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The Wolverine - James Mangold interview 2

The Wolverine

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Mangold talks about some of the creative decisions behind The Wolverine, including the primary reason for wanting to do a stand-alone movie from the X-Men world and why it was set in Japan.

He also discusses his own views on blockbuster filmmaking as opposed to some of the more conventional styles and talks of his delight at being able to work with a Japanese cast.

Q. What was it about this particular story that both you and Hugh Jackman wanted to bring to the screen to reinvigorate The Wolverine?
James Mangold: Well, if you take it as a given that we wanted to delve further into his character. The previous picture, although it was called Wolverine, it was also called X-Men: Origins, and it ended up being, in a way, an X-Men film. It didn’t really give much time to this character and I think what we were really out to do was find a way to get inside Logan. Chris Claremont and Frank Miller had written this saga a couple of decades ago about this Japanese adventure. It was initially unclear to me, when we were trying to adapt it, where it would fit into the timeline of the existing movies, but it occurred to me that we could move this and have it take after those existing X-Men movies. The comic book saga opens with Logan in The Yukan in some kind of alienated state in the woods there and it kind of seemed to me to be very logical to make a film about him having lost the X-Men, having lost Jean Grey and Professor X and in a reclusive state.

Q. Did you shoot the scenes featured in Japanese in both languages while you were shooting? And if so, could you explain the logic behind doing that?
James Mangold: The logic was that I was terrified that if I sent dailies back to Twentieth Century Fox in Japanese they’d freak out. So, I shot in Japanese and English hoping all the time I’d cut the movie in Japanese and they wouldn’t have a problem with it later. And then when I showed them the film I showed them the Japanese version and they dug it. The thing that always struck me when I was doing the scenes in English was that, in a way, it helped me because I could stage it with the actors and stage the scenes and actually direct them in plain English. And then we could convert the scene back to its native language. I don’t speak Japanese, so it helped me. But it also seemed very dated and it’s something that’s always bugged me in some modern films, when you have Japanese characters who are alone with each other in Japan speaking English. It’s a very strange affectation now. It’s annoyed me in other movies. Cinema is world cinema now… we’re all used to different languages being spoken. There’s a gigantic Asian market for movies… I also think it makes it more of a movie. You’re dropping Logan into a world he can’t understand what everyone is saying, so it forces the images to become more important. And I also like the idea of taking a major tent-pole film and having that be a different quality… that audiences are being asked to lean in a little bit and work a little bit harder and not have everything handed to them.

Q. Is it true there’s a lot of Japanese cinema DNA in The Wolverine? Throne of Blood for example?
James Mangold: I’d love to hear the Throne of Blood reference because it’s not intentional [laughs]. I have all these movies living in me. I’ve been watching them since I was 14, so there’s some… it was less that I went off and watched a bunch of Samurai movies because I got this job, than I’ve been living with those movies forever. My first film, Heavy, which was independent, was heavily influenced by [Yasujiro] Ozu, who has been the kind of reigning God director of my life. Japanese cinema has been huge to me throughout my life. It’s also tied to the Western, which is another great love of mine. I really think that the Western and the Samurai picture are intrinsically kind of bound and I think that one of the things we were trying to do with this was be built more actually on the architecture of a Samurai or Western film and less so on the architecture of the more standard, ‘will the world be saved’ super-villain or alien version, which is the more classic structure of comic books of the last decade.

Q. How did you balance plausibility with superhero powers that aren’t plausible, such is in the opening scene involving the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Nagasaki?
James Mangold: Well, it’s an interesting technical question about storytelling. Plausibility in a movie doesn’t really have to do with scientific plausibility, so I don’t know if there’s any scientific plausibility to that scene. But by putting the bomb across the bay from the POW camp, we gave ourselves a little bit. I always think that plausibility in action comes from little logistical decisions and geographies. It’s also the joy in action sequences, if we can understand the geography of a sequence so that it can make some kind of sense to you. It’s also one of the toughest things to do. I think it’s why people enjoy Westerns and Samurai films so much because the action often isn’t very complicated. The geography is simple enough that you can actually appreciate where everyone is in relation to one another. I mean, there’s a reason when we watch sports games on television, they don’t cover them all in close-ups. For some reason, movie-makers haven’t worked that one out. It’s a good way to have it look like a lot is going on and yet we don’t know what the hell is going on at the same time. One thing I wanted very much for the action in my films to do is to actually allow you to follow it. And that helps the plausibility because it helps you to believe that every action is because of a reaction.

