James Mangold interview: how Logan bucks the superhero trend

Ahead of Logan's UK release, James Mangold tells us why Wolverine's final bow is a different breed of superhero movie...

Time has begun to tell on the Wolverine. His face is careworn, he needs glasses to read, and even one of his adamantium claws doesn’t quite extend as smoothly as it used to. This is, of course, Hugh Jackman’s last hurrah as the sharp-clawed superhero, and an air of finality hangs heavily on Logan, directed by James Mangold.

It’s a road-trip movie, it’s western, it’s neo-noir, it’s science fiction. But overwhelmingly, it’s a portrait of three outcasts and how they interact. There’s Logan himself – trying in vain to lay low and work as a chauffeur on the Mexican border, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose old age has left him confused and cantankerous, and Laura (Dafne Keen), otherwise known as X-23. An 11-year-old mutant whose past echoes Logan’s own, she kicks the plot into high gear, as the three flee across America with a group of villains on their tail – and soon proves to be an adept fighter in her own right.

Blisteringly violent yet also measured and more than a little melancholy, 20th Century Fox’s Logan is a further departure from the superhero framework following the breakout success of last year’s Deadpool.

On the eve of Logan’s release, here’s director James Mangold – who also co-wrote the screenplay – to explain why his action-western-road-trip mash-up isn’t your average superhero flick.

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Note: the following interview took place shortly after a waiter brought in a plate of salmon and avocado sandwiches for Mr Mangold’s lunch.

Is that avocado?

Yes. Avocado and salmon. It’s some specialty of the house that I had a couple of days ago and I thought, “Wow”.

I can’t do avocados. 


Dear me, no. But there’s that amazing line in the film about avocados.

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“I’m not a box of avocados!”

That’s it! I thought that was great. I found the tone really refreshing – a superhero film with that gritty, western kind of tone. 

In many ways, the congratulations in that department should go to the studio, because I just tried to make a movie like the others I’ve made, which are naturalistic in tone. The only thing I can take credit for in that endeavour was Hugh [Jackman] and I, straight up at the beginning, saying, “We only want to make this film if we get to make it our way. We’ll gladly make it for less, but we want to rate it R and we want to make a movie that [spoiler redacted], but more importantly is darker and disconnected. Not serving any future X-movie or picking up the baton from the last one, but exists in its own space from beginning to end. 

I mean, that’s nothing that wouldn’t be true of anything else I’ve made, it’s just that within the realm of superhero movies… they’ve become something else. Almost not movies. They’ve become platforms to sell things – including the next movie. 

They become adverts for themselves.

And unwittingly, not very different from our politics, the very people who are demanding better movies – the fans – have become unwitting accomplices, in my opinion, of the undoing of the quality of these movies. Because they bought into the idea that you’re supposed to cut all these movies into some giant mega-movie. Then they’re all supposed to fit together in a way that the fucking comic books never fit together. I mean, the comic book authors reinvented their worlds 28 times – they even drew the characters different. They changed the outfits, the looks, the height, the muscularity – they changed these characters. 

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For some reason, people have been programmed with the idea that the interpretive act by a film director is a violation of a canon as opposed to fulfilling one. In comic books, from Frank Miller to Joe Quesada, that’s different. From Joe Kubert to Craig Claremont, those are different worlds – different worlds, different visions – and no one expected to be able to interchange panels from those different artists and writers and have the things hold 100 percent true. 

Do you think the internet’s partly to blame for that? It’s the same with adaptations of books; they have to be quite literal – they can’t leave anything out for fear of offending the fans.

Even true life stories. I found when I made the Johnny Cash movie [Walk The Line], people have this feeling, “How can you leave this song out?” It’s very hard, because I only have 120 minutes. I also have a responsibility to tell a story, and the story has to have some kind of cohesion. Our lives don’t have that cohesion, so you can’t include every moment where something important happened, because it may have been important in terms of a hit record, but it isn’t important to the story at hand. That’s the tricky thing.

It’s interesting that you talk about cohesion. A lot of superhero films tend to be plot-driven, but this is character-driven. I’m guessing that was another of your stipulations early on.

I just wanted to make another film like Walk The Line or Girl Interrupted, where the plots are simple. It’s just watching the characters wrestle with themselves. We didn’t really establish a supervillain in this movie, with a diabolical plot of any grandness. All that goes hand in hand with what we’re saying. But again, I think comic book movies have almost got into a bidding war with themselves – an arms race.

