By Sven Mikulec
As one of the most versatile and interesting filmmakers today, James Mangold seemed like a good choice for an interview. The last film he directed, this year’s critical favorite and box office triumph called Logan, raised enough questions and offered sufficient material to justify dedicating the whole piece just to it, but since we’re talking about a man who created such memorable films like Cop Land, Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, as well as less advocated genre treats like Identity or Kate & Leopold, we felt it would have been a shame not to at least try to get him to talk to us about his career, both in general and the specifics, his directing style, inspirations and the current state of the American cinema. Expectedly perceptive and eloquent, but surprisingly talkative and motivated to satisfy our curiosity, Mr. Mangold spent an hour and a half leading a discussion with us that resulted in, we believe, quite an absorbing window into the filmmaker’s mind and professional craft. Logan is without a doubt one of the best films of the last couple of years, but as if the opportunity to discuss its creation with the mind behind it wasn’t enough, Marvel Entertainment, 20th Century Fox and Mr. Mangold have chosen Cinephilia & Beyond as the stage for the online premiere of Logan’s screenplay. James Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green’s brilliant script we provide here is, of course, for educational and research purposes only. Read, study, absorb—both the fascinating script and the great conversation that follows. Once again, many thanks to the studios and Mr. Mangold for their time and effort. It’s been a real pleasure.
Let’s start with the basics. Which films attracted you to filmmaking?
As long as I can remember, I was interested in performing, in storytelling, in theater, in putting on a show. At different moments in the seventies, I tried being a backyard magician, a puppeteer… I co-wrote an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach in 4th grade that we mounted. I played the earthworm. I also collected comics, mainly DC. My dad took me to movies all the time, without much thought about the rating, frankly. I remember going with my mom and dad to see Taxi Driver in the first run. I think I was 12. There was a moment in mid-seventies when I was getting confronted on a near-weekly basis by astounding and deeply ambitious movies, most playing at the suburban mall theaters. Nashville, Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Barry Lyndon, The Passenger, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Rocky, Carrie, Taxi Driver, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Omen, Bad News Bears, The Tenant, Network, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, the Dirty Harry films, The Godfather films and on and on… The seventies, when I was growing up, were such an amazing period of time for movies. I was going with my father to the movies all the time. But if there was a single thing, even though it’s probably the same thing for so many filmmakers of my generation, the year that made sure that I was becoming a movie director was the year that Star Wars came out. The power of that film in the world, of what seeing a film could do around the world. For me, movies were more than Star Wars, that was just kind of a turning point, and it was soon followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was just a religious experience for me, what was happening in movies.
To what degree have your parents as artists influenced your career choice?
I knew they had a great life as artists but I also had some doubts I could endure the solitary nature of what they did. I yearned to be part of an effort with others, to collaborate, to lead. We moved when I was in the seventh grade, and I think the allure of theater, film and music to me was that it offered me a chance to be a part of something with others. I wasn’t the sportiest kid, so it was my only avenue to interact or shine with other kids.
I’ve seen Identity, I’ve seen Kate & Leopold… it’s easy to notice that you don’t have a genre preference. What does a story have to have to attract you?
The best definition for me is that the next movie that I make is always a little bit of a reaction to what I just made, meaning I don’t want to do the same thing again. I don’t want to live in exactly the same world again. So there’s a kind of a search for change. Not just in setting, but in tone as well. I feel I like testing myself. Moving between genres, I feel like I’m learning so much from one that I bring it to the next. The two movies you just brought up are very interesting to me, because Identity and Kate & Leopold were two movies I made after making what you would call, quote, important movies. Heavy was a festival film about a lonely fat guy, love, life… Then Cop Land, this movie about cop corruption, heroism and bravery, and courage, and racism. And Girl, Interrupted is about mental health, existential questions of sanity… So the answer is, in some ways I felt disappointed by the industry of “important movies.” I felt there was something dishonest about it. That 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. There was something disappointing for me, after making three “important movies,” I felt like I wanted to escape the pressure and make a movie that wasn’t trying to win approval of a certain kind. So I essentially made two more escapist films, films where there was never a chance I would find myself, you know… I never pictured I would be doing an interview with someone like you for a movie like Identity or Kate & Leopold. 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, after Identity, I brought a relaxation to the filmmaking process. I realized I had always been tight, if that makes any sense, that I had always been like the statue of The Thinker, you know? I felt that’s how I was making movies. I had so much fun making Kate & Leopold and Identity, and when it came time to make Walk the Line I felt like, why can’t I have fun making an important movie? I brought a relaxation of process, I felt like I learned to sometimes figure out what I’m doing on the set, you know, not have it always planned in advance, that I become more improvisational. It was kind of a breakthrough for me, and I felt that in many ways that doing a romantic comedy and doing a horror movie gave me tremendous confidence coming back to “important movie” territory.
But these movies you call “less important” still enjoy a huge popularity. Identity is a film I’m very fond of.
In retrospect and with distance, I agree with you. But in the moment when I made those movies, neither one was on a top ten list of critics. I don’t know how to explain it. It was just like going to a formal dance or going to a casual dance. It’s not really about how the films were received, I’m actually commenting more on my own psychology, that I somehow felt more relaxed going to a more casual dance rather than a formal ball. I learned something about myself going to the casual dance. Maybe it will make sense to nobody but me, but it’s the truth.
