An Exclusive Interview With LOGAN Director James Mangold: Part II

Our epic chat with LOGAN director James Mangold concludes.

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.

(continued from Part One)

Priscilla: I do want to talk about Dafne Keen because she’s awesome. How did you find her and how did you know she was the one?

Mangold: The bandwidth of what I was looking for was so specific. First of all, I did not want to make a movie with Logan having a daughter older than 12. A) I didn’t want there to be any kind of “me and my sexy daughter” thing going on, and B) I didn’t want the CW kind of Flash or Supergirl energy. I also felt like that’s something Bryan [Singer]’s done in the other movies, which is cast very young, attractive people in these roles and then grow them up. I wanted a kid, a true child, a child that required the guidance and love and protection of a parent. So that meant I was looking for someone between 9 and 12, and for reasons that you will not understand yet I needed someone who spoke Spanish because she does speak later on in the movie. But I also really enjoyed in The Wolverine making a multilingual movie, and I love the way it forces your hand to tell the story through acting and feeling, and the mishmash of language almost makes the movie a silent movie again. It forces you to tell the movie that way, and that’s really interesting.

So I was looking for a Spanish-speaking 10-to-12-year-old phenomenal actress who was also physically capable because there was no way I could do this with 100% doubling. When you make movies like this a lot, even when you have someone who can’t quite do a lot physically, they need to be able to finish a blow or a fight or start it. And you’d be amazed at how many actors can’t even finish or start a fight move or a turn or a twist or a landing that either, A) they’re just too fragile, or B) too weak or too slow. The level of physicality in movies is so high now that what you need this person to uphold is intense.

So that’s a pretty narrow thing: Spanish-speaking brilliant actress, physically capable, and also emotionally capable of holding up one of the legs of a fairly large movie for 4 months. This tape arrived from Madrid. We had casting going on in Europe and South America and the United States obviously and everywhere else. This tape arrived, this Quicktime that Dafne’s dad had shot with her — Will Keen who’s an actor himself — of her climbing around their house on their bookshelves and leaping down onto a table and onto the floor and then doing these scenes with just no affect, no acting, no child-acting. The whole world of child-acting is horrifying to me. You do these commercial auditions and you know they’ve all been grilled by their mother or father in front of a mirror and you’re just — most of what you see is so horrible. I would say that tape of Dafne arrived and on that day I knew we had a movie. I hadn’t even gotten to the end of the script with Scott [Frank] yet but I knew we had a movie. Because to me, Patrick and Hugh were give-ins, the missing point on the triangle — and in a way the special effect of the movie — was gonna be the credibility of this young woman and her ability to push and pull on Hugh, not just to be cute but to be this mini-me of his angst and depression and darkness and all that. The only other times I’ve been that sure in my career of an actor — one was Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted. I was like the guy in the old Maxell ad with the wind, I was just like, what the fuck, that was just insane. She ended up in that session just reading with me every scene she had in the script all the way to the ending. She just played her arc in one afternoon in Culver City in an audition room and nailed it. My greatest worry was just getting her on camera, to the degree that there were much bigger stars at the time who wanted the same role. The amazing thing about that tape we made that day there was absolutely no hesitation by the studio about using her even though there were bigger names who wanted that part. It was just phenomenal power. Ben Foster in (3:10 to) Yuma, he came in and he was just out of water, he sat down and he was scary and amazing and sexy and askew and had a crush on his boss, and it was all so interesting and just done. Done and done. And then Dafne. And I never had a problem with the studio, meaning it was just so clear that this was the person. There was some contingent in the marketing executive ranks, you know, like, couldn’t we go a little older? But I think that got quickly put down.

Priscilla: What’s her understanding of the movie? Is she gonna be allowed to see it?

Mangold: Well, she lived it.

Priscilla: But play-acting it is a little different.

Mangold: That’s true. It’s up to her parents whether she sees it, being that she’s under 17 and it’s their decision, but I have a feeling they’re gonna let her see it. It doesn’t ever change, like for me I’ve been there, I’m standing by the camera for every shot. It never is quite the movie to you. It always looks like the assemblage of all the pieces, you need a lot of distance to see the thing as just a piece of storytelling purely. But she’s a remarkable kid and extremely aware, growing up in a house with a mom and dad who are both actors and extremely savvy about what’s going on, and I don’t think anything will change the fact that everyone on the screen was like her family for the last year. For her I wouldn’t be so nervous about her seeing it. She’s also seen so much of it in the sense of doing any dialogue replacement. I’ve let her see clips of things as we’re cutting them together. To get a grownup or a naturalistic performance out of a kid, you have to connect with them the same way you would an adult. You have to share with them, obviously within the confines of what they can understand or how much they can take in, but the most important thing is that they understand — for Daf, 90% of it was just me laying out how she’s feeling in the scene. And then she would just generally nail it, just an incredible kid. When you see more of her in interviews when they finally start letting her do that, you’ll see that this is a very world-wise kid.

