Native New Yorker James Mangold possesses one of the most impressively diverse CVs of any contemporary Hollywood director. Now in his third decade of helming, he’s successfully tackled the hard-boiled cop drama (Copland, 1997), the prestige music biopic (Walk The Line, 2005), and the gritty Western revamp (3:10 To Yuma, 2007). His new project, The Wolverine (headlined by Hugh Jackman in the title role), is his biggest budget work to date, and sees him join the ranks of filmmakers to have put their own spin on the Marvel Comics juggernaut. We sat down with the charming and candid Mangold in a particularly swanky London hotel to discuss his character-based approach, the film’s Japanese setting, and how the experience of making this blockbuster shared more in common with his low-budget early work than one might expect.
GFW: Can you speak a bit about your initial involvement in the project?
James Mangold: I’ve always loved the Claremont/Miller series, the X-Men and Wolverine. When I got involved I was in New York shooting a pilot for Robert De Niro’s company and that’s when Darren [Aronofsky] fell off the project. I was initially skeptical about just what these comic book movies had become, and whether there was a natural way for me to do what I do; on a cynical side I feel that they [comic book franchises] are about shifting lunchboxes and action figures; sometimes I feel people aren’t making a movie as much as a part of a global campaign for profits. There are exceptions to that but I feel the pressure. I haven’t done what Christopher Nolan’s done so I don’t get the space that he gets.
The fact that Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s saga took place in Japan I felt gave me this odd permission to change up things; to change the tone.
One of the most arresting elements of the film is its Japanese setting [it was shot in Japan and Australia] and cast. What was it like shooting there?
It’s not a country that’s well-practiced anymore when it comes to location shooting; shutting down streets etc. There is no Japanese film commission, so if you’re coming into Tokyo and saying, “How do I do this sequence at a train station?”, you have to cobble together permission from the different companies that run the train line, the station, and a lot of it is private. Even on the streets, what translates into something I thought was interesting for the film was that because it was so hard to shut things down in Tokyo, we literally just started loading Hugh and Tao [Okamato, playing female lead Mariko] and a camera and me into a van, and we’d just run down the street! There’s shots in the movie that are just seriously Hugh Jackman running for his life down a crowded street in Tokyo, and we’re just chasing them!
Did you ever think you’d return to the guerrilla filmmaking days of your youth?
On one side it was interesting for me because it was something we decided in prep that we wanted to do in the movie anyway: to try to fight the CGI-tis of these films with a more naturalistic filming style. But then things took on a life of their own and we found ourselves shooting that way through physical necessity. But it is an odd feeling, having come up in the New York independent scene to suddenly find yourself chasing a movie star down the street with a handheld camera, in a movie [that costs] in excess of $100m!
What was it like to work with a largely Japanese cast?
You had this incredible infusion of energy. Japanese actors aren’t hams in-between when they’re acting. There’s an incredible sense of reserve. I felt like I had this incredible, dedicated troupe and I felt very dependent on them. We spent six months together. Hiroyuki Sanada [as shadowy swordsman Shingen Yashida] basically ran a training camp in Sydney where all the actors were working out every day. It was a real family affair.
A lot of the film is in the Japanese language...
I didn’t want to make this Tora! Tora! Tora! film where all the Japanese people were speaking English. I felt like language is a part of culture and it makes movies more cinematic. If you have a character who can’t understand what another’s saying you’re automatically pushed into watching the film, watching the [actor’s] eyes. It’s the presence of language but the absence of it at the same time. I wasn’t sure if Fox would let me get away with it. The rule would be Japanese people would speak Japanese when they’re speaking to each other, or when they don’t want English people to understand them. But that happens a lot! I shot every scene in English, printed it and send it back for dailies. I then shot every angle in Japanese as well and it really occurred to me how much better everyone was in their own language. But I don’t Fox they were fooled, I think they really enjoyed it and, in this climate, were perhaps excited by the multilingual aspect of the film.
Did you draw on samurai movies?
Yes, definitely. But I’ve been a Japanese film fan in general my whole life. My first movie, Heavy, is extremely influenced by the work of Ozu. As a Western director, the idea that I was going to be able to shoot in Japan with a Japanese cast was a huge lure for me.
There’s wry humour in the film, which sets it apart from some of the other more sombre, self-serious examples of the type. Can you talk about how important that is for you?
I think there’s room for both. You could say that there are films that have an absence of humour and that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it works. But I think there’s other films where the presence of humour is annoying to me. Sometimes I feel like it's an episode of Friends with action! When I read comic books, I didn’t feel like there was a quip every three seconds. I felt like they had wry humour like a Clint Eastwood movie has humour. I find some of these films too glib; they remind me of the ‘60s Batman series. That may be cool for some, but for me, that’s not the way I read comics. I read my comics to be an absolute committed morality tale and for the adult themes: men and women and jealousy and revenge and bitterness and parents screwing up superheroes childhoods... the grown-up stuff! Because the word comic comes from comedic and comedic as its been defined has come to mean funny, it’s weird. My Grandmother would call them ‘joke books’, and I’d shout “They’re not joke books Grandma!’. I fall in-between. The tone I like is the one I did; to allow the actors to be real. My style is a little more naturalistic and emotional; it’s not about being funny, I just like to get intimate with the characters.
'The Wolverine' is out July 25 in the UK, and on July 26 in Canada.