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Knight & Day - James Mangold interview

James Mangold directs Knight & Day

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Mangold talks about some of the challenges of making action-adventure Knight & Day, and Tom Cruise’s devotion to performing his own stunts.

He also considers the unfair box office expectation surrounding a Tom Cruise movie and reflects on why Hollywood is in a crisis at the moment…

Q. How did you find shooting the film, because this is different from so many of your films given the amount of effects and stunts involved this time?
James Mangold: Well, there was definitely a lot of planning in advance. We did that on 3.10 To Yuma for a number of sequences but there was a large amount of action in this picture that required a lot of planning. In that sense, it was different and it was a learning curve for me. I think I also wanted to do it differently. I really didn’t want the action scenes to be completely storyboarded. I wanted to feel character in the action sequences, not just impact or intensity. I think that part of the way movies get made now is that there’s this kind of pro forma recipe for how to make things intense… there’s a lot of great professionals who know how to lock in and suddenly it’s just like everything’s flying at you.

But somehow to keep it actually lighter and to try and make something that feels a little loose-limbed. It almost seemed at cross purposes sometimes because you’re trying to actually make it look a little less choreographed and a little more like it’s just kind of controlled chaos. I think the difference is in whether it’s fun or not, as opposed to just kind of intense.

Q. Is Tom Cruise one of the most fearless actors you’ve ever worked with in terms of how many of his own stunts he’s prepared to do? And were there any ‘oh my God’ moments?
James Mangold: Well, there’s moments where you go ‘oh my God’ early on and then you get used to having him in your movie. And then you kind of stop because he just seems so comfortable hanging off buildings on strings that you just seem to take it for granted. I fear more for the next person I make a movie with [laughs], when I’ll be like: “Oh, just hang over that building, we’ll tie a cable to you… whoa, wait!” So, I guess by the end of doing this movie I’d begun to take it pretty much for granted. He makes it look very easy.

I think people probably get this about Tom, but it doesn’t hurt to say it… he prepares. If he’s doing a stunt, he’s on set three or four hours in advance, just stretching, walking, checking out the locale, the footing… it’s not like he’s this kind of hot dog who arrives and acts like nothing’s going to touch him. He’s actually incredibly professional… like a pilot or somebody coming in and checking their controls and performing cross checks, and putting on a vest and trying it and seeing where it pinches. It’s incredible how much effort he makes. And also measuring what he feels good about.

The actual most hair-raising thing he did, might not be the most hair-raising looking thing in the movie but it’s the running on the rooftops in Salzberg. There was nothing! It’s icy, it’s 3am, he’s five stories in the air on a pitched roof running at full speed. One false step and he’s gone. But he felt clearly great about it, but that night I was really glad when we got the running done with.

Q. Working with Tom Cruise, he’s obviously known as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible. So, was this role always intended for Cruise, to play away from that image?
James Mangold: No, when this movie was first developed it was kind of a completely zany comedy with Chris Tucker and Eva Mendes. That was five or six years ago. I don’t think Tom’s character in this is anything like Ethan Hunt. I find Tom’s character in this… I mean it’s still Tom playing a spy, but the reality is that I find this guy much more… Ethan Hunt is kind of the ‘can do’ guy, a super-spy. Tom’s character in this movie is kind of emotionally more baffled. He’s not up to a relationship, not quite ready, wistful, kind of wishing he had taken a different choice for a career – whether it be a fireman or he could travel the world… there’s something about him in this, which is my favourite part of him in this that seems like there’s a kind of dissatisfaction with his career choice. Somehow, meeting this girl and being on the run with her… that’s what I really enjoy about the character. The last thing I really wanted to make was another Ethan Hunt style movie.

Q. Do you think the box office expectation surrounding a Tom Cruise movie is unfair, especially in the US?
James Mangold: I do. I think it’s not just on Tom Cruise movies. I think the whole horse race media game is really complicated and I mean it affects our political world as much as it does our music world or our movie world. But it’s equally irrational in all places. I think if you actually looked at numbers and not personalities you could find movies and stars where there’s different kinds of expectations met and not met every year, but no one writes a bit of copy about it whatsoever.

So, now in relation to Tom there’s this kind of heat and lightning that makes everything a story even when it’s a non-story in my opinion. For instance, I’ll use an example. The Adam Sandler movie that’s done a little better than us in the States [Grown-Ups] will do nothing compared to the business we’re going to do around the world. But all that will be reported will be the one third difference between our gross in the States and their gross in the States – not the double the world-wide gross that this movie will do compared to that one. I think that’s where it is unfair. It’s just who people pick on is sometimes not fair, particularly in the case of these actors that I’ve had the chance to work with because they work so hard.

I mean, it would be one thing if I saw people coasting. But I find it so amazing how hard they work and actually I get much more distracted by the press than they do. I’d be like: “F**k it!” Tom was working the crowd and signing autographs for fans until God knows when last night [at the UK premiere], until he hopped on a plane, and I don’t think he ever quits. I think that’s a really admirable part of him.

James Mangold directs Knight & Day

Q. I think Knight & Day is one of the few films this summer – along with Inception – that’s not a sequel, part of a franchise or done in 3D. What do you think of the way Hollywood is going at the moment?
James Mangold: Well, Hollywood is, in a sense, in crisis. It’s a familiar crisis in that it’s happened cyclically before. I think there was a time, certainly in the ‘50s and certainly in the ‘70s, each time yielding very good movies actually, where Hollywood was losing audience to other methods – in most cases it’s television or Internet or something like that.