Priscilla: When I included Logan in my best-movies-of-2016 list I mentioned that I’d cried watching the first 42 minutes. As a woman who loves action movies I always feel like an outsider, and so to see, like even a little girl, having that…

Mangold: Power.

Priscilla: Yeah, it’s the moment where she rolls the guy’s head…

Mangold: And then slaughters them all?

Priscilla: Yeah. I got a little teary.

Mangold: It’s really empowering. People have two reactions. One is like horror, like what exactly are you doing, doing this with a little girl? I don’t know, having two kids myself, I think I’m also saying something about — anyone who’s had kids or been around them knows they can be pretty terrifying. The action movie and the fantasy film and the comic-book film and the Western and all these forms are all ways to examine ourselves in a slightly exaggerated form. I think it’s really moving. I actually was amazed that people had such a powerful reaction to her after seeing the first 42 minutes because her best, by far her most amazing work, is ahead. I mean by a multiple of five. She’s astounding in the movie. Where she goes in the movie and the journey she takes — that is just a preamble. I can say that, I don’t know what everyone’s gonna think about the movie but I do know there’s breathtaking stuff for her, acting-wise, action-wise, every which way wise.

Priscilla: I’m excited to see the rest. When else did I cry…

Mangold: Charles? …no.

Priscilla: Well…that was upsetting but… for some reason I cry when action is really good. It can be overwhelming.

Mangold: It’s like a musical sequence or something. Action can be really beautiful, if you see it as a kind of beauty, which I do. It’s complicated.

Priscilla: Oh, the first scene with Logan defending his car.

Mangold: He’s incredible. I’m a big believer in, in the first five minutes, you have a very short time with modern audiences and it’s very important that you grab your skeptics by the nuts in some way. Obviously metaphorically. It’s really important that as a filmmaker you understand what people are nervous your film will or won’t be and that in some way you get right in the audience’s face, and you go, “No, you can’t make the assumption about this movie.” In Walk the Line, I felt like guys were gonna be dragged to the movie, and that there was some level that they were gonna be like, “ugh Coal Miner’s Daughter ugh whatever,” and I love Coal Miner’s Daughter but I just felt like in a modern sense, we needed to come off the bricks in some way that we grabbed people hard. 3:10 to Yuma was a similar thing, like the Western and finding a way to get on the track very quickly and in a sense remind an audience that there can be something very modern… there’s a great level of skepticism about anything that is period, anything that is too genre-y, and these are all my favorite things. In the opening of this film, I was really conscious about just breaking down the preconceptions of, this is not your daddy’s X-Men movie. It has nothing to do with timelines and rules, it has to do with tone, it has to do with point of view. Why aren’t more movies like this, where, instead of us worrying all day about everything being this seamless world-building, isn’t it better to have directors coming on and exerting their voices and making everything feel new? Even though it is similar or same or there’s connections, but that you also get to actually experience what a movie director does, because you get to see what one doing a similar story versus another doing a similar story. Neither being worse or better, just being like, wow, that’s what movie directing is, that’s why it’s not just a product line that is homogeneously made the same every time out no matter who’s doing it, but actually something where there are voices pushing and pulling. And we’re keeping some of the libretto the same, which even makes it easier to see the creative forces. And that’s the attraction in some ways to me. It makes it even easier for someone to understand a different style or a different take because some elements of the material have stayed exactly the same.

Priscilla: Well, and it’s just good to see Wolverine’s beautiful berserker rage, just to start off the movie.

Mangold: I think Hugh has never looked more handsome in the role.

Priscilla: The hair is better.

Mangold: Well, the hair. The whole need to do that is just…I call it the Flock of Seagulls look.

Priscilla: They feathered his bangs in at least one of the movies.

Mangold: He’s in a wig for a lot of them, too. A lot of them they had him in terrible wigs.

Priscilla: I don’t actually want to have to think about…

Mangold: Hugh Jackman in a wig? No. Hugh looks great to me in kind of noir lighting, directional lighting. The tendency with movie stars most often is to hit them with a big soft pillow of light in the face, and I think you’ll see some X-Men movies where that’s what they’re doing. But I’m a big fan, where I can get away with it, with a face like his in kind noir lighting style, he looks incredible.