The Wolverine

Q. Can you talk about casting some of your Asian actors?
James Mangold: It was one of the great experiences of my life. Once we decided we were making this film, we decided we wanted a real Japanese cast and they had to be bilingual Japanese actors. I came here to London, I was in New York, I was in Los Angeles and, of course, in Tokyo, reading a lot of people. It’s a pretty miraculous cast. I mean, Hiroyuki Sanada was someone I was after from the beginning. He belongs in any film like this. If anything, the guy is under-utilised in this movie and I wish there was more to do with him. He’s a phenomenal actor. Even if I weren’t making an action film at all, he’s an absolutely phenomenal actor. And then on top of that he’s one of the biggest action stars in Japan. He also worked out every day, in our training facility, working with the other actors and stunt people. He’s considered to be kind of a martial arts god in Japan… and justifiably.

Tao Okamoto [Mariko Yashida] I ended up meeting in LA for the first time. She was a Japanese model. And Rila Fukushima was also a Japanese model living in Tokyo at the time. Both of them had really unique looks. One of the things I very much wanted was to let Logan have this vast array of women. And in a way, the movie is a contemplation about intimacy, life, death, love… So, it was really important to have a variety of women in the picture and strong women, each kind of representing a different point of view. It was also such a pleasure directing a Japanese cast. First of all, the universality of the language… even though you may not always know what they’re saying, you can tell whether they’re any good or not just from your gut.

Q. Can you also talk about creating the look of Japan, which sometimes also seems other-worldly?
James Mangold: Well, it’s that balance. In a way, my goal was to make a film that starts kind of firmly in reality and kind of keeps notching its way, as night fell and the circumstances got bigger, towards more of a comic book kind of reality, as things got further. But it was important to me that we started in a place that felt real because I feel that that’s what people were really craving to see Logan in… the real world. When I read comics as a young man I didn’t read them and feel like they took place in some kind of strange universe. I felt like they were in my world. I even thought they took place in my city. I didn’t really want to see the action to take place in kind of a movie landscape. I wanted to feel what it was like. To that degree, we shot the action sequences and the chase through Tokyo on the streets of Tokyo. And some of it, where we couldn’t clear the streets or close them down, literally I’d throw Hugh and Tao and our camera operator into a van and we were just running down the streets with a camera through crowds of regular folks. So, those people are now in a major motion picture.

Q. Was there anything you discovered while you were in Japan that you just had to get in the movie, almost spontaneously?
James Mangold: There was a lot. I mean a lot came from the process. Literally, as I was working on the script with my friend, Scott Frank, we’d got through the temple battle and I said we needed something on a train. But he said he was so sick of things on trains. But we wrote ‘bug thing on train’ and I went on a casting trip to Japan and he kept writing and sending me pages. I was riding the bullet train to and from these different scouts in Japan and all I kept thinking about was how insane they were. I mean, they’re going nearly 300mph. It’s like being on an airplane on the ground. And yet there are some incredibly close objects to the skin of the train. In fact, there’s bullet trains coming in the opposite direction going 270mph the other way with like an 8-inch tolerance between them and the other train. It causes a kind of sonic boom as they pass. I kept thinking about while it’s a pretty well worn troupe of action pictures to have men boxing or fighting or whatever on top of a train, as far back as Buster Keaton, I thought never has it happened where you have the physical forces that you have on board something at this speed to play with. So, after that we started pencilling out this crazy sequence. And thankfully Fox were really excited by what we came up with because it cost a fortune.

The Wolverine, James Mangold

Q. Did you feel there was a lot of pressure on you to reinvigorate this franchise after the reception of the first movie? Or was the pressure slightly off because of that?
James Mangold: Definitely the latter! In all honesty, if you’re coming on after an act that’s limping, you definitely feel like you’re in a better position than if you’re coming on after a monstrous hit. So, while that movie made a lot of money there was enough cross talk about it that I definitely felt that way… Of course, there was a little more space to also experiment. For me, at this point having made a bunch of pictures, you feel so vulnerable every time you make a movie in terms of the way it’s going to be perceived, the way the box office is going to happen, the way box office is analysed and the critics are going to respond, and you develop calluses to all of that; but what you are interested in, because it’s what you live with, is the experience of making the film and the experience long after and whether you’re proud of the film, and I do think that the less than filly enthusiastic reception of the first movie allowed me the space and the freedom to do something different. And that, to me, is more important, meaning that it keeps me interested and keeps me knowing success or failure of any kind that there was a reason behind what I was doing.

I was on my own journey in relation to this material that was honest and not just, as you will, an effort to make a piece of merchandising. I think that the danger with these pictures, and I think it was inherent in the title of the first one frankly, is you just look at the title and see that there’s nine marketing intentions for the product – it’s X-Men, it’s Wolverine and it’s an origin. It’s like, “would you like pepperoni with that”. But we didn’t have that pressure. I don’t know how to make a movie that’s actually more about selling lunchboxes. The only thing I know how to do really is to make a movie, good or bad, and so this for me definitely represented the opportunity to make something different.

