Having made his mark with Norwegian black comedy Sick Of Myself, Kristoffer Borgli creates a nightmare for Nicolas Cage with Dream Scenario. Neil Smith probes the writer/director about the high-concept, English-language feature.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Nicole Holofcener before him, Norway’s Kristoffer Borgli — director, writer and editor of 2022’s Sick Of Myself and this year’s Nicolas Cage-starring awards contender Dream Scenario — learned about cinema by working in a video store.
“My education was watching films by great filmmakers and building knowledge about what a director is,” he tells Screen International from his current home in Los Angeles. “I remember discovering David Lynch when I was a teenager and being mesmerised by how utterly original and unique his voice was.”
Born in Oslo in 1985, the young Borgli also took inspiration from the Coen brothers and tried writing screenplays while living in his parents’ basement, scripts that by his own admission “sucked”. A year at film school proved an unhappy experience, so he decided to strike out on his own by making skateboarding videos and music promos “basically for free”.
“I moved into short films and started getting some advertising opportunities based on the small success of some of those shorts,” he explains. “But it was purely a way to make a living, and I sometimes felt disgusted by the way capitalism ruins everything.”
With support from the Norwegian Film Institute, Borgli made a mockumentary called Drib that voiced this disgust. A satire on marketing, about a comedian enlisted to create an edgy campaign for an energy drink, the film premiered in SXSW’s Visions strand (for “risk-taking artists” showing “raw innovation and creativity”) in 2017, then playing Sheffield DocFest and Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, though Borgli himself knew he could do better. “I learned a lot from that first process and also felt I had failed because it didn’t look and feel the way I had intended,” says the director. “I felt I needed to strengthen my talent, so after I was done [with Drib], I moved to LA.”
Further backing came from the Norwegian Film Institute and Borgli started writing Sick Of Myself, a black comedy about a young woman deliberately disfiguring herself to get attention on social media. Additional financing took a while to materialise, so Borgli spent the time making shorts in which he also appeared and edited. One of these, Former Cult Member Hears Music For The First Time, had its world premiere at 2020’s Sundance Film Festival. Another, his 2021 offering Eer, cast him as a struggling screenwriter with a misshapen ear who bickers with strangers over his right to bleed in public.
“Eer was shot at the beginning of the pandemic when there was a lot of concern about social distancing,” Borgli recalls. “I felt that if I put myself in it, I would not be asking an actor to be around me. I have no ambitions to be an actor, but I do love it as a creative outlet. When I came to make Dream Scenario with Nicolas Cage, I think he trusted I understood acting just from having that little bit of experience.”
Having secured backing from Oslo Pictures, Film i Väst and Garagefilm International, Sick Of Myself shot in Oslo and Gothenburg in summer 2021 with Kristine Kujath Thorp (Ninjababy) and Eirik Saether leading its cast. Premiering at Cannes the following year as part of Un Certain Regard, it was released by Utopia Films in the US and Modern Films in the UK in April 2023. Thanks in part to make-up artist Izzi Galindo’s startling prosthetics, the film established its director as a genre-colliding provocateur who, like fellow Scandinavians Joachim Trier (The Worst Person In The World) and Ruben Ostlund (Triangle Of Sadness), was unafraid to tackle controversial material involving potentially divisive protagonists. It also inspired another mischievous short, Filmmaker Gets Shot During Interview, which saw him wounded by a sniper while ostensibly promoting Sick Of Myself outdoors.
“A likeable person who acts properly is very boring,” Borgli says. “I am more drawn to misguided characters who make their own lives complicated. For one thing, it ensures good cinema, just by having a strong-willed lead character who is the main force behind the narrative. But it is also a way to locate and process flaws within myself, and make something comedic out of them.”
It is a trend Borgli continues with Dream Scenario, shot in Toronto in late 2022 during what he calls “a crazy, back-to-back, long stretch of filmmaking”. Following Cage’s Paul Matthews, a university professor who inexplicably starts appearing in the dreams of complete strangers, the film takes a fantastical premise redolent of A Nightmare On Elm Street and uses it to explore cancel culture, overnight celebrity and the fickleness of public opinion.
“The idea dates back to when I was working in the video store,” Borgli says. “I always thought dreams were the most exciting location you could find in cinema. It started growing funny once I took this idea out of its natural place, which would be in a horror movie or thriller, and threw it into the banality of our culture.”
Produced by A24 and Square Peg — the production outfit Hereditary filmmaker Ari Aster launched with Danish producer Lars Knudsen in 2019 — the film initially had Adam Sandler attached to star. “There was a moment when we thought it was going to be with Adam under a certain window of time, and then for many circumstantial reasons it didn’t pan out that way,” says Borgli. “But it did lead us to Nicolas, who has a unique presence in the culture that felt very fitting for the movie.”
Cage’s performance was much praised when Dream Scenario debuted at Toronto in September, adding fuel to what has been something of a career renaissance — the actor has won recent acclaim in Pig, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent and as Dracula in Renfield. It was a performance, says Borgli, that they built together in tandem. “He said he wanted to give me the remote control, have me push the buttons and maybe unlock something different,” he continues. “That isn’t exactly how it turned out — he had a lot of authorship over the character — but he was keen on collaborating with me to potentially find something new.”
Having grown up watching films such as Vampire’s Kiss and Raising Arizona, Borgli finds it hard to believe he is now one of Cage’s directors. “I’m honoured to be a part of his oeuvre and his legacy,” he says. “The idea Dream Scenario could be part of a Nicolas Cage marathon in future is pretty exciting to imagine.”
With the film having now opened in cinemas via A24, taking $216,000 from six venues on its first weekend, Borgli says he is currently writing “multiple things” but that “none of them are ready or finished”. Whatever he produces, though, is likely to be comedic and satirical in tone. “I guess comedy is like a tool for me to make sense of things that bug me,” he reflects. “I have a naturally comic sensibility, and I like poking holes in the way we live. For whatever reason, we make ourselves miserable — it’s as if our brains turn against us. I am interested in the mechanisms of that and the bad outcomes that happen because of it.”