'Logan': How Director James Mangold Wrested Complete Creative Control
As the superhero genre begins to run stale, both director and studio agree: it's time for something different.
As independent and low-budget filmmakers, we are frequently under the impression that making a studio-driven, tent-pole blockbuster will be hard. We think, "Oh, there's too much creative interference from the higher-ups, we'd have to stick to a tired formula and deal with a mass of unfair fan expectations." But in James Mangold's experience with Logan, that simply wasn't the case.
In anticipation of today's theatrical release, the director (who's previous efforts include Walk The Line and 3:10 to Yuma) conducted an AMA to answer a host of eager Redditors most pressing questions. He paints a much more idyllic picture of his experience on Logan than we've been trained to expect. It seems that—as long as you keep your vision strong and held in place—those pesky studio heads will leave you alone. Logan is the ninth film in the X-Men films franchise, and the eighth in which Hugh Jackman plays its titular character, otherwise known as the mutant Wolverine. The film almost seems like a passion project for both the director and Jackman, whose appearance in the film marks the last such endeavor of his career.
Whether you're James Cameron or just some dude sitting in his mom's basement, there is a lot to be learned from the answers that Mangold shared in his AMA. Below are a few of the highlights that we thought could be especially important for filmmakers to keep in mind.
If you want to get the best performances, write for people you know
"Sometimes I go to film schools and advise younger filmmakers about their short films and independent feature projects. Invariably, I see sometimes the films are crippled by stiff or unreal acting performances," Mangold advises. "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 that has a unique personality, write a movie about them as if they were a character, you know?"
If you were to take on this strategy in your own work, you'd be in good company. "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," Mangold reminds us.
"I don't think it's any coincidence that his early movies feature such sterling performances," he continues. " 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."
Looking to make a character driven film? Consider the western genre
Mangold has a history with making westerns. His 2007 re-make of the classic Delmer Daves film 3:10 to Yuma, could be credited for sparking a resurgence for the genre in contemporary film. Logan also seems to borrow heavily from your standard western movie.
When asked why that was the case, Mangold responded, "I love westerns for their simplicity. I think movies have gotten really plot heavy and lost their focus on character, and one of the really beautiful aspects of the western (Italian westerns, American westerns, Australian westerns, and even samurai pictures which were very related to the western in tone and style) is that they really go deep in character. They're still action films but they go very deep exploring the characters involved in the stories."
"If I made a movie based on a novel would we call it a 'novel film'?"
Mangold then applied this theory to your run of the mill summer blockbuster, "I think we tried very hard to simplify the story that comic book films and tent-pole films, in general, often tend to have: plots that you need a roadmap to follow. We tried to make a film in which the plot was secondary and it wouldn't require much explaining. Something that was fairly easy to understand, so we could spend most of the time going deeper into the characters and their problems, instead of showing you maps and diagrams about where the story was going.
Skip High Noon and watch spaghetti westerns instead
After describing how influential the genre is to his work, it only made sense for Mangold to reveal a few of his favorites. "The original 3:10 to Yuma is incredible," he begins. "High Noon is often recommended, but not my first favorite. I would say I love Outlaw Josey Wales, a Clint Eastwood movie from the '70s. I love Shane, as will be evidenced when you see Logan. Other westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone, For a Few Dollars More. There are a couple other spaghetti westerns I could name. The Cowboys with John Wayne, The Searchers by John Ford, also with John Wayne. All of these are great."
In Japan, even blockbusters resort to guerrilla filmmaking
Goldman shot his first X-Men movie, The Wolverine, in Japan. We already know he loves the western genre, and in his opinion, Japanese cinema has some very close connections. So while Logan may owe a lot to the western film, The Wolverine borrows heavily from Samurai pictures. Mangold admits he is "a really big fan of Japanese cinema and the saga itself had the chance for [him] to play around with making aspects of an Asian crime film, and a samurai film."
Unfortunately, Mangold ran into a few problems during the production. "Japan is not an extremely film friendly country in the big cities," he explains. "You don't get the same kind of street shutdowns and cooperation from the authorities, so you kind of have to film the movie a little bit guerrilla style in Tokyo, which was kind of exciting, and at the same time challenging. A lot of the scenes you see of Hugh Jackman and Tao Okamoto running around the streets of Tokyo, we literally had them in a van, would jump out on the crowded streets and just chase them with a camera running through crowds."
Please don't call Logan a "comic book film"
One Redditor clearly struck a nerve when he asked whether or not Mangold would be open to directing any more comic book films.
"I'm open to any film that has a good script or a good idea, or if I have a good idea or some kind of inspiration to chase. I don't really view comic book films as any different than any other movies, other then they may source from a comic book," he insists.
"For instance, if I made a movie based on a novel would we call it a 'novel film'?" he asks. "There are as many kinds of novels, true stories, comic books, as there are stories themselves. I'm just looking for whatever it is that I feel that I can spend the next two years working on. That's the biggest thing. Will it intrigue me long enough."
"It is a lot easier to come on board a franchise where it’s widely agreed the last movie was weak because you kind of know you can go nowhere but up."
There may be hope for the DC universe yet
The *ahem* lukewarm reception of X-Men Origins was a blessing in disguise. One Redditor brought up how the X-Men franchise had grown in its previous efforts and wondered if the negative responses affected Mangold's confidence in Logan. "First, it is a lot easier to come on board a franchise where it’s widely agreed the last movie was weak because you kind of know you can go nowhere but up," Mangold advised. So instead of being a worrisome factor to Mangold, it was actually "a very inviting prospect." In this sense, every future DC release has the chance to be a massive hit!
Logan is a better movie because it's rated R, and Fox knows it
When asked if it was hard to convince Fox to let them make an R-rated entry into the X-Men franchise, Mangold revealed that it was actually quite easy. They got it done through "Hugh's and I's unwavering commitment to making an R film." Of course taking a pay cut didn't hurt either Mangold admits. "We told the studio, to help them swallow the pill of the rating, that we would make it cheaper."
The success of Deadpool also helped. "I think the studio was very aware that we needed to do something differently," Mangold explained. "I think both the feeling that Deadpool was going to be a success and also the feeling that other films, other comic book films, and other tent-pole films were starting to run a little dry and stale all helped everyone reach the conclusion that we should try something different."
Creative control comes with a commitment to a vision
When Mangold came in on The Wolverine, the script was already written. He re-wrote the screenplay along with Scott Frank upon entry, but it was still not something that he could really call his own. "On Logan, I started with a blank sheet of paper," he contrasts. "If you like it, I am happy. If you don't like it, I'm sorry but it was very much an expression of what I was hoping to explore with this character. I share those interests with Hugh Jackman who also was looking to do something very personal with this film."
Apparently, he had so much control over the final cut that he goes on to say, "If you don't like the film, I can’t blame the studio, it’s 100% what I wanted to put on the screen. There was no one rounding the corners or telling me how to cut it. Obviously, we had a lot of great collaborators and everyone voiced their notes and opinions on the movie, but I was never forced to do anything I didn't want to do."
"I think movie studios, in general, are not really interested in screwing around with the director's vision unless the director's vision isn't working," he explains. "Most times, when it becomes an act of a committee trying to figure out how to fix a movie, they aren't fixing it because it works so well, they're fixing it because they've screened it for people and no one seems to like it."