James Mangold’s ‘Identity’: The Devil in the Details

 

December 28, 2022

 

I love ‘Identity.’ I love it. In fact, I think some of the filmmaking, the craftmanship, the image making, is such that I’m very proud of it.James Mangold

 

By Sven Mikulec

 
Even though that’s exactly how I’m about to start, James Mangold has become a name that basically needs no introduction. A highly versatile filmmaker who created great movies in a wide range of genres, having proven himself at both poles of contemporary cinema—the artistic and the highly commercial spheres, he has come a long way since his early start at Disney right after film school. Whether we’re talking about his impressive directorial debut Heavy in 1995, or Cop Land, his sophomore feature which has numerous qualities but is often unfairly labeled as simply “the film which resurrected Stallone’s career”, or Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line with Oscar-winning performances from Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon, or perhaps 3:10 to Yuma, a beautiful adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story which singlehandedly shut the mouths of those shortsighted critics who believed remakes were the downfall of cinematic creativity, or even Logan and Ford v Ferrari, two great pictures positioned at the very top of their respective years… The list can go on and on, and just like Mangold’s career path, it only gets more respectable with every line written. The filmmaker only continues to climb towards his peak, but as our lengthy conversation with him from a couple years back showed, he still remains a down-to-earth, very intelligent and perceptive cinephile simply thankful for the fact he’s in a position to do what he loves doing most—telling visual stories the best way he can.

This latest entry in C&B’s archive, however, isn’t a retrospective of Mangold’s body of work. Many years from now there will come a time when he plugs out his camera and channels his energy to fishing, and that’s when we’ll publish a huge piece on all the stories he managed to tell over the decades. For now, we’ll just use our analytical DeLorean to go back to 2003, when a frequently overlooked psychological thriller called Identity came out.

 

After making a tercet of, how he put it himself, “important films” such as Heavy, Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted, Mangold felt a little bit fed up and disappointed. “I felt there was something dishonest about it,” he told us. “The festival circuit and the award circuit and all those things were their own kind of bullshit in the same way that the commercial world and more commercial movies have their kind of bullshit. It all seemed to me to be a kind of a system to be played. I felt like I wanted to escape the pressure and make a movie that wasn’t trying to win approval of a certain kind.” This is why he first turned to making Kate & Leopold, a romantic comedy with Hugh Jackman, Meg Ryan and Liev Schreiber elevated by a lovely time-travel spin on the usual genre conventions, and then set his sights on making a neo-noir psychological horror in the veins of Hitchcock and Agatha Christie. “And that was very freeing. I feel like those two movies grew so much because I made the movies and wasn’t trying to be brilliant, I was just trying to be good. And I don’t mean good like not great. I meant that I was trying to be a craftsman, I wasn’t trying as hard to change the world in some way, that I felt I saw my filmmaking improve when I stopped trying to impress people except myself. And so when I returned to a serious movie, in the case of Walk the Line, I brought a relaxation to the filmmaking process.”

The movie opens with an intriguing series of cuts that introduce us to a psychiatrist working on the case of an alleged serial killer called Malcolm Rivers, a boy who grew up in a broken family with a mother whose criminal record would be surpassed only by that of her neglected child. The boy is now a troubled grown-up sentenced to death and awaiting execution. The lawyers and his renowned psychiatrist’s insanity plea was initially rejected by the court, but a newly-found diary gives the defense an opening to reexamine the case and perhaps save the man from the needle. The hearing is scheduled for midnight, right on the night before the scheduled execution.

 

In the meantime, fate—or something more sinister—would have it that ten strangers find themselves guests of the same seedy roadside motel somewhere in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada. Seeking shelter from heavy rain which flooded the roads, these individuals are brought together when a freakish car accident leaves a mother-of-one badly injured. An ex-cop, now a limousine driver called Ed Dakota, a has-been diva of an actress, a police officer supposedly transporting a convicted murderer, a young prostitute, a couple of newly-weds, and a married couple with a child. Each character is introduced by a short flashback, just enough to give us a glimpse of their personalities and the final part of the journey that led them to the motel. When all the pawns arrive and check in, the board is set: as the motel guests get brutally murdered one by one, the tensions rise and the survivors realize the killer is hiding within their ranks.

With a script co-written by Mangold and the British playwright, screenwriter and director Michael Cooney (the man behind the 1997 cult comedy slasher Jack Frost), Identity is a neat and deeply entertaining thriller with much more to offer than its seemingly straightforward trailer-made premise lets us assume. With the motel-based storyline, it’s a whodunit almost right out of Agatha Christie’s notes. At one point, Clea DuVall’s character even gives a direct nod to Christie’s And Then There Were None. “Remember that movie where the ten strangers went to an island… and then they all died one by one… and it turned out they weren’t strangers, they all had a connection?” Well, the beauty of it is that Mangold and Cooney knew exactly what they were doing and which prior works of literature and film they were evoking with their images. Just like in And Then There Were None, the motel guests in Identity are also somehow connected, but the connection here is clever, fresh and much more unexpected.

