Still fairly buzzed from the London Premiere screening of The Wolverine and an enthusiastic intro from Hugh Jackman himself, What Culture joined an early morning round table interview with the film’s director James Mangold at the Corinthia Hotel on Whitehall.
He proved to be funny, definitely not just in it for the pay packet, and a man who patently loves his work. After bringing Logan back from the cinematic wastelands of X-Men Origins we probably would too. He also seemed to appreciate, with the rest of us, the joy of coffee on tap.
So, it was a good premiere
It was nice, it was the hugest screen I’ve seen the movie on since we wrapped it, so it was a great experience.
How many times have you seen it?
Seen it? Every day of my life for the last two and a half years (laughter)… But the last day of mixing, the ATMOS mix that you heard there, that we finished twelve days ago. I’ve seen the movie literally every day for a year but in pieces and reels, and then we’ve been running one version or another of the picture since three or four months ago.
Where does this (London) come on the world tour?
This is the end. We’re gonna have a visit to Comic-Con (San Diego) and then we’ll be done. Because we’re day and date around the world it lands and we’re done. Hugh did a quick Korean trip which I bagged out off; I wasn’t gonna be a bump on a log standing next to Hugh Jackman, wondering why I flew 42 hours to stand next to him (laughter).
Shooting in Japan, how did you approach that?
Well it’s not a country that’s well practised anymore in location shooting, like shutting down streets. Part of it is that there is no Japanese Film Commission, so if you’re coming into Tokyo going how do I do this sequence in a train station you’re basically on your own to cobble together permission from the different corporations that run the train line, the train station, and a lot of it’s private. Even on the streets, what I thought would translate into something exciting for the film, because it was so hard to shut things down in Tokyo, we literally started loading Hugh and Tao and a camera and me in a van. I’d have these places picked out earlier in the day and we’d just jump out and run down the street. There’s serious shots in the movie that are just literally Hugh Jackman running down a crowded, normal street in Tokyo, for his life, with Tao Hokimoto in tow, and we’re just chasing them guerrilla style.
There’s a quite an interesting tension between making a huge, big-budget blockbuster and using those guerrilla techniques.
It is, on side it’s really interesting for me because it was something we diced in prep. To try and fight the CGI-tis of these films a little bit with a more… naturalistic shooting style. But then things take on a life of their own and you find yourself doing it partly from physical necessity anyway. But it is an odd feeling, having come up through the New York independent scene to suddenly find yourself chasing a movie star down the street with a hand-held camera making a movie in excess of 100 million dollars, and going ‘well, things haven’t really changed all that much’.
What was the shoot in Australia like?
Well there was real careful planning between the Japan shoot and the Sydney shoot because we wanted to coordinate the integration of different locales. I mean I’m pretty proud of the way we did it, for instance the temple at the funeral – the sequence where they’re going up the steps and entering the temple building and encountering the monks – that’s all Tokyo; but as they come out the other side of that temple into the garden that’s Sydney. The entire fight in that garden where the burial’s taking place, that’s Sydney; all the shots of Herada looking down from roofs, that’s Tokyo. When they bust out and get back outside again, on the streets it’s a combination of dressed Sydney and Tokyo, like those great shots of Herada jumping between buildings, some of that’s Tokyo, some of that’s Sydney. So in order to make that stuff cut so smoothly it’s just a lot of coordination and planning. Not so much physical production, more screen direction, shot sizes, direction of light. It’s incredible how checker board it is at times. So the shoot in Sydney was very much planned that way. Originally we were going to Japan first, and I really didn’t want to because I wanted have the film up to speed before we got there.
When you got involved was it at a very early stage that you wanted to do the Japan story?
Well I’ve always loved the Claremont/Miller series (reference), and always loved the X-Men and Wolverine, but when I got involved I was actually in New York shooting a pilot for Bob DeNiro’s company – and that’s when Darren (Aranofsky) fell off it.
When they approached me about it I was really sceptical. Sceptical about what these comic book movies had become and whether there was a natural way for me to do what I do in the face of it. On the most cynical side I feel like it’s mostly about moving lunchboxes and action figures so I don’t feel like people are making a movie as much as a part of a global campaign for profits. There are exceptions to that, like Chris Nolan. I haven’t done what he’s done so you don’t necessarily have people giving you that space that he gets so the anxiety you have entering a film like this is how much freedom you’ll have to tell the story or how much am I going to be looked at as a lucky chap who got a big movie and I better deliver what they’re looking for. So I was very careful from the very top to have some space to manoeuvre.
Was that state shrunk by the fact that it was an established franchise?
That was another fear, but that anxiety was also relieved by the aspect by, a) there was widespread disappointment in the first element of that franchise, and b) whenever you’re following an act that may have tripped or fallen you’re feeling a little more optimistic about your own chances (laughter). But there’s also the fact the Claremont/Miller’s story takes place in Japan, and it felt like it gave me this odd permission to change-up some things, and the more I got into the material ideas started cooking for me. Like if we found Logan in this dishevelled state then we could clean him up again in a different way, like maybe not to the Flock of Seagull’s helmet hair he had in the last decade (laughter). But the Japan thing just felt like it offered me to change the tone a bit.