I love Identity, I love it. In fact, I think some of the filmmaking, the craftsmanship, the image making, is such that I’m very proud of it. Interestingly, 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. But part of what I loved about Identity, and maybe you too, was that it was so crazy, that 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 to me, to be this kind of noir And Then There Were None amped up to eleven on the volume knob. It was very exciting for me, and hugely enjoyable, and I’m very proud of the movie.
You said you wanted to get out of the festival circuit for a while. But since Heavy won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, I wanted to ask you how much of a boost you got from that reward for your feature film debut.
Not much. It was interesting, but you have to understand this, I was broke. My big relationship had broken up while I was making Heavy, I was bankrupt making Heavy because I was paying for it myself. I didn’t have the money to finish the movie. When we got in Sundance, I somehow found the money to finish the movie and get to Utah with the film. But we had no distributor, so I was hoping that the movie would win a prize and that something would happen, someone would distribute the movie. And we got to Sundance and got some very good reviews, and then it came time for the awards. And there was tremendous confusion on the night of the awards that year. They ended up calling me up to get an award, and I remember sitting with other filmmakers, when they called my name up, none of us knew what I had won. The actor who was doing the announcement was unclear what I’d won, so I just got up and got an award. I remember coming off the stage going, what did I win? I came back and sat down next to Ed Burns, and I remember him turning to me and asking, what did you win? And I said, I don’t know. (laughs) But later, after the awards ceremony was over, two very renowned filmmakers who were on the jury came to me and said: “You were ripped off. Out of the four judges, three judges wanted to give you the main competition prize, and one of the judges hated your movie and wanted a different winner. And so we all agreed to split the grand prize between your movie and this other movie.” But Sundance said they will not do a split prize, that they all had to agree on one film. So they threw out both movies and picked a third film to win the grand prize, and gave us those special prizes. All this got explained to me. I am starving to death, I just wanted a distributor… so I left. I’m glad I got Special-Jury-something prize for direction, but the reality was, you now understand my attitude about these things a little bit. I went home to my hotel room and felt terrible, I felt I wished I hadn’t even known what they had told me. But more so, I felt terrible because the movie that won was a film that had a distributor already. I really needed the boost. I really didn’t care so much about the statue, I just wanted the movie to be seen, and I had a movie with no big stars in it about a fat guy and didn’t know how I was ever going to get it seen without the festival’s help. I went back to New York and no one called about distributing the movie. And then one day, about a month later, I got a call from a French gentleman who represented the Cannes Film Festival, and he had seen my movie at Sundance and wanted it to be in the Directors’ Fortnight. So that was the great opportunity for the movie, not Sundance. When we went to Cannes, we got international distribution. We had no domestic distribution, but we got all of Europe and the world. And finally something happened. I think that happened because Liv Tyler got cast in Bertolucci’s movie, and someone saw that Liv’s star at that point could play a role in getting the movie seen. But it was a hard experience and one in which I realized I really didn’t like being in these kinds of competitions, it partly removes some of the joy of making a film, to have people decide best, second best, third best… The publicity of these films is, of course, greatly helpful, but it’s also something that, in a weird way, has its own kind of agenda, corruption and pain attached as well. It’s a very interesting world.
Your sophomore film, Cop Land, received critical praise and achieved a very solid box office result, but was forced to deal with unrealistic expectations both from the audiences and from Miramax, who, you said, expected a new Pulp Fiction. When you look back at the film now, what do you see?
I look back at all my movies and see what I would do differently, of course. I mean, I’m an active artist, so that I never just sit, look at my work and go “It’s perfect.” But at the same time, I’m deeply proud of Cop Land, and with distance what I cherish most is the script, I thought the ideas in the script were really interesting, and the idea of this half-deaf sheriff who gets his ears blown out at the end of the movie and, in a way, finds his strength at the moment he can no longer hear the voices that were putting him down. I thought that the writing was great, I’m really proud when I look back at the kind of a musicality very much inspired by people like David Mamet, and Nick Pileggi and many others, but that kind of musicality of New York top speak was something that I worked very hard to learn and try to speak with. Lastly, of course, I’m really proud of the cast, which are relationships that I still have tremendously warm feelings towards. Particularly Bob De Niro, who was really phenomenally supportive of me behind the scenes. He has a very warm and very honest presence, and his father was a painter, my father was a painter, we lived near each other in New York, and I think it was a very primal level where Bob felt a kind of an identification or a kind of sympathy or empathy for me. You know, going from a movie of the scale of Heavy to the scale of Cop Land, and the kind of cast, Bob was really a very important force. Not only in that movie, but in my development, he gave me a lot of confidence for what came ahead. Stallone… I just ran into Sly about three weeks ago, just running errands in LA. And it was so lovely to see him. I have a lot of affection for him, as well, many of the cast members, and the whole experience of leading that kind of an ensemble was a magnificent experience and really a kind of a trial by fire that when I got to the other side, I felt that I had gone to war or something. There was no way I would ever be the same. I wrote a script starring actors of this caliber and star power, and I survived, the Weinsteins, that system, all of it. I was a much tougher, stronger person at the end. All those memories come back to me when I see the movie.
I know I was probably much too young to appreciate the film, but my mom rented Girl, Interrupted back in the days when video-stores were still open here. The drama left quite an impression on me. Why did Winona Ryder insist that you direct the film?
She brought me the book because she saw Heavy. The people at Columbia Pictures were working on adapting the book, and had kind of a fairly conventional structure pretty much modeled after the book, an episodically structured story of this girl’s descent into the world of this mental institution. But it wasn’t compelling enough, it felt like a “movie of the week,” you know? It kind of felt like a “disease of the week” kind of thing. I didn’t understand why this needed to be a movie, and I told this to Winona. This movie needed to do something that hadn’t been done. Miloš Forman has this great expression: don’t tell me two and two is four, I know two and two is four. A movie should tell me two and two is five, and then explain why. I was very inspired on a simple level by Winona’s passion for the project. By that moment in the nineties, in America, there was tremendous awareness about depression, and pharmaceuticals, psychopharmaceuticals, and the issues of balance and chemicals in the brain, mental health… So I thought this was a very interesting movie to make, but it had to have something interesting to say. And I hit upon an idea, I didn’t know how to do it at first, but I hit upon the idea that most movies about mental illness or mental institutions are either, to make it very simple, about a crazy person and a sane person who loves them and is trying to get them help, and the protagonist of the film becomes the person who is helping, and then there’s also the kind of Freudian model, Ordinary People would be a good example, where somebody suffers a trauma, like Timothy Hutton’s suffering in that movie as he loses a brother. Good Will Hunting is another example, where therapy works to get them to spit out the pain inside in a kind of a Freudian explosion where they deliver a monologue in which they say the thing they are most frightened of, and by speaking the words of what they are most frightened of, they become healed. Again, I thought that formula had been done. Successfully and in an interesting way, but I’ve still seen it, right? So why do it again? What was intrinsically interesting about Susanna Kaysen’s book was the fact that she did not have a secret, she didn’t have a pain that she was trying to hide, that she can identify. The mystery of what was happening to her was almost the unique feature of the book. A liability, but actually what made it interesting. What happens if you’re psychologically troubled but you can’t blame anyone, any event, anything, it’s just happening to you? It occurred to me that I needed to make a movie about someone who wasn’t sure whether they were crazy or not, and was living in a kind of an ambivalent place about their own sanity. I was very concerned with how to make this anxiety visible on the screen, and I hit upon two things. One was, I love George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The way he moves between different spheres of Vonnegut’s book, on the planet, in World War 2, the battle of Dresden, and then in the present for Billy Pilgrim in his home in Long Island, I believe. The film has a kind of a kaleidoscopic effect, as the hero is unmoored and living in three different periods of his life at the same time. It seemed to me to be a way to put on screen what Susanna Kaysen was describing, almost being unanchored in her own life, unanchored to normal rules of time and space. It became a tool in trying to write a movie. The other thing that became a tool was realizing I was writing The Wizard of Oz. I thought that Girl, Interrupted was essentially a realistic and naturalistically acted version of The Wizard of Oz, in that Dorothy is a depressed teenager who is unsure of her own identity and getting into trouble, and is catapulted into a circumscribed universe in which she meets all these people who are like her, but each missing an essential part of themselves. She’s very drawn to these characters in this new universe, and almost for the first time finds happiness, but also wants to get home. By the end of the movie she realizes she could’ve gone home any time she wanted, that it was all in her own power. So in many ways I wrote Girl, Interrupted using some kind of a fusion of Slaughterhouse-Five and Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.
A lot of hate is evoked every time news comes out about a new remake in the Hollywood workshop. And yet, you’ve managed to rebuke all such criticism with the highly praised 3:10 to Yuma. What do you think should be the main idea or motivation when filmmakers approach reworking older, respected films?
The world of moviemaking, the world of storytelling, the world of playmaking, is essentially an act of remakes. I mean, Shakespeare wasn’t the first person to write stories about kings. Some of the stories he told were stories people knew already, he was just telling them in a different way. I’m not trying to dodge your question. To me, the real question in the modern, corporate, economic prison of modern filmmaking is… I have no issue with remakes if there is something new to say. Do you have something new to bring to this story or are you just cashing in on the I.P., on the recognizability of the title or of the property? There are times when the studios are clearly making another movie of this or that comic book character, not because they have a story to tell, but because they have a date in the year 2019 and want to have a movie of this title on that date. A movie is made to fulfill a need for a release date. That’s sad. That’s not filmmaking, that’s just manufacturing a commodity. However, in the case of 3:10 to Yuma, I think the reality is that no one knew the movie. In fact, at least in America, 3:10 to Yuma wasn’t even available on VHS or DVD, it had gone out of print, and it wasn’t running on cable or anywhere. So the act of making 3:10 to Yuma was not an act of cashing in because there was literally nobody of movie-going age who was going to buy the ticket based on the title, as they had no idea that the previous film, the Delmer Daves’ version which, by the way, I think is genius, even existed. For me, I had been made aware of the film by my teacher Alexander Mackendrick, who showed me the film many times. I was the teaching assistant so I watched it on 16mm many times at CalArts. I just felt there was something so rich in the structure of the story, but that there was so much that could be done through a modern lens. I love the original Delmer Daves’ movie, but it’s also a little… you know, the Frankie Valli song, the wife riding in with a grin on her face, the rain falling at the ending… It all felt a little dated to me in a way that’s still brilliant, but I thought the story could be told in a different way, with a different agenda. I brought the agenda of even making it about the Iraq war, and men coming back as amputees, and creating a kind of an analogous situation between post-Civil War America and the plight of Christian Bale’s Dan Evans and a kind of character we would understand from our own, contemporary space coming back from war and trying to start a life.
Also, the nature of evil in the case of Ben Wade and leaning in even harder to this idea of a kind of a Nietzschean villain in the West who saw violence and the world through a different prism. It was a great deal of attraction writing Ben Wade in the same way I loved writing Angelina’s character in Girl, Interrupted. There was a kind of freedom to the way these characters lived, who they killed, who they fucked, what they felt about God… They seem like really amazing, empowered characters that you could go further in writing now in a frank way than they could, you know, in 1957.
In a very interesting interview you gave to FirstShowing, I enjoyed reading about your “fuck you” stance towards franchising and turning filmmaking into marketing. To what degree do such dominant studio policies harm the filmmaking and the audience’s expectation of what a film should actually be?
Well, it’s always existed, I don’t think this is new. Honestly, I think there has always been a wing of commercial movie production that’s about making up a movie to fill a slot for next year, not just a story that must be told. We need a movie, I want a musical, I want these stars… Creative people work to construct something. Frankly, I don’t see it as us versus them, in the studio sense. If there are three wings of the triangle: the filmmakers, the studios and, let’s say, the critical establishment and the audiences, I think all three corners of the triangle are guilty. I think that the press has set up a kind of an industry in which at the same time they complain about tentpole films and how boring they are, but they also demand that they all be part of a “universe,” all fit together and have a matching aesthetic, and that the casting remains continuous between all these films. All these things are incredible restrictions on creativity, invention and tone. The demand for consistency of tone, casting and story, and that the stories connect, means that they are not even movies in the end. Just the world’s most expensive television shows. They are really a part of a corporate designed universe that’s about pushing happy meals and action figures, board games, video games, etc. We all participate in that. The filmmakers get involved because they want to make the big money and they want to play on the big canvas, the press and the fans get involved because they actually like having these universes, and they don’t necessarily recognize how the attraction of having things remain consistent over the course of several movies actually reduces the creativity. It is to no surprise to me that the best, for instance, Marvel films of the last several years are the ones where the least was expected, and therefore kind of got to be creative outside the lines. Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Wonder Woman in its kind of unabashed idealism and recapture of that kind of Richard Donner optimism of the original Superman. It was very much aside the reigning aesthetic of these universes at the time. It’s not surprising these were the movies that were in some ways maybe the least managed, and ended up staking up the most interesting ground. I would also include Logan in that. We were not managed, there was encouragement to do something different and we did it for a lot less money, which gave us the freedom to do it.
There has been a lot of talk about the value and significance of film critics these days. On the one hand, a lot of ink is spilled on the idea that the times when critics were influencers who determined the fate of movies are long gone—that everyone can be a critic these days, especially considering the availability of the platform through blogs, websites and so on. On the other hand, there were some comments on how Rotten Tomatoes is responsible for box office disasters of some films. How do you see the role and meaning of film critics today?
I think the state of journalism is sad worldwide right now, and that includes film criticism and many other things. I think that there are shining lights of interesting discourse about film and politics and everything else that you can find, but that in the general conversation, the kind of Twitter-universe conversation about film and the people that participate in it, there is something I find destructive. There is a confusion, and it’s much easier to use politics as an analogy. Most of our political discourse and what we absorb through the media about politics is who’s winning and who’s losing, and not the quality of policy or the results of policy on people’s lives, and the facts about who is starving, who is living, who is dying. Most of the discourse is about a kind of a horserace: who is winning the polls, who is winning public opinion, who is winning a kind of a TV narrative. Similarly, the movie business and most journalism about the movie business are completely consumed with box office and a kind of commerce, that has infected what would be a kind of a more interesting discussion in many cases about the more historic and artistic merits of movies. Even many very savvy people who are very sensitive have befallen into the gravitational pull, the tractor beam, if you will, of getting lured into talking about the horse race. Even the awards and those races become another way for people to try to get “interesting” stories. When I’m doing interviews, people would ask me, you know, no one gives awards to comic book movies, what do you think about that. My answer would be, I don’t accept your premise. Gladiator is kind of a comic book movie, and so is Ben Hur. So it’s not true, it’s just an invented idea. We’re trying to create a problem to make a story about the problem. I was at a Q&A last night at a screenwriting forum, and the questions I keep getting asked have to do with “I.P.,” and “existing canon,” and all this stuff, and I’m going, who gives a shit? Why are we talking about all these business terms, about the marketing of a franchise, when we’re here to talk about movies, not corporate owned properties? I just find that our general discussion has become completely corrupted in world politics, movies, art, music, everything, by who’s on top, and who’s making dough. Therefore, most of the discussions are at a pretty shallow level.
“The Western is pure cinema. Whenever you’re confused while making a movie, I think it’s the best direction to go in—the North Star on your compass.” This is, of course, your quote. In your opinion, what makes Western such an inspiring theme that you can cross it over with any other genre?
Because it’s so simple. What we can learn from the western, and frankly also the samurai film, which is a kind of a completely perfect mirror of the western, is the simplicity of the tales. They take place in an era without cars, phones and cell phones and computers, and texting, planes, nuclear weapons… In the absence of all those devices, in the absence of all those things, the world of survival, of love, of family commitment, of commitment to your ideals and your own sense of right and wrong, becomes so much more interesting. You and I exist in a world where at the second we feel frightened, we can call a policeman. The second we feel scared, we can jump inside our car and locked the doors. The sense of exposure, of a human being’s exposure to the threats and obstacles of their lives is so much more acute in the forms we’re talking about. Even in noir films, which is the other great American form that still allows… Well, there’s payphones, I guess… but it’s still a real cousin, a beautiful cousin of those forms.
Girl, Interrupted brought Angelina Jolie a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Walk the Line secured Reese Witherspoon with a Best Actress Oscar, 3:10 to Yuma was praised for the performances of Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, just like Logan is hailed, in part, as Hugh Jackman’s brilliant farewell to the role that marked the last seventeen years of his career. What’s the secret of your approach to actors that gets you such results?
Friendship. Honestly, I’m not big on rehearsals in any large way, but it’s very important to me that we come to know one another. I know a lot of the problems in movies between actors and directors happened because you’re learning who the other person is while you’re shooting the movie. I try very hard to make sure that we’re all kind of in a groove together before we start. We see the movie the same way, we talk about the movie, we’ve gone to a ballgame, we’ve gone to dinner, we’ve talked and gotten the groove of each other. More than rehearsals, I like to take the actors to their spaces. I feel like a lot of the time the actors don’t discover the spaces they are going to be acting in until the day they are shooting them. I have a kind of a standard policy of insisting the sets are done at least a week early so the actors can visit and participate in the dressing of their set, so they can understand what their bedroom looks like, what their home looks like, where they keep their rubber bands and paper clips… to get a kind of a sense how their house works. On Girl, Interrupted, for instance, we had several full days where the whole ward of the institution was running: the nurses were bringing meds, each girl was living in her own room, reading books, playing records, watching TV in the game room, interacting with each other, getting in fights, running from nurses… and we just let the ward operate for hours and hours at a time. Angie would be riding around in her wheelchair up and down the hallway, everyone was exploring how they’d live. I think stuff like that is super important, that the actors get comfortable with their wardrobe, their props, their spaces, how they use and manipulate the spaces for their character. I do have a way I see the movie happening, I imagine how the film might be shot, but I try to keep the syntax that I’m shooting in, in some way, open. A kind of open programming that could be manipulated or revised based on what I’m seeing the actors are doing. When I teach, one of the biggest things I feel that I try to impart on younger filmmakers is just how important it is to be open to the miracle that you didn’t expect, and that sometimes filmmakers are so resolute about the way they saw the scene that they actually miss the scene. They had an idea about what it was supposed to be, and it could be a very brilliant and informed idea, but then some kind of magic is happening and they resolutely ignore that magic because it contradicts or complicates their original plan. I really think it’s the director’s responsibility to take advantage of whatever magic is happening and make it look like their plan. It’s much more important that it feels like it was all planned, it really isn’t important what’s true about that. You know, there is no greater myth than that “the director saw it all in advance.” Almost to a man, all my friends who direct, and myself, would admit that their best moments of directing were taking advantage of something that is happening, tacking the boat ten degrees to the right to make sure you take advantage of some kind of magic that’s occurring.
Logan is actually my favorite X-Men film so far. At the same time, it’s the least like an X-Men film. The fact that you steered the story away from the canon, kept it in the same universe but took it in a completely different direction. You didn’t experience any interference or objections from the studio?
No. The biggest complexity we had was when Scott Frank and I came up with this idea for the comics being real in the world. The only thing we couldn’t do was use the actual Marvel comics in the movie, we had to make new ones, we had to make fake vintage comic books. We used all the original artists from the seventies and eighties to do them, so they were actually not even that fake, they looked just like the real thing.
You made Logan as an exciting and at times spectacular superhero adaptation but at the same time a full-blooded family drama that touches the heart. One would say that you believe a film’s primary purpose shouldn’t only be to satisfy people’s hunger for spectacle, but offer something more and something deeper. Should a film move emotionally to be real art?
I think any proclamations about what is art tend to be very dangerous, but I would say this. The movies I remember all my life are the movies that moved me. The movies that affect me, that make me cry, that tear me up inside. The movies I remember all my life are the movies that somehow burn in my heart, as opposed to only on my retina. For me, the goal is universal: no matter what genre, what I’m doing, what scale, I believe that it’s a solemn duty for me to grab you and move you. It could be frightening you, it could be making you upset, it could be making a moment that’s erotic, or feels dangerous, but I somehow want to play the emotional pedals of your organ. I mean the church organ, not any other kind. (I laugh.) For me, that is the spectacle. If you ask me what the most spectacular scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was, I’d have to say it was the air traffic controller scene. The reality is there’s many kinds of movie magic. To me, the definition of movie magic would be if an audience member is looking at a moment in the movie and say to themselves: how did they do that, how did they capture that. In these days of computer-assisted visual effects I don’t think people even ask themselves that anymore, it’s almost become de rigueur that they used computers and generated it. But when an emotional moment happens in a movie, you ask how they did it and it’s still a mystery, there is no computer that could do that. To me, that is still the core, critical Lego unit of filmmaking, the ability on an emotional level to get involved, to identify with the characters, to empathize with them and feel the pain they feel. That is the dominating special effect that beats and trumps all others. And it also makes your visual effects look better because your heart is also in it, not just your eyes. Whichever kind of a movie I’m working on, it’s real simple for me, and Logan is a fine example because some of the moments I’m most proud of from the movie are reductive emotional two-person scenes between Charles and Logan, or Laura and Logan, scenes that are more fitting for, as you said, a family drama. In many ways I think that was our spectacle, because people are tired of what spectacle has come to mean in the conventional sense, which is million dollars a minute, lots of light, fury and sound thrown at you. The idea of having a film that is accessible but also emotional is kind of ideal to me. The favorite movies of my life have been that.