Q. How much of fan passion or input did you take on board?
James Mangold: Well, you listen to it and you let it rattle around in your head and then you effectively… you know you can’t make them all happy. There’s the guys who say from the start: “Wolverine is short, Hugh Jackman is wrong for this role!” And you’re like, OK, sorry! And by the way, Johnny Cash was tall and Joaquin Phoenix is not tall. So, deal with it. I’ve made movies based on other things that people hold dear and there is no way… you try to make people happy within the awareness that if people are looking at a drawn picture and want to see that up on the screen they should just never look up from the book. And that’s because the reality is we are converting it. There are flesh and blood people playing these roles, there’s decisions being made that cannot all be loyal to the picture people have when they were 14.

Even when you’re doing a movie of The Bible, choices are made. The key is to be aware. The other thing that protects me in some sense, and makes me feel like I’m respecting those concerns, is just that I do care about the material. There’s not a calculated decision to somehow soften an edge, or round a corner. I wanted a darker, more intense Wolverine. I knew that, like anything, that required giving up things as much as doing things. You’ll notice there’s less wit in this film. But that’s intentional. I wanted the tone of a Clint Eastwood in Wolverine. Well, Clint Eastwood doesn’t exist in an episode of Friends. You just can’t make a glib remark every time something happens. So, in this movie Wolverine doesn’t. And I know there will be some people who say “I wish it was funnier and said funny shit more often”. But if you want that darker film, you can’t have a movie where he’s also making a joke every few seconds. It doesn’t work that way.

Q. Obviously, there’s Marvel’s tone and the one they set, which is making incredible amounts of money. Was there a pressure on you to ape that tone?
James Mangold: No.

Q. Hugh Jackman has played this character in four movies. What was it like working with someone who has such a close relationship to the character?
James Mangold: Well, I also have a close relationship with Hugh. I made another picture with him [Kate & Leopold]. What was interesting about it, and it is an interesting question, was simply that Hugh wanted something he hadn’t got from the pictures. He wanted the chance to do something he felt he hadn’t done and he wanted the chance to deliver to the fans who had come to him wanting to see more of the darkness and more of the rage and more of the kind of fighting style. Wolverine’s fighting style comes off weird in the face of other Mutants, because if you have characters who can bring clouds over them, or characters who can make aircraft carriers rise, ‘shink’ [gestures claws opening] doesn’t seem so impressive. So, if you get him on his own, away from that, then suddenly he’s much more bad-ass and his physicality isn’t out-scaled every few seconds by these weather-changing persons around him. So, a part of it was just giving him the air time to just be his own bad-ass self. And that was something that Hugh hadn’t had a chance to do. So, if anything, I played the coach maybe just trying to steer him a little darker.

The Wolverine

Q. How important was it to make Logan more vulnerable as well?
James Mangold: It was very important to me that we find Logan in a place of emotional desolation. It seemed really advantageous to start in a place where he was cut off. The first reaction I had when I read the material, they weren’t sure where to locate this saga in relation to the existing movies. It was my assumption that it took place after the X-Men films. So, in a way this was X-Men 4 almost more than it was Wolverine 2 in the sense of the timeline. And that seemed really interesting to me because Claremont-Miller’s saga opens with him in The Yukan kind of estranged. The tricky thing then is if you’re trying to help the fan-boys out a little and say ‘OK, I’m going to start in the Yukan, just like the original’, the question is why is he there? Why now? Is he on vacation? Or is he hiding? So, now you have to answer that question because it’s not in the material. So, instantly you’re in the zone of danger with every fan-boy in town because it’s not in the material and you’ve hardly begun. So, my theory was that he’s there because everyone he’s ever loved is dead.

I think there’s also a reason why so many of the superhero films keep generating galactic threats to mankind’s existence because we live in a time where it’s very hard to identify evil. It’s all around us… is it the corporation? Is it the government? Is it another country? Who is it? What is it? And so when evil is hard to identify it’s very hard for a caped crusader to fly off and punch it in the nose. It’s easy when it’s someone landing on Earth to destroy us like ants. So, what does a superhero do when everyone he’s ever loved is dead, when the enemy isn’t clear, when the mission isn’t clear and when he’d like off this Earth but he can’t even get off this Earth because he lasts forever. And that seemed like a hugely potent place to start and to drop him into The Yukan from there.

Read our review of The Wolverine

Read our second interview with James Mangold