Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
James Mangold delivered one of this year’s best films with Logan, and among its many acclaimed aspects is its vibe and feel of a modern-day western. It’s something he’s done before with Cop Land, but Mangold also made a point of directing an actual western as well.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Commentator: James Mangold (director)
1. He assumes the first question we might have for him regarding this film is “why” make a remake at all? “That original film had had such power on me ever since I saw it when I was seventeen years old, and I felt that the story could have power again in a very relevant way now.”
2. While he thinks most remakes are motivated by greed in his eyes for easy, recognizable targets (Starsky & Hutch, Mission: Impossible) he says this original wasn’t nearly well-known enough to be accused of the same.
3. He appreciates how older films often started fast, right into the action of things, so he aimed for something similar here by dropping viewers immediately into the assault on Dan Evans’ (Christian Bale) farm.
4. The original film’s writer, Halsted Welles, gets first credit on the remake because “we felt an awful lot that Halsted did in his screenplay in 1957… was really right, was dead-on right.”
5. One big change in the remake is the attempt to explain Evans’ motivation towards hesitance better by including his war injury and his need to appear stronger to his children. Similarly, he wanted to enhance Ben Wade’s (Russell Crowe) ambivalence about his own gangster career.
6. The opening stagecoach robbery was filmed in National Park Land in New Mexico and featured some locations that required access by mule.
7. One of his requirements for performers auditioning to be a part of Wade’s gang was that they be “extremely proficient riders, if not stuntmen.” He refused to feature “a bunch of Malibu actors who normally do day work on The O.C. coming in and looking cute on a bunch of horses.”
8. One of the plusses of casting Bale and Crowe was that in addition to extremely talented actors they’re also extremely physical. While several actors attended a pre-production boot camp the two leads were excused.
9. Charlie Prince was a highly sought after role in the film, especially after the two leads were cast, and they saw “a lot” of Hollywood’s young male actors. Mangold wisely chose Ben Foster.
10. He compares Wade’s short speech after shooting his own gang member, Darden (Johnny Whitworth), to the complacent and bored speech of a “Manager of McDonalds explaining to an employee that you can’t leave the fryer on.”
11. One of the appeals of making a western was his belief that aside from Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven “and a couple others” – by which he probably means Kevin Costner’s Open Range and Tom Dey’s Shanghai Noon (let me have this Mangold!) – the genre was generally full of misfires.
12. He says one giveaway regarding the people who don’t like the movie is that they’re often the ones who think of Wade as a villain. “I don’t think he is,” he says, adding “if you took away all of the western attributes it’s kind of a buddy film.” He compares it in some ways to The Silence of the Lambs.
13. He loves the scene where Wade confronts Emma Nelson (Vinessa Shaw) at the bar. “She does remarkable work, and it’s a very, very small role, and that reality sometimes will scare a really good actor away because they don’t want to play a small role.”
14. Marco Beltrami’s score serves in a part as a reference of sorts towards the spaghetti westerns of the past. They didn’t want the score to feel overblown “in the way that every western made for the past twenty years feels like it’s very, quote, important.”
15. He realized while watching TV that the town of Bisbee, AZ where they filmed has since been used for the reality show Kid Nation. This of course means James Mangold, director of Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted watched Kid Nation.
16. He and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael bonded while filming Identity over a shared embrace of the widescreen format. “I think one of the things that’s misunderstood about the widescreen is while it’s brilliant at capturing landscape and broad vistas, one of the other things it’s really great at is closeups. Particularly two-shots, asymmetrical kind of compositions that are really beautiful.”
17. His second feature, Cop Land, was viewed by him as “a western, but setting it in the context of the suburban tri-state area.” The original 3:10 to Yuma served as an inspiration of sorts, and he extended that film a nod “in the sense that Stallone’s character is actually named Freddy Heflin and I named him after Ben Heflin, the actor who played Dan Evans in the original.”
18. He and producer Cathy Conrad pursued the remake rights while making Identity at Sony/Colombia which owned the rights to the original including Elmore Leonard’s source story. They had been approached before by people wanting to update it, but as Mangold had already made a modern western he was interested in making a more authentic one.
