How Director James Mangold Redeemed ‘The Wolverine’

By  · Published on July 26th, 2013

At Comic-Con Hugh Jackman didn’t quite apologize for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but he kept insisting The Wolverine was doing cleanup duty for what came before. The actor helped pick a fantastic director to help whip the character back in shape in audience-friendly James Mangold. Although Mangold hasn’t done a film of this scope yet, he’s one to easily hop between genres, whether it be an Oscar contender like Walk the Line, or a nice horror yarn like Identity.

The 3:10 to Yuma director also has a history with Jackman. The two worked together on Kate & Leopold — a movie I can’t turn away from on cable (but who can?) – and now they’ve made another fish out of water picture. This one just happens to feature a brute loner with metal laced into his bone structure.

There’s often an elegance in the way Mangold handles the film, in both big and small ways, and while briefly speaking with him, he says that a sense of human closeness is what he wanted to achieve in a summer loaded with explosive set pieces. That’s just one of the ways he and Jackman redeemed a mutant with a shaky origin.

You’ve had a very diverse career. Did you always hope to make a bigger popcorn movie?

It’s funny because when I was 12 or 13 years old and I decided I wanted to become a filmmaker, I thought this was the kind of movies I’d be making. The central inspiration for me to want to be a movie director was the run between Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Aliens. There was a moment when all those films arrived, and I thought there was no other job I’d have. It’s been an amazing journey for me meeting people who get to make these kinds of movies, but I ended up finding another road.

There’s what you want and what you’re at, and they’re not exactly the same. I found I had an aptitude for very intimate films. A part of the reality was I had no money, so my first movie, Heavy, was as intimate as it gets for $200,000. Cop Land I never anticipated would’ve exploded with that cast when I wrote it. I imagined that as a smaller film. I think why that movie gets appreciated is because it’s not as blockbuster as some other movies with those stars do now. You can see that movie through the stardom now. When it first came out it was hard to see it through the sheer Mount Rushmore value of the cast.

For me, finally coming around and doing a picture like this, I thought, I had never seen movies like those. There’s incredible highs in the action, but in Raiders and Star Wars, there’s also great character work and staging. Then there was another wave of heavy metal action pictures, from the first frame to the last. Some of those movies I enjoy, but I don’t know if I could sustain that for two hours. I’m more interested in trying to hit an audience and pull it back to some place intimate. I hope the contrast of the two has a greater impact. Even though the climate is about big movies, I felt there was an opportunity with the place the movie takes place, with the constricted environment of Japan. I felt I could make the movie my own in that way and reboot the style and tone of Wolverine, but also to reboot the rhythm a little bit.

Making 3:10 to Yuma and Knight and Day, do you feel like there was a natural progression to working on this scale?

I challenge myself, but you never feel ready for anything. You learn doing. Every movie I’ve made has taught me about filmmaking. I’m really proud of Walk the Line, but as a young director leading up to that point, I was really tight. I was trying to make the greatest movies ever made. Anytime I didn’t make the greatest shot ever made, I would be in despair. It’s too much to put your nervous system through, but it also doesn’t make for as good as a movie you want to make.

I made two films in a row, Kate & Leopold and Identity, and both movies were genre pictures. In their own ways, they were kind of silly. Let’s put it this way: neither were going to be at the Oscars and you knew it from the start. They weren’t going to make any top 10 lists, but you hoped they were wonderful pieces of entertainment, and that’s okay and great. What’s funny is I felt like I learned more making those two movies than any other film. I didn’t feel the pressure to be “genius” or win people over, I relaxed making those movies. I came to the set everyday with an open mind. In both cases, I was proud of those movies and felt they were better than the genre would indicate.

When I then back to a “serious” movie like Walk the Line, I just wasn’t as tight as I used to be. If I wasn’t sure how I was going to move the camera that day, I knew I was going to figure it out. I didn’t try to have it all planned in my head, because, like an actor, sometimes you have to react to what’s going around you. What makes a good director is, if you see an apple on a tree, for God’s sake eat it! Don’t avoid it because, “Oh, I planned on doing a oner that doesn’t look up!” That is an intellectual avoidance of the fruit that’s right in front of you.

Is it a different kind of pressure with Wolverine, knowing millions of people need to see it?

You do think of that, but the wonderful thing about movies is that you’re working in your own artistic vacuum. You know your movie is going to be seen and scrutinized by millions of people, but you’re not working having those people watch you shooting the film. There is a way to push back that pressure, particularly when it’s not your first movie.

The one thing I try to do every time is satisfy myself. Ultimately, I’m not going to make everyone happy, because there are people who want contradictory things. You have to make a movie you like, which is a lot easier to live with.

Looking back at the movies, some succeed financially and some don’t, but you got to make the movie you like. That’s a lot more satisfying than something doing well and not being what you wanted.

Earlier this year you shared a list of references for the film, from Chinatown to The Outlaw Josey Wales. What was your greatest takeaway from those influences?

Yes, one of them was The Outlaw Josey Wales. That was one of the first things I brought up to Hugh, because it’s one of my favorite movies. Everyone can talk about making a darker Wolverine, but how do you do it? I have an actor and storyline that’s capable, but how do you clear the space with your studio, your audience, and yourself to go about it?

One of the first things you have to do is go inside his pain. Josey Wales opens with is with a man whose wife and children are murdered in front of him. They didn’t open the movie with him being tough, but the anguish that drives a man into this place.

The tone that went on from there had humor, but there’s a limit to how much you can cigar chomp and make witty remarks every time you hurt someone, which can make for a more campy than serious film. When I collected comics in high school, Wolverine was dead serious to me. He had some things to say, but he didn’t spend a lot of time making jokes but getting things done. That’s the movie I wanted to make.

The Wolverine is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.