How Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny Channels Raiders of the Lost Ark
Exclusive: Director James Mangold tells us what it took to get him onboard for Indiana Jones 5, and the lessons he learned from Steven Spielberg.
This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.
James Mangold did not say no, exactly, to Indiana Jones when the man in the fedora came knocking. But he didn’t open the door at first either. Instead, during those precious few months before a pandemic changed the world, Mangold experienced the surreal sensation of having his filmmaking idols Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and Kathleen Kennedy approach him about directing the fifth Indiana Jones film—and essentially turning them down.
“There seemed like a lot of danger on a project like this,” Mangold recalls about that early discussion, “a lot of Mount Rushmore heads of greatness around me and a kind of pressure that I’m used to, but the point for me is always why are we making this movie? What does it have to say? Like, I know why a corporation might want to make the movie, but what is the creative endeavor?” For Mangold, the sticking point became Lucasfilm wanting Indiana Jones 5 to shoot about six months after that sitdown if it was going to meet a 2021 release date. And Mangold needed a delay.
Says the director, “The script wasn’t there, and I felt like I wasn’t there. I needed to find a way in. I needed to somehow own something like this if I was going to do it. It’s not a gig you jump on.” At that moment, it seemed as if he might have let the project go, as a delay would throw Disney off its timetable. But as it turned out, the whole world would soon be on pause, and Mangold would have that precious resource that would come to haunt Ford’s title character in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. He had time.
Time and its effect, even on legends like Dr. Jones, figures prominently in the fifth and definitely final Indy film. When Mangold came aboard with his Ford v Ferrari co-writers, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, their goal was to lean into the idea that this was a hero at sunset and that Ford and his on-screen alter-ego have aged about 40 years since Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Den of Geek magazine catches up with Mangold over Zoom—and only weeks before Dial of Destiny’s Cannes premiere—we note it’s a theme he appears to have an affinity for after crafting Wolverine’s elegiac swan song in Logan. The director recognizes the parallels too but sees Indy as a fundamentally different character.
“It isn’t that this story uniquely appeals to me,” Mangold considers, “it’s that the opposite thing doesn’t. To me, making a movie about a handsome guy in his prime without vulnerability of any kind is its own bag of problems. I’ve seen many movies, even in our modern franchise context, fail. A whole bunch of studs in outfits running around blowing things away and saving the world can get pretty numbing.” For the director, embracing Indy’s age and vulnerability is the appeal.
“My actor is 79 years old, and we got to be real. I know everyone wants to pretend all the time, but there’s only one man who’s ever going to play Indiana Jones, and he happens to be 79 years old. So I’m making a movie about that guy, not the guy who’s 79 pretending he’s 52 because that’s not real.”
However, lest you fret, Indy 5 is not going to be a dirge. Again, this character isn’t Logan, and the tenor of the new film is nothing if not joyful, albeit wistful, as an older and wearier Indy finds himself in 1969 and at the end of his career. He’s finally retiring from university and lives in a world where he’s become his own relic. As Mangold notes, “Astronauts are our heroes, and people are now voyaging to new worlds outside our planet; it dwarfs Indy’s digging in the earth.” Yet when his goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) shows up one day with a clue to an ancient artifact that eluded Indy back during World War II (and an opening sequence that utilizes much talked-about de-aging technology), Dr. Jones finds himself back in the saddle for one more ride.
The director confides to us that when developing the story, a primary concern was figuring out why the last Indy movie struggled. As it turned out, the best solution was less about focusing on the many pitfalls of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and instead looking toward what worked in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“[Raiders] is this unique nexus, not unlike what happened with Star Wars, where it’s classic movie serials, Golden Age plotting, and optimism with clear senses of good and evil,” Mangold says. He compares Ford to Humphrey Bogart in that movie and John Williams’ score to the work of classic Hollywood composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold. “There’s an aesthetic unity to the film; even though it’s a mash-up of modern technology, Steven is still a classical filmmaker. It’s on steroids, but his whole language and vernacular are built off classic Hollywood cinema.”