 

The plot twist in the heart of Identity isn’t only a device which makes the film stand out among its competition, it’s the central idea that makes this story worth telling. “The thriller and the horror film are actually, I believe, the only modern commercial genres in which formal innovation—doing something different from the last guy—is actually part of what your most base audience expects from the film,” Mangold told IGN. “Most people go see a romantic comedy or a war film or a tearjerker and expects basically the same structure and resolution they saw in the last one. But this genre is all about non-convention rather than convention.” Going against convention, it seems, was Mangold’s modus operandi when making Identity. He apparently relished the opportunity to make a single-location thriller, as he admitted being a huge fan of such movies. “Whether it’s Rear Window or whatever. It’s almost the opposite of the dictum of ‘opening things up,’ which is often applied to plays or book adaptations,” he shared with MovieMaker. The term “single-location” gets a whole new meaning when we consider the fact that almost all of Identity was shot on the same enormous sound stage at Sony Studios that was once the home of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. “You’d have been amazed if you’d visited during shooting. We built literally 95 percent of what you see in the movie. It was incredible what we got away with on the stages. It allowed me to make a stronger film. I mean, having done nights in rain on location, it’s just brutal. It’s a lot harder to control all the elements and still be worried about composition.”

Even though it might be fair to say the storytelling is the real star of the film, it would be a shame not to acknowledge what a stellar cast Mangold had at his disposal. Ray Liotta is great as the suspicious, slightly sinister-looking “cop”, Amanda Peet is equally impressive as the golden-hearted prostitute who just wants to go home and grow oranges, and the rest of the cast is also much more distinguished than one would expect from a slasher movie: Alfred Molina, John C. McGinley, Pruitt Taylor Vince… The lead role—that of an ex-policeman who tries his best to keep his head cool in the midst of bloody chaos—went to the hands of the trench coat-wearing John Cusack, who provides just enough coolness and charisma needed for the portrayal of a character serving as the film’s emotional and reasonable anchor, the guy the audience might empathize with the most. “I’d met John a few times and there’s this great ‘Everyman’ sense to him,” Mangold explained why he offered the role to the star of The Grifters and High Fidelity. “And while there’s this great warmth to him, especially as he’s grown older, there’s also a simplicity, a gravity to him.”

 

The first time I watched Identity, I loved it. I loved its dark, ominous atmosphere, the soaking-wet parking lot conjured up straight from some twisted nightmare, I loved the twist that completely shattered my viewing experience and forced me to re-evaluate every scene that came before. Of course, as a teenager, I was too young to fully appreciate the finer details that really make this movie great. The huge reveal in the final third of the film is a big bonus, sure, because it distinguishes Identity’s concept from similar stories, but it’s not the thing that defines this film and truly makes it good. The devil, as always, is in the details. For instance, Cusack’s character is reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, on the surface an apparently decorative embellishment of a quiet, reserved character, but in the larger picture a nice hint for what’s to become of the story unfolding before our eyes. When the same character discovers the actress’ severed head in the washing machine—a horrific sight that would make most people shiver or scream—he quietly lets the revelation sink in and simply utters a worried “holy fuck”. It’s only a couple of scenes later that we’re told he had worked as a detective for many years, meaning seeing dead bodies was pretty much in his job description. Before we’re officially handed this important part of the lead character’s biography, we’d already been shown a glimpse of his character with this subtle, composed reaction carried out perfectly by Cusack. Moreover, in the very opening of the film, we hear the supposed serial killer getting asked whether he remembers the murders. “I remember that Columbia is the capital of South Carolina,” he retorts, a bizarre reply that comes to make sense near the end of the film, when the motel survivors figure out all of them were named after American states. It’s the little things like this that pop up on repeated viewings, and as much as they might sound insignificant, they are actually crucial threads that help form the thick blanket the director has been carefully weaving over our eyes from the beginning.

