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The Wolverine - James Mangold interview 1

The Wolverine, James Mangold

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Mangold talks about some of the challenges of directing The Wolverine, including getting the tone right in terms of respect for the opening scene involving Nagasaki, and going darker with the character and giving Logan more screen-time.

He also talks about filming on the run in Tokyo, how the movie changed from the Darren Aronofsky version and what he thinks about the future state of cinema in light of the recent comments made by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

Q. You start this film with perhaps the most significant event in Japan’s entire history. Did you have to strike a balance?
James Mangold: Well, I think the way you respect something like that is you take it seriously. I also think that distance helps you do something like that. For instance, I didn’t tackle the tsunami. I didn’t try to integrate that because I felt that, in a way, it’s too close in a film of this type to be trying to fold that in. I do think there’ll be some sensitivity in Japan about it. But I think that the reality is that we are respectful. I was checking in a lot of with our Japanese cast and trying to feel them out about how they felt about it. And I think one of the things they felt is that… the young people of Japan are no longer the generation who have lived [through that event], or even necessarily their parents went through it. It’s becoming more of a distant tale, so in many ways for a lot of the Japanese that I spoke with, who are involved in the movie, they felt that if anything it’s kind of a reminder. What I felt working on it was that it is kind of amazing that this nation, a very important nation but small in size, has endured three out of four of the great nuclear catastrophes of the modern age and has somehow bounced back and continues to be a vibrant cultural and industrial force. That was something that even after I had developed the script with the writers and was shooting it and living there, hit me more palpably. I mean, we were shooting in the area that this happened and the sense that life goes on was real and one that I thought had real relevance even for a character like Logan, who at the beginning of this film is a little lost in his own sorrows and not getting on with it.

Q. You mentioned running around the streets of Tokyo capturing footage without people necessarily knowing. Given that you now work within the studio system did doing that bring back memories of your indie days and did it feel like it was getting back to the essence of filmmaking?
James Mangold: Yeah. On the day we were doing that I was thinking: “This is madness!” Because you also had so long before a cop discovered you. We honestly were stealing it. So, literally the production advisers would say: “Well, you’ve probably only got five or six minutes before someone catches wind off what you’re up to and we’ll have to hop back in the van again!” But I did feel like I’d come full circle. I didn’t come up in the studio system. I came up making independent films and doing things very much this way. I just didn’t anticipate it on The Wolverine when I signed on but nonetheless it was a way. I really was determined to get Japan on the film, especially in the Tokyo parts, and it’s very hard to co-ordinate. There is no Film Commission of Japan that you can kind of talk to that can help you deal with police and traffic control and local businesses. It’s all up to the production. So, it’s a unique challenge.

Q. I think you did a really good job of bringing Wolverine to a level that’s on a par with Batman in terms of showing vulnerability and depth of story. How did you come to that decision about doing that?
James Mangold: Well, when people do the same story or same characters with different directors, it is kind of a bake-off isn’t it? I mean, there is no way around it. Certainly, it’s directorially revealing. I was aware when we made 3:10 To Yuma that we were looking at the same story through the eyes of a different director with a different cast. Here, you were looking at a slightly different story with the same character and the same actor through the eyes of a different director. You can do a hell of a lot to change tone without dumping everything. Having made another wildly different toned film with Hugh Jackman [Kate & Leopold], he’s an incredibly versatile and capable actor and he had his own agenda very much matching my own. He had a kind of hunger to go darker with the character and felt that he hadn’t had the chance. I mean, essentially every other Wolverine and X-Men movie has been a kind of ensemble movie where really, if you think about it, Wolverine gets about 12 minutes out of the picture to himself because between the set pieces of action that may or may not involve him and the fact that he’s sharing the film with seven other Mutants, each of whom have their own stories, there’s never that ability to do a scene, let alone every scene in the picture.

Q. Is it true there’s an even darker, R-rated version knocking around?
James Mangold: There is an R-rated version, or an unrated version that will come out eventually. But I will say that it wasn’t like we lost a hell of a lot. It surprised me. In many ways, it was due to the fact that the American ratings board has a very generous idea of the violence you can commit to Mutants. In a way, they’re anti-Mutant! You can do heinous things to Mutants and it’s OK, as long as it’s not people, particularly since Logan can eventually recover, somehow you can [do more]. I even think they have a special caution like: “It’s PG-13 but extreme sci-fi violence or fantasy violence.” It was their way of actually allowing us. So, I think there was a little more blood in the [unrated] film but not a lot more. You’ll see in the unrated version. There was also an action sequence that I cut for other reasons. I just felt we were wearing people down but that sequence did also feature some violence that I think we could never have gotten under PG-13. But I dodged the bullet of even having to confront the ratings on it because honestly I just felt that the sequence was wearing its welcome for the theatrical release.

The Wolverine

Q. How much did this change from the version of The Wolverine that was being set up my Christopher McQuarrie for Darren Aronofsky to direct? Did you have to rebuild from the ground up?
James Mangold: It wasn’t the ground up. Chris McQuarrie had written a draft and Darren had come on briefly and worked on a kind of polish of that draft, but they hadn’t changed it much. Darren then dropped off. I think Darren’s involvement had been a couple of months. They hadn’t done a budget or anything else. They had never scouted. I came on, read Chris’s script and felt there were several challenges that I wanted to try and integrate into the material. One was that I felt there was a real liability that we had in relation to Logan’s ability to heal from anything and making a picture entirely about him clawing his way through the world when anything that happens to him he just heals. So, there was no storyline about him losing his ability to heal. I kind of put Viper into the picture earlier and tried to engineer a way that the movie would not only be about healing but also be more about his own immortality and the result of it.