Mangold intends to channel that in Dial of Destiny while aiming to make it appear like a jarring anachronism. In an era where the culture has become more jaded, and Golden Age escapades are replaced by Easy Rider—or astronauts reaching the moon on rockets built by men who fought on the other side in WWII—Indy’s values are out of step. “Guys in a hat with a whip at their side are not running around Manhattan in 1969 and flying off to an Egyptian site,” says Mangold. “It’s not happening anymore.” Until it does.
When that sense of adventure returns, it’s also a chance for Mangold to embrace his preference for classic filmmaking over the current Hollywood trends. Unsurprisingly, the filmmaker who shaped a superhero film around the influences of George Stevens’ Shane has old-school tastes; Mangold even likens Spielberg and himself as being among a brotherhood of directors with long memories.
Says the filmmaker, “I’m not into the shaky-cam, fucking 75 cameras pointed in every direction insanity. I don’t like flying the camera through a keyhole and then out the ass of a gnat, and I find the endless pursuit of one-er [takes] to be another kind of athletic stupidity that has gotten to be an arms race of ‘I’ll out one-er you.’ What about storytelling? That’s what Steven’s work teaches us all the time. I love the cut, the power of the cut, the power of the move, and the move that meets the cut.”
Mangold grew up reading about those things, and Spielberg and George Lucas, in Cinefix magazine while listening to Williams’ scores on vinyl. Now all three are collaborators on Dial of Destiny.
“That was the greatest attraction of this film, the idea that I would have almost a middle-aged film school for myself in which I get a chance to try to walk in the shoes of my heroes and literally play on their ballfield with them.”
But if Mangold feels like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, then the star player he’s been waiting for to come out of the cornfield must be Ford. The legendary actor first recommended Mangold for the job after almost appearing in Ford v Ferrari, and on the first day of filming, when Ford emerged from wardrobe in full regalia, everyone on the set was grinning ear-to-ear while staring at Indiana Jones in the flesh—at least until Ford looked around and shouted, “What?! WHAT?!” But the actor is more than just a whip and hat.
“Harrison is always looking to undermine his own good looks and seeming invincibility,” says Mangold. “He is not an actor who’s going ‘make me look good’ all the time. He wants to look sloppy, bad, real… He wants to be full of jealousies, anguishes, trivial, petty grudges, anger, and miscalculations.”
Mangold believes this is a major reason the character has endured for nearly half a century: Ford makes Indiana a bit fussy and whiny, and audiences love seeing that messy obliviousness. He can have a classroom full of students lusting after him (in a different era), but he only sees the chalkboard and its charted course for adventure. Those qualities are also why Mangold and company put so much thought into who would be the right companion for Indy at sunset.
“I know Harrison pretty well, and he’s a handful in a wonderful way,” Mangold says. “He likes to argue; he likes to push back and pull on the scenes. He’s extremely demanding of himself and everyone around him, so I wanted somebody that would present him with challenges every day.”
In some ways, though, it always comes back down to Raiders, and in this case, how certain Indy sequels failed to find an energy as both effervescent and tenacious as Karen Allen. Mangold thinks he might have found a spiritual successor of sorts, too, in Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a polymath talent he admits he wrote the role of Helena for. It probably didn’t hurt that the director was watching Fleabag season two while developing the script.
Says Mangold, “She made such a massive impression on me as a powerful creative force, and also a comedian and actress, and we needed something very fresh to put up against Harrison.” As it turned out, Ford was also a fan after recently binging Fleabag. “We both just said to Kathy Kennedy, ‘Get her.’”
Fortunately, Waller-Bridge liked the script (or the nearly two-thirds of it that were finished) when she met with Mangold, and the result is a performance her director compares to Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck: “You want to fall in love with her, but you know she’s going to destroy you. It’s this wonderful combination of mess and art.”
Once again, Mangold seems determined to unite Indy with his cinematic heritage. If what Spielberg did on Raiders (and Jaws and Close Encounters, and…) is akin to Mozart in Mangold’s mind, then the younger filmmaker knows he can only offer his own interpretation of that after a lifetime of watching and learning. Still, Dial of Destiny at last gives him “permission to indulge all of it.”
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens on June 30.