Wanting to take a break from “important filmmaking,” Mangold stepped off the hamster wheel and made a film to please himself, but he was hardly the only one satisfied with the result. Even though Identity did well both at the box office and with the critics, it still didn’t fully get the love it deserved. Some of the reasons virtually had nothing to do with the quality of the film. “When Adaptation came out, and there’s a joke in the movie about someone with split personality, that came out right before Identity. You know the joke? Nick Cage is working on this crazy idea for a movie, the idea that the killer has multiple personalities, and Adaptation came out about three months before Identity. When I saw Adaptation, I realized I was dead. Half the reviews of Identity were going, like, this is the movie about the stupid joke, someone made a movie of the joke in Adaptation. And it was crushing, honestly, it was crushing because I spent a year and a half working on the movie, and it was kind of like half of the reviews were calling it silly.”

 

Almost two decades later, Identity still holds up well. Looking back to that rain-drenched motel, we see a cleverly conceived, expertly crafted genre treat, and it seems the years allowed Mangold to soften up and see Identity for what it really was. “It was so crazy, it was just a completely crazy movie. And the freedom of the concept meant that you could exist in a more dreamy, fever-dream space with the film, which was very freeing. It was very exciting for me, and hugely enjoyable. I’m very proud of the movie.”

Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos’, ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »

 

“What you want to happen, and this occurred with James Mangold on Identity as well, is that you get someone who utterly understands the movie. You don’t want someone who has their own vision and is just using the script as a backbone, and is taking it off in a different direction. I have been very fortunate with the directors who have taken on my screenplays, in that they utterly understand the script. You find that your influence is the script itself. You don’t have to be a whisper in the director’s ear; you trust that what they’re going to do is elevating your piece, which is exactly what I believe happened with both Identity and 6 Souls.”
screenwriter Michael Cooney

 
A monumentally important screenplay and a screenwriter must-read: Michael Cooney’s screenplay for Identity. [PDF] (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Our absolutely highest recommendation.

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PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL, ASC, GSC

Athens-born cinematographer and film director Phedon Papamichael made his professional cinematography debut back in 1988 for Katt Shea’s Dance of the Damned. By making several film with Shea and producer Roger Corman, he earned his place within the unofficial Corman Film School, in similar way to his contemporary Janusz Kamiński. He worked closely with such filmmakers as James Mangold, Alexander Payne, Wim Wenders, Oliver Stone and George Clooney, and in the process earned two Academy Award nominations: for Nebraska and The Trial of the Chicago 7.

“I very quickly realized that I was more relaxed or comfortable shooting with Phedon than I had ever been—mainly due to the fact that it can get so exhausting when any key collaborator sees things through an entirely different prism. Phedon and I see things the same way. He loves classical filmmaking, as I do. He appreciates and comes from independent filmmaking, as I do. There’s a synthesis of the desire to see life in the film, and not be so confined by formal ambitions that the life of the movie is beaten to death. And at the same time, our admiration for classical films means we don’t want to just shoot a handheld vérité film. We’re trying to find our own kind of balance between formal aspirations and allowing the movie room to breathe.”
James Mangold

 

In this short documentary which offers a quality profile of the versatile cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael discusses his early works and collaborations with a plethora of renowned filmmakers such as James Mangold. If you want more information, find the time to read this wonderful interview conducted by Alexandros Maragos.

 

In 2003, this great interview with James Mangold came out in MovieMaker thanks to the effort of Ryan Mottesheard.

~ ~ ~

You scored a development deal with Disney at the age 21. Did you think that you “had it made?”
I didn’t have it made, ultimately. It was a bumpy road. It was like being thrown into a world where you don’t even know how lucky you are because you haven’t struggled that much. I graduated from Cal Arts in June and I was writing in my office at Disney in August. It was a great early experience in understanding the business side of filmmaking. Understanding the politics of this business is a big part of doing well in it. There were a lot of early lessons for me in that. And I didn’t play everything the right way. It wasn’t a matter of learning by observing; I learned by making mistakes.

Your deal at Disney was not renewed at the end of that year. How did you feel at that point?
Coming out of Disney, I felt about as low as you could feel. The funny thing is, when I went back to Columbia Film School, I was the ultimate film school student’s nightmare come true. I graduated from film school (the first time) with a hot short film, I got signed by a studio and a year later I was on my ass, going nowhere. None of my fellow students wanted to hear my story because all they hoped for was to get the opportunities I had when I was 21. I carried a good bit of baggage about “blowing it.”

 

Did you ever consider giving up?
Sure. I thought about becoming a novelist. I started writing short stories and poems and books and would send them into quarterlies and get feedback. I ended up calling the head of UC Irvine’s creative writing school and he told me, “If you’ve gotten as far as you have, and you’re only 22, then you might want to stick with it.” I was looking for a mentor. That’s the main reason I went back to film school. Some people put down film schools, saying, “What do you really need them for when everything you need to learn you can learn by watching great movies?” Which is true, in many ways. But one of the things you don’t get is a community. If you’re working in the business, everyone is so starving that no one has time for anyone else.