So, none of that was there; Nagasaki wasn’t there. Essentially, Chris had written a very, very accurate adaptation of Claremont-Miller. But I felt there was an absence of this central theme as this larger saga got boiled in two hours. For me, the theme that would be so interesting and the decision I made right from the top… I read the script assuming – which was not what they were planning – that it was occurring after all the known X-Men films. So, when I read it through that prism I got quite excited by the idea that we find him at The Yukon at the top. We’re finding a man, not unlike [Clint] Eastwood in Josey Wales, who has lost everything. What is it to be a hero when you are tired of living and can’t even kill yourself? The one power you don’t have is the ability to end your own life… and in some way that immortal question, the question about immortality and the curse of it, became interesting.

Q. Asking a slightly broader question, how do you feel about the current state of mainstream cinema, particularly in light of what Spielberg and Lucas recently said about the implosion of cinema and more risks being taken on TV? Would you be able to make a film like Walk The Line or Copland now?
James Mangold: For cable… I agree with the general observation that what was the ‘90s independent film scene is now a cable television scene. Obviously, there’s still Sundance and there’s still independent cinema. Although I thought their speech was really interesting, I tend to find the elder statesmen saying ‘the sky is falling’ is both always true and also somehow the sky is still there 10 years later. I do think the business is changing. I do think, like the ‘50s when people were making Hercules movies one after the other, that there will be some kind of contraction. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I also think that we’ve all learned in the media and in filmmaking these words that we use that fracture and bifurcate what we perceive as different media like ‘television versus film’. It doesn’t really exist. I mean, it’s like some theatres suck and are out of focus and the sound is terrible… many home screens are now even 4K or at least HD with five channel sound.

Television used to be The Jackie Gleason Show with static and rabbit ears on top of the TV and movies were kid of this crystalline presentation. It’s just not the same. Movies can also be someone texting or talking to their boyfriend next to you, or I’ve watched a film with guys eating burritos and the smell wafting all over me. Nothing is sacred and nothing is quite what it was.

I think the filmmakers are kind of already there. When Steven Soderbergh made Behind The Candelabra, that’s a $40 million HBO production that could easily have been a more independent film production with stars. It’s handsomely mounted, it’s handsomely presented and I’m not sure how many millions of people saw it on its opening weekend [on TV] but far more than would have seen it if they were fighting their way through America’s screens. So, it’s a really interesting topic but one that really just requires the creative folks to stop being snobbish and open their head about television. If anything, [considering] the way we use the words, then features are the new television, generally kind of aiming low and dopey, and television is the new features, which is kind of aim for the sky, more open-ended stories, asking darker questions, deeper questions. There’s less of a ratings system in place, in pay cable certainly, so the sense of adventure in terms of sexuality and thematic questions and violence… all of it is going on outside of the world of what is already a more contracted period in motion pictures.

The Wolverine

Q. What was your favourite scene in terms of size and difficulty to shoot?
James Mangold: First of all, the opening sequence, the bombing of Nagasaki, is a favourite of mine in the sense that I very much like the statement the movie makes from the get-go about tone. It takes itself seriously. Also, captured within that one scene, are the two styles of the film – kind of the quiet and the intense. It kind of opens almost with no music, you’re just there with the sound of planes, a little bit of hubbub, someone watching, and then all hell breaks loose at a certain point. The film follows very much… if you’re looking at it like some piece of musical composition, it follows that same kind of structure, kind of pulling back the reins and then letting it go very hard. But I also really enjoy watching and feeling for the audience after what is a fairly deliberate and meticulous set-up of all these characters and the world in Japan. The movie almost has two beginnings: one kind of finding Logan in the Yukon and bringing him to Japan… there’s so many people to meet and kind of intrigue in the world he lands in. So, after old man Yashida dies, the funeral sequence, once the violence kicks in, it’s really gratifying and the result of a lot of work to watch the film again unleash… if you thought we forgot that we have to deliver this… it’s really fun to unleash it and really remind an audience of the opening sequence. And foe the next 20 minutes of the film it’s almost a non-stop assault on that side.

These are odd things you think about as a filmmaker on that side, trying to kind of change up the rhythms, the architectural rhythms of these movies as well as the obvious story ones. But that sequence is one that I also have a lot of pride in because it’s this unique thing where you’re trying… obviously, to make anything that involves thousands of extras and special effects rigs and claws and CG, there’s planning required. But you also want to make it look as though it’s happening now and so it’s planning but also… one of the things that can happen when you start planning a sequence on paper or on pre-viz is that it’s a temptation for the director to get quite fruity with the camera – you start flying through keyholes. If you’re building a dream on paper, you start doing stuff you’d never do. I wanted to somehow do the action in the film as if it had been shot in kind of a ‘70s style action film or a kind of Outlaw Josey Wales, or The French Connection.

I wanted in some way to feel a kind of simplicity and urgency to the action as opposed to just… even though we’re using CG and claws. One thing I repeat very often when we’re planning a sequence is I’d be saying to our story-boarders: “Why are you drawing it here? The camera couldn’t be here! How would you put a camera here on a train that’s going at 300mph?” It’s like: “Imagine, we have only the shots we can do from a parallel track, riding on another train, just as you do in a car sequence from another car, or a strap down on the surface of the train itself with them and enduring the same hardships of wind and how hard it is to operate the camera.” So, you’ve got to put these tests upon yourself and the change in the process does affect the product. But it’s great fun after all that set-up to watch the film kick in. So, if you wondered whether we could do this, then yes we can.

“Read our review of The Wolverine or our second interview with James Mangold

View photos from The Wolverine