The film industry has not been in such a dire state for quite some time now. The same can be said for the many fields and professions that have suffered under the Coronavirus pandemic. With governments classifying movie theaters in the later “phases” of societal recuperation, and with many cities struggling to even operate in the early stages, the bigger picture isn’t looking too bright right now. However, in terms of the moviegoing experience – things were not even perfect before the virus hit. At least, according to visionary director James Mangold.
Mangold has been a leading voice within the evolution of cinema since the 90s. Known by many as the one that closed Hugh Jackman’s iconic Wolverine saga with grace. Known by others as one of the handful of filmmakers that can fully utilize the potential behind the “based on a true story” narrative. He has gained two Oscar nominations in the last 2 years and despite the current state of grim affairs, he isn’t putting his career on hold.
We were fortunate enough to have Mangold for an exclusive interview. Not like the traditional sit down considering we’re all in the middle of quarantine. We talk the state of the film industry and where it’s going. He also goes in depth into how he tackles “based on a real event” storytelling, as he did with last year’s Oscar-winning Ford v Ferrari. The mighty Mangold holds nothing back.
DF: So to start off with a simple question, how are you doing in lockdown?
JM: I’m writing. It’s a time for thinking about your movies because you can’t be making them. So it’s a time for taking care of remaining script notes on existing projects, exploring some new ideas, checking in with your collaborators about things – all of whom are kind of in their own spaces. In some ways, it’s a creative time. In other ways, it’s, of course, a scary time because we don’t know what film production is going to look like exactly on the other side of all this.
DF: You mentioned film production and given the current pandemic and rise of video on demand and streaming… we were wondering what your thoughts are on films being made and released almost exclusively for streaming?
JM: That’s already happening, isn’t it? That’s been happening for almost a decade now. In terms of Netflix, I mean there’s plenty of movies that are really destined for streaming from the moment they’re born, whether they appear briefly in a theater or not. Most of us film creators, as opposed to the film business people, I think… at this point I’ve been making movies since the mid-90s. I’ve weathered many changes. Everyone predicts a wholesale change – and this is dying, and this will be the end of theatrical, or this will be the end of home video, or this will be the end of – and in some ways the predictions are usually right. Although the results happen slower than the doomsday scenarios.
But also things surprise you, like streaming didn’t even exist 20 years ago. The imagination of streaming didn’t exist. The ability to now deliver at least an approximation of a 4K image to a home, at the press of a button, with no physical material being exchanged is a new thing. There were also many trends happening in the movie business before Coronavirus, meaning that independent films were struggling. Smaller films were struggling to find an audience. People have by and large gotten more used to staying at home. So the theatrical experience has, in the main, become a place to see event movies. And perhaps for one or two smaller films that are somehow either so provocative or grab the social zeitgeist so firmly that people feel the need to ingest them, consume them before they get to them on another pipeline.
To me, filmmaking is filmmaking. What we have always considered the delivery of a movie to a “smaller screen” is sometimes now not necessarily that much of a smaller screen. The reality of theater projection has gotten so tragically bad in so many cases. The fight to put your movie in a theater that stinks and someone’s eating an enchilada next to you – half the screen is out of focus or too dim. Theatrical has its own problems, which is that if it doesn’t make itself a sterling presentation that you cannot approximate at the home – then theatrical kills itself without any other delivery method even competing with it. When I talk to theater owners or theater chains, that’s the big thing.
You know I had an experience just on Ford v Ferrari where I went to a landmark theater in New York for kind of an Academy Q&A. Major theater in Central Manhattan, major screens for prestige screenings. They had left their… one of the things that’ll happen is that there are different lenses for 3D films and standard films. The 3D lenses split up prisms that split the light, cut the light level in half basically. Lazy theater owners will just keep the 3D lenses in all the time, which color the movies blue and make them dim on the screen – even when it’s a non-3D film. It’s just strictly either financial or physical laziness to send someone up and put a different lens in the projection system.
I discovered both screenings were happening through 3D lenses with a non-3D movie. This again is at a studio-booked, landmark screening at a fancy major owned theater in New York. My point really is just that theatrical is a wasteland right now of a lot of shitty delivery of movies to audiences who are paying a premium to see them on a big screen. That’s something that needs to be solved in the future. I don’t think theatrical is dead. I’m sure there’s going to be casualties from all this and the theater chains, but I think that people wanting to go out and have a special experience on a big, big screen with great presentation of a movie that isn’t available anywhere else… is something that will continue. But I do think the kind of glory period that I came up during the 90s, when there was really thriving independent cinema on screens in major cities, is already gone. It was gone before this virus arrived. In many ways, you could see streaming as the chicken or the egg – either the killer or the savior of more interesting voices in movies.
DF: Do you think then that filmmakers should have more sane involvement within theaters and the theatrical process?
