Writer-director talks about Cop Land, Logan, and more.
A Birth. Movies. Death. interview with writer-director James Mangold whose screenwriting credits include Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, Walk the Line, and Logan.
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: 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 descripto r 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.
I don't even have to see Logan — although I certainly will — to know it's better than 90% of superhero movies because what Mangold talks about in this interview — focusing on the characters' humanity, the specificity of the individual's struggle to survive and make sense out this crazy thing we know as Life — is what interests me. The spectacle may be entertaining, but it carries no meaning or significance without human beings dealing with human shit.
Hopefully the success of the movie will generate more 'intimate' superhero projects and less 'the universe is in peril… again' films.
For the rest of the Mangold interview: