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6 Filmmaking Tips from James Mangold

The ‘Logan’ and ‘Ford v Ferrari’ director has advice on writing, working with actors, and going out with a bang.
James Mangold Filmmaking
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By  · Published on March 2nd, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of James Mangold.

Everyone is talking about the title character of Logan being an old man, but it’s also worth discussing the advanced status of its writer-director, James Mangold. Not that he’s a weary old codger (he’s actually only 53), but he is a wise and well-established filmmaker with a long and unique career behind him. Many know him for having broken out with the 1995 indie Heavy, but a decade earlier he’d been snatched out of film school by Disney, where he co-wrote the animated feature Oliver and Company.

Eventually he realized the studio system wasn’t the best place to start out, and he took off down the road of the ’90s American cinema dream of Sundance prizes and Miramax deals, and now that he’s come back around to Hollywood with a certain autonomy, he’s enjoying the studio perks. Along the way, Mangold has given us such different films as Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, Identity, Walk the Line, Kate & Leopold, Night and Day, 3:10 to Yuma, and now two solo Wolverine pictures inside the X-Men franchise.

There are a couple things that unite at least some of those features, one being his interest in Westerns and movies inspired by Westerns, the other being a particular knack for working with actors. He directed Angelina Jolie (in Girl, Interrupted) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) in Oscar-winning performances and Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) to at least a nomination. Many of his other actors, particularly those in 3:10 to Yuma, also deserved to be nominated. Now fans are thinking Hugh Jackman could actually be recognized by the Academy for his final stint as Wolverine.

With Mangold in the fourth decade of his career, there are many things that can be learned from him, some of those lessons being passed on from mentors such as Milos Forman and Alexander Mackendrick, both of them also very much actors’ directors as well as all-around talents. Below are just six of the tips gleaned from interviews and seminars and more, half focused on how to work with the onscreen help.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from James Mangold

1. Write for blind people

In the book Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, Mangold is quoted from an unspecified 1997 interview as saying he told students to “write as if they were describing a movie to a blind person.” What that means is explained further in another transcribed interview with the filmmaker compiled from AFI conversations taking place in 2000, 2003, and 2009. On screenwriting:

The job of the screenplay is to get the movie made. A producer with money in his pocket needs to say, “I want to make this movie.” An actor needs to read this script and say, “I want to be in this movie.” If the script doesn’t read well and excite these people, it’ll never become a movie. So don’t write, “Katherine walks from left to right.” Who cares if she’s walking from left to right? What’s important is that you see the screen door slamming and feel the wind blowing her skirt. So write it! It won’t be a head-and-shoulders shot of that actress crossing the porch if the way her dress blows is something that sees truly evocative and relevant to the story. I rarely refer to a lens or a tracking shot in my scripts, I just write what I want the audience to see. If I was describing something to my grandmother and she couldn’t see, I wouldn’t say, “He’s walking down the hall, he looks really powerful.” To me, that’s obviously a low tracking shot. It’s also a much more enticing invitation for an actor and director.”

2. Tailor films to actors

Obviously Logan was written around the role of Wolverine as portrayed by Hugh Jackman, but movies aren’t always put together with specific actors in mind, at least not when filmmakers are well into their careers. At the start, however, Mangold recommends young screenwriters and directors to do just that. Here’s his advice during a recent Reddit AMA on how to get great performances from inexperienced actors cast in indie and student films:

Sometimes I go to film schools and advise younger filmmakers about their short films and independent feature projects and invariably I see sometimes that the films are crippled by stiff or unreal acting performances. What I would suggest is to tailor your early projects around talent, amazing talent you know, meaning if you have a friend who is an incredible singer-songwriter and has a kind of very unique personality, write a movie about them as if they were a character, you know?

Martin Scorsese’s first movies all revolved around characters who could very ably be played by Robert De Niro or Harvey Keitel and other friends of his. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that his early movies feature such sterling performances, that in many ways the material was tailored to the assets he had access to, the second you’re kind of writing a movie and then trying, with limited resources to find the right person in an acting school or wherever to play this role, you’re already crippling yourself or really limiting your ability to find the best person.

Also I would look other places than acting classes. I would look at comedy clubs, I would look for people who just have an amazing look or natural way about them or a very powerful personality and see whether you could take advantage of that.

3. Don’t take the pros for granted

When you do have the opportunity, you want to surround yourself with the best actors you can find. But don’t just rest on their talents or assume they don’t want direction. In 2007, in one of his many appearances on Charlie Rose (they go back pre-Heavy even), Mangold discusses how to wrangle multiple, varied big-name and big-talent actors like those he worked with on 3:10 to Yuma and why he couldn’t just let them do their thing:

James Mangold: The ‐ well, what I always say to myself, you learn as the director, is that different actors have different cooking times. And that just like ‐ that each one has their own process. I mean, Russell [Crowe] is very convivial. Loves to play sports, loves to talk; loves to joke, is ‐ is an incredible gregarious figure on the set. Christian [Bale] is focused; he is incredibly focused. That is not to say that each one doesn’t have moments of being the opposite, but what you would find in each is that they both come ready to play. Sometimes you’ll find actors that arrive on set ‐ there’s something similar about them. They are ready for the game. They are ready when they arrive to work.

