James Mangold Talks Genre, Themes and Reality of 'The Wolverine'
by Ben Pearson
June 25, 2013
In the middle of April, I was invited to join a few other bloggers on a visit to the 20th Century Fox lot to check out the edit bay of James Mangold's upcoming superhero movie The Wolverine. But we ended up with something way cooler: Mangold himself took us to a private theater on to show us the first 20 minutes of the film, and then he spoke with us for a solid half hour about everything Wolverine fans could want to hear. While the (still unfinished) footage didn't quite convince me, Mangold's passionate description of his take on Logan definitely has me excited to see The Wolverine when it hits theaters next month. More below!
As I mentioned, Fox let us see the first 20 minutes of the movie, which opens with a flashback to Logan saving a man's life during WWII. I won't bore you with written description of the footage since all of the visual effects were unfinished and you'll get a chance to see the film yourselves in a month or so, but the opening obviously sets the stage for where Logan is at this point on his journey and shows us his state of mind and the emotional turmoil he's going through. (There's a video blog later in this post which describes some of the footage and our reactions.) When the opening scenes were done, we were shown a bullet train sequence that takes place later in the movie (you can see sections of it in the trailers) that was pretty impressive, but again - the unfinished VFX had me a little leery of what to expect from the rest of the movie.
Thankfully, most of my fears were quickly put to rest when director James Mangold took us to his office and joined us for a long chat, talking about everything from integrating the film's themes, to his personal approach to the material, to making sure his movie works as a standalone film. I've transcribed what the relevant portions of his answers, so I'm going to include as many of them as possible below.
On his approach to making this after the terrible reaction to X-Men Origins: Wolverine:
For me, there were just a lot of opportunities in the movie. What was so great about this Japanese saga as well was that it allowed me to just do the version you'd like to see…one of this film's advantages for me, and I think a tougher thing for the first one, was you're unburdened by the origin story. The origin story's awesome, but it's very hard.
Because so much has been set in place with this character already, it afforded me a chance that I don't think many films like this – certainly tentpole kind of hero films – have had the chance to do, which is kind of go inside him. Just explore him. The movie doesn't revolve around any gigantic villain out to destroy the planet, the Earth, the continent, a football stadium. The movie's built on interpersonal relationships.
On existing separately from what's come before:
I think that script-wise working on the film, one of the things I really tried to walk the line between was what I really loved about the original Claremont-Miller saga, what has already been set in place in the X-Men universe in movies and in comic books and in a sense not flagrantly contradict what's come before, but to feel like as a piece of tone, a piece of filmmaking, the movie can exist separately. Whatever I'm doing, I wasn't trying to pick up where someone left off in that way.
In Miller's storyline, [Logan] has a pre-existing relationship with Mariko. Well, that would be really weird to open a movie and he's already been to Japan – to me, in a way, I had to do the origin story of his relationship with Japan.
On the film's running theme of immortality:
When I first saw the first script that they had developed for it, the thing that I wrote down was, “Everyone I love will die.” It was this idea to me of what it is to be immortal. Logan is in a way cursed or a Frankenstein monster so you have a sense that – and the storylines of the existing films kind of served me in this – which is that everyone you loved is gone. Everyone. Your mentors are gone. Your sense of belonging to any fraternal organization, whether you dismissed it or not, that's gone. People you've loved are dead, either at your own hand or because of who you are, or because of people who hate you. That's a really charged emotional place to find a character, especially one who's condemned to live forever…what happens if you come upon a hero like this, a dark hero who has lost any real purpose for being? And perhaps even lost some of his interest in trying to help mankind in any way.
On reuniting with Hugh Jackman:
One of the things that's great about Hugh is that he's not cynical. Meaning there's no aspect with which he started this project looking at it as a paycheck on a sequel movie. I think he views this as one of the great roles of his lifetime, and I think that the character has such incredible depth…I think he is very ambitious and was very ambitious about what he hoped to get out of this: the places he hoped to go to that he hadn't gotten a chance to.
When asked about the character of Viper:
The reason I hesitate is less the standard, 'I don't want to give away the surprise' and more that the movie is a mystery. The movie itself is kind of a labyrinth. There are only so many ways to tell a story. If you don't have a very clear bad guy who has an agenda to destroy 'X', your story operates much more from ground level with Logan figuring out what's going on. And so very much whether you're talking about Viper, or Mariko, or Yukio, or Yashida, or Shingen, or Naburo, you're trying to figure out where they all stand. Everyone's got secrets and surprises, not just Viper. So the joy in the film, to me, like Logan is, you land in this Oz, you don't really have your feet planted on the ground, you don't know the way things operate here, and you don't know the language. There's a level where the interesting quality of the movie is watching him with us unpeel what the hell is going on.
