Michael Sarnoski’s first time directing gave Nicolas Cage some of the best reviews of his career. The movie is Pig and on the press tour, Nicolas Cage had some choice words about Hollywood pandering to a “climate of fear” in their production choices, but Sarnoski told the Film Stage his partners in bringing Pig to life were “fearless.” 

Pig is about Rob, a truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness with his beloved foraging pig, played by Brandy, a beautiful russet-colored Kunekune. When she is stolen from Rob, he must return to his past life as a celebrity chef in Portland in search of his friend and pet.

As the film arrives on Blu-ray/DVD, we spoke with Sarnoski about Pig’s stand-out line, why people look down on Cage’s genre work, Brandy’s unfortunate circumstances, and the layers of meaning behind Pig’s title.

The Film Stage: “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.” The line Nicolas Cage says resonates with people as we emerge from COVID, and while many others are still living with it. Will you talk about what it means to you?

Michael Sarnoski: I’m happy that we held off on releasing in theaters because it’s fun to release in theaters. But also, weirdly, I do wonder if people will be as receptive to the film without this past year we’ve gone through. I think we’re all in a state of self-reflection and wondering what our most responsible role in the world would be. The film weirdly timed out well with that, and I’m happy that people are responding to that. 

We don’t get a lot of things to really care about. It’s a nice line but it’s also pretty straightforward. We busy ourselves with a lot of nonsense and there are a few things, if we really look inside ourselves, that we are truly passionate about. We have to use those things to guide our behavior, and to guide what we want to put our limited time into. I think we just get worse, especially as we get older, at identifying what our passions are; I think we’re kind of trained to do things that are productive or acceptable. We lose track of the things that we really care about. It’s on us to try and dig down and figure out what those are again, or for the first time.

Cage works with so many different directors, from Brian De Palma to Sion Sono. Does he seek a director out or does the director go to him?

Michael Sarnoski: Considering I had never directed a feature before, and he had no reason to be aware of me, I definitely went to him. WME Endeavour got involved early on in the process, they really liked the script. They were the ones that suggested Nic, because they had recently signed him. He read the script and it was just off of that. I thought it was going to be impossible to get him but he really responded to the script and shared the vision. He put a lot of faith in me and that helped the process. I also think he puts a lot of faith in the filmmaking process. He knows that when you’re on set, you trust the director, and that’s that. So for better or worse, he’s just going to say, “This is your vision, let’s do it. I’m gonna do my best.” And we went from there.

Why do you think people are less likely to praise Cage’s acting in genre films but when the genre isn’t exactly obvious, as in Pig, it’s considered “real acting?”

I think genre gives us a shorthand for how to interact with a story and how we expect the story to play out. So within that, it also gives us a framework for the types of characters we associate with that. It gives us a lot to fall back on. And sometimes that can be great. Sometimes it’s nice to not have to do all that legwork. You can use some of those associations, and we kind of do a little bit of that in Pig. By the time that genre stuff sort of falls away, you’re invested enough that you’re just with the characters in these quiet moments. I have nothing against genre and I think it can be used in lots of different ways. I think we definitely used it in a way that helped us in this film. 

It could have gone the other way with Pig that people could have seen it and just been like, “This was not what I wanted. This was not the genre I wanted. Where’s the fighting?” Some people say that, but thankfully not too many. We didn’t intentionally subvert the genre, but we definitely used some genre trappings to ease us into things and to give you something to grab onto in this strange world. 

Cage recently said, “These big studios have become largely pandering to a climate of fear, and it becomes very hard to express something truthful while also fitting the necessities of the studio system.” Do you sense that sort of fear as you approach your first movie and other projects?

I haven’t been in the industry that long, so I can’t comment on it too much. I can say that with Pig, it wasn’t going to be a movie that everyone was going to want to make, but then enough people cared about it. I can’t really complain because we got a movie about a truffle pig made. I think everyone who was involved with it was very brave and saw potential in the script, but knew that it was a risk. That even if we executed it, it would still be a risk, if anyone would even be interested in seeing it. Clearly, I think Pig is an example that there is a space for this sort of stuff.  We’ll see on my next movie if that space is still there. We shot Pig in the end of 2019, and then sat on it for a while through COVID. So things have definitely changed even in that time.

Let’s talk about your truffle pig in the movie, Brandy. What’s her breed? She’s a beautiful, russet-colored pig. Why did you choose her?

Brandy’s real name was Brandy; in the movie she’s just called pig. She’s just called pig in the script. The real-life pig was named Brandy. She’s a Kunekune pig, which is a breed originally from New Zealand. I think they almost went extinct at one point. But now there are some breeders keeping them around and they’re just adorable. There were some pig farmers up in Portland and we went around to different farms early on when Vanessa Block, the producer, and I did some early location scouts. We spent a day driving around the country visiting pig farms.

We couldn’t afford a trained acting pig so we just had to go to farms and find a pig that had a nice personality and looked nice. Brandy just looked very sweet and she was mostly sweet, although she was a pig and you know, did not love being on set sometimes and got a little moody about it. There was something very adorable and special about her. I’d never quite seen a pig that looked like that. They’re just an adorable breed. She was a huge challenge to work with but also one of those things where when it worked, it was just really fun to see emotion coming across from this pig. It was a great joy and a great difficulty. 

I just heard that she died.

She did. She got a jaw infection, actually, at the beginning of COVID, and the sad thing is because of COVID all of the vets weren’t taking, like, new clients, so they couldn’t treat her. So she passed away, which was really sad. But she actually was pregnant while we were shooting Pig, so she does have some piglets still running around today. 

Portland is an interesting setting for the movie. You filmed in 2019, but last year they had the infamously short-lived autonomous zone alongside some of the richest people in the country supporting it vocally, but not in practice. It gives another level of meaning to your title Pig.

I think it all relates back to, in the same way, that we need to dig down and find our passions. We need to dig down and find the things that connect us as human beings and stop just using superficial methods to express who we are and how we bond with people. We should acknowledge that there’s a core that unites us as people. Sometimes that core comes from really sad, sometimes dark places, but we need to see that and share that in order to move forward. Hopefully, Pig is one of those movies that encourages people to see the people in others.

Pig arrives on Blu-ray/DVD on November 2.

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