There’s such a samurai influence, did you draw on other samurai movies?
Of course, I mean I’ve been quoted plenty about lots of movies but I’ve always watched Japanese film. My first movie, Heavy, is hugely inspired by the work of Ozu so I’ve been a Japanese film fan all my life. Certainly as a Western director the idea that a major movie was going to allow me to shoot in Japan with a Japanese cast was a huge draw for me.
How much redevelopment did you do, based on Christopher McQuarrie’s work.
To be honest it’s a little awkward to answer, because I think Chris is a really brilliant writer and I’m not out to piss on anyone or say I threw away what they did, and yet at the same time you want to go, we did do a lot. So the reality of it is the whole concept of immortality and healing, and Logan’s losing of his healing is entirely new. There was a mention of the bombings in McQuarrie’s script, inside the movie, but one of the things that I felt when I came on, which was very close on the heels of the Tsunami, was somehow how to address what had happened in that country without being tasteless. There also seemed to be something tasteless about pretending nothing had happened. So in a way, focussing the audience on another catastrophe… I mean think about it, this rather small country has endured three out of the four major nuclear events of global history. It’s kind of insane, and the fact that they keep coming back is incredible, and I thought that that should somehow be in the film. I thought also that if you’re dealing with Logan’s own century or more of suffering that there’s something analogous about the recovery and resilience of these people and what would be expected from Logan in the course of the movie.
What did your Japanese cast bring to it?
They brought many things, and many were unexpected which is just the grace of these wonderful people. So you had this incredible infusion of energy – Japanese actors aren’t hams when not acting, there’ a kind of reserve that is so beautiful. I felt like I had this incredibly dedicated troupe and was very dependent on them. I mean we spent 6 months together and all of them were working the whole time. Hiro Senada(sic) ran a kind of training camp in one of the sound stages in Sydney where all the actors were working out every day and rehearsing moves and choreographing with stunf coordinators. It was a real family affair. And Tao and Hiro were really helpful to me with translation, making sure I was getting the best performances.
One thing I was very concerned about was I didn’t want to make a film where all the Japanese characters are speaking English. I mean frankly it happens in American movies where all the Nazis are suddenly speaking English… But I felt that language is part of a culture, and also it makes movies more cinematic, you’re pushed into watching behaviour and eyes. It’s the presence of language but the absence of it at the same time.
It was an interesting strategy I had because I really wasn’t sure if Fox would let me get away with it. So I shot every scene in English, and would print the English and send it back for dailies. The we put a ‘J’ on the slate and shot every angle in Japanese as well, and it occurred to me pretty rapidly how much better everyone was, how much better the scenes were. But I never said anything, shot the whole movie doing exactly that, and then when I showed the movie I just showed it cut from the Japanese stuff and never heard a peep about it. To their credit it’s not like they were fooled, as much as they enjoyed the film. And perhaps in this new marketplace were even excited by the filmbeing multilingual.
To what extent was it an issue for you to make the film accessible to audiences not familiar with the X-Men/Wolverine history?
It is incumbent on you to tell a story, always I think, with the assumption that you have to introduce the rules of a world to people. That doesn’t mean you have to explain the rules of a world, sometimes I think people go too far. Movies to me aren’t inherently about talking, they’re about seeing so it’s not like you need to tell people what’s going on. At the beginning of this movie you see some guy who’s clearly lived more than a century, doesn’t seem to be ageing, has claws that come out of his knuckles, seems haunted, missing some woman in his past… I almost think that’s the mode you have to be in when you tell any movie story. But it a fine line.
The Jean Grey character is interesting in that regard because she’s a touchstone within the film, but if you haven’t seen the previous films she’s this kind of mysterious character, what’s the relationship etc…
Right, well in the context of the movie she was very useful to me in the sense that the idea of her is such a great idea for how Logan feels about so many things. Losing people, connecting to people, the idea that whoever he connects to will die. Either by his own hands or because of the attention he attracts, or almost that he’s cursed. I mean the very first five words that I wrote on the back of McQuarrie’s script was ‘anyone I love will die’.
When you look at Claremont/Miller it’s like he’s out in the Yukon, but why? Like ok, he’s Canadian, but why he is he hiding in the woods, what’s it about, and in the context of the movie you need more than he just likes nature (laughter). This also was a new idea that came with me… there was never a decision on where this film as located. I thought Chris’s script was located somewhere in the timeline of the other movies away from the X-Men, and for me because the Jean Grey was such a powerful piece of action and the resonance it had the character was so huge, why not become a sequel to the third X-Men. A fourth X-Men movie without any other X-Men. Because you gain all the pain and loss of all these characters having disappeared. You also wouldn’t miss them – why aren’t they all showing up. There seemed to be this weird expectation of why can’t you get on the phone and say ‘can you come help me with these fucked-up Yakuza?’ (laughter).
That’s summed up by the title of the film, ‘The Wolverine’, it’s not like ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’…
Well that title’s just a sad cluster-fuck of hell (laughter). I mean that title in itself is an attempt to be everything to everybody. I still can’t figure out when you have a character that popular from the first two movies how you make up a title that sounds like that.
Isn’t the Japanese title of the movie ‘Wolverine: Samurai’? That’s an interesting take…
Yes it is; well the whole way that movies get titled, translated is a bit interesting. I loved the concept that he was a ronin, this idea of a samurai after the battle, when he no longer has a kingdom or a leader, or there’s nothing to fight for. That’s almost a 21st Century problem for a superhero, in a world that’s a tangled mess. It’s so easy when there’s some aliens coming to earth who want to blow us up then they all can rally, but most 21st Century problems are a morass of who’s bad and who’s good and so it’s almost like the malaise that a superhero might feel about like exactly what you’re supposed to do in a world in which it’s hard to even figure who’s screwing who. It is an interesting existential quandary.
This is not intended to get you to criticise any other film or film-makers, but…
But if you do it would be welcome… (laughter)
The humour was really appreciated in the film, and not naming names, in other superhero blockbusters there seems to be an absence of humour, a self-seriousness. Where do you stand on humour?
Well I think without naming names there are films with an absence of humour – I don’t think self-seriousness is necessarily a bad thing when it works – but I also think there are other films where the press of humour is annoying to me. Sometimes I think it’s like an episode of Friends with action. So the reality for me is when I read comic books I didn’t feel like there was a quip every three seconds. I felt they had humour, and a wry kind of humour, like a Clint Eastwood movie has humour. Some movies I find too glib, they remind me of the 60’s Batman series, and that might be very foe some, but for me when I started reading comics, and still now, it’s not the way I read them. I never read them as being these tongue in cheek, wink-wink adventures… If I wanted that I’d read Mad Magazine when I was thirteen. I read my comics to be an absolute committed morality tale, and also more adult themed, men and women, and revenge, and jealousy, and bitterness, and parents screwing up superheroes’ childhoods, and all those things in there that were grown up stuff.
It’s a trick, because the word ‘comic’ comes from comedic, as it’s been defined in our century, has come just to mean funny. I mean my Grandmother whenever I’d buy comics would call them joke books, and I’d be like ‘they’re not joke books!… It’s not a joke book Grandma’, and I still feel a little that way.
So I’d fall in between. I’d say the tone I like is allowing the actors the space to be real. If I could be guessing the more ponderous films you’re talking about, I think my style is a little more naturalistic and a little more emotional than that. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s about being funny, but I like to feel intimate with the characters.
Do you think there are too many superhero films?
You know it’s kind of like an old man’s game to be kvetching about that stuff. Because nature takes care of it just like a herd of buffalo… several will lose money and then no-one will be interested, and then it’ll go five years with it being something else. Either that or we’re in a never-ending spiral of comic book films. But what I’m tired of is comic book all in the same mould, all trying to do the same thing. Otherwise what we’re really talking about is myths and gods films, because that’s what superheroes essentially are. I don’t really have an issue with people making myths and gods and legends movies – that’s always been happening – it’s just the repetitive nature of everyone trying to emulate each other’s success.
Why do you think Wolverine is cut so much slack with regard to the difference between the comic and movie versions, appearance wise. I mean people went crazy because Superman had lost his red pants.
You mean because he’s drawn so much shorter…
Well I never felt that was integral to the character, I mean Johnny Cash was a lot taller than Juaquin Phoenix (laughter). I mean it’s a movie and you’re using flesh and blood people to bring it to life. I can’t comment about people freaking out about Superman but I do think that Superman’s a unique case because people work very hard to try and create a character where the challenge there is more a kind of vanilla icon, so the costume becomes more important. But with Logan there so much story about a guy who’s born, fucked up living over two hundred years, getting screwed by science. I think it’s why it’s so successful. In many ways I think it’s to be congratulated that the film-makers even before me have stayed away from the gizmos and the outfits. I think I know there’s something tragic for the fans in that, but let’s just we all go to the edge, everyone of us, of trying to make everyone happy and then realising we think we’d fall off a cliff if we did. In many ways, the fact is that Logan is so raw and real, and that you experience him without the vanity of an outfit in the context of the movies; because that’s what it is, it’s branding. And one thing that Logan doesn’t have any fucking interest in, is being on someone’s fucking t-shirt (laughter). The character is not a guy, not as I perceive him, walking around saying ‘how can I be recognisable to everyone around me, what will my colours be…’.
Would you do another one?
I would do another one if the conditions were similar. I love Hugh, we’re great friends and I hope to make more than one more movie with him in my life. I had a good time making this film, but intrinsic to it would be the idea that I’d have the same sense that we had an idea of what to make it. I don’t want to do it because this one made coin, I’d do it because there’s a good story to tell.
The Wolverine is out in cinemas on 25th July!
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