Priscilla: Remember when people were concerned about him because they saw him in his old man makeup? People thought he was ill.

Mangold: You mean in the early images that came out? Well, it’s great makeup people, it’s Pirates of the Caribbean makeup people. It’s really incredible stuff and really naturalistic. But also, he lost a lot of weight. There is stuff we did with the hair where we gave him a widow’s peak and took his hairline back a little, all little things. And scars. We took the simple proposition that actually Darren [Aronofsky] had started raising when he was working on The Wolverine that never really got into that movie but he had raised the idea to Hugh when they were talking about the last one, and Hugh had raised it to me, and I thought it was a really good point which is, when we get cut we heal, but we have a scar, why does Wolverine get cut and heal and has no scar? I thought it was a very good question and, well, it makes doing visual effects much easier because you don’t have this continuous accruing of scars over 7 movies, but given we were jumping forward and this idea that his healing powers were diminished, I didn’t have to necessarily attend to all the scars he’s had since birth. But at least in the context of our movie, the idea became just that he is a little bit of a pincushion, and he is acquiring marks as things go on. Even though they may heal, there’s still something remaining, which even seems kind of sexy and cool.

Priscilla: He looks really cool. This is the Logan I want to see. I don’t want to see him in… black-and-yellow spandex.

Mangold: All the aspects I talked about that I love about Wolverine, what is most important to me and I love about him, is that he does not want to be famous, he does not want credit, he does not want a limelight, his ego is not in the game of superhero-ing. I realize there’s a currency in comic books for these costumes and this branding and these logos. I understand how it plays on the page, but then in real life when you have a human being invested in branding every good deed they do, and making sure that they wore an outfit that gets them credit for what they did, I have a hard time writing that character because he is innately narcissistic. It becomes about me: “I need you to know I did that, and I want you to know I did that.” And sometimes people invent reasons like, “because then the criminals will be scared,” and it’s like, nah, I don’t think so, I think it’s so that you can own it and get your name on it and get in the papers and that essentially at some point with the Justice League branding and Avengers branding and Spider-Man branding and Superman branding and Batman shining his light in the clouds, I’m like, this character I do not think wants to play that game. And that would also involve putting on a special outfit to do good deeds so that somehow, why? So that you knew it was the Wolverine? The basic, gimmick-less nature of Wolverine is what’s most appealing. He’s just this guy with these blades who heals and is really strong. There’s no gimmicks, there’s no laboratory where he’s developing new powers, there’s no special copyrighted insignia that everyone’s now wearing. I like the absence of all that stuff. At least within the world of me making these movies. I don’t put it past someone else figuring out a way to thread the needle.

Priscilla: I have no idea how you make someone look cool in those outfits. Plus, you have an actor who is recognizably that character.

Mangold: It’s another need people have. They want to see that in the movie but all I can say is, I’m not sure you do if I really did. And there’s no way back. I’m not sure I’m the man to pull it off. I’m imagining Hugh, the guy in our movie, taking a moment out to put on…it would be humorous.

Priscilla: I remember seeing some people complain about the unleashed extended edition of The Wolverine because they thought Wolverine is supposed to open a box at the end with his costume in it.

Mangold: I shot a scene where Yukio gave him a box with the costume in it. It’s in the extra scenes. It’s on the disc. It was the one thing I did trying to appease fans.

Priscilla: Did Wolverine throw it out the window?

Mangold: He gives her a look, like, what the fuck is this. But it took the whole end of the movie emotionally off. It’s like this other interesting thing you just can’t explain to people.

But when that was on the end of the movie, suddenly the movie seemed like this joke at the end, like there was a kind of button, like the whole movie was a gag and then this was like wah-wah. So I tried but it didn’t make it in.

Priscilla: Man, The Wolverine was so good. The first one, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is …life-ruiningly bad.

Mangold: There was too much ambition to be honest on the studio’s side, more than I even understand what happened with the filmmakers. I think Hugh can address it. There was suddenly this ambition to make it into an X-Men movie. I also think they didn’t find a tone. Tone is everything in a movie. The opening 10 minutes is everything. There is no recovering from a movie being flabby or insecure in its tone, and if it doesn’t know what it is, and you don’t know what it is and you’re 15 minutes in, it’s never gonna figure out what it is. It may have a snappy ending, it may have some cool scenes. Tone is everything.

Priscilla: How do you feel saying goodbye to this character? Or do you not think about it like that?

