Interview: 'Logan' Director James Mangold on Making Unique Movies
by Alex Billington
March 3, 2017
"Why not allow different directors to put on the same opera and see how the directors do it differently?" There's nothing like talking with filmmakers about their films. The best interviews are when the discussion starts naturally and flows in different directions. We could keep talking for hours, if only the publicist didn't come in and cut us off. I interviewed Hugh Jackman a few years ago for the release of The Wolverine, but this time I wanted to talk to the director - James Mangold. I was lucky to get time with James after the premiere of his new Wolverine film, Logan, at the Berlin Film Festival. We talked about making this movie something unique, as well as his dislike for movie "universes", the freedom of the R-rating, and much more.
Logan is hands down one of the best X-Men movies ever made, even though we've seen almost a dozen of them already. Mangold managed to make a film that is not only exciting, but it also feels completely unique, unlike any other comic book movie we've seen so far. Hugh Jackman is outstanding playing Wolverine one last time. Dafne Keen as the young mutant X-23 is badass, and Patrick Stewart brings some gravitas to the superhero story. I did see the film twice at Berlinale before writing my review, and it's just as good a second time. I wrote in my review: "It's exciting to see what they can do with a superhero story when they actually get to make a movie where characters let loose and say what they want." Indeed, this feels different.
I met up with James Mangold at the Berlin Film Festival the day after the film had its world premiere there. Our conversation started right away because I told him I enjoyed the movie (I saw it twice in a row because it's so damn good) and I really loved the meta references, the comic books and other little tidbits worked into it nicely. We instantly started talking more about this, so I turned on my recorder and continued to see where the discussion would go. While it seems like he was being very tough on me in the first half of this interview, he was just letting out steam. I appreciate his honesty and I'm glad we could talk freely about what really matters to him. These are the kind of frank discussions I love having with directors. Read on…
At what point in the process did you start implementing these references?
James Mangold: What does implementing mean? We wrote it in the script. It's right in the script.
That's what I'm wondering…
Mangold: He finds these comic books and he's saying they're bullshit.
I'm thinking about the bigger evolution of superhero movies and X-Men - they didn't do this in the first few movies. When did we reach the point where it's like okay, we can do this? We can put in references and meta jokes, and not be afraid of that. When did that change?
Mangold: I think you're thinking too globally. I'm not conspiratorial minded, I think things happen more organically and virally than conspiratorially. But I do think the press has become codependent in a way of — even you guys who value quality movies have become so involved in talking about franchises as a whole and their consistency movie-to-movie that you are now television critics, not movie critics, because you are now evaluating whether Episode 4 is hurting Episode 2. Meaning that we're creating a new critical mass, which is this idea that these are all supposed to be a book that works together and you can watch them in a marathon seamlessly. Who the fuck ever said that? Why not allow different directors to put on the same opera and see how the directors do it differently?
I thought critics were actually supposed to inspire creative change, not enforce creative consistency. And so when you're asking, "how did it develop", it's like, why the fuck wouldn't it develop? We're making a new movie. Meaning — we are making a new movie. This is its own movie. So, the point I'm really making is why wouldn't we do something differently? Wouldn't that be the very thing you do when you want to make a new film that opens from a fade in with its own point of view? As opposed to continuing whatever established rule-book has existed from the beginning.
Mangold: Then the problem is when I say that, an article comes out where it's like, "I am disdaining, I'm throwing away, breaking the universe." No, I'm not breaking the universe. Are you a universe critic or a film critic? Because I'm not breaking anything that doesn't exist solely for the manufacture of sequels and the selling of Happy Meals and action figures. That the universe is a marketing ploy to fucking make you see every [movie].
It's like when they used to sell action figures and they give you the foot in one package and the leg and the arm in another. That's what a universe is. It is effectively meaning you have to see every one of these things because if you miss any one of them, you will not understand the next one. And I'm simply saying: that's not filmmaking, that's marketing. And that's making an audience dependent upon not spending 12 dollars on the one they wanna see, but having to spend 96 dollars on the six they must see because they're all fucking part of a giant, super expensive television series. And that would be my little speech about that.
That's a good point.
Mangold: I'm not saying you have to do what I'm saying, but I'm saying that if you want to understand my point of view, you have to understand that I don't give a shit about the larger picture. I don't enter into the idea of how I'm selling another movie, how I'm positioning it for a sequel, how I'm… People keep asking me: "Why did you cast a different Caliban?" Because I wanted this guy to play the role. I can't answer it any better. "Did you value that more than your inconsistency with Apocalypse?" Yes, I totally did. Meaning that, why the fuck wouldn't I? Meaning that, why wouldn't I want the guy I want to play the role I wrote?
As opposed to being a slave to every prop, casting decision and utterance made in the previous films, which, there's nine of them. What an incredible shackle… a creative shackle. It would be the equivalent — the only other thing I can say, is it would be the equivalent of telling someone: you can sleep in this bed, but don't move the pillow or the covers. Well, how are you gonna dream? How are you gonna sleep? How are you gonna ever be comfortable?
That makes sense. You can challenge me on this, but what I'm thinking is that we couldn't have reached this point without the history that the character has built up over the years, especially with Hugh. Could you have made this movie solo without all of that?
Mangold: Yes. I could have, well let me put it another way then. I could have made a movie about an Uber driver who has a daughter that shows up on his doorstep who was on the run from Mexico; who's taking care of a father with a degenerative brain disease. And the story would have functioned just fine. To me that was the point, is that too often these movies are really dependent upon… I guess I disagree with you.
And that's good! I appreciate this kind of discussion.
Mangold: I think I've met plenty of people even in the last two weeks who have not seen a single X-Men movie who have seen this movie and have absolutely no problem finding it deeply moving. It may be more moving for someone [who has followed this character], but it also may be undermining because in some ways you're like, "I don't recognize this guy from Last Stand" or "why is his hair so fucking different" or what…? You get hung up on all this shit…
Right. It doesn't matter in the end, though, is what you're saying?
Mangold: Well, it does and it doesn't. I totally understand… there's some universes where I actually think they manage it very well. Like in the Star Wars universe, I think it's very interesting what they're doing. And because they're embracing the different directorial visions and applying different genre to the same story, I think it's very interesting what they're doing.
I think the second you break at all from the exact look of something or style… That's why I found Guardians of the Galaxy so refreshing. It seemed to me very different in its esprit de corps, in its energy and tone, from the movies around it. That's why when Iron Man first arrived, the first one, I found it so refreshing. Because it was - they were breaking out in a new direction. In the end, I'm just arguing that movies should be movies. And that in some level: is the "Man With No Name" also the guy in every other Sergio Leone movie or is he his own guy? I don't know.
Yeah. I see your point.
Mangold: But I was conscious of everything you're saying. I just think that nothing's ever dogmatic. This is the same actor who's played [Wolverine] in nine other movies. I'm not abandoning everything. The only thing is that on a day-to-day basis [as the director], I have to make 75 decisions. And my first priority in each one of those decisions is not what is most loyal to decisions already made by others on other pictures. My first decision is what's best for this movie. My second decision, or third or fourth tier, might be: what have they done before? And how do I relate to it?
And I think that when you're asking, and the implication sometimes, you're asking at the first level if the handcuffs that a writer or director has — is their first priority to seamlessly splice their movie onto the end of the last one? I think you're hurting the art-making [by asking that question]. I think that when fans go "why aren't these movies more original?" And then the same person or other fans then go, "why are they contradicting the previous movie?" These are opposite, not mutually exclusive goals. Self expression and dogma — sticking to a kind of semi-religious dogma and never veering from it — are not compatible.
I'm not thinking of it that way, obviously the directors and writers still have freedom. What I'm wondering is - where does the studio come in? Where does the studio say we need this to follow in a franchise? That's what I'm seeing.
Mangold: I think in this particular case, Hugh and I would not enter into making this movie without clearly… You can hear that I'm pretty, I'm not just tough on a journalist, I'm—
You're tough on the studio, too.
Mangold: Yes. But not tough. I'm clear. Meaning that I didn't want to get involved if I was making "another one". We wanted to do something special.
There was something missing for Hugh. There was something missing for me. I wanted to make one of these movies where I got a greater chance at — whatever it means, however indulgent it sounds – self expression. I wanted a chance to make this the same way I made Walk the Line or 3:10 to Yuma or Girl, Interrupted or Cop Land, I could keep going. I wanted to make my movie. And if they didn't want me to make my movie, whatever the fuck that meant, I didn't want to do it. And one of the ways I was clearly trying to protect it from the beginning was the rating. And the rating to me was important not because of the violence, that was an added benefit and I knew fans would be pleased and I felt that in a way when you're making a movie about a guy with swords coming out of his knuckles, it's really kind of odd that the movies are bloodless.
But there was another upside. And the other upside was… how do you put it? Well, it's pretty easy actually. It's just the idea that when a multinational corporation agrees in advance to make a rated R film, the marketing and distribution wings of that studio have to come to terms, even before there's one day's worth of dailies, with the fact that this film will not be marketed to children. And when that becomes clear to that company, then the pressure's no longer on that script to keep scene lengths short enough for the attention span of 12 year olds, to add cute characters who can make stuffed animal dolls or sidekicks or make Happy Meals or action figures, that the product placement opportunities dry up. That the… I love that. I love that.
It's essentially freedom.
Mangold: Yes! It's essentially… and the themes of the movie can be adult. Because suddenly you are not playing to a four box movie. And you are not playing to both 12 year olds and 40 year olds. And that that's a different movie essentially than the film that is geared entirely to grownups.
I understand. So, ever since you started releasing the first photos from this movie to Twitter, everyone has been saying this could be a black & white movie. Would you, if you could have had that freedom, would you have made a black & white Logan?
Mangold: I want to make a black & white film. I don't think I would have made a black & white Logan. I mean, would I, could I? I'd love to make a black & white film. I was looking for ways to separate this movie. It's an interesting question, but I don't think so. I think my own awareness of the socioeconomic pressures on movies insist that you cannot, there's a point at which you're asking for too much. And, spending in excess of 100 million dollars and then wanting to make a black & white film and sell it around the world and ask all these people… I mean, even my friend Alexander Payne when he made Nebraska, you know, that movie was released in foreign territories in color. They couldn't even--
Really? I didn't even know that.
Mangold: Yes. There are just – what was the budget of that movie? 18 million dollars or something? The economic pressures on movies are huge.
You could pull a Mad Max though and release a special version.
Mangold: We could. That might be fun. I haven't had a chance [to think about it yet], I'd be curious about it. But I'm also mystified when fans seem unable to find the chroma button on their television. Obviously we can time the color and shift. You can use color filters in a sense to shift the blacks and enrich them and whatever. But the quest for fans to have new products to buy… you can already watch it in black & white.
That's true. I know, someone will make their own fan edit I'm sure.
Mangold: Yes, why not? It's literally pretty easy. You just run it through Adobe and there you go.
How important was it to get the casting of X-23 correct? How important was it to find Dafne Keen to play Laura? Because she seems to be like the key in a lot of the movie working.
Mangold: Oh it was critical. It was critical. It was the whole enchilada for me. In a sense, I know Patrick Stewart's a brilliant actor. I knew Hugh was gonna kick this out of the park. I mean, we've been friends for almost 20 years now. To be honest, I don't know how good they'd both be. Meaning that I think they both exceeded my expectations in ways that I'm really proud for them and pleased. But the third leg of this three-legged stool was a complete fucking question mark. And we had written, literally, [co-writer] Scott Frank and I — an 11 year old, bilingual, Hispanic girl who is physically capable and will need to be an incredibly strong actress in elongated, emotional scenes, and very mature and deep scenes. And [she needs to] own the action, physical action in a way that I think was the greatest risk of the film.
Mangold: Effectively it was this mystery of who this girl was gonna be. And I'm eternally grateful to Dafne. When I saw, I got a little iPhone video of her reading for the movie with her Dad, who is also an actor. From Madrid. And when I saw, when I got this video, I called Hugh. I remember showing it to Patrick. I felt like the mystery of what this film was was answered in just this little iPhone video.
Was there anything that you expected to be easy going in that ended up being more difficult?
Mangold: I think expecting it to be easy… I don't ever expect a film to be easy.
Okay, but I mean, something that you thought okay hey, we can tackle this and then when you started working on it that didn't turn out to be the case.
Mangold: Well, when you go on location, the physical realities of nature. Those car scenes were shot in 100 degree heat with 100% humidity. Those woods scenes, we were having to stop shooting all the time for thunder, lightning threats. We had high winds. We had — it's hard to stage action in a forest where there's roots to trip over and rocks everywhere, and the physical nature. But it's part of what I love about movies. And what I regret about the green-screenification of movies is that shooting and enacting drama in the real world is still photographically, and even performance-wise, so exciting. But grueling.
When you shoot at night, you don't realize it. But like those nights we're shooting at the Munson House, the family at the farmhouse. Or the opening sequence, we're just staying up all night for a week. You become nocturnal creatures. And that is never easy for me. I mean, it's the simple efforts. And me maintaining my own evangelical nature, maintaining my energy to demand and ask and cajole what I need from everyone through the night is always the greatest challenge for me.
A very big thank you to James Mangold for his time, and to Fox for arranging this interview.
James Mangold's Logan, which first premiered at the Berlin Film Festival (my review), arrives in theaters this week - on March 3rd. Logan is an excellent, one-of-a-kind comic book film that I highly recommend.