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‘The Wolverine’ Director James Mangold on Making a New Kind of Superhero Movie

The Wolverine James Mangold Interview
20th Century Fox

The Wolverine‘ is not what you expect. It is very much a self-contained, somewhat “smaller” superhero movie. More straightforward thriller/noir/espionage film than CGI-heavy slugfest. It’s less of a surprise, however, when you look at director James Mangold‘s body of work.

From ‘Cop Land’ to ‘Girl, Interrupted’ to ’3:10 To Yuma’ to ‘Walk the Line’ to ‘Knight and Day’ (which I really liked, by the way) to ‘Identity’ to ‘Heavy,’ he’s had a go at nearly every genre. Now he’s teamed up with Hugh Jackman, taking Logan from atop a hermit’s mountain to the bullet trains of Japan.

I had the good fortune to speak with Mangold recently, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to movies.

‘The Wolverine.’ To me, the pitch is something like “a regular movie that happens to have a superhero in it.”

Well, the word “regular” implies mundane. I’d say a film about an immortal character, an empowered, greater-than-human character that is not concerning himself with the fate of the universe. Frankly, that’s what most comic books are like. I’ve read comic books, Marvel and DC, my whole youth and I still read them, and very rarely – maybe once a year for a big crossover event – is it where the whole world is at stake. Most of the time the stakes are personal, they are about betrayals of the past, about grudges, romantic issues. The event-izing of comic book motion pictures, we’ve created our own genre that makes it an “end of the world movie” every time.

To me, these crossovers often miss the … well … first of all, there’s a cheat in a motion picture. If the whole world is at stake, the planet will be enslaved or will explode if a hero isn’t victorious, then your stakes are built on, to me, some slightly cheap columns. You are telling the audience that they will be dead if the hero doesn’t win. I would much rather bite off the challenge of getting the audience to care about the film where their lives will be unchanged by the outcome.

It’s almost like this film is one of the self-contained issues between the big arcs, where you really get to sink your teeth into the character.

Or, as you said at the beginning, now that we’ve talked it out, “a regular film,” a dramatic film. Is it interesting? What would ‘The French Connection’ or ‘Dirty Harry’ be like if they were mutants? I wasn’t making ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ I wasn’t making ‘My Dinner With Andre’ with a superhero, but I did try to go back to classic pictures, noir pictures, samurai pictures – never which the fate of the whole world is at stake.

I kept flashing on the early, good Sean Connery 007 films. He’s sent into a far-flung situation without much context and he meets the family and the damsel and the sidekick gal and the “other” girl with the luscious hair.

Yes. We wanted a lot of strong women in there. I see the point you are making. The Bond films were more of a noir/thriller/mystery structure. Though they did evolve. By the time you get to ‘Moonraker’ it is the superhero, “fate of the world” structure.

Honestly, a lot of the superhero films today are kinda stuck in the Roger Moore Bond films. An evil mastermind is out to enslave or destroy us all.

Now, some of those movies are very good! Sometimes it is the right choice to make, but I wanted to try something fresh. I didn’t want to spend two years of my life making the version of the movie everyone else is making, but my guy is in a tank top with claws.

That would be a little boring, but, more to the point, it doesn’t address Logan’s strengths. He can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. He doesn’t swing down canyons of skyscrapers on a web. He isn’t from another planet. He doesn’t have gizmos on a belt or a cave or penthouse. He doesn’t have a special suit to wear. Why not take advantage of the absence of these trappings and go deeper? Go internal.

His greatest strength is something he cannot do – he cannot die.

And it’s also his weakness.

Right! He’s sad. He misses Jean Grey. He wishes he could end his life.

Logan is a socially challenged guy one way or the other. Let’s call him a superhero with Asperger’s. He’s antisocial at best, it is a struggle for him to form intimate bonds, and then you take everyone from him over and over in a world that never ends. That, to me, is really cruel imprisonment.

I know through movie magic you didn’t shoot the whole movie in Japan, but much of it is there. How important was location shooting to you? Had you spent any time there before?

Never. I’ve been a fan, a huge fan of Japanese films – of Ozu and Kurosawa particularly – but I’d never gone. I went there during the writing to get a sense. It’s where the idea of the bullet train sequence came from, just riding. I was going south to look at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki areas for the opening of the film, and when I was riding it hit me.

I mean, the legacy of train fights is vast in action films, but I had yet to see one at this speed. He would be the only one who could possibly survive out there, with his built-in mountain climbing hooks in his knuckles.

Funny you mention trains. I wanted to bring this up in a diplomatic manner. ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ last year, ‘Lone Ranger’ this year. Films that were not particularly well received critically or financially. So a lot of people like to thump their chests and say, “Westerns are dead!”

’3:10 to Yuma,’ however, is fantastic (laughs). I love it. And I think it was financially successful, too, though I don’t remember the specifics.

It did well, it made profit. I get checks from it.

Okay. So … why can’t people just make a straight frickin’ Western like you did?

You’ve answered my question. If ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ is a Western … I mean, it’s not a Western. I had a simple rule on ’3:10 to Yuma.’ I said, “no Knott’s Berry Farm.” I didn’t want to see those stupid, Smucker’s-y letters on drug stores. You look at old daguerreotypes, it didn’t look like that. That’s Daniel Boone, Hollywood, theme park stuff. “You varmint!” Nobody talked like that. That’s what was beautiful about ‘Deadwood.’ It firmly threw the cheesy, ‘Hee-Haw’ version of the Western aside. It came back with a vengeance in ‘Cowboys & Aliens.’ Lots of varmint talk. I have not seen ‘The Lone Ranger’ yet, so I can’t comment.

The Western is one of the great American creations, like jazz. It shouldn’t be dismissed. If someone made a jazz album that cost $400 million, it wouldn’t mean the end of jazz, it would mean the end of $400 million jazz albums, you know?

The Western won’t die. But it can be reinvented. We used elements of it in ‘The Wolverine.’ It was very much a template for me, much like samurai films, which certainly isn’t dead. Look at [Takashi] Miike’s ’13 Assassins.’ That’s one of the great movies of the last 25 years. It’s a Western. Westerns to me are not typified by cowboys and Indians but by being morality tales set in a world where cell phones and cars don’t exist.

A few key tropes: a horse, a saloon, some location photography and then you can do anything with it.

You need someone left alone to take care of things himself. He can’t hit a button on a phone and have a cop car show up.

What are your favorite Westerns?

The original ’3:10 To Yuma.’ ‘Shane,’ without a doubt. ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales.’ There’s a lot [of] others, especially the Eastwood stuff, but that works as a quick three.

Hugh Jackman, man. There’s nothing he can’t do. He can make you cry in ‘Les Miserables’ and he can kick ass in this. He is Logan, he can’t be stopped!

He is one of the great actors of our time. His versatility is unmatched. I think that’s somewhere where he and I bond. I like moving from thing to thing and learning. I wouldn’t have a problem making another of any of the films or genres I’ve worked in. That the world keeps allowing me – and, more specifically about Hugh – that he keeps getting the chance is one of the great things in our time.

Do you remember doing a radio show in New York called ‘Idiot’s Delight’ when ‘Heavy’ first came out in 1995? With a fella named Vin Scelsa?

Yes, absolutely! We played a lot of the soundtrack, that was a great show. I wish I could find a tape of that show – we had Sonic Youth and Evan Dando and Debbie [Harry]. If there’s a tape out there, please let me know.

‘The Wolverine’ hits theaters this Friday, July 26. Click HERE to read our review. 

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