Finding the 11-year-old girl was the biggest casting challenge. Fox questioned Mangold’s desire to make her Hispanic. He wanted a strong child star in a movie aimed at adults, much like ’70s films “Bugsy Malone,” “Paper Moon,” “Taxi Driver,” or “The Cowboys” with John Wayne.
“I was adamant,” he said. “I was waiting to see what kids came up, always looking for someone who felt real, credible, and naturalistic.” Casting director Priscilla John in London sent via email a tape of 11-year-old Dafne Keen in Madrid, whose parents are actors. “She was samba-ing, doing somersaults, and bits of dialogue. She was brilliant, naturalistic, and at ease. I knew the second I saw the tape, the same way when I saw Angelina for ‘Girl Interrupted’ and Ben Foster for ‘3:10 to Yuma.’ The whole anxiety was whether I could get Fox to approve her.”
6. Think indie.
A $100 million indie movie sounds like an oxymoron, but Mangold (whose 1995 debut, “Heavy,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival) said that the underlying logic for Logan was the same: A smaller budget gives you more freedom, and human-scale stories connect with audiences.
Jackman “was powerful” on this movie, said Mangold. “He took less money. We made the movie for a little over $100 million. In a world where movies like this are costing a quarter of a billion as a matter of course, that’s a significant savings. For us, the point was to buy ourselves the room to have creative freedom from market forces.”
It’s not just studios but filmmakers who are guilty of what Mangold calls “just-add-water stakes” on movies, which contributes to the “Irwin Allenization” of summer disaster epics like “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” which are all about VFX spectacle. “I often feel like Malcolm McDowell with his eyes propped open in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ where I’m ready to take a nap or go to an ashram or something. It’s just too much.”
No, Mangold took the time to stop for one character to buy a phone charger, and to let Charles Xavier pee. “These characters are trapped in a stolen car, driving along highway with no inexorable destiny,” he said. “How rare is that? I wanted that feeling that we aren’t sure where this thing is going turn.”
With many movies today, he said, “people lean into the sound and fury. As they think there’s no other way to keep people’s attention, they keep dancing faster and faster to get to that part of the equation, grabbing you with action. We explore ways to care about the characters through the action, so the character turns inside the action like a musical film. I love getting back that the movie is startling in conveying the finality of the violence, the results of the violence.”
7. Make a western.
Several of Mangold’s films are westerns, from “Copland” to “3:10 to Yuma.” “There’s so much to be learned from the western,” he said. “Besides the oater symbolism and Knotts Berry Farm qualities, the economy of storytelling leaves room for character. When less is more in terms of action, you have the room and ability to build toward conflict as opposed to the insatiable rule where you can only go seven minutes between set pieces. Where did that rule come from? When you abandon these rules, you can use your time creatively to make movies that startle.
“The studios have got to rethink what they are doing and be more sensitive to the same-old,” he said. “It costs way too much to pull the trigger for a movie that feels like the same one last year … It’s rare to see something that you haven’t already seen.”
Most westerns exist in a narrow five-year post-Civil War period, when locomotives were moving west and homesteaders did battle with Native Americans. “That wonderful mythological fevered landscape of the American story has for 100 years given us the chance to play out the cultural ideas of the moment, from ‘Shane’ and ‘High Noon’ to ‘Bad Day at Black Rock,'” Mangold said. “It’s a chance to explore ideas without everyone running back to their political or cultural camps. They don’t recognize it as an issue film, and instead get to explore ideas through the prism of genre.”
8. Lose the PG-13 rating.
The two most recent “X-Men” films opened on a Memorial Day weekend, to $91 million (2014) and $66 million (2016). The first and second standalone “Wolverine” movies had initial weekends of $85 million (2009) and $53 million (2013), respectively. All had the then-standard PG-13 rating for Marvel Comics films.
It’s a big deal to forgo that guaranteed commercial success. But last year, Fox took R-rated “Deadpool” to a $132 million opening weekend. With the shackles off, that comic-book adaptation felt fresh, romantic, and funny. “With ‘Logan,'” Mangold said, “I wanted to make an existential, fairly bloody version of ‘Little Miss Sunshine.'”
Even before “Deadpool,” Fox embraced the rating that would allow Mangold to play outside the box. “It goes back to character,” said Watts. “You look at what the material is telling you it wants to be. Violence in the story makes the movie nihilistic and disturbing. The violence in the context of this movie is perfect.”
The R-rating gave the filmmaker more freedom. “It’s hard for people to understand, but it’s something Hugh and I agreed on,” he said. “The movie is not a platform for another movie, it’s not a vehicle for merchandising tie-ins, or action figures which can’t be rated R. There are no product tie-ins. The scenes don’t have be 28 seconds short, they’re not attention-deficit feeders. We were allowed to make the movie. We wanted the R rating far less for the violence and blue language than for the freedom to make a movie that we couldn’t otherwise make in another milieu. If you aren’t making a studio four-box movie, then suddenly you are free!”
9. Lose the franchise name.
Mangold likes to listen to a voice inside his head that tells him: “Always do it differently, however they’ve done it.” So, he fought hard to lose Wolverine in the title. “This script gave me a great directing job,” he said. “It’s a movie about a guy on the run with a father who is wanted for murder with degenerative brain disease, who is caught by a girl claiming his paternity on his doorstep. You don’t need to add the X-Men to make it interesting.”
To lose Wolverine in the title was the toughest fight. “The marketing department was frightened of losing the branded name on the movie. I wanted to avoid ‘Wolverine 2.'”
Watts agreed. “There is as much danger in a traditional title as there is to an original approach,” she said. “Along the way there are lots of moments of fear. That’s what our job is: to make risky decisions. Not bad decisions.”
10. Open at a festival.
“Logan” premiered at February’s tony Berlin International Film Festival, not your usual platform for an “X-Men” movie. “I felt honestly proud of this film and it was thrilling to move forward to show it well in advance of our release,” Mangold said. “I felt confident enough from the preview response that we would not hurt ourselves, I was nervous, as one is, when you start to show your work. Most of these movies do not get reviews until 48 hours before they open. That is something I didn’t want here. I was leading with my chin.”