What were some of the most important things that you learned from your film school mentors, Milos Forman and Sandy Mackendrick?
Sandy was a brilliant man, but he had a lot of formalized rules about filmmaking—where exposition should go, how you should structure things, how stories worked from the Greek times. The real lesson that Sandy taught me was if I turned in a 10-page short film script, he would come back the next day with 11 pages of handwritten notes. What he was doing was not only making you believe in yourself, but he also made you take yourself seriously, because he did. He also made me understand how much hard work goes into filmmaking.

Milos was also a great writing teacher. He would go through a screenplay with me and pick out pieces and say “This is good, this is better, this is not so good.” It was about finding moments inside the script. One of the reasons why he’s so good with actors is finding moments in the screenplay. I wrote Heavy while I was studying with Milos.

 

You’ve gone from a smallish independent film, Heavy, to directing much bigger budgeted projects for huge studios. How were you able to make that transition?
I think the job of directing a movie remains essentially the same—at least for me. It changes more for the line producer or the DP, who will have more lights and more people to hang those lights. But for me, you’ve got a 35mm camera—I did on Heavy, I did on Identity—I have actors’ faces and a script and a scene and I have to finish the work and be satisfied with it.

Identity is the first film in which you don’t have a script credit. Was there a certain liberation you found in working from someone else’s script?
No, I don’t think so. What’s weird is that when I’m directing something I wrote myself, I still think of the person who wrote it as this other person. By the time you arrive on the set and a line isn’t working or whatever, the director in you just says, ‘Oh, that idiot writer.’ There’s a very clear switching of hats in order to be healthy as a writer/director. Certainly, [something that’s been] very helpful for me has been having a very smart, creative producer at my side—and also have a really smart cast.

You’ve always been able to put together interesting casts, particularly in the smaller roles.
That’s the critical part. Cathy and I both pay a lot of attention to that. A movie can be undone with those roles. Even when you’re making student films, it’s apparent when you have your friend come over to play the UPS man in a scene. They always stink, and it’s a huge catastrophe. As I’m writing or directing, I try to make sure that every character has a moment to assert themselves; an aria, almost. Because I’ve seen movies be destroyed from lack of this.

 

How did you come upon the idea of casting John Cusack in the lead for a dark noir thriller?
Cathy and I both felt like John was perfect for this role. When you think of movies like The Grifters, you don’t feel like it’s such a stretch. I’d met John a few times and there’s this great “Everyman” sense to him. And while there’s this great warmth to him, especially as he’s grown older, there’s also a simplicity, a gravity to him. There’s something very solid about John.

You shot Identity on stages at Sony?
Yeah. You’d have been amazed if you’d visited during shooting. We built literally 95 percent of what you see in the movie. It was incredible what we got away with on the stages. It allowed me to make a stronger film. I mean, having done nights in rain on location, it’s just brutal. It’s a lot harder to control all the elements and still be worried about composition.

So you filmed it like an old Hollywood director?
Yeah. Shooting a movie is never 9-to-5, but I found myself getting home and having dinner, which is so unusual for me when I’m making a movie. In this case, there was something very methodical to making the movie. And in many ways, it was one of the reasons I was interested in this film. The storytelling was the star.

I’m a big fan of single location movies, whether it’s Rear Window or whatever. It’s almost the opposite of the dictum of “opening things up,” which is often applied to plays or book adaptations. To me, some of the most cinematic movies have “opened up” without doing the obvious. They’ve kept themselves in one world and said to themselves, “Somehow I’m going to keep opening doors into this one world.” I’m not going to allow myself to cut to, say, New Delhi or cut to London, etc.

 

Do you like to put those restraints on yourself?
Yes, I do. I like having a very concrete, formal hurdle. Like when I made my first film, Heavy. I set out to make a silent film, almost in response to these tongue-in-cheek, rock and roll, über-violent films that were around at the time. I set out to do something incredibly reductive. And in [Identity], what I wanted to do was take some of the exuberance and operatic-ness of horror films and marry it to a better class of acting and character work and also the audacious set of twists that was in the material.

A lot of those slasher films cancel themselves out anyway.
Well, it becomes about the guitar solo. There are times in movies that you can go so far, and this is true not only with gore, but with almost every stylistic touch. Where you go so far as to say, ‘It’s more important that you recognize me, doing my little film aria, than staying in the story we’ve constructed.’ That’s always the battle—for me, anyway. I think the great practitioner of the boundary was Hitchcock. He very often did amazing things that we could talk about on an athletic basis, like a shot that cranes from the ceiling down to find a key inside someone’s hand. But they’re story points!

