Exclusive: Versatile Director James Mangold on Making The Wolverine

A short while later, we were sitting down with Mangold for a longer interview where we could talk about what he wanted to bring to the screenplay, working with Japanese actors, especially the less experienced ones, as well as legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, who has been a huge influence on the director’s previous work.

SuperHeroHype: Obviously, you weren’t the first director on this movie. A very different director, Darren Aronofsky was working on it and developing it for a long time, but what kind of shape was the script in when you came on board? What did you want to do when you came on board as far as going back to the graphic novel or getting away from it?

James Mangold:
I didn’t. Darren had been only on it I think a few months of actually working, and no scouts and no real budgets. I think one kind of quick pass of the script had happened, but I don’t think he’d had his chance to kind of really do what he was going to do on it yet, so I think it was more a deal was announced and then the disaster happened in Japan and kind of things started to make it impossible for that situation to go on. I did come on and I worked from Chris McQuarrie’s draft that was preexisting. When Mark Bomback and I and Scott Frank started writing on it, we didn’t throw everything Chris did out the window. The biggest thing was for no reason other than like, ownership.

I think the key to being a decent director is taking what’s good and building on it and not throwing away good elements that speak to you, and the thing that I most wanted to install in the script that wasn’t about taking something else out was about putting a unifying thematic idea in. The setting and the world was great, but I didn’t feel it was held together by a central idea. This central idea I was really interested in exploring was what we were talking about before was this idea of immortality, and somehow, the unique contradictions of Logan and the fact that he’s lived for so long, almost 200 to 300 years, to explore the downside of immortality, the pain of loss that you experience like in Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man” or in even “Wings of Desire.” You feel that the angels in Wim Wenders’ movie, they’re longing to be on earth and to be mortal like everyone else—the boredom with living above and outside the world. I thought that was such an interesting place, you know? The Claremont-Miller (graphic novel) starts with Logan in the Yukon, right? But, his mindset, where he’s at emotionally when I find him there is not that defined. I wanted to define it. I wanted to somehow find him in a place. It occurred to me that we should set this movie—and this was not in the preexisting material—we should set the movie after all the movies that had been made, so even though it was a “Wolverine” movie, it was effectively a sequel to the last “X-Men” film. Then, that it was about a man who had lost his fraternity, had lost his friends, had lost his mentor in Professor X, and had lost his loves, all, the women he had ever loved. The interesting concept to me that he almost felt cursed, that somehow in his life it seemed like the people who he had lost, A.) Because he lives forever, he’s doomed to lose them anyway, but B.) that some of them had to go early, maybe because they were targets only because of his association with them. I started feeling that he was hiding in the woods less as an act of aggression against the world and more of an act of protection, that he’s almost someone who’s radioactive trying to keep himself away from the world so he doesn’t hurt anyone else.

SHH: The Miller/Claremont Wolverine mini-series is one of the great Wolverine stories but what I liked about the movie–when I saw the stuff in the Yukon, the bear hunters, I thought you were going to be really faithful to it—but then you actually did diverge quite a bit from it over the course of the movie. I mean, having Jean Grey at all was not in there at all, so can you talk about changing gears from the graphic novel?

Well, it seemed to me that one of the beautiful staples–actually of the X-Men films as well as the comics–was Logan’s interaction with history, and that when you have a character who’s been immortal, there’s a quality that’s not unlike Zelig, frankly. He’s been everywhere. But I really loved that idea. I really felt that the idea of “Why Japan? What is bringing him to Japan?” And in Claremont-Miller it’s because he has an ongoing relationship with Mariko before the comic book even starts. That seemed weird to me, to land on a guy living in the Yukon who’s having as a pen pal with a married woman who he’s had an ongoing relationship with. I couldn’t quite piece together how exactly I’d do that from the opening frame. Actually, Chris (McQuarrie) had already moved away from that, but it still meant that I wanted to understand where he was coming from at the start. What opening in Nagasaki did is it did several things for me—one is it created a connection with someone in Japan that would be then reunited by his return. It also obviously set up the journey in the end of the film–we can’t really say it in many ways. I also thought that when Darren separated from the film and the tragedy occurred in Japan, the tsunami and the resulting disasters after it, it felt to me that you couldn’t respectfully make a film in even the decade of what had happened in Japan without in some way acknowledging what the Japanese people have muscled and suffered and held together through. I didn’t think it was appropriate to actually reference the actual, recent incident in Japan, but I felt that it’s so amazing when you think about this not enormous country has buffeted most of the nuclear incidents–two bombs and this horrible reactor accident–that so much of the nuclear action globally has occurred on this one island and the culture’s ability to somehow regroup, rebuild and go on. So visiting Nagasaki was out of tremendous respect, also a way I felt to both raise and acknowledge what that country has persevered through.

