An Exclusive Interview With LOGAN Director James Mangold: Part I

Writer/director James Mangold talks LOGAN, the appeal of Wolverine, COP LAND, and more.

Logan is out this week (buy your tickets here!). To celebrate, we're featuring a week of articles in honor of everyone's favorite mutant.

It’s no secret that I loved the hell out of Logan. It’s as violent and desperate as The Wild Bunch, as redemptive as a John Ford western, not unlike a Wolverine story written by Cormac McCarthy. Logan is beautiful, and I can’t wait to see it again.

I was very lucky to be able to meet Logan’s director James Mangold in his office at 20th Century Fox. He told me they had just finished Logan 72 hours prior, and he seemed relaxed — definitely more relaxed than I was. There was a big beautiful Frank Frazetta-illustrated poster for Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet on the wall, and tons of records and books on the shelves that I couldn’t stop staring at, and Shane playing on the television just outside the door. If I could do it all over again, I might have asked Mangold about his first film, the quiet and lonely Heavy about a shy diner cook; the Super 8 movies he made as a kid; his time studying film with Alexander Mackendrick at CalArts or Miloš Forman at Columbia; his remake of 3:10 to Yuma or his Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line; the miracle of The Wolverine — a superhero-meets-samurai film with notes of Clint Eastwood and Yasujirō Ozu, the antidote to the first soul-crushing solo Wolverine movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But I feel pretty great about all the topics we did cover: his influences, what makes Wolverine compelling, Dafne Keen, superhero costumes, Cop Land, avoiding labels, Travis McGee, and how to create an intimate story in a world of superhero films often defined by sound and fury.

Priscilla: So where is Wolverine now in Logan? Where do we find him mentally, emotionally?

Mangold: I was trying to find him at a place of mundane despair. He’s living a kind of ritualized life, a normalized life, making money and taking care of Charles, who is ailing. I mean to me it’s a ritual of telling a story about a character like this, whether it’s in Westerns or in Dirty Harry films, or even less Dirty Harry more like The Gauntlet…you’re trying to find a guy who’s as far from being a hero as possible. Not only out of shape or drunk or despairing, but also cynical, having lost the desire to help.

Priscilla: You mentioned The Gauntlet, I’ve heard you talk about some of your other influences. I’m wondering about your story influences and about your visual influences — that’s kind of two of my questions at once.

Mangold: The story influences are more important to me, they were everything from Little Miss Sunshine to Paper Moon to John Wayne’s The Cowboys to The Wrestler, Unforgiven, Shane. All of which in one way or another are about a hero in the way I was describing, a lost hero or a hero carrying a ton of shame on his back, escaping a past, hiding. But also many of the ones I mentioned, the ones are like Paper Moon and Little Miss Sunshine are much more a vibe. As I was first trying to poke out the story, I was trying to figure out genre templates I could jam these characters into that would force the kind of change I was looking for in the movie. Meaning, what’s the most un-X-Men kind of location you could think of? Jammed into a car on the highway is very un-X-Men. The sense of forced intimacy, the sense of dealing with the mundane, running out of gas, getting pulled over, getting lost, whether we’re gonna get there, meeting strangers along the way, making the story picaresque. I mean, what’s most interesting in terms of story influences is what’s not there, which is anything with a gigantic villain.

Priscilla: People thought it was gonna be Mr. Sinister, right? He’s ridiculous. Well, he looks ridiculous.

Mangold: I don’t even have a judgment about Mr. Sinister. He looks like he doesn’t belong in this movie. But more than that I think that’s just an effort by people to try to plug this movie in to what they already understand, and the kind of semiotics and structures and formula of the previous movies. I understand that but it’s just not this movie. In terms of visual stuff, it’s really interesting. I do not have a singular movie that’s a visual totem for my movies. I try to avoid it. The movies I’m using as examples serve in both ways: they’re united in the way that they’re not really green-screen pictures — they’re road pictures, they’re shot on location, there’s a naturalism to the lighting. They’re the opposite of what I think of as the general aesthetic of the modern tentpole comic-book movie, which would be a massive amount of green-screen work, painted backgrounds, stylized and glossy. All that I was trying to avoid. I tend not to have a singular movie I’m trying to emulate visually. Not because I necessarily think it’s a bad thing, but that I do think it gets people in trouble because you start quoting. You start getting into a postmodern habit of doing quote-y shots from other movies, which I think is really distracting and debilitating to directors. It’s the reason why I think so many modern westerns fail. Directors who are perfectly able to tell a story in their own voice suddenly find themselves working in that genre, and start watching too many John Ford movies, and can’t stop doing slow push-ins through doorways. They suddenly lose their own voice and never manage to regain the reins.

My theory is, because I make a lot of different movies in a lot of different settings, is the thing that always guides me is you just land and shoot. Meaning they’re not different — Girl Interrupted is not different from The Wolverine is not different from Cop Land. You just shoot. You shoot what’s exciting to you. Your own style will prevail, and if your eyes are open, the staging, all of it will be interesting, or hopefully interesting.

Priscilla: There’s a moment in The Wolverine where one character leans in, toward another character, and you mentioned once that it’s like Grace Kelly in Rear Window

Mangold: It’s all very process-y in my own head. I didn’t set out that day to make that shot, I just saw the connection afterward. The difference isn’t so important to me on the basis of originality, the difference is important to me only in that there’s a certain kind of crippling thing that happens on set if you tell your actors, “I’m out to make this kind of Grace Kelly shot like the one in Rear Window,” and then the DP loads it on his phone and then everyone’s analyzing. Suddenly the whole set is reduced to this anal retentive mimicking activity as opposed to just having in your mind what that kiss is like when she leans in — if I remember right she’s kind of out of focus and comes into focus. It’s extremely subjective and beautiful and always in my thoughts. Like those shots, there are certain movies that are just always — like Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus — things that are just always in my mind.

Priscilla: You said that was an influence for The Wolverine.

Mangold: Yeah, it was. And also Girl, Interrupted. It’s been around in my head a long time.

Priscilla: All those movies by those dudes are beautiful.

Mangold: Powell and Pressburger? Yes. But that one in particular. I admire The Red Shoes but there’s nothing in the movie that I ever find myself on set solving a problem and it speaks to me. The way they handle some of the Freudian drama and the rivalries between the nuns — there’s just some remarkable staging, really subtle stuff, really beautiful stuff but really theatrical at the same time. I met Michael Powell once in New York, and he screened that movie. It was made during the war so they could never leave London so the whole movie was an exercise in how to stage the Himalayas. It was an exercise in how to do it entirely on stage. I guess they also shot exteriors at a London botanical garden. The last shot I believe is in a London botanical garden and Michael Powell is just to the right of the camera with a paintbrush with some water on it and there’s a big leaf in the foreground, and he’s spattering droplets on this big leaf. But I digress.

Priscilla: It’s a good digression.

Mangold: My favorite movies, my favorite pieces of storytelling, are always with me in a kind of jumble, and they’re not necessarily always tailored movie to movie. To use The Gauntlet as an example there’s a kind of ease to the filmmaking that I wanted this movie to have. Another default setting of the comic book movie is an extreme feeling of storyboarding and previz and camera ballet that can be deeply amazing but also has a kind of anesthetizing effect.

Priscilla: How do you build your own world when there’s already an established X-Men universe that exists in movies and comics? How do you reconcile — or strike a balance between — a world that already exists and the one that you want to create?

Mangold: That’s a really good question. First of all I’m deeply skeptical whether comic book movies are even a genre. More often the ones that fail are the ones that didn’t actually pick a genre or didn’t have a point of view. What I mean by that is there are as many kinds of comic books as there are novels, I think that’s a premise you wouldn’t argue with. So then to call something a “novel movie” would be pretty stupid.

I do think “superhero movie” starts to get into something but again in the world of superhero movies you’d have to include movies about Greek gods, meaning I try to reduce the fractions to the point that I can’t reduce things anymore, and when I look at the idea of a superhero movie I think there’s a lot of movies that aren’t about comic-book superheroes that would qualify perhaps in that genre, which is just to have a lead character with magical powers and call it that. But it still doesn’t seem like a genre to me. It doesn’t dictate a tone, it doesn’t have a prism through which you look through, and too often to me the idea of the comic book movie is used by a lot of people outside the smaller circle of comic book fans as a pejorative, as a way of framing up the idea that the acting won’t be great, that the dialogue will be pulpy at best, that the relationships will be quickly, sketchily drawn, none of which I think is actually a descriptor of comic books, but is a descriptor of a lot of comic book movies.