19. The time period where many westerns sit – “after the end of the Civil War but before the railroads completed their journey across the country” – was actually just a couple of decades, “a sliver of history.” He says that adds to the period’s mystique and “has as much in common with science fiction or fantasy epics like The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings more than it does with aspects of historical film-making in which you’re telling the battle of the Alamo.”
20. Crowe introduced Kevin Durand to Mangold which led to his casting here.
21. Mangold had final cut on the film and was independently financed apart from any studio including its distributor, Lionsgate. He and Konrad were surprised that even after the big success of Walk the Line, and even with Bale and Crowe attached, no studio would take on the project. “Which only gives you a sense of how incredibly dismal the reputation of the western is right now as a business proposition for most studios. All you have to do is look at all the movies they’ve made that cost less than $50 million, some of them so inanely stupid you can’t even begin to figure out how they had the pride to pull the lever on them, and yet at the same time a film like this is an incredible struggle to get made.”
22. The moment that comes in a surprising amount of commentaries comes here at the 1:02:16 mark. “First of all,” he says, “don’t do that.”
23. As part of maintaining Wade as more than a simple villain, “he only kills people that I hope the audience will find annoying.”
24. The cave where they huddle against a nighttime assault of bullets is in Los Angeles and is actually the same one featured in the Batman TV series where the Batmobile exited. It had gotten “so cold” in New Mexico that they returned to Hollywood to film the scene.
25. The film’s armorer was Luke Wilson’s roommate, and the actor sent word back to Mangold that he’d love to appear in the film in any capacity leading to his presence in the labor camp scene. The armorer is glimpsed at 1:13:26.
26. They built the town of Contention from scratch, but while he loves the result he has a single regret. “Because we got hit with so much snow it was impossible for me to shoot any kind of geographical shots of the landscapes because we were literally digging ourselves out one street at a time.”
27. After filming the scene where the Marshall and his men drop their guns and walk outside Papamichael turned to Mangold and said “Don’t you think this looks stupid?” The director agreed, and they decided there and then that the Marshall was going to die.
28. The steam train was carted by truck from Alabama to the site of filming. There’s only a limited stretch of real tracks on the ground with those in the distance being nothing more than sticks.
29. Regarding the ending of the film, Mangold finds it rewarding that viewers are so opinionated one way or the other. The original ends with Evans and Wade boarding the train and riding off together, “but I didn’t buy it and didn’t think that audiences would buy it.” He didn’t think it fit in today’s world and that “the clarity of happy and sad was never gonna be there.” He was looking for “more of a biblical quality, a washing clean of the earth, of both the tragedy that had been Dan Evans life and finding something redemptive in it and the misguided venture that had been Ben Wade’s life.”
30. He’s received compliments and comments on “the almost heartbeat-like chug of this steam engine” during the final dramatic scenes, but while he’d love to take credit for it being some brilliant idea on his part it was actually just the reality of having to keep the engine running so as not to freeze in the very cold weather.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“You certainly don’t want to make another bad one because you’ll be putting a tombstone, if you will, on the genre.”
“No one should be playing a villain. Everyone should be playing a fully-realized person.”
“No person in the world including Hitler or Osama Bin Laden walks around believing they’re a bad guy.”
“Peter was really brave in letting me make him as leathery and dirty as I possibly could in this role.”
“Every movie needs a special effect of some kind.”
“The horse might shuffle to the left, move to the right, sneeze, cough, move, eat, piss, shit.”
“Part of what makes an interesting morality tale is that every side thinks they have God on their side.”
I was already wanting one, but after hearing this track I’m sincerely hoping Mangold will also be recording a commentary for the upcoming release of Logan. The track here is a great listen as he discusses logistics, inspirations, and anecdotes throughout offering both details and explanations where necessary. I still take issue with the film’s ending – not that Evans dies but with the specifics of his death because seriously, after all that, you’re gonna turn your back on a gang of ruthless killers just so you can say goodbye to your new friend? – but Mangold’s comments on it lend weight to the overall narrative decision. If you don’t already own the film on Blu-ray it’s being re-issued next week on 4K Ultra/Blu-ray and is well worth a pick-up.