JM: Well, of course, but do I believe they do? No, because the theaters are, like all capitalist endeavors, in a never-ending cycle of running from bankruptcy. They pay people as little as they can. They hire as few people as they can. They serve snacks that cost them 45 cents to manufacture at prices 22 times the cost of creating. They put you in a theater that is as passable as it can be at the minimum amount of expense. Once in a while, the main theater chain will renovate and put new equipment in. But if the people running the equipment aren’t great, trained, or even give a sh*t because they’re paid so badly – then the result is always going to be questionable. It’s just that simple. It really doesn’t matter what filmmakers say when theater owners are worried about whether they can pay rent next month. More than whether some spoiled filmmaker thinks that their sound is too low or the image brightness isn’t high enough. That’s not where their heads are.
James Mangold’s career is filled with iconic films including the last two Hugh Jackman lead Wolverine films (The Wolverine and Logan) and 3:10 To Yuma.
Fans of the visionary director’s portfolio are aware of his gravitation to stories based on real-life events. Tracing all the way back to Girl, Interrupted, Walk The Line, to his most recent hit Ford v Ferrari.
DF: So you’ve done a couple of films now, Ford v Ferrari being the last. But you also have Walk the Line and a couple others under your belt. How do you pick projects when they are based on real people? What do you see in a real-life story to believe it would make a great film?
JM: The true-life aspect is a little bit daunting. If anything, it sometimes makes you question whether you want to do it because you have these new responsibilities in making a based on real-life story – which doesn’t always coincide with making the best movie. So it’s a challenge. I just look for stories that I feel are unique. Where what happens isn’t what happened before. Using Ford v Ferrari as an example, I felt like we’ve seen a lot of racing movies, but many of them are in the realm of just sexy genre pictures of badass guys, rock ‘n roll, and racing. Then there are ridiculous levels of visual effects and stunts that push the form into something like a child’s or tween movie.
Like the Fast & Furious pictures or the kind of story we’ve seen already. What I thought was so fascinating about Ford v Ferrari is what the story said to me about the kind of dance we were just speaking of in relation to the theater owners. The dance between artists and capitalism, selling dreams, and the way companies and artists interact. The unique and fragile balance in the pursuit of excellence on a mass-market level. The movie itself, to me, was very much about an artistic purist like Ken Miles, and a more of a natural salesman, although also an artist, in Carroll Shelby. And then other forces who are more motivated by marketing or financial gain that are interfacing with these extremely eccentric characters.
That kind of interface is so much alive for me in the movie business, the meeting of large, multinational corporations wanting quote “product” and the kinds of characters like me who make it – who don’t necessarily cooperate, fit in, have the same agenda, or even justify our actions based upon popularity or box office. There’s something else we’re chasing that isn’t always nearly as important to our sponsor.
DF: You mentioned about seeing stories and just recognizing that there are things that we haven’t seen before. You find these things interesting. Are there any stories going on at the moment that you look at and think would make a great script? A great story?
JM: All the time I think about what’s going on in the world. I see the first act, I see a setup. I don’t see necessarily how it comes around. I mean in Ford v Ferrari, what was so amazing to me, spoiler alert, was the way it unwound and didn’t become a story of the underdogs winning. It became in a sense a story of the underdogs getting to a point where they could win, and then they had to take a loss for the company. That to me was really a profoundly interesting way to unravel the story.
Walk the Line, using that example again, I thought it was a really interesting story with all the elements of addiction and troubled childhood. But the way the love story braided with John’s own past, in a sense a romantic love like June Carter became a surrogate or replacement for a loss he suffered in his childhood. This way that love can come into our lives and heal us seemed different. The aspect of John’s artistic identity, “The Man in Black”, the kind of rogue outlaw image was a projection of his own psychological pain. It was so interesting to me and I hadn’t seen how someone turned their own psychic drama into a public identity done in a film – that the public then consumed without ever really necessarily understanding that the persona was a process of healing for the artist.
James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari become one of Fox’s largest successes following the Disney acquisition of 21st Century Fox. The film earned $225.5 million at the box office and went on to perform well in the awards season.
Ford v Ferrari received 4 Oscar nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing, and Best Picture. Although the film did not win the grand prize, Ford v Ferrari still took home 2 wins, for Best Film and Sound Editing. Making a blockbuster is no single man effort, and these two wins are an ode to the filmmaking team under Mangold’s leadership.
DF: Congratulations on the best picture nomination you received for Ford v Ferrari! What was the biggest takeaway you found from the nomination and critical success? Do you sort of plan to take this knowledge going into your future films?
JM: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I have that kind of takeaway. I mean, I’m really proud of the movie. The fact that you end up in an awards race or not is so hard to draw lessons from. I love that there are these showcases for films and I love the tradition of the Oscars and the many other festivals. But that said, you just got to tell the best stories you can and what happens, happens. The second you’re trying to pre-engineer a project to capture whatever lightning in a bottle you got on the last one, you’re already on a bad road because you’re not thinking about the story. You’re thinking about results.
