The Oral History of Cheddar Goblin, the Mac & Cheese-Loving Mascot in 'Mandy'
Director Panos Cosmatos has scored an instant cult hit with Mandy, an ultra-metal revenge thriller set in the early '80s that stars Nicolas Cage in vintage gonzo Cage mode. It's a movie filled with surprises, but perhaps the biggest of them is the adorable, hard-puking ad mascot called Cheddar Goblin. He appears in a real-seeming TV commercial for a fictional macaroni-and-cheese brand that Cage's lumberjack, Red Miller, watches after a particularly traumatic experience, and now the little green character has taken on a real-world life of his own, complete with a Twitter account and must-have merch.
To find out much, much more about this phenomenon, Thrillist talked with Cosmatos, special-effects guru Shane Morton, and Too Many Cooks creator Casper Kelly, who was brought in to direct the Cheddar Goblin commercial.
Panos Cosmatos: We needed something to play on the TV when Nicolas Cage goes back into the house. We were going to find some pre-existing vintage commercial that we could license. I wanted it to be a moment where the horror and the absurdity of the universe slap him in the face at exactly the wrong time. And Cheddar Goblin was just a joke I started making in the production office with producer Josh Waller. There was a GIF I really loved from the movie Ghoulies, and we started riffing on a ghoulie that was vomiting green slime. After a while, I fell in love with the idea of a goblin that vomits mac & cheese. And I was like, "We got to make this happen in the movie." But we didn't really have the time or money to do this.
Casper Kelly: A SpectreVision exec emailed me in May of 2017: "I'd like to introduce you to Panos Cosmatos, the twisted mind behind Beyond the Black Rainbow and his newest film Mandy. He'd like to talk to you about Cheddar Goblin. Take it away!"
Cosmatos: I was acquainted with Casper, and I really thought his work was amazing. Too Many Cooks was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen in my entire life. So we called Casper and said, "Can you make this Cheddar Goblin commercial?" And he was like, "I think I can do it."
Kelly: I thought this commercial was going to be a little background detail in the movie, in a scene where people were talking. And I didn't know at the time it was a Nicolas Cage movie, either. I didn't know that Nicolas Cage would walk in, watch a good chunk of my commercial, and then repeat it, you know? I was working on the demon-workplace comedy Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell for Adult Swim. And they needed Cheddar Goblin pretty quickly, so I had to throw it together over a weekend. At first, they asked, "Can you do it for free?" And I was like, "I don't know if I can ask this puppeteer to make a puppet for free. Can you give us a little?" So they gave us $1,000 to offset the costs, and I asked Shane Morton, "When you're not working on the demon makeup for Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, can you think about what a Cheddar Goblin might look like?"
Shane Morton: A lot of it was left up to me. We had a little back-and-forth about what it exactly was. Originally what I wanted to do was a skinny purple thing with a big belly, because purple was the opposite of the bright orange-y yellow of the mac and cheese.
Cosmatos: I sent them a lookbook of some rough references, which was just basically all photos from Ghoulies. That was probably the extent of my input on how it should look.
Morton: Do you remember that famous Ghoulies movie poster, "They'll get you in the end!" with the creature coming out of the toilet? That kept coming up in conversation, John Carl Buecher's creature designs. It was really rough around the edges, because he worked on low-budget stuff. And we went back and forth on what would be funnier -- a sharp nose, or a bulbous nose? A thin or fat goblin? A classic Gremlins-shaped body?
Kelly: Shane went more goblin-y, more well-made at first, and I wanted Cheddar Goblin to look a little more janky, a little more off-brand, like this isn't the best brand of macaroni & cheese. It's not top tier. This isn't Coca-Cola; this is Tab or Shasta. And I didn't want Cheddar Goblin to look quite the same on the box. I wanted the Cheddar Goblin on the box to look a little more friendly, a little more cartoon-y, a little more sanitized, but still a little off, so when you see him in person, you're like, "Oh my god! They really sweetened him up for the box." I wanted the box to be like something you would see in a grocery store.
Cosmatos: Casper sent us the PDFs of the boxes, so we gave those to the production designer, and stocked the convenience store scene with Cheddar Goblin.
Kelly: Panos was very specific. He was like, "I want it to be like 1982…" So I looked at some '80s macaroni & cheese commercials. A period look helped for the kids, but also you just wanted the right vibe. We couldn't build a set, so we started looking around at Airbnbs for the most '80s kitchen we could find. We had to hunt for white refrigerators, wood paneling, yellow walls. I found one kitchen we loved, but the house was in a flood plain, and the bridge was washed out, so if it rained that day, we would be screwed. It took some hunting to find one we could use. And the kitchen that we ended up using, you can see the Too Many Cooks phone in the background. I made sure to put that in there, because a landline hanging on the wall helped. And flat lighting. And soft focus.