In each case, they keep trying to create more spectacle in the movies they’re making so that you have ‘a reason to leave the house’. But there’s a whole bunch of things going on: the addiction to sequels is not new. I think that’s as much audiences fault as it is the studios. The fact is that audiences like going to known quantities. So, there’s this safety a studio feels in making pre-branded entertainment because they feel like there’s a built-in audiences and when you’re risking a $100 million you are really relieved to know that.

So, whether it’s comic books, or best-selling novels, or sequels to movies that have existed, anything that gives them a little bit more leverage to get you in is a huge advantage. And that’s a big factor in movies today. I think 3D is a whole other topic. I think it’s a very cool thing, at times, and it has existed for years. But it’s also a way to charge twice as much for a ticket.

Q. Would you make a film in 3D?
James Mangold: I wouldn’t rule anything out. But I would say that a lot of what you’re talking about is… if you make a blockbuster film and you justify charging twice as much for a ticket that’s a lot more money in the coffers of a film. So, for a rather small investment in extra equipment or time, they actually get to add a pretty healthy chunk to the gross because people are going to show up. I think that’s kind of wrong. I think, in reality, there’s some movies that are really suited to it, and some that aren’t. But I’m never sure…

I’d be really interested in making a kind of dramatic, low-key 3D film. The reality is that the most perverse and interesting thing to do would be something completely unexpected. One of my favourite movies, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, is shot in super widescreen and it’s beautiful. But by any rational, normal logic, why would this be in the same format as Lawrence of Arabia? But it looks fantastic, that’s why. And so, there’s times also that technology like that can be applied slightly eccentrically to make things very interesting.

Q. There’s a lot of emphasis in Knight & Day put on the term ‘some day’ being a code for ‘never’, and yet particularly in the case of Cameron Diaz’s character ‘never’ becomes a reality. So, in terms of your career, what’s your ‘some day’ or ‘never’ that has become a reality?
James Mangold: [Smiles] Well, I really am very lucky. I’ve gotten to make an incredibly wide range of movies and worked with an incredible array of people. I still dream of making a science fiction film and I still dream of making a serious action adventure picture. There’s certain stories, dramatic stories… this is a very hard time right now to get human scale movies made. But they’re all attainable… they’re not some days. It’s a good question, a good question. I’d love to be able to travel the world and not just be spending three days in places, but three weeks. That’s the one thing that filming shoots do give me, but it would be nice to do it when you’re not shooting – to actually go somewhere like Asia or Africa and spend three or four months. It’s a pretty common wish, I guess, but also not have to work [laughs]!

Q. Talking of dream projects… what’s next for you? What’s the status on Cyclops?
James Mangold: We’re in development at Warner Bros on Cyclops but it’s not about to go. It’s a large science fiction script that we’ve been working on.

Knight & Day

Q. How did Cameron Diaz’s character develop?
James Mangold: We played with a lot of different identities for her because we wanted the idea she could grow into more and more capability as the movie went along. But I did have fun… I’m sure it was exhausting for Cameron. But part of the fun of these kind of films with big action sequences is the fact that there’s a character in the middle of them that’s fighting what’s happening. That’s the staple of this kind of genre and of this kind of film. In the standard action adventure you cut to the determined face of the hero as he navigates his way through this labyrinth… but in this kind of film you cut to the panicked face of your hero as they beg for mercy as they go through the labyrinth. I don’t think there would have been any place for her character to go if she was comfy.

But without trying to make the film seem old-fashioned, we were really conscious of trying to do a throwback, and I think some people do get it. I think there are funny movies and there are action pictures now, and so you have these kind of big, huge CG action movies that deliver their thrills and spin-off action games, and then there’s silly pictures. But I think we’re trying to do a throwback in the sense that sometimes you can do a funny movie with real actors, as opposed to Saturday Night Live comedians.

So, there might be some thrills and action in it, but there also might be some character. I mean, North By Northwest would be a touchstone, or an example, as would Charade. The Peter Falk-Alan Arkin movie, The In-Laws, was a big inspiration for Tom Cruise and I in terms of his character. But these are kind of wackier movies, but also movies that hark back to a day when there was a little bit more style and a little less logic, to be honest with you.

Q. Does that annoy you then? People nit-picking…
James Mangold: If there’s anything that gets me, it’s that I’m so weary of people catching things and writing in. Guess what? There was a whole fucking crew there and there was no fourth wall on the set, and the reason that even though they’re in a cornfield at night and they look so beautiful is because we have fucking lights! The whole reality denies something… I don’t think movies are supposed to be first a representation of reality. They’re supposed to first be art. This kind of adherence to suddenly: “Why would they have a gun in there….?” I’m like [yawns]… It just bores the shit out of me. I’m like: “Oh, you want me to add 10 minutes so that one geek on the Internet can have an explanation for the thing he thinks of?”

I watch North By Northwest and love it. But if those guys were alive when that was made, they’d go: “And why is he trying to get killed with an airplane? Who would try and kill a man with an airplane? Are they spraying him with pesticide so he dies in five years from cancer? What is the point?” You could go on and on and on. The truth is, there’s a beautiful energy, and a beautiful movie loving energy, that comes out of the Internet, but there’s also a kind of level where when you make a movie those are the least important things. Is it entertaining? Do you find these characters engaging? Does it look good? Does it capture your imagination? But the litigious nature of making a movie – almost like ‘did you fill out your W4 and your tax form’? – there’s a level where making a movie be fully explainable and realistic every second is actually a choice.

You can do that, or you cannot do that, and I’m a big proponent a lot of the time of not worrying about it, because I think that there is a lot of good things and exciting, creative things that can happen in a movie if you’re first priority isn’t always that chap in his pyjamas at 3am at his terminal trying to find mistakes

Read our review of Knight & Day