And you don’t see those things until you see them for the second or third time…
…Or if somebody tells you to look out for that moment. But it’s so un-self-conscious with him. My favorite Hitchcock movie is Shadow of a Doubt, which has these incredible dinner scenes with Joseph Cotten and everyone at the table. That’s where you really see how great Hitchcock is. It’s really gratifying to me when the less showy scenes have an incredible design to them. That’s where you really see the greatness in some directors.

 

In some of your earlier interviews, you mentioned the influence of Yasujiro Ozu. Whose work, or which films, did you look at for Identity?
There were already such icons in my head once I realized that the beginning, middle and end all occur in this one place. One of them is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which I think is a really great film. But it was extremely influenced by Alien, which I think is another extremely great film. I think of [both of these movies] as absolute penultimate integrations of the horror film, the monster film, into a modern styling.

There’s this acute attention to detail in your films. They’re all very intricately detailed, from shot composition to production design to editing transitions.
The devil is in the details. The films that live do so because of that care. I think every movie has its flaws. One of the things that can really paralyze you as a filmmaker is when you watch something like Citizen Kane, and you wonder how you can even be playing in the same ballpark. But if you watch it as if you made it, you might say, ‘Wow, that was kind of a stinky scene.’ Now the scene before it and the scene after it are so great, but even in that stinky scene there are great details, even if it’s a prop or a look or whatever.

 

Do you feel like you’re a different moviemaker than you would’ve been had your early experience at Disney turned out differently?
I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder how things would’ve turned out if everything had gone right at Disney. I’m just glad I’m a little older and a little wiser about making movies now. Maybe if I would’ve been a little more successful back then, I might’ve done two or three films and then burned out. I don’t know.

In any event, I think it was a blessing in disguise, because after going back to film school again, it helped me differentiate between wanting to make movies and needing to make movies. With everyone I met back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, who came out of the New York independent scene, the movies that got made were because the people behind them decided they had to happen. Whether it was $1 million in foreign money or $10 million from a studio or $200,000 that was cobbled together from friends and family. Those were the movies that had to be made.

 

EBERT: ‘IDENTITY’ IS A RARITY

One of the early champions of Identity was, in fact, Roger Ebert, who wrote an encouraging review upon its release.

“I’ve seen a lot of movies that are intriguing for the first two acts and then go on autopilot with a formula ending. Identity is a rarity, a movie that seems to be on autopilot for the first two acts and then reveals that it was not, with a third act that causes us to rethink everything that has gone before. Ingenious, how simple and yet how devious the solution is.” —Roger Ebert

 

Check out The Secret Behind Identity, a 14-minute featurette diving into the dark world of Mangold’s thriller.

 

Interested in deleted scenes with Mangold’s commentary? Say no more!

 

Hollywood Archives brings us interesting intervies with the cast and crew of the movie.

 

Writer and broadcaster Tony Earnshaw wrote an great analysis and review of Identity, commenting on both the humor ingrained in the script and the fact that the film seems like taken out of Hitchcock’s portfolio.

“Like Hitchcock before him, Mangold builds tension and pressure by allowing his killer to strike during a lull in the action and through ensuring his cast obeys that old standard: not doing as they’re told. Hence when two or three deaths have occurred and both paranoia and distrust have set in, people still go blundering off into the night alone. It’s something Hitchcock patented and people like John Carpenter gleefully copied in the likes of Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and The Thing. Now Mangold is doing it within a film that tips its hat to Hitchcock with every bloody death.” —Tony Earnshaw

 

What PopMatters published in 2003 is priceless for all those fans who didn’t have the pleasure of listening to Mangold’s DVD commentary. Their slogan is “essaying the pop culture that matters since 1999,” which is another nice compliment to this largely overlooked genre treat.

“As Mangold puts it, the structure of the film comprises a kind of ‘plate-spinning,’ not only in dialogue but also in shot blocking, that is, the multiple storylines have to intersect and diverge, all in motion at once. The director is specially fond of these visual set-ups: ‘There’s a lot of wonderful compositions we make using the doors and the windows, showing how the spaces connect to one another,’ a function, Mangold notes, of the crew having constructed the motel, so the spaces exist three-dimensionally and elegantly, on a studio lot. The fluidity of space and time leads to confusion and instability. As James Mangold neatly puts it, these characters are running along ‘a kind of Möbius strip of hell.’” —PopMatters

 

Hector Serrano published a neat video on his YouTube, offering step-by-step comparison of the storyboard and actual film.

 

Here are several photos and movie stills taken during the production of James Mangold’s Identity. Photographed by Suzanne Tenner @ Columbia Pictures, Konrad Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 

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