I put a lot of the expectations out of my head, is how I go about recreating the world, is that I take what’s valuable to me. For instance, what’s valuable to me is I love the character of Wolverine. I love the idea of his immortality, his exhaustion, his cynicism, his boozing, his penchant for women, his temper, and I imagine I’m making a movie independent of all the horseshit that’s come before, I don’t mean “horseshit” in a bad way but in a colloquial way. I just mean I put it all out of my head.

I was thinking the other day because it’s a question I’m gonna have to answer a lot and I haven’t had to answer it yet but. When you get in bed, everyone usually moves the pillows around or adjusts the covers or gets comfortable, whether it’s an airplane seat or your own bed or whatever, you find where you can dream and you can relax. And that I do not believe there is any way for a creative person to make a successful film if they are forced to get in a bed where they can’t push the pillows and the covers around…and dream. And so the dividing line between how much you change and how much you keep, is less for me a kind of intellectual act than it is: what do I need to do to get comfortable and feel creative? And on this one even more than the last one it was deeply important because I didn’t want to go back again if I couldn’t kind of make a completely me movie. I just wanted to make a film for myself for what I wanted to see in the style I’m most comfortable about with this character, and I didn’t want to feel while I was carrying cast and some obvious choices that have existed in the past with the franchise, I didn’t want to be boxed into the point where the film, like a TV episode, became more in service of the larger canvas than its own self. And that’s less about shoving the other films or betraying the other films or contradicting the other films, none of which I think we do. But it’s just about actually wanting to deliver for fans on a different level because you can’t have them both, you can’t actually have a director and writers extend themselves fully, and yet have so many pieces of the puzzle already colored in that there’s so little they can say.

For instance one of the biggest things when I was talking about Wolverine, the things I love, one of the things that’s very challenging to write about him is his invulnerability. It means that almost every scene with him, you have to put a loved one of his at stake for him to rescue because he can heal from anything. Also, things have gotten a little out of control in terms of his powers — he seemingly could heal from anything, and he could bring choppers down out of the sky, so he was gaining almost a kind of Superman-esque ability to leap and fly and jump. It’s less I have an argument with what they did in another movie and more that I don’t think I can write about that guy. At a certain point it becomes uninteresting because he’s too capable. Therefore there’s very little in the action that’s gonna be interesting because there’s no weakness to exploit in him, so the first thing I did even in The Wolverine was to challenge his healing. Meaning the very first thing from a screenplay point in The Wolverine was to have something happen to him that made him weak. It made it immediately more interesting to me to see all the other aspects I love about him — the claws and the determination and the grit and the badass machismo — but he’s not invincible to anything, and that makes him instantly more interesting. The fact that he also has a bit of a death wish and is exhausted with living is really interesting to me. When I did the last movie the big thing I said to myself every day and Hugh every day reminded him about — “everyone I love will die.”

Priscilla: You wrote that on the back of the script, right?

Mangold: Yeah, and it’s a powerful idea for someone to have to live with, and I continue with that in this. The world of the movie has become much more mundane and less stylized than the kind of fever dream of a Japanese excursion. But the idea of exploring what it is to be exhausted with intimacy, to be frightened of it, to be exhausted when you have established a connection with someone that so ritualistically ends badly, so habitually ends in pain or death that you just try to stay away from it. In the way we all conduct our lives and are all struggling with our connections with others, that’s really interesting because it may be a more hyperbolic version of it but the feeling of just wanting to retire from human relationships is a universal one and yet dark and interesting. So the changes I’ve tended to make are weakening him, making him more vulnerable, I think we’ve gone farther in this movie with weakening him, age…

Priscilla: You’ve given him a family, which is a little harder to escape from…

Mangold: Well, you could argue he’s always had a family. He’s in a sense the provider now. He’s holding it together. So yes that’s a big deal in this movie, and yet he’s resisting the aspect of family that arrives on his doorstep in the first act pretty hardcore. And I thought this is a lot like it is in a lot of our lives: he’s taking care of Charles but he’s pissed about it. There’s a very begrudging way the trio of Caliban, he, and Charles are living together in the beginning of the movie. You feel there is love there but you also feel there is deep cruelty and a sense of life’s diminished prospects for all the characters, and I find all that really interesting.

Priscilla: The water tower is in Cop Land, too.