Mangold: I don’t even think about it. It would be like saying, how do you feel saying goodbye to Johnny Cash or Freddy Heflin? I’m very moved by the film. I think the answers to how I feel will be in the movie. I feel like I love him, but I feel really happy because I think, and I hope people will agree, but I think we made something really out of the box in tribute for this character. You know, Hugh has this whole idea about going out on a strong note, and that’s not an easy thing to do in show business. I believe that one thing I think we succeeded in is being very bold about how he’s making his exit. How I feel is proud. I just feel good we brought him in for a landing, this character, that was really risky, and I think we might have gotten it.

Priscilla: I want to know if you’d ever consider doing another superhero movie — a different superhero, or even another comic book property you’d be interested in?

Mangold: One is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s been mired in one byzantine Warner Bros. entanglement after another. It’s a great, great property and really interesting, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking about it with Neil [Gaiman], for over 10 years off and on, when it seems like something that might be possible. That’s one I’d be very interested in. I wouldn’t rule out an X-23 movie — when you see what Dafne’s done in this role, it’s really magical. Beyond that, I never make a rule about it. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fan from when I was 13 years old, but at the same time I want to make dramas and other movies. But I thank God that I can survive in the tentpole world because right now the movie world has contracted into almost only tentpoles, so in a way I’m also kind of taking cover until the creative economy changes a little, and people figure out that there’s also room for a political film or a drama…those movies are really few and far between.

Priscilla: You’ve done so many different genres, is there one you haven’t done that you’d like to do, or even just a dream project?

Mangold: Real science fiction. Science fiction or a fantasy film. A musical. I’m open. Each movie teaches me, each genre teaches me about the other. There were things I learned making Kate & Leopold that helped me make Walk the Line. There were things I learned making Identity that helped me make 3:10 to Yuma. One of them is that when you make a movie for instance when there are no Oscar aspirations, you have no sense or no delusion that you’ll be feted at some awards ceremony for this effort, you relax, and you make it a way better movie. You’re freer. You don’t arrive on set so tight every day: “must be great, must be brilliant.” And then when you go back to making a movie that is serious, you actually bring that relaxation with you. Like you learn, oh, I do better if I stop trying so hard. There are all these inexplicable lessons you learn. You learn about dance choreography, choreographing fight sequences, you learn about music. I feel like I have this super lucky career. Most directors have a really hard time moving horizontally between genre. Somehow early on, the early moves I made, I was always just trying to make something different from the last thing. There was an early point in my career where I felt bad because I felt like no one’s noticing. In a way I felt invisible as a director, at least in the press and in the critical world. A lot of that I think had to do with the fact that I’m harder to get a handle on.

Priscilla: You’re not interested in branding. Like Logan.

Mangold: Right. I started wondering whether I’d made a big mistake by not just landing in one place and doing cop movies over and over again. Because it would make it a lot easier for people like yourself to frame me and support it. And also to build fans, meaning that you’d be servicing the same audience in repetition. But I feel really gratified now. More than anything else it’s about my own life experience, I mean like I really look forward to the next thing. I mean, one thing I’m trying to get going again is the Travis McGee script that Scott [Frank] and I wrote that fell apart when Christian [Bale] got hurt a year and a half ago. And I’m hoping to make that this summer.

Priscilla: That first [McGee] book, [John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-by] is one of my favorite books, it’s so beautiful.

Mangold: They’re great. The writing, his observations — the toughest thing is how to get all that in the movie.

Priscilla: How do you make it modern?

Mangold: It’s easier in the Trump era. The idea of wanting to live on a boat and get the fuck away and disconnect and make a little bit of money when you need it to put groceries and a couple beers in the fridge and then unplug is more appealing to me than ever. The sense of moral twilight of the Floridian peninsula couldn’t be any greater than it is right now. I think there are plenty of ways to make it modern. I played with the idea of doing it period but I feel like, A) it’s really hard in that world, and B) I think there’s a way to do it.

Priscilla: I just love period mysteries.

Mangold: I do, too. But having made Cop Land and I look at it now, it looks like a period mystery. It’s amazing, you make a contemporary movie and 10 years later…

Priscilla: It’s still relevant. It really holds up.

Mangold: That’s true. My only point is that when they made all those Bogart films, they weren’t making them period, they were making them in their time and they look period now. There’s a level where I’m always aware of, am I simulating or emulating? Am I trying to make something sound old because I’m trying to tap into some affection you have for another movie, or am I just taking the lessons that I can learn from those movies and making something modern? But they’re interesting questions. I love making period films as well. But Travis we’re trying to do modern day. We’ll see. We’ll see if we succeed. Questions abound.

Get your tickets here!