Speaking of emotional impact, the scene from Logan that made me cry wasn’t any of the death scenes or the ending, but since I’m a person who grew up surrounded by grandparents, the scene where Charles manages to use his powers to calm down the horses. It might seem trivial, but for me, it was like watching a grandpa with Parkinson’s succeed at fixing a light bulb, you know?
Absolutely. It’s the simple things. But that’s the sign that we’ve done our homework. Meaning, the reason that scene had power for you is that you bought all that had come before in Patrick’s performance. That he’s been impaired, that he has doubts about his own abilities, that he doubts his own value. And when he can suddenly do something, it’s very moving. I find it moving, too. It’s simplicity—it’s not large scale magic. Maybe it’s not even magic, who knows. Maybe he was just wishing it to be so, and the horses came back. The fact is, whatever it was, you sensed that beautiful little modest feather of pride that he feels helping these lovely people out.
That he can be useful again, not just a burden. It’s a very powerful feeling.
Of course. Particularly for a character whose whole life has been one of being paternal, a leader and a kind of a protective figure for a lot of unruly characters. His wayward mind has suddenly relegated him to being a problem character. It must be so painful for him.
I suppose you came up with this particular scene?
It was Scott Frank and I, we wrote together. But the initial idea that Charles has dementia or Alzheimer’s was an early story projection and very much a kind of a building block of the whole story, the idea that we were taking from these characters their strengths, and replacing them with not just weaknesses, but actual liability and frailty. The idea that someone as paternal, gentle and reasoned as Charles could actually become a danger to people he cares about. What could be more painful? And because it is so painful, it becomes really interesting.
Was the decision to portray violence in Logan in a realistic, devastating way rooted in a desire to please fans of the X-Men franchise frustrated by the constant mellowing down for the sake of ratings, or did you feel it a kind of a responsibility to the viewers who might idolize it?
Well, a lot of it is the function of a rating system. One of the conditions for me making the movie was that it would be rated R. And we made it for less money for that reason. There were multiple reasons. One is that I did feel as though fans have never gotten to see the kind of a knife fight that the presence of Logan’s abilities and blades always promised. In many ways the American rating system is very skewed against knives. It resembles the pornography rating system in the sense that, you know, in pornography penetration makes something rated X, and in violence a knife going into a body makes it rated R. Whereas bullet, because they are invisible to the human eye, are a more PG weapon if you will, because you don’t have to see the bullet go in. But this is a very strange logic to me. Beyond that, it makes it very hard to stage interesting knife fights if you can never see a blade penetrate. It means every time anything gets slashed or stabbed you have to be looking from behind or looking away. But rating also played a much deeper role for me, and more important frankly. Although I agree with you, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made and one I would support, that PG13 violence is in many ways more disturbing than R, in the sense that you don’t feel the ramifications, you don’t feel flesh getting torn, you don’t feel lives getting ended, you just see people falling over like ants. In many ways we are in danger of fetishizing murder. By cleaning it up we make it less disturbing, which is in many ways more disturbing because it makes death look clean and tidy, palatable and unmessy. And anyone who’s been around death or violence of any kind knows it’s quite the opposite. That’s important to me, but the rating system also had other advantages. The primary one is that when a movie knows it’s going to be rated R in advance, not later when it’s hard to get through the ratings board but from the very beginning, the entire marketing establishment of a movie studio is blocked from trying to publicize, pre-market and set up marketing deals and cross-promotions to support the movie with children. So the movie becomes a film that’s completely, 100 percent for older teens and grown-ups. The moment that happens, the ideas in the film can be more interesting. One of the first things I wrote was the scene with Charles and Logan in that big inverted water tank, I think it’s nearly eight minutes long. If I was making a movie that had to play for seven-year-olds, there’s no way that I could have a scene that’s eight minutes long between two men talking about their grudges and pains and past together. That scene, which I’m quite fond of, while it isn’t racy in language or violent, is still the result of the rating, because the movie was then allowed to play as an adult film.
You’ve been a fan of comic books ever since your preteen years. What do quality comic books have that resonates so much with you?
They bring you in through your eyes. The trick of movie writing is that you’re writing a recipe. You’re saying, take the shells off the brussels sprouts, cut them in half, make a notch at the root, brown in oil for four minutes with garlic… this is what you’re doing, but you don’t taste it. What is so beautiful about the comic book is that you taste it, you feel the promise of what could be. With your eyes, as opposed to intellectually. I love collecting comics, but my love for making movies didn’t come from them. I grew up during one of the most profoundly astounding periods of motion picture history in terms of just the amount of great films coming out every year. I go back now and look at the movies I saw any given year in the seventies, and my mind is blown. Many of those movies came out the very same year. I try to imagine a year that rich now and I couldn’t possibly.
Logan was, in part, influenced by the stories of Paper Moon, Shane, Unforgiven, even a little bit of Little Miss Sunshine.