Mangold: I’m very water-tower crazy. My production designer reminded me of all the water towers in my movies. I cannot remember now.

Priscilla: They are never a good place to be inside.

Mangold: We had this water tower, like 1/3 or 1/4 scale, on the back of a flatbed truck that said Garrison, NJ and wherever we were shooting in NJ, we put it like just over the hill or past the tree line so you see this water tower. I don’t think I quite had the skill to pull it off then but it was a good effort trying to get that water-tower scene.

Priscilla: Is it true that you wrote that script in 2 weeks?

Mangold: I mean, essentially. I kept fixing it for the next year and a half. There was a kind of chain-smoking…even less than 2 weeks. Meaning there was a 5-day period of not sleeping, just living on breakfast cereal and cigarettes, and it was right around when the Mollen Commission hearings were on television. I’m in New York, there were these police corruption hearings going on. There was just all this shit in the air. I got this idea and I started writing and it was messy but what I essentially wrote was the movie and then what happened was that — I think it was 147-pages long. And I sent it to the people who represented me, and they were like, “There’s something interesting in this, but you should never show it to anyone. It is a mess.” So I put it away and then when I was making Heavy we sent it in to the Lab, and I thought, well I don’t know maybe they could help me figure out what to make of this thing. It got into the Sundance Lab as a writer/director project and then it got on some hot list out here — I was living on the east coast at the time — and then it went crazy. And then my agent started slipping this script to people — the same 147-page unreadable script — and then it turned into madness. Then people were offering me 7 figures to buy the script out from under me, to make it with a different director. It was insane. And I said no to all of it because I wanted to make it myself, and the only people willing to make that deal were Bob and Harvey [Weinstein].

Priscilla: I’m glad you did.

Mangold: No, me too. Although in some ways it’s like the man who knew too much. It’s the one where I go, I wish I knew what I know now when I made it. I love it. But I think

I had a lot of jewels in front of me, and I was really just learning. You can go to film school, you can make shorts, you can do a lot of things. But directing a movie, you learn most of what you need to know directing a movie directing movies. The people who somehow survive doing it just somehow don’t have a supremely traumatic experience in the first couple. Because they just get a sense that you have to learn on the job so much. I watch it and I just go… ooh. I think the script is really good. I think the movie is wonderful. I don’t ever want to put down my children but I do see where I could do a better job.

Priscilla: Well I think it’s fine.

Mangold: Thank you.

Priscilla: Stallone is another underdog. I feel like he’s misunderstood.

Mangold: It’s awkward defending Sly because he’s largely responsible for the way he’s misunderstood. But that still doesn’t deny the fact that he’s a supremely talented actor and wrote one of the great scripts of 20th century movies and made one of the great debuts in Rocky.And it’s a really humanist film, and a really heart-filled film, and it’s a brave punch-drunk performance. That’s not something a lot of studios, if you described it to them, they wouldn’t think, “Yeah, let’s make a movie about that.”

Priscilla: I don’t think it could get made now.

Mangold: So little can get made now. That yes I agree that it’s not a likely picture. Although people try, you know, Warrior. People try making these movies. But the unique off-beatness… It’s so profoundly human and rough around the edges and improvisational feeling. It’s what I mean by relaxed filmmaking, there’s just a sense that it’s not already getting directed for the pieces that will be used in the marketing. It feels like it’s a movie, it’s a novel. Very admiring of that movie, and yes I do think Sly gets underestimated in many ways, both as a director and as a writer, and he’s a very good actor.

Priscilla: I don’t think people knew he was such a good actor until Cop Land. A lot of people watch it and report back and tell me they’re surprised at how good he is.

Mangold: A lot of people missed Cop Land. We hit a weird scene with the movie where it just wasn’t quite Quentin enough to grab — and I mean that with admiration for Quentin — I’m much more conservative, and I think Miramax had this hope that we were gonna get this great ensemble. But it wasn’t like this incredible soundtrack of pop music, and it was kind of a Sidney Lumet movie with a lot of these actors in it, and this kind of odd western motif braided through the whole thing. Originally I had hoped Gary Sinise would play Stallone’s role, and I was envisioning a much smaller movie, a less startling movie. That was completely shocking.

Priscilla: So Stallone signed on and then a bunch of other people wanted to do it?