SHH: What about bringing in Jean Grey? The Jean Grey/Logan relationship is just as powerful and iconic as the Mariko and Logan romance from early on. Did Fox suggest to you, “Okay, you need to bring in some X-Men characters,” or not?

No, no. Scott Frank and I came up with that, and it was an effort to try… you know, every solution is a solution to a challenge, so the challenge was, “We’re opening on a man alone in the woods, right? So, how did we show you what he’s feeling and what he’s thinking?” You only have a couple of choices. You could do voiceover, a guy kind of self consciously narrating his emotional state. It doesn’t feel very Logan like.

SHH: He does use first person narration in the comics a lot, but it never really works in movies, though.

Yeah, and then you have the flashbacks that we do at the opening. That helps, but it seemed to me that I wanted something more active going on for him with Jean. The idea of creating a kind of ongoing dialogue he’s having with a great love of his past. “Is it a delusion? Is it a ghost? What is it? Who is it? Is it really her or is it some kind of dark force with an agenda?” I think that all those things I like playing out because they all indicated to me, again, a haunted man.

SHH: What about getting some of the Japanese actors? First of all, Hiro has obviously done a lot of American movies. You have actors who had never made a movie before, who are just models, and you have them in really dramatic roles with Hugh Jackman. I was curious about that, about the casting. You always have great casts in your movies. In this one, you have known actors, you have Japanese actors who English maybe isn’t their first language. Can you talk about going into that environment?

Well, it’s actually, I mean, certainly in most of my films, the stars have been experienced actors, but I’ve made many films where a significant player in the film is a newcomer.

SHH: Like Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted,” for instance.

Even more recently there’s other actors in key supporting roles, they haven’t done a lot before that moment, but the fact is that in “Walk the Line,” we had a lot of musicians in the cast. But for me, the key is you want to surround newcomers with experienced actors because there’s always a great chemistry that actually comes from someone who knows all the tricks and someone who doesn’t. The clash of acting styles sometimes produces a kind of friction on the screen. But also, you don’t cast people to name them, you know? When I met Tao Okamoto, she has a natural gift. It’s like modeling isn’t just standing there. There’s a long history of models becoming great actors, so the reality is that the comfort in front of the camera, it’s not like they’re someone I picked up off the street. This is someone who’s lived almost every day of the last 10 years of their life being photographed and not putting the mask up, somehow finding a way to make their soul visible to the lens. In both Rila’s and Tao’s cases, they’re tremendously gifted and they went through a very intense reading process, and even kind of an actor boot camp that I did just kind of getting them up to speed, working the scenes with them.

SHH: I’m fascinated by Japanese culture and no matter how much you read about it, I feel like it’s still very foreign to us, but can you talk about how you got into that aspect of the movie and did you already know a lot about Japanese culture and tradition beforehand?

Well, I confess that I love Japanese culture, food, art, and movies. I’m a huge Ozu fan. Yasujiro Ozu is, I think, one of the great—in Western culture—one of the great underappreciated directors in general, and especially in Japanese culture, one of the great underappreciated directors. I don’t mean by the Japanese, I mean by people who love Japanese movies, but you’d be amazed how many sophisticated film people there are who’ve never seen one Ozu film. For me, my very first movie “Heavy” was incredibly influenced–even though it took completely place upstate New York–by the films of Ozu. So I’ve been very into him for a very long time. I think so much of what his films are about—and he has I think over 90 films he made over a gigantic career—are about the heart and soul of the Japanese people, not just city people, not just the kind you see in modern films, but also world folk, older folk, young people, the dreams, the post-war dreams and shattered dreams of the people, and even the drama. I mean, I’ll always remember, I’m trying to remember, I think it’s called “A Hen in the Wind,” a great film by Ozu about right after World War II where a soldier comes home to find out that his wife had to become a prostitute in order to keep their home alive and their children fed. I mean, he did not flinch. If I remember the film right, he beats her and throws her out. I mean, hardcore thematic stuff. He was making these films about at the time that these things were happening, so these are kind of penetrating dramatic films, but you watch those films and you get so much and the visual beauty of Japanese life, the sense of it. It was very inspiring for me to take an American action movie into this setting and see what would happen. I’m not a big fan of fusion cooking, but I do think that when you have a kind of archetype like the American superhero movie and it’s been done and done and done again, taking a new element and bringing it in, and a new template and bringing it in can really help yield something new.

