Following our previous conversation with James Mangold on the state of the film industry post-pandemic, he also took some time to reflect on his journey with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The visionary director lead two of 20th Century Fox’s most well regarded comic book films, The Wolverine and Logan. Many consider Logan as the final wave goodbye to Fox’s run with Marvel’s X-Men property. Even though Mangold has directed a handful of Oscar-winning films such as Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted – Logan bestowed the first nomination to his name for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Three years and one more nomination later (Ford v Ferrari for Best Picture), looking back at Mangold’s methods of adapting stories could not be more insightful. Whether if the story originates from fictional or historical canon, Mangold sees not much of a difference. His journey with the Wolverine actually stems back to Ford v Ferrari. Mangold recalls these origins and reflects on the connective themes of his entire filmography. He also breaks down his “dos and don’ts” of adapting comics to film. The goal of telling the best story is the same regardless if your lead is an aging mutant or hot head race driver.
At what stage did you get involved with Ford v Ferrari? Was it throughout the entirety or were you brought on at a certain point?
JM: I was tracking it for almost a decade. I read the script, I think initially as a writing sample and was like, “Who’s making this movie? This is great”! At the time it was Michael Mann and that shut me up because I’m a huge fan. Then I came back two years later, before making The Wolverine. In fact, it was the meeting when Emma Watts (President of Fox) handed me the script for The Wolverine and told me Darren (Aronofsky) had left the project. I asked about what was going on with Ford v Ferrari. Again, it was still with Michael although they had apparently hit some kind of roadblock. The movie was costing too much apparently.
So onward I went and worked on The Wolverine. After that, I came back again to discover that Ford v Ferrari now had a new director and new stars attached. Somehow it changed hands while I was busy. I was frustrated and moved on. But again, that version never happened. Apparently, this new team could not get the numbers down either. The script had become quite sprawling during this process and featured Ferrari in much greater depth with many more races. I was told no one could quite get the cost far south of $200 million. After Logan was wrapped, I asked one more time about where this movie was and, lo and behold, it was finally free.
I talked to the most current writers on the film, John Henry and Jez Butterworth, about what I was thinking about the script. And they set to work with me. We got it down to where you could do it for under 100 million. Christian (Bale) is a friend, I sent him the script and he was very curious about the part. I’ve known Matt since the Cop Land days and we had remained friendly. And I sent it to him. And suddenly, we were off to the races. A large part of the movie was me trying to boil it down into less of an epic about the entirety of the automotive world of that period. Trying to trace these two unique characters and their quixotic battle to find their own holy grail in the complex high stakes world of racing.
As well as doing adaptations of real-life figures, you’ve done adaptations with Marvel’s The Wolverine. Did you find any similarities or differences between adapting real-life figures and comic book characters, both of whom people have sort of preconceived notions of?
JM: You’re walking the same tight rope, whether they’re real-life people or giant trademark characters with huge fan bases. It might as well be that the Wolverine is a true-life story. What people feel is true to canon, true to what “really happened”, or true to how they imagined it happening – is just as much of a mine field. I just set off trying to make the best movie I can with these elements. That’s the simple challenge I’m always facing. Whether it is about well-known characters, or completely original ones. I’m just trying to make the best version of the thing I can. Of course I keep in mind how fans already see the character – you need to take them into account. But you also have to deal with the fact that for many in your audience, you may be introducing them to this character. More than anything, I feel a duty to bring a point a view. If you try to satisfy everyone, you run the risk of pleasing no one. In the end, I have to focus on pleasing myself and hope that other’s share my tastes.
In regard to Wolverine, I loved Hugh’s performances in previous films. I loved elements of things, but I felt like I hadn’t seen the character truly blossom yet. I felt like fans, out of sheer enthusiasm, were reading more into his character than they had been delivering. Particularly in the case of Logan, because I had more control, it was an opportunity to do go out on a limb and make a movie more in my style. The danger with franchises is that you can find yourself making what is just essentially another episode of the world’s most expensive TV show. That is, the movies have less stand-alone integrity and are more part of a greater tapestry. That was not interesting to me on Wolverine or Logan. I am less interested in making something that can’t stand alone, on its own two feet.
If I were directing Hamlet, I’m not going to make a Hamlet like the last Hamlet. The whole rationale behind the effort would be that we have something new to say. I’m going to set off and try and find my own Hamlet. When directing Wolverine, I’m trying to find my own language that’s fresh. That is more important to me than picking up on cues and Easter eggs that other filmmakers have left behind. That’s not very important to me and feels more like a marketing exercise. Often the priority to make a narrative into a continuous “universe” can run counter to telling the best story.
When you’re trying to make a part of a universe, you’re beholden to a litany of preordained decisions. Casting, story, design, and character relationship decisions that may not really work for the particular narrative you’re trying to tell. To me, the misconception that exists about comic books, having been a huge fan all my life – is that the comic book artists and writers didn’t change things, reinvent things. Of course they did. Including the creation of golden ages, alternate and parallel worlds where they could lay off the narrative burdens they could no longer carry. They defined and modernized the characters with new looks or ones that more appropriately representing the point of view of that particular artist.