They’re trying to create higher  and higher stakes, as though that will  make the film more exciting. I’ve never seen any statistical or even anecdotal evidence that an audience is more excited about a movie in which their whole world will blow up if the characters don’t succeed, rather than a movie where two characters will lose their house if they can’t pay their mortgage. 

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In fact, sometimes people get far more on the edge of their seat worried about people with the mortgage than worrying about the Earth exploding. 

It’s like that old saying about one person dies it’s a tragedy, when a million people die it’s a statistic. 

We have all that wisdom, yet the studios don’t… there’s “Less is more”, yet we keep having movies with more and more superheroes in them. I mean, literally, there’s a movie coming up with Infinity in its title, as though they’ve stopped keeping count! [Laughs] Again, all these filmmakers and creative folks are great and talented, but if you have 120 minutes and you have 10 characters, then they all get 12 minutes each. That’s not including titles or action sequences. So you’re talking about each character having an arc the size of Elmer Fudd in a Warner Bros cartoon. Then people are wondering why; they’re complaining that the arcs are too thin. Well, of course they’re thin. There’s no fucking time!

Plus, it’s attention-deficit theatre. It’s like, they’re cut and made for people who can’t endure a scene that lasts more than 28 seconds. All that stuff is what we’re very intentionally contradicting in this movie. Some people may not like it, but it was an effort to do something different. 

You said that the studio was very supportive. So do you think there’s a realisation at Fox that something needs to change?

I think all the studios are realising that. I think some are further down the road, already having bought into a vision or a blueprint for a, quote, universe, that makes it harder for them to turn the wheel than others might. But I think they’re all recognising that the stylistic consistency of all the films doesn’t matter to the public. What matters is, are they good? I think it’s why people found Deadpool so refreshing – I even think in a more modest way, Guardians Of The Galaxy was just a different vibe than other Marvel films, and people found it really refreshing.

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What’s refreshing too is that this isn’t just R-rated in a violent sense; it’s adult in a thematic sense.

Yes. And that’s not a coincidence. My greatest focus in getting an R-rating was not being able to jam a claw through someone’s skull. That was an added asset! But the real thing – and it helped that the fans wanted to see Wolverine unleashed, the berserker rage. That helped me make the argument. But I knew that if Hugh and I could get an R, then we’ll have the freedom to make an adult film. Because the second the marketing arm of a studio realises it cannot market to children, five or six creative things happen. The scenes can go deeper, and can be written for adults. Not just language, not just [violence], as you’re saying, but the themes can be more interesting, the words you’re using can be more complicated. The ideas can be more complicated. 

Also, the film comes under no pressure to be a platform for the sale of toys. Because there’s going to be no kids to see it. So suddenly, the pressure to put gizmos in the movie that someone can manufacture and sell goes away; the pressure to create robots and characters and costumes that they can market with action figures evaporates, because this movie just isn’t playing to people who go to Toys R-Us. 

Was there some of that on The Wolverine, in your experience?

On The Wolverine? I think I wasn’t quite as sharp-elbowed in a couple of cases as I should’ve been, so yes is the answer. But I do think there was a bit of a regime change at Fox, between the two movies. The people running Fox now have a clearer understanding that their audiences have changed. I don’t think, when I made The Wolverine, have gone as far as I have on this film. I think times have changed now.

The summer we came out – we came out at the end of the summer [2013], and my observations about what was happening… I think we came out in August. I think that we came out after the Superman film came out [Man Of Steel], and a number of other films. A Thor film [The Dark World] and all the other films that came out before us. Even some blockbusters that weren’t comic book-themed. But I felt a kind of exhaustion by the time we got to our release date. 

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And what was really weird was that the studio was really concerned that we have big, CG action to stay afloat against the other films we were up against, but by the time we got to market, the very thing people were most tired of was the thing the studio wanted to make sure we had enough of. The thing the studio was most worried about – which was this kind of Hong Kong crime movie, this kind of Japanese noir I was making, was almost our best asset. But the marketplace was changing at that moment so fast, that pressures changed. 

Now, I think there’s a feeling even in marketing circles that no one’s quite sure what the world is. But they’re all quite sure that doing the same thing they were doing will lead to the same place Hillary Clinton got. The old way of doing things just isn’t going to work anymore.