Mangold: It had a whole interesting history. The first person Harvey Weinstein gave it to was Bob De Niro who really liked the script but didn’t want to work with a young director and hadn’t met me yet. We should’ve met, but we didn’t. And then we went to Sean Penn, there was a moment talking to John Travolta about it, but either people didn’t respond to it or Harvey couldn’t make a deal. I got them to make a million dollar offer to Gary Sinise, it was right after Forrest Gump, and I came out here and met with Gary and he told me he didn’t want to make the movie because the part wasn’t sexy enough for him at the moment he was at in his career. Which was devastating to me because I had worked literally six, seven months just to get him an offer, and I didn’t think the part was supposed to be sexy. I thought that’s absolutely not what it was supposed to be. He’s supposed to be an underdog in a big way. ‘Sexy’ is not a word I use for underdogs all the time. I was devastated because I didn’t think the movie was gonna happen. I got home and I got this call from Sly’s agent, Arnold Rifkin was his name, I was at the same agency and he ran the agency, and he said, “What do you think about Stallone for this movie?” And I was like, “What do I think? I think no. I think no.” And he goes, “Why?” And I go, “He’s become a cartoon of himself, I don’t like any of his films but his first Rocky…”

Priscilla (interrupting): Not even First Blood?

Mangold: I’m a fan of Rocky. I like First Blood. But I was exaggerating with this guy. I was like, “Planet Hollywood, that whole posse, that whole world,” and I kept going on this whole list: “He controls directors, he takes over movies, he tells you what side of his face you can shoot him on. I’m not dealing with that.” And the agent goes, “Why don’t you tell him all that?” And I was like, “Why?” “Because he’s flying out for no reason but to have dinner with you right now. And he’s flying to New York tonight and he wants to talk to you.” And I was like, fuck. I was being shanghaied in a way. I knew if Harvey heard that Sly was interested, I wouldn’t have much leverage, the thing was just going to happen around me. I’d either be with it or without it. So I sat down with Sly at the Four Seasons in New York the next day for dinner. And he’s charming. I basically said what I said to Arnold Rifkin. I said, “I really don’t like any of your movies except for the first Rocky,” and he was like, “I kind of agree.” And I was like, “I’m really nervous because I don’t think you’ll get fat. I don’t think you’ll play my script, I think you’ll change it.” And he goes, “I promise not to, I promise not to.” I went down my whole paranoiac list — the Planet Hollywood posse, and the leather jackets. And he said, “Won’t happen, won’t happen, won’t happen.”

And honestly? He delivered. He never suggested a change to the script, he never told me how I should shoot him, he never interfered in the movie production at all despite the fact that he had much more experience directing movies than I did. He was an angel and he just came to work and kicked ass. Even when we went to Cannes with some advanced reel on the movie, this kind of conclave of critics at the time sat down with us, it was Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin and Corliss and Kenneth Turan. They asked him what it was like working with this first-time director and he goes, “Well, he gave me like a list of 14 things that I had to do,” and he listed all of them, like, “No Planet Hollywood, can’t change the script, have to gain 40 lbs…” And I was really moved because clearly he really remembered all of it and just committed to it. So yes I’m a fan.

The tricky thing when you cast Sly is, that’s not exactly a star that the Boogie Nights or Goodfellas crowd wants to come out and see in a movie, meaning like for our first preview I knew we were in trouble because we got in the theater to project the movie and the whole house, it’s a test screening, they were like, “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!” And we’re like, he’s about to come out fat and lost, and this whole crowd was not the crowd who would enjoy the journey I was putting him on. The movie was attracting the Judge Dredd crowd. Effectively the other crowd were so loathe to Sly that I think that’s the reason why a lot people avoided the movie. They have a kind of Sly Stallone grudge and therefore just don’t bother. But with time and I think with the Rocky V thing he did and some of the others, I think some of the hate has gone away.

Priscilla: I think with Rambo — the 4th Rambo movie — and Rocky Balboa, and then doing Creed, he’s trying to get back to his roots.

Mangold: He’s not in the superstar bubble anymore. You know that bubble is really weird, and it’s a weird echo chamber where almost anything you say, someone will tell you that it’s brilliant. He’s not in that anymore. So there’s a level when life just gets just a little bit more quiet, you have a chance to listen to what people are thinking and feeling and…to your own self a little more.

(To be concluded tomorrow!)

Get your tickets here!