And The Gauntlet, don’t forget The Gauntlet.
And The Gauntlet, yes. But what I found interesting is the fact that you give older films not only sentimental value, but a highly practical one as well. When encountered with a problem or a difficult decision on set, for instance, how to achieve a certain emotional resonance or what’s the best way to shoot a particular scene, you turn back to older films to analyze some of their solutions. How important is for filmmakers to be film scholars as well?
I think it’s very useful to watch movies where you don’t have any emotional issues with the people who made them. What I mean by that is that most contemporary filmmakers, we’re all in competition with one another, so our egos are in the way in our perception of our peers’ films. We are all kind of playing in the same sandbox of the moment, and if we are being honest with ourselves, it’s hard sometimes to see past our own competitive nature and see the value of their work. What I love about looking at old work, not only is it brilliant, and many times far more brilliant than anything going on today, is that we have the distance to look at it and remove all the cult of personality, and the press, and the publicity around the movie. We’re looking at what’s lasted, we’re looking at something that’s worked for decades. When I watch contemporary movies and try to learn from them in the context of my contemporary work, I feel more like I’m stealing. I have my own sense of what I want to do in the now, but there’s also such gold in old films, unmined gold, that can be learned from. I don’t really watch old films, or any films, and think about how to stage my movies. I think that very often that’s a huge error. You should be shooting your own movie your own way. I try to do all of that absorbing of older films before I ever start shooting, and then I don’t watch any other movies other than my own dailies, and focus on the movie I’m making. When I made 3:10 to Yuma, I had this observation that the reason why a lot of talented directors have failed to make decent westerns might be that they lose their own voice when they enter the genre of western. When they’re making a contemporary cop movie, drama or romantic comedy, they seem to be in their own voice, but suddenly they end up in Monument Valley or in the desert and they stop shooting the film the way they would and start shooting it the way John Ford would. To me, that seems unwise. John Ford didn’t shoot his movies the way someone else did. He just landed and shot them the way he saw them. To use Yuma’s example, for me, I just sit down and try and make a kind of a movie I’d make, whether it was a family drama, a cop movie or a superhero movie. I don’t shoot them differently, I bring the same set of aesthetics to each script. I don’t try to kind of retool old films. But you’ll see touches of western and noir in almost everything I do.
I didn’t mean to imply that you prepare for your next shooting by watching the work of other filmmakers. What I meant was, in a complex situation on set, as a well-versed filmmaker you remember the solutions from the movies that shaped you.
I think that’s true. Like a composer with no music history. I think it’s really important that you internalize so much as second nature, everything from Hitchcock to Kurosawa, it cannot hurt. Having kind of breathed in all that work, digested it and letting it sit back there in the back of your mind… Because it does offer a salvation. There are so many ways to attack a scene and to revise your attack on a scene, and life throws you on a loop. I also have the simple things I do. I try to know what my first shot is and my last shot is of every scene. I may not know every shot in the order that they’re going to go, just how am I coming in, what is my transition… Because, in many ways the most actively abstract cut in narrative film is the transitional cut. The rest of the cuts inside a scene are governed by continuity, lighting continuity, movement continuity, behavioral continuity, emotional continuity, eyelines, graphic continuity—similar lenses, if the camera’s low, there has to be consciousness of how the graphics of the sequence are going to cut together. But at minimum I try to know what is my opening statement, what is my closing shot of a scene. I try to know that for my whole script. So when I’m getting the material I need to end a scene, I’m not only thinking about that, but also what is the cut from the final shot of scene 27 into the first shot of scene 28. What is that change and how does that change look. Every time I’m changing location or jumping through time. Because that is, again, the most abstract cut. We go through life, our eyes move rapidly and our brains erase the swish pan of our eyes, so we see in cuts. We’re sitting at a dinner table and we’re looking at the person to our right, then we’re looking at the person on our left, we see the dialogue that we’re listening to in cuts, in medium-shot cuts of the people on our left and right, we go back and forth between them and edit our own movie. And the eyelines are good, because the person on our right is looking camera left, the person on our left is looking camera right, so it all works and cuts in our mind. Movies operate the same way, but we never sit at a dinner table, blink our eyes and wake up in bed. That does not happen in life. So the most creative cut in narrative cinema for me remains to be the one where we can leap from New York to Johannesburg, from 1992 to 2050, from 12 AD to 3075. The sky’s the limit and the way that cut transports us, the creativity of that cut, how sound and image travel that distance, is a completely dazzling landscape to me in movies. And if someone were paying attention to my movies, they’d see this tremendous amount of care, not to making them showy or gimmicky, but to the styles to which those changes occur, graphically and in terms of cut patterns.
Let’s move on to the future. What attracted you to Don Winslow’s novel The Force?
I was really excited about the idea of going back to the world of New York City cops and law-enforcement, and I think this is a moment, certainly in the United States but also very much around the world, for issues of law and order, safety and the limits of protection that we accept, the police work and the intrusion in our lives… These are very interesting issues. There are certain jobs, you know, where I think they’ve got an impossible task. Cops, firemen, teachers, ambulance drivers, medics, nurses… These are people who are paid like shit and they are on the front lines of life and death in our world all the time. They have to make judgment calls about right and wrong, the use of force, saving someone’s life, intervening or laying back… decisions that affect their lives and ours on a daily basis. They are paid like shit, trained like shit and the rules are extremely obtuse. The rules are built by politicians who never have to work on the streets or live on the streets in terms of making these systems work. So I have tremendous sympathy for these people and their jobs, and I find them really dramatically interesting because I see them as our front lines, the front lines of civilization. The opportunity to make another movie about that world was huge, and when I reached out to David with Don’s book, the fact that he responded quadrupled my excitement because, as you know from Cop Land, Mamet is a hero of mine.
