On the eve of “The Wolverine” Comic-Con presentation this week in San Diego, James Mangold tells us what it was like to tackle the most popular X-Men superhero. After all, what was the acclaimed director of “Walk the Line, “3:10 to Yuma,” “Girl Interrupted,” and “Cop Land” doing messing around with an expensive franchise?
Turns out that Mangold is a comic book geek from way back and approached “The Wolverine” as if it were “The Outlaw Josey Wales” or “The French Connection.” Because, for him, whatever the genre, it’s all about conveying inner conflict and creating intimacy with the viewer. And so he seized the chance to get inside the head of Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine and explore his death wish.
“After I read the script that Hugh gave me, I scribbled a note on the back: ‘Everyone he loves will die.’ He’s immortal, he’s cursed, he feels pain. I took it that seriously,” Mangold recalls. “Why aren’t we dealing with that? All the X-Men are dead, the professor is dead and obviously the women he’s loved are all dead, one of them [Jean Grey] by his own hand.”
Of course, Mangold admits that Christopher Nolan already paved the way with “The Dark Knight” trilogy for grounding the superhero genre in gritty crime drama. And it also helped having the power and influence of Jackman behind him (they previously worked together on the “Kate & Leopold” rom-com) when approaching Fox with his vision of Wolverine as a tragic figure, a god who doesn’t want to be a god anymore — a Christ with claws (and a great segue for the actor after “Les Miserables”).
“I thought there was an opportunity with this story to reverse engineer it and instead of engaging in the arms race of bigger and bigger visual effects to get deeper into it. Not to say there isn’t intense action in the film. But if you go back and watch ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ it’s a tentpole film but a deeply intimate movie. There’s a kind of bifurcation of the movie business that’s happened where directors get branded as horror guy, action guy, indie guy that is not healthy.
“And it’s not healthy for me. Instead of writing songs, everyone’s doing guitar solos. And so the challenge for me is always to combine that primal interest to get intimate with the characters with these other elements. The key always is to remember what your job is: You are the north star for your crew and your cast. If you remember what the movie’s about every day, then you don’t get seduced by some piece of technology.”
Even with super-charged VFX enhancing the action (done mostly by Weta), Mangold’s mandate was to make it look real. For instance, the exciting fight atop a bullet train in Tokyo was shot as if the cameras were clamped to the sides. Not only that but Logan, who loses his self-healing power, shows real struggle, despite the extraordinary acrobatics on display. It’s like a dangerous limbo dance through underpasses and overpasses connected to cables and wires moving at the speed of deadly knives.
And shooting in modern Japan with Logan as a Samurai without a cause (forced to fight Ninja and Yakuza) only enriched the story. “You have old Japan vs. new Japan and then you have both of those cultures vs. a misanthrope like Logan,” Mangold explains. “So you have the wonderful disconnect of a guy who’s used to venting his rage or hiding and a culture that doesn’t always say what they’re thinking and has a lot of traditions, even in their fighting.
“So now I have one guy who fights like he’s in an alley fight, and another culture that tends to fight in a more organized and formalized way. It’s a lot of wonderful contrasts. And you’re also fighting against the gravitational pull of all these cliches in depicting Japan in the movies. At the same time, you’re telling a fish out of water story.”
Mangold is proud that there’s a significant portion of the movie in Japanese with subtitles. It will make many feel adrift in a foreign culture like Logan. But he’s proudest of significant character beats unique to this genre with Logan haunted by ghosts of the past while trying to rediscover a sense of love and purpose to his tortured existence.
In other words, why can’t you inject a little Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, or Martin Ritt, who are among the director’s filmmaking idols?
“It’s different but I think the fan base will be pleased,” Mangold contends.”It’s not about destroying the world or saving the world, which goes all the way back to Noah. Superhero spectacle has gotten too big. He’s isolated from the other Mutants. Hugh and I both wanted to take it to a new emotional place, to make the Wolverine story we’ve all been waiting for.”
Find out more in Hall H of the SDCC at 7:15 pm on Saturday.