Charlie Rose: They know their lines?

James Mangold: Oh, well that’s ‐ I mean, yes. But they know their characters. They know who they are.

Charlie Rose: Yes.

James Mangold: And ‐ and the thing is, the funny thing is when an actor knows their character, you’d think that might be ‐ make them more resistant to a note from the director or to a change. But when you really know your character, you are Charlie Rose, if someone puts your chair in a different place, you deal with it. You know who you are.

Charlie Rose: Right.

James Mangold: You know how Charlie Rose would deal with your chair in a different place ‐ you’d move it back, or you do this, or you do that. When you are Ben Wade, and you’re fully Ben Wade, someone can throw any change or obstacle in your way, and the fact is you’re just Ben Wade and you deal with it.

Charlie Rose: Right.

James Mangold: And the magic of actors with this kind of power is that really, actually they are more collaborative, because they’re so there, they’re so in the zone.

4. Treat child actors the same as any other actors

You’ve got a tip for amateur adult actors and you’ve got a tip for professional adult actors, so now here’s a tip for working with minors, regardless of their level of talent at their point in life. Mangold’s latest, Logan, is partially centered around an 11-year-old girl, and she’s played by a slightly experienced yet still relatively new actress, Dafne Keen. In a recent interview for Birth.Movies.Death, he explains his approach to working with her and his lack of concern that she could handle the R-rated material:

She’s a remarkable kid and extremely aware, growing up in a house with a mom and dad who are both actors and extremely savvy about what’s going on, and I don’t think anything will change the fact that everyone on the screen was like her family for the last year. For her I wouldn’t be so nervous about her seeing it. She’s also seen so much of it in the sense of doing any dialogue replacement. I’ve let her see clips of things as we’re cutting them together. To get a grownup or a naturalistic performance out of a kid, you have to connect with them the same way you would an adult. You have to share with them, obviously within the confines of what they can understand or how much they can take in, but the most important thing is that they understand ‐ for Daf, 90% of it was just me laying out how she’s feeling in the scene. And then she would just generally nail it, just an incredible kid.

5. Work with people who know more than you

In general, you want to surround yourself with the best collaborators for the project, particularly those more familiar with the genre or subject matter than you. Here’s some advice he gave in a 2007 interview for The Oregonian about how to be comfortable with material that’s strange to you, like the Western genre, as well as how to trust that you get it right in the end:

I’ve had such a picaresque journey through genre. I almost take it for granted that every movie becomes a new world to learn. All I know is you have to hire the right people around you to teach you about the particular challenges. There’s no one experienced in making Westerns any more, besides Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner. So the only thing you can do is have good people around you and learn. I was fortunate that Russell and Christian and Peter Fonda were good riders and good gunsmen. They really knew that stuff. It wasn’t some “Young Guns” thing with a bunch of kids from Malibu who were on horses for the first time. Now, I rode horses as a kid, but I can’t say that that was any value to me here. What was more important to me was knowing what I saw in the frame and whether I believed in that or whether I didn’t. You just use that as your standard: You have to trust your gut when you look at that rectangle.

6. Going out with a bang doesn’t have to mean explosions

There’s a great deal of action and violence and even some explosions in Logan, but in the end it’s got a much lighter climax than both of last year’s entries in the franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool. The way to get by without amping up the death and destruction is to have your audience’s emotional attention. Here’s what he said on the matter in December at the 2017 Genre Showcase (via Daily Dead):

Well, we wanted to go out with a bang, but the thing is, like I said, once cities and planets have been destroyed, you have to find and earn your bang, as opposed to just get louder. So the references for us were movies like The Wrestler and The Gauntlet, a great Clint Eastwood movie from the past. And Paper Moon. And, I mean, the kind of things I was looking at as I made this and worked on itand Hugh did, toowere movies where we were trying to find a different way. You can be the judge if it was successful or not. But trying to find a different way to that bang than just getting louder, or [a] body count.

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Well, you should be an expert on how to direct all sorts of actors now. And you know that the best friend for a screenwriter is a person without sight. Or maybe just someone who will close their eyes while listening to you read your script. Write visually and emotionally driven scripts that keep the viewer watching and caring. And then surround yourself with the best team of collaborators, which is to say the best-fitting team of collaborators from whom you can learn something while they also learn from you.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.