In the acting world, there’s this term of “results note”. If you were acting in a scene, and, as director, I said to you “Make me sadder” or “Make me cry”. What I’m giving you is a result. I’m not helping you figure the character out. I’m not helping you explore the reality of the scene. I’m just telling you what I want to feel. I’m not helping you as an actor get to something deeper or truer. Trying to learn from successes in awards or in the critical world is a little like taking a results note. Instead of trying to listen to your story, you’re listening to whatever the zeitgeist was several years ago that is so peculiar and unique. I thought Joaquin should have won best actor for Walk the Line. I mean, he’s one of the most astounding actors I’ve ever come close to.
But the reality for me was that it wasn’t about something he did or didn’t do. It was about the fact that the previous year a musical biopic had won a lot of awards at the Oscars. So that works against you. It was about the fact that there were some other really great performances that for whatever reason grabbed people’s collective consciousness more at that moment. Ultimately as a film artist, now that I’m in my fifties, what you have the benefit of doing is understanding the movies of yours that got honors and the some movies that didn’t get honors. People start false remembering movies as having won something that they didn’t. Simply because some movies in the beauty of time take on a greater luster just from their power.
And so they escape what is the essential skew of awards, criticism, and box office of the moment, which is that it’s always about the moment. It’s always about that cultural moment and what’s most relevant at that moment to the themes of that moment. Suddenly, the movie is existing in a timeless sphere of just how it lives in perpetuity as a work of art. That’s what I am much more proud of in the longterm – movies that my team and I and my compatriots as actors have made that are still living. When others have disappeared, that is the thing you draw. The greatest reward is that through the just natural Darwinian selection of movies that continue to live out of the affection of people. For the themes, stories, performances, and moments. Those are the things that you take, that I take really. They give me solace on a lovely day locked in my house, with the virus keeping me from working.
DF: Perfect. That has almost answered our next question, but we are still going to ask. What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers? That itself was wonderful, but do you have anything else to add for up and coming filmmakers currently in quarantine?
JM: The number one thing I always say when I teach, which I try to do every year. At least a kind of symposium or a few classes, whatever I can do at different film schools. The number one lesson is to put down the trade magazines. Stop listening to the media and tell stories, meaning that there is no job like a film director in the sense that anyone can say, “I’m a filmmaker”. You can’t say, “I’m a violin player” and not be able to play the violin. But you can say, “I’m a filmmaker” and not be able to make a movie. The amount of bullsh*t in the world and the number of people who probably aren’t even worthy of the opportunities they’ve been given… the amount of opportunities that are given to people who aren’t worthy to make movies makes every young person go, “why is that not me?”
Very rarely do I meet young people who are thinking, “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have the ability that I want”. “I don’t want that platform yet until I’m capable of making a movie like that“. What I’m saying is: very rarely did some great cabinet maker build his first cabinet and then traveled to London and say, “I am the great cabinet maker of the future. Look at my one cabinet I’ve built!” They actually built a series of cabinets, chairs, and tables, and people noticed that these are better than what anyone else is making. Slowly a kind of groundswell occurred where other people wanted those chairs, cabinets, and tables. All the while that cabinet maker is getting better and finer at their craft.
In a world in which fame comes so quickly to people – you know, we will anoint the quote next “Kubrick” based on one movie to someone. Greatness is awarded so quickly to filmmakers that it’s very easy for a young filmmaker to decide that craft matters of less than fame and connections. Getting myself out there, hawking my wares, and selling myself. What I try to repeat over and over again is that it doesn’t matter more. What matters more, in the long run, is the quality of your work. Whether you’ve been working your craft the same way a violinist, a trumpeter, a guitar player would work their craft. You just have to be better and all the little stuff in your work needs to shine in a way that gets you the opportunity you want.
There are plenty of people who get opportunities when they’re not ready, and to tell a movie they don’t believe in. But they take the opportunity because they think they’re like Charlie Bucket with the golden ticket to Willie Wonka’s factory. Then they make a sh*tty movie and their name is attached to a sh*tty first movie that didn’t really represent their vision. It was just an opportunity taken and they’re forever defined by that sh*tty first movie. Their entire career is defined by that sh*tty first movie. It’s really important to demonstrate skill and artistry in your work.
Nothing is stopping you more so now than ever. You can make a great movie with a phone. You can make a great movie with a still camera switched over to 4k. You can make movies with as many tools contained in that little electronic box as Orson Welles had when he was making Citizen Kane. The fact that you’re not, and you’re waiting for someone to anoint you or hand you millions is not the cruelty of the world, but your own mental cruelty. Keeping yourself from doing the thing you dream of doing – if that made sense.
DF: Yeah it absolutely did!