SHH: I may have mentioned this earlier but “The Wolverine” doesn’t really feel like a superhero movie. There are moments where it felt like Logan was in a Hong Kong crime movie, and I love those movies, too.

That’s thrilling to me. I mean, I honestly felt like that was so much more interesting to me than just having him be—I don’t think we can get any deeper inside him just putting him in one futuristic kind of high tech setting after another with some demonic person seeking world domination.

SHH: The original comic was very much about shoguns and samurais and was fairly isolated. In this one, you go out into modern-day Tokyo and we see more of the world.

Well, I tried to combine the two because I do think–with all respect for Claremont/Miller’s saga–I think if we put it exactly as it was on the screen, there’s a lot of Japanese tropes in it that I think on the screen would seem like, “We’ve done that, haven’t we? Why exactly are these shoguns running around modern day Japan?”

SHH: That’s true.

Then, I tried as much as I could to make a more realistic depiction of what it would be like if there was kind of a Black Clan and Harada and his ninjas in relation to modern society and how they could all coexist. I think it escalates toward the end of the film. I think we kind of have a line from a very realistic film more and more darker and deeper into a kind of a world of that’s fantastic by the end.

SHH: One of the interesting things I find about your career, and I’ve been following it since “Cop Land.” I haven’t seen “Heavy,” unfortunately. With “Cop Land,” it has humor and it was more action than before and it transitioned into doing more action in “Knight and Day” and this. Could you talk about that, that transition?

Well, it’s funny. I think the opportunities that I get are pretty unique. I think there was a date and an age where there were many directors—Pollock, Lumet, Ritt, Mike Nichols, who did all kinds of movies—comedic films, serious movies, dark films, adventure films. Now, everyone, not unlike the superheroes, directors get branded and they just have a shtick and they do it. I avoided that. I’m not even sure. I think it more happened and it was a natural force of my own personality and interests. When I write a film about a lonely fat guy in upstate New York and then the next movie I write is about tough New York cops and the next movie I wrote was about girls in a mental institution based on Susanna Kaysen’s book, I already had kind of charted what I think by most standards of being a kind of wildly eclectic–going to an all-female mental institution movie from an all-male New York City cop movie is strange. I think I found it honestly frustrating early in my career that I think when people can’t put you in an easy box either for writing a story or for even giving you work to do or assigning you to the next project, it becomes harder because you’re never the first guy. If it’s a horror movie, there’s always the horror guy who’s number one. If it’s a crime movie, there’s always the number one crime guy. So, you’re always kind of second or third banana, but the one thing I feel like I really gained over the last decade of making all these kinds of movies is you really learn a lot and you learn about not only how these genre are different, but almost like being in a band that can play different kinds of music, you learn what unites all this stuff together, what makes a samurai film similar to a Western, what makes a Western similar to a comic book film. When you make a comedic film, it makes you less frightened the next time you’re making a serious movie about having a comic beat and less unsure about how to do it. I’ve learned a lot making so many kinds of movies, but it’s funny, I never set out to do it that way.

SHH: Yeah, I think Hugh nailed it when I asked him why he picked you to direct this because he knew you’d be able to work within all these genres and switch effortlessly between them. So next for you, you’re doing another movie with Reese Witherspoon, “Three Little Words”?

It’s a small real life drama and I’m hoping that starts in late September, but, a smaller film and then something larger for next year. But, I loved one thing after making a film this huge is you’d love to do something again really intimate.

SHH: That’s always a nice thing and it’s sort of what Christopher Nolan has done, though I’m not sure I’d call “Inception” “small.”

No, no. (Laughs)

SHH: Is the action movie “Cyclops” something you’re still developing?

No, that’s kind of fallen away, but there’s stuff I’m working on, different stuff I can’t talk about right now.

SHH: But you’re still writing stuff?

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

SHH: Awesome, and it’s great meeting you and talking finally.

The Wolverine opens nationwide in 2D and 3D theaters on Thursday night, July 25. You can also watch our earlier interview with Hugh Jackman by clicking here.