This is a violent film, clearly. But I liked the theme that the violence has a corrosive effect on Logan. He wears his history on him. There’s the quote from Shane – “There’s no walking away from a killing.” At what point did that whole thing cohere in your mind?

Pretty early. What you’re talking about came in my mind when I was making the last Wolverine. I’d written something on the back of the script that I used as a mantra, which was, “Anyone I love will die.” This idea that the sins of his past would haunt him in some way more than just in his dreams. That they would literally descend from the clouds or rise from the ground and slit the throat of anyone he loved. That’s a really interesting character to follow, where doom is nibbling at their jacket as they go through life. That was the very reason the last one found him living in the Alaskan wilderness, and this one finds him living south of the border in another self-imposed exile. 

But I tried to go further with the idea in this one. I started with a blank page on this movie; on the last one, I already knew I was doing a Japanese saga. There was already a script that existed. Scott Frank and I rewrote it, but it’s still like getting on board a train that’s already moving. When I started this movie, there was nothing – there was no plan, no idea what was going to come next. And from Hugh’s position, there wasn’t even a sense that he wanted to make another one. It was up to me to come up with a plan, and what I sketched out was, “What if Logan was frightened of love? That’s what the movie should be about.”

Therefore, not about a supervillain, not about a diabolical plot. Not about planets exploding. I just gave him a daughter – I’d read the X-23 comics, Innocence Lost, which was a great series about the creation of X-23. What’s the movie by the British director, Joe somebody, with the young girl who’s raised as a…?

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Oh, Hanna? That’s a great film.

That movie was always in my mind. That movie, and La Femme Nikita. I saw all this potential in her [Laura]. You have this idea that Charles is sick. How is he sick? I’m thinking about Logan; “What’s the thing Logan fears more than anything?” Well, I was thinking, what would the worst way for Charles Xavier to be sick? And I thought that would be Alzheimer’s or dementia. The story seemed to evolve from there, all under this umbrella of the visualisation of Old Man Logan – but not the story. 

Hell Or High Water was a recent film I really liked. And Logan taps into that same sense of a nation in decline. 

Yes, yes. I love that film, by the way.

It’s beautiful. I find it interesting, how you thread that theme into this film.

It’s Scottish director, right?

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David Mackenzie.

Terrific film. I think there’s a mood out there. This movie happened fast. I had another movie that ended suddenly. I was making The Deep Blue Good-by which was a Travis McGee thriller with Christian Bale. He tore all the ligaments in one of his knees, and the movie was suddenly cancelled. I turned back to Logan, and wanted, partly for very personal reasons, I was 14 days from starting a movie, I’d just designed sets, the script had been written and rewritten, and then all evaporated. I was dying to make a film, so I went hell’s bells into this. 

It’s almost March… One year ago, I just got to the ending of the script, with Scott Frank. We finished shooting in late August. It’s now February. So the speed with which we made this movie is maybe how we got away with it! We moved fast. You’re talking about every department and every person, to a man, I’d worked with before. So we were really effective at moving quickly, but the reality was that it helped. The film has a certain feel – it’s not made quickly in a bad way, but made quickly in the sense that it feels alive. It feels raw. 

So has making this film left you hungry to make a film about Laura? 

[Pause] I will say this… Yes is the simple answer. I’d love to figure out a story for that character. But I will say more because of the actress. [Dafne Keen] is a remarkable child who I’m very attached to, and who I feel incredibly indebted to. These are huge undertakings, these movies, even with this one costing less, it was still in excess of $100m. It’s essentially a three-legged stool, with two of the legs being seasoned performers who’ve played the same characters for almost 20 years, and the third leg of that stool has, frankly, no less weight falling on her. Yet she’s got to pull it off in an 11-year-old’s body, and what she does, and the commitment and focus of that kid… She’s not a kid who’s coached to read lines or look over here or over there. 

There were some moments where I was in a rush, when I’d run up to Dafne and give her a note like that – [look over there, read this line]. She’d be like, “What do you want to feel?” Or she’d say, “What am I supposed to feel?” She’d like a method actor of 11 years of age, going, “Don’t tell me what to look at, just tell me what the scene’s about!” And she could handle the rest. That’s from emotional scenes to action scenes – she’s a remarkable kid, and it would be exciting to put something together and see her again. I can’t lie – that would be exciting.

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James Mangold, thank you very much.

Logan is out in UK cinemas on the 1st March.