On the current Hollywood blockbuster mentality:
The bar is being raised in unique ways on cable and other places where the sophistication of films is demanding that – I think the idea that just spending a whole lot of money on a whole lot of sound and images isn't enough. I think that's a really good thing - a healthy thing for movies - that it isn't just that easy that you can just string two hours of anything loud and fast-moving together and know that you're going to get your money back. And I think that's an opportunity for filmmakers because it means actually that you better be delivering something of value. Actual story value.
On the storytelling challenges of not having the other X-Men to fall back on in this film:
You're naked. You have to make it work. I think of it most basically as a western, or a samurai picture, or a noir picture, which are all - having made all of them - they're much more related in their bones and architecture. There's a reason Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven so easily. The reality is that these forms are very, very related to one another. The dressing is radically different, but the structures and the way characters relate isn't, so I felt like I was making a western with Hugh Jackman without horses in Japan…The cliché that a tentpole action picture has that you don't have in a western or a noir picture or a samurai picture is that you don't have this crutch that you can feel like you can turn to over the top action to hide the fact that you're not actually telling any story at all. That, for a western or a noir picture or a samurai picture to function, it actually needs a story about characters. That reductive way of thinking about the movie, and then adding in the large action as a kind of deserved bonus that you get now that you care about these people and their predicaments, is a slightly different way to think about it.
On the studios' take on comic book movies:
To me, what's dangerous is in the world of studios, I think just calling something 'comic book' has a danger of being a way of making it like, 'oh, we can do anything and they'll eat anything. It doesn't have to make sense. It's a comic book.' Like it's a pejorative. The reality is that it does have to make sense and the comic books did make sense. Sometimes it's too easy to take a brand and shovel a movie out where it doesn't all add up but you know someone is going to show up anyway because it's a comic book and a brand. My whole thing is, take it seriously. Take it seriously the same way if you were making a western, or another kind of film of classic lineage, of less pulpy lineage. That's what Chris [Nolan] and others have done, which is take it very, very seriously. I don't think the first thing Chris thinks about making those movies is a comic book. I think he thinks about the story.
On The Wolverine's many action sequences:
It was very important to me that the action be believable. That it not be so CG or wire-driven that you feel like – obviously we wanted scale, and visual effects are going to play a role in that kind of scale, but there's just a level where I don't want Logan reaching up and pulling aircraft out of the air. I want it to exist in a more physical reality where he isn't Spider-Man or Superman, he's a man with a crazy strong skeleton and incredible strength and an ability to heal, but he can't leap over buildings in a single bound. We live within and push at the edges, but live within the realm of that, modeling ourselves as much on movies like The French Connection, or Josey Wales, or the Bourne films. Trying to pull things back to someplace where his own darkness and intensity and physicality has more of a chance to shine instead of every gag and every piece of action being so huge that it almost overwhelms. I want to see his character in the action.
On making sure character shines during the action in the bullet train sequence:
The idea of what going 270 miles an hour might do. You can take the trope that's been around since Buster Keaton, running around on the outside of a train. They did it in the opening of the new Bond film too last year. And then suddenly up the speed to this point that suddenly all the rules of physics start to change. That's what started to interest me and also, if you spend time in Japan, the architecture is so intricate. It's part of the artistry of the way cities are built. The amount of trestles and cables and the way they tie cables, it's like a city of extension cords. It occurred to me that if you're traveling at 300 miles an hour, one of the biggest problems isn't just going to be the wind or the speed or any turns the train makes, but just the shit that's going to come by you that's still. And suddenly you're in a high speed game of limbo with underpasses and overpasses. To me, most often the best action sequences are always – again, this gets back to westerns and the simplicity of them – is a simple metaphor, a simple idea, something that allows your characters to reveal more about themselves and their abilities in the face of one very interesting physical reality. Not much more is needed.
Our friend Germain Lussier from SlashFilm joined me for a quick video blog after we left the director's office to record our reaction to the footage and sum up some of our conversation with Mangold, so check that out directly below and let us know if you're looking forward to The Wolverine in the comments below.
Based on the celebrated comic book arc by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller, The Wolverine finds Logan, the eternal warrior and outsider, in Japan. There, samurai steel will clash with adamantium claw as Logan confronts a mysterious figure from his past in an epic battle that will leave him forever changed.
James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Knight and Day) is directing The Wolverine from a script by Christopher McQuarrie and Mark Bomback, who are adapting the classic 1982 story arc in the Wolverine comics which takes our favorite Marvel mutant all the way to Japan. Special thanks to 20th Century Fox for inviting us to come check out the footage and talk with Mangold while he was finishing this up. Be sure to check out The Wolverine when it opens in theaters on July 26th next month. Watch the latest trailer here.