the world, and Paul finds that out quickly. Produced by Ari Aster, the film features one of Cage’s best roles in recent years, and its twisted take on reality (no actual explanation is given for Paul’s dream appearances) reminds me of the best works of filmmakers like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Charlie Kaufman. I had a chance to sit down with Borgli when he was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival, and we walked through the inspirations behind the film’s story, the perils of fame, and working with a legendary actor like Nicolas Cage. The film opens in Chicago this Friday and nationwide on November 22. Please enjoy our conversation…
You shot this on film. And since you’re the editor, did you also edit it on film?
No no. You don’t edit on film. You scan it and make it digital.
I wondered if that’s what you did, or if you really wanted to go old school.
[laughs] Like with the scissors, yeah.
Why add that extra layer for this film? What about this movie did you think needed that filmic quality?
What film does is to create a sense of something being documented. You’re not there in the present; you’re there watching something that feels slightly different from what your eyes normally see. In that sense, it has a little bit of a quality of a dream, in a way. Something that’s not completely a document of reality, but something that your mind gets swept up in and transfused with. We do see so much documented reality constantly—everyone has a camera—and I didn’t want this to look like the reality that our eyes are seeing; I wanted it to feel a little bit more dreamlike.
There are a lot of threads of ideas that you bring together here. This isn’t just a film about one thing. It’s about the perils of fame, but you treat the dream material very seriously, and then there’s the comments on the capitalization of everything. Tell me about how all of these threads came together. Did they start out as separate ideas in your mind?
Yeah, first of all, it was a movie about dreams. I worked at a video store when I was 16 years old, and movies didn’t look like the reality I was living in. My surroundings in a small town in Norway felt very boring, compared to the excitement of the movies I was watching, so I kept disappearing into them and thinking I wanted to make movies. I tried to write scripts, and none of the things that I had in my head made sense for my surroundings. I remember thinking that the most exciting location I could find in my reality is my head and my dreams, and ever since, I’ve wanted to make a movie that found an excuse to go into your head and dreams. And here was an idea that not only found an excuse to go into one person’s head but thousands, and that was a really interesting prospect as a filmmaker.
Then I started putting more ideas in there, things that had somehow made it into my brain, whether it was my father’s academic years and his cringe sense of humor, or the way that entering the collective consciousness and engagement with the public has had very negative side effects for a lot of people. The way that we conflate good status and recognition with having our persona run amok in the culture. There were so many things that connected from the basic dream idea and Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious that felt super relevant to modern life and the hyper-connectedness. It almost feels like his ideas of how some part of the consciousness is connected, like a hive mind idea, has come to reality by way of the internet.
So those were all things that I wanted to tackle, and the first idea I had after coming up with the concept was a comedic one. I was thinking about the idea of expectations versus reality, and that someone can have very unrealistic expectations of someone. This is basically the idea of never meeting your heroes. I thought of this idea of someone who, for whatever reason, keeps popping into other people’s dreams. It would be really funny if someone kept having intense and very pleasurable sex fantasies or dreams and started to believe in those expectations, and then gets to meet the man himself and experiences the complete opposite of that.
In the scene you’re referring to, you might have the funniest fart joke of the 21st century. Was that always there in the script?
I’m not even joking, this was the first scene that I had in mind, that whole sequence. The plot is built to get us to that scene.
The audience I saw it with didn’t just laugh. It’s a tense scene, so it felt like a release, which I guess is appropriate.
The dreams themselves go from Paul being a passive observer to something much worse after that trip, after that incident. What was the shift in your mind that changed everyone’s dreams? I have my theories, but I want to hear yours.
Can I hear yours first?
Sure. Everything Paul does up to that moment, he’s sure of himself. Whether it’s asking for credit for his work or how he teaches his class. He’s might even be a little full of himself. But after that encounter with Dylan Gelula, guilt enters his mind. He’s not as sure of himself, and I feel like it’s that negativity that pushes the dreams into nightmares, if he’s in any way in control of the content of the dreams.
Now that you say that, for you to have that experience of thinking about this, that’s so cool. I don’t want to put my solution out there. Also, I kept myself a little bit removed from the mystery. When I was writing it, I was thinking maybe it’s good if I don’t investigate too much or put too clear of an answer to it.
You don’t ever explain how it begins, so why would you explain why it changes. I get it.
Right. I’m interested in the way people respond to it more than the phenomenon itself. So I’d love to keep that open, but I love your interpretation. That’s really great.
I’d love to hear about pitching this to Nicolas Cage. I saw an interview with him recently where he said this is one of the few scripts that he’s ever read where he said, “I have to do this. Don’t change a thing.”
I didn’t have to pitch it even. He got the script, so the script was the pitch. He responded very well to it, and basically said “Don’t change a thing,” and that’s what you want, someone who is eager to make the same movie as you. I had meetings with people and I’ve worked with people who have a different idea of what movie we’re making, and that’s painful and difficult. So Nick Cage being this enthusiastic and understanding what we’re doing and agreeing with it made this a very pleasurable journey.
I often beg people not to tell me their dreams, because when someone relates a dream to you, it’s often not the same as what they experience when sleeping. It usually ends up sounding silly. But the way you film these dream sequences, even the more passive dreams, feel like actual dreams. Was that the goal, to feel like a dream or nightmare?
Yeah, there’s nothing more annoying or boring than having to listen to someone’s dream, right?
That should be on the poster.
[laughs] But it’s so incredibly interesting when you’re in the dream, but there’s no way to communicate that with words. That’s where it all falls apart, when you try to translate your experience into mere words; it doesn’t work. But here we have the tool of cinema, and you bring people into the dream. Now it’s interesting. So the solution, when you’re trying to communicate to someone about your interesting dream, is to film it.
In creating the nightmare sequences, it seems like that would be fun because you don’t have to come up with whole stories, just the most frightening situation. Tell me about the process of coming up with the different murders and tortures. You get to play a horror director here.
Yeah, it was fun. I wanted it to feel objectively horrifying. There’s something about this movie where it becomes a debate about responsibility and how seriously do we take this new and novel phenomenon that hasn’t happened in the world before, where people are saying they are traumatized by what they’re experiencing in their heads. I wanted to take that side of the argument seriously, and I did that by creating these dreams that were really horrific and hard to watch, and I tried to imagine having that dream every night about someone you have to deal with every day. That would be difficult to concentrate with a professor who you see in your dreams murder and torture you. So that was my point of view in those dreams, to make sure they feel uncomfortable and difficult.
How fortunate it was for you that one of your references here is Stop Making Sense, another recent A24 release.
I think that’s a good thing because I wasn’t sure how many young people know about the big suit and how iconic it is, because it becomes an important part of the movie. It was never planned. Again, Jung’s idea of synchronicity, of meaningful coincidence—I have to take it as that.
Thank you so much, and best of luck with this.
Thank you so much. Cheers.