Morton: I sculpted Cheddar Goblin out of water-based clay in about four-and-a-half hours. We put it into a plaster mold on set and started pouring the two different puppets we used, because we used one to run around, and one with a 2-foot tube connected to it so we could shoot 2 gallons of mac & cheese vomit out of it at once. That one has a scrunched up face and a wide-open mouth with no teeth, because you wouldn't see the teeth when he vomits. The other one has thermoplastic teeth. And I was painting these latex rubber puppets on set as we were getting ready to shoot. That's how fast we made these.
Kelly: I wrote a script for a full commercial. It starts off, "Who ate all the macaroni & cheese?" Their box is empty. And the kids go, "Cheddar Goblin!" And he's hiding behind a curtain. He's sort of like Trix the Rabbit, these characters who are not allowed to eat their own products. It's sort of like a Leprechaun charm -- when they chant his name, he's forced to vomit back up the mac & cheese for them. And there was a little shot where the little girl was smiling, and she had the macaroni perfectly placed on her eyebrows, and she was lifting her eyebrows up and down.
Morton: These two kids were so excited, because they were getting to get dirty and messy. I asked them at the beginning, "So how much do you love macaroni & cheese?" And they were like, "We love it! We love it!" And I was like, "Not after today, you won't." But at the end of the day, they were still up for it.
Kelly: Getting the Goblin to vomit was hard. He was such a diva. He was in his trailer all the time. No, getting him to vomit was hard because it's not a liquid. I would have loved for it to shoot across the room and hit the wall, but we didn't have professional munitions experts, which that might have required. Or explosives, or something. It was just Shane pushing it as hard as he could through a tube with his fist. And gravity helped, to get the mac & cheese to fly. And it looked really good, dousing these kids' heads. They loved it. And my god, the poor PAs who had to mop up that mac & cheese! We had tarps down, but there was mac & cheese everywhere.
Morton: We do a lot of stuff with shooting fluids out, and there's this thing called a guac gun -- short for guacamole gun. It's a big tube with an air cannon on the end of it, and you can deliver all kinds of different liquids with that. But there wasn't a lot of viscosity to this macaroni & cheese mix, and I was trying to fist 2 gallons of it at once through this big tube. There was nothing we had in the lab that would push that kind of liquid, so we had to old-school it and punch it through manually. We made 20 gallons of it, and we used every bit of it.
Kelly: A smart thing to do, if we had the time or money, would be to manufacture a lighter-weight material which looked like mac & cheese. But no, we just made pots and pots of mac & cheese. My dedication to verisimilitude required that we add more Cheddar beyond the regular Kraft mac & cheese. It wouldn't have looked as Cheddar-y otherwise. It was necessary to add that 60% more Cheddar, so we used extra cheese sauce packets and some food coloring to get it to pop.
Morton: It was a mixture of mac & cheese, pineapple Faygo, and lemon Jell-O pudding. And a little bit of fluorescent yellow food coloring and red coloring. It actually smelled like vomit. It was kind of gross.
Cosmatos: It has a very distinct, almost pungent flavor to it, but it grows on you, you know? It's super good.
Morton: The last shot of the day was the Apocalypse Now tribute, with Cheddar Goblin coming out of the steaming pile of mac & cheese. I was under the table puppeteering it, and I hadn't slept in like 36 hours. It was the first time I had a chance to lay down, and I was telling myself, "Please stay awake just long enough to get this shot."
Cosmatos: When Casper sent us the finished version of "Cheddar Goblin," it was like fucking Christmas.
Kelly: Panos said, "Can I please have Cheddar Goblin?" And I said, "Sure." So he has the main puppet, and Shane has the puking Goblin. And we've made a couple more since then.
Morton: I'm making more for the guys who worked on the movie, and they're making Cheddar Goblin toys, stuffed animals, puppets. Hopefully people will be able to get their own Cheddar Goblins real soon.
Cosmatos: I love action figures and stuff like that. We're working around the clock to make stuff for people that are fun to have.
Kelly: I think a fan started the Cheddar Goblin Twitter account. And he DMed me and asked if I wanted to take it over. I said no, because he was doing a great job. I think it's Panos' wife, Andrea, doing it now, and she's doing a great job, too.
Cosmatos: It's the Cheddar Goblin. I think Cheddar Goblin started his own Twitter account because he wanted in on this. It's him. I'm just going to pretend like Cheddar Goblin is real, OK? [Laughs]
Kelly: One of my favorite things about all of this is that it's so fun to do something that is in somebody else's movie. I can't do what Panos does, so to have contributed to this is just a thrill. And I'm writing a movie for SpectreVision, and Panos is going to do a commercial for me, which I'm super excited about.
Cosmatos: Casper said to me, "If I do this, will you do a commercial for my film?" And I said, "Yeah, of course." And now I have to follow through with that promise, which is terrifying, because he killed it with Cheddar Goblin. Now I really have to up my game!