What pressure did you feel on wrapping up with Logan? Not only Hugh Jackman’s role, but Patrick Stewart’s as well. Was it almost like finishing a beloved TV series?
JM: Well, as I said, I didn’t feel that way. I abandoned that burden of a TV series. You’re talking to someone who has no sense of duty to connect it to everything else. I didn’t see myself as making the last episode of the TV show. I saw myself as someone trying to make the best movie I could about this beloved character. Of course, to a degree, we referenced where he’s come from or what’s happened. We did it when it worked for us, but we also skipped or frog leaped over other stuff that didn’t work for us. The priority was the most heartfelt and personal movie – not the best movie that wired into everything else. That’s how I imagine you design the best car. If you have to make the same model of the car last year with some cosmetic changes, that does not produce the best car. What produces the best car is giving a designer the freedom to play, to use a different engine, different gear assembly, different crankshaft, different tires, different body shape, dramatically alter the form.
You mentioned Hugh Jackman being very involved in the creative process and how much difference there is when directing mega stars. Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari for instance, versus directing smaller actors. Is there more input when you’re working with a bigger star or is it more of the same?
JM: It really depends on the actor. Certainly in the case of Hugh and Logan, the relationship had existed between me and him for so many years making several movies. We are good friends. I knew dissatisfactions he had with films and his yearnings, what he wanted to do or hoped to have happen with the character. Things that he hadn’t had a chance to explore most of the time because Logan was existing in film with so many other characters and plot. The amount of screen time each character was accorded was minimal if you think about it. When you’re making these round robin, “task-force” movies, each character gets an arc of about 8 to 10 minutes, once the two hours is divided up among the five or six principles and villains and action sequences. For Hugh and I, we just agreed on our mission statement – which was to make a more personal film, a less polished and corporate feeling film, if you will.
Changing the rating helped. Also pushing the movie’s timeline a bit into the future, so that I was not encumbered by all the plot established in previous films. As I said, I took what was useful to me from the previous movies and even comic books, and where it wasn’t useful – I didn’t. Here’s the thing: you can be true to the facts, both of a true-life story or in a famous fictional literary work, but you can at the same time, be untrue to the essence of the original material, which would be a crime. I set off to be true to the essence of Wolverine.
The dramatic question of any Wolverine story is, to me, always about rage and regret. If we are programmed with rage, do we have the ability to earn forgiveness or forgive ourselves for what we’ve done? This theme, the quest to control the monster within us, is not all that different from the Johnny Cash story. Johnny Cash told me that the character he most identified with in movies was when at 11 years old he saw the original James Whale Frankenstein with Karloff. John said he identified with the monster, and the idea of being made up of all bad parts, evil parts, the parts of criminals. Even at that young age, John saw himself as broken – corrupted by darkness. Well, Wolverine isn’t all that different. When people talk about the eclecticism of my career, the changing genre I explore, I sometimes feel they ignore the huge connections between the characters I’m drawn to. Both Logan and Johnny Cash had pained childhoods, suffered from loss, depression, rage, and had a shadow of doom chasing them in their effort to find their best selves.
You talked about the vibe you wanted to create. Elements many saw similar to Old Man Logan. How much influence did you take from that and how much did you kind of discard if you dared at all?
JM: I really admired Old Man Logan. I loved the vibe, the tone. Millar jettisoned a lot of canon and it felt like an artist playing in his own vision of a dystopian Marvel universe. He took the elements he wanted, forgot others, and had fun. That was really liberating. Now, the plot that they came up with in Old Man Logan was not workable for me. For one reason I didn’t find it moving. It felt like nihilistic journey through different spheres and worlds. But I wanted to feel Logan. his pain, and his journey in a way that I didn’t think I could get at through that plot, which was incredibly imaginative and picaresque. There was also a logistical level I couldn’t do that plot. I had no right to use many of the characters in Old Man Logan. But nonetheless, it was a large influence. It gave me permission to make a Clint Eastwood movie about Wolverine.
I don’t think Logan would exist without Old Man Logan. I also took liberally from X-23 lore, movie lore, and then my own imagination. I mean, the idea that Charles had brain disease was just my own confection, as a dramatic conceit – which to me seemed to be really provocative, given that his brain was the most powerful thing in the world. At the time we were working on Logan, it was also topical. So many people found themselves caring for parents who were losing their memory, or their grip. It seemed like such a potent thing to weave into a story.
We were wondering, If you were given the opportunity at another comic book character, whether that’s out of Marvel, DC or otherwise – would there be anyone else that you want to adapt?
JM: It’s no secret that I was trying to pull together a version of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I pitched it to HBO years ago and they bought the pitch as a long form series and then it got undone by a political turf war at WB. Regardless, now it’s happening and I am so happy for Neil who I think is a marvellous person as well as a supremely brilliant artist. His unique vision weaves the psychological, psychedelic, romantic, sexual and fantastical in a way that is both personal and epic. Anyway, in regard to other projects of the future, I couldn’t possibly speak about conjecture because anything I say in the realm of comic books becomes instant nitro-glycerine ready to haunt me for the next 10 years on Twitter.