I’m glad you mentioned teachers among the professions that have an influence on life and death, even though they probably don’t have an immediate influence, but in the long run.
Oh, but I do think they have a direct influence. Well, maybe not in the obvious sense of carrying a weapon, or a bag of medicine to save us when we’re ill, but they are shaping lives, influencing our lives on a daily basis. Underpaid, underrespected, underappreciated. It’s a very interesting subculture, all of these jobs.
What phase is the project currently in?
The Force? We’re working on the script. David’s been writing. I don’t think that movie’s happening in the next few months, but it’s certainly a very important movie to me. David’s been working on the script, I’ve got one and we’re continuing to refine it.
I know I’m bombarding you with your own quotes, but I can’t seem to stop. As you stated, every film you make is a part of your education as a filmmaker, and what you learn during one project, you bring in with you to the next one. What lessons has Logan taught you that you might pour into The Force?
I will just say that Logan gave me courage again and informed me that the audiences are hungry for drama. That the business has gotten so nervous about making dramatic films, that we’ve almost gotten to the point where we’re just making this kind of epic effects-laden orgies, and that we’re almost nervous whether audiences can hang their hat any longer on human drama to hold them in place. For many reasons Logan was extremely inspiring to me as a process, but certainly the success of Logan with audiences… You’re talking about a movie in which the two heroes die, the lead child along with others is left orphaned, alone in the woods, and the world hasn’t really been saved from much of anything. And the movie goes to black. Watching an elderly and psychologically damaged hero and his father figure stumble to their deaths made almost 650 million dollars in box office. To me, the greatest lesson was to continue, to continue trying to have confidence that audiences can fall in love with a lot more than they’re given credit for. The love of characters, love of unique characters, even unsympathetic characters. I think there’s far too often too many discussions on what’s called likeability. Logan spends most of the movie trying to abandon his own daughter. And we love him. We love him, and we understand, because care was taken by the filmmakers and the actor playing Logan to make sure we knew that he’s terrified of her, that he’s terrified of love. The one thing that’s the whole point of Logan in a way was to make a movie on what’s Logan most frightened of, which was love in its most pure form, and the love of a child, and the love of a father. The engine of Logan is very much built on something that, on paper, would look deeply unsympathetic, but I think we can all recognize as a kind of an extension of our own phobias about failing the people we care about. To me, that’s the lesson. Logan was very much a movie made like Yuma or Walk the Line. The most attention I spent personally was trying not to fall into the gravitational pull or the tractor beam of conventional tentpole movie solutions. I don’t think it takes bravery or any particular intelligence, it takes stubbornness. There’s a great deal of dazzle and attractiveness to those solutions, to those tropes of the form. Trying to avoid them is almost like trying to avoid eating fatty foods. You have to really work at it, really work at it, because the temptation is always there when you have characters with these kind of powers to suddenly run in a different direction.
For the final question, I’d like to go back to the beginnings in a way. When you look back at when you started, in what ways are you a different, better filmmaker today?
I mean, I’d like to think I’m better, but what I do know is that I think I’m more confident about running a crew, an editorial crew, a production unit, my troop of actors. I think I take more joy in the process than I did at the beginning. I think the toughest thing when you start directing is finding your own managerial style and the realization that your own personality becomes the personality of the film. Just like our president’s personality becomes the personality of the nation. In a very unfortunate sense for my country right now. The reality for me is that I think I’ve gotten better at being my best self while making a movie. Early on, as we discussed earlier, the desire to make something great can make you tight. And the second you have some success, and you realize that some of the best scene work you’ve done was done on a day when you were relaxed, and you may not have been feeling like a genius but you were just doing what came naturally, you suddenly stop pressing so hard. Sometimes, even when you’re boxing, the strongest swing is not the one when you’re trying to swing the hardest, it’s the one where you just relax into it. Somewhere along the way I realized I made movies that I was ok with, that I felt proud of, and when I got there I think I relaxed a little. The difference, I think, between me making a movie in 2017 and me making a movie in 1995 is in the fact that I was a lot more stressed out then than I am now. I don’t think it’s useful. The kind of play that you want from your actors and your co-writers, and the kind of exploration you want from your production designer… you don’t want anyone frightened, you want people inspired to try things and even look stupid because of those miracles that happen once in a while when someone is taking a chance.
An interview conducted by Sven Mikulec. Photo credit: Ben Rothstein (Logan © Marvel Entertainment, 20th Century Fox); Suzanne Tenner (Walk the Line © Fox 2000 Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox); Sam Emerson (Cop Land © Miramax); Richard Foreman Jr., Melissa Moseley (3:10 to Yuma © Lionsgate, Relativity Media); Ben Rothstein (Wolverine © Twentieth Century Fox, Marvel Entertainment); Suzanne Tenner (Girl, Interrupted © Columbia Pictures). All images are copyrighted to their respectful owners. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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