In London to promote his Tom Cruise action comedy Knight And Day, director James Mangold was kind enough to give us twenty-five minutes of his time for a round table discussion about the state of Hollywood, his opinions on 3D, and fault-finding movie geeks…
I have an entire book of questions…
My God, really?
No, I’m only joking. How did you find shooting the film? I mean, all your films are kind of different, but this one’s a real departure isn’t it, with action scenes and effects and so on?
There was a lot of planning in advance. I mean, we did that on 3:10 To Yuma for certain scenes, but there was a large amount of action sequences in this movie that required a lot of planning. It was, in that sense, different in that it was a learning curve for me, and I wanted to do something different.
I really didn’t want the action scenes to be story boarded, I wanted to feel character in the action sequences, and not just impact or intensity, and I feel that a big part of the way movies are made now, there’s this kind of pro-forma recipe for how to make things intense.
There are these great professionals who can keep things flying at you, but [we wanted to] somehow keep it actually lighter, and to try to make something a little loose-limbed. It almost seems like you’re at cross purposes sometimes, because you’re trying to make something less choreographed, and a little more, kind of, controlled chaos. And the difference is between it being fun or not.
Is Tom Cruise one of the most fearless actors in terms of how many stunts he wants to do himself?
Well, there are moments where you go. “Oh, my God” initially, and then you kind of stop, because he seems so comfortable hanging from buildings on strings that you just seem to take it for granted.
I mean, there’s a level where I fear on my next film I’ll just say. “Oh, you’ll hang from that building and we’ll tie a cable to you,” and they’ll be like, “Woah, woah, wait a minute,” and by the end of doing a movie like this, I think I take it for granted.
And Tom makes it look really easy. He just prepares. I mean, if he’s doing a stunt, he’ll be on set three, four hours in advance, stretching, walking, checking the locale, the footing. I mean, it’s not like he’s this kind of hot dog, that just arrives and acts like nothing’s going to touch him. He arrives, and he’s like a pilot, coming in and checking the controls. It’s incredible how much effort he makes.
And also measuring what he feels good about, the actual most hair-raising thing he did – which may not be the most hair-raising looking thing in the movie – was the rooftop running sequence in Salzberg. It’s icy, it’s 3am, he’s five stories in the air on a pitch roof running at full speed. One false step and he’s gone.
And he felt completely great about it, but I was really glad that night when we got the wrap.
Tom Cruise is obviously well known as Ethan Hunt. Was the role in Knight And Day intended for Cruise, or was it a happy accident that you managed to get him?
When this movie was written, it was conceived as this zany comedy with – what’s the guy from Rush Hour – Chris Tucker and Eva Mendez were going to be in it. When they were developing it, five or six years ago, it was going to be a completely different kind of picture.
I think I disagree that Tom’s character’s similar to Ethan Hunt. I mean, it’s still Tom playing a spy, but Ethan’s kind of a can-do guy, and kind of this super spy. Cruise in this movie is emotionally more baffled, I find. Not ready for a relationship, slightly wistful, wishing he’d taken a different choice for a career, whether he’d become a fireman or travelled the world or whatever.
My favourite part of him is that there’s this dissatisfaction with his career choice, and that his meeting this girl made me interested in the movie. The last thing I wanted to do was make an alternate Ethan Hunt movie.
Did Tom Cruise have any input in the way the film went?
No more than any other actors, but I think certainly, he’s got opinions. In American football, it’d be like having a quarterback who’d played for ten seasons and yet didn’t have an opinion what player choices he’d make?
He’s filled with ideas. For that matter, so is Cameron Diaz. It’s what they get paid for. My role is just kind of corralling and steering so it doesn’t get out of control.
But [Tom’s] filled with ideas, really bright ones. He’s willing to try anything anyone else does.
Do you think the box office expectations for a Tom Cruise film are unfair, particularly in America?
I do. I think it’s not just on Tom Cruise movies. I think the whole horse race media game is really complicated, and I think it affects our political world as much as it does our movie world or music world, but I think it’s irrational in all places.
I think if you look at numbers and not personalities, you could find movies and stars where there are expectations that are met and not met every year, and that no one writes a bit of copy about it whatsoever. Somehow, in relation to Tom, there’s a kind of heat and lightning that makes everything a story even when it’s a non-story, in my opinion.
For instance, I’ll use an example, where there’s the Adam Sandler movie [Grown Ups] that’s doing a little better than us in the States, and it’ll do nothing in terms of the business we’ll do around the world, but all that’ll be reported is the difference between our gross in the States and their gross in the States, and the double that our movie will do compared to that one.
And I think that’s where it is, and I think it’s unfair. I think who people will pick on is not fair, particularly in the case of these actors that I got to work with. They worked so hard. It would be one thing if I saw them coasting, but I find it so amazing how hard they work. And I got more distracted by the press than they did, I’d be like “Oh, bloody… fuck it.” You know?
I mean, Tom was working the crowd and signing autographs until God-knows-when [at the premiere], and he never quits and I think that’s a really admirable part of it.
You’ve worked with Peter Sarsgaard as well, and he’s clearly, with An Education, and Green Lantern, he’s quite possibly the next generation of superstar, potentially. How was it working with him?
No different. They’re just actors. In the end you’re all in a room together with a camera, and it’d better not look shitty. So, the reality is that, in the end, whose resume is longer and whose trailer is bigger just disappears pretty fast. And Peter definitely isn’t exactly fresh [laughs]. I mean, he’s been in movies for a decade, from movies like Jar Head and Flight Plan. So, he’s not exactly bursting on the scene.
Like, Paul Dano. This is probably his eleventh feature. So, you think he’s fresh, but then you go, “That’s more movies than I’ve made.”
But the mix of people is great. I loved, in Paul’s case, the bits between him and Tom, and there’s a wonderful exuberance between him and Paul, and I love seeing that pressed against Tom’s attempt to keep control.
I think it’s fair to say Knight And Day is one of the few films this summer, other than Inception, that’s not a sequel, or franchise, and not in 3D. What do you think of the way Hollywood’s going at the moment, with its sequel, franchise mania?
Hollywood is, in a sense, in crisis. It’s a familiar crisis. It’s happened cyclically before – it happened in the 50s and 70s – each time yielding good movies, actually, where Hollywood was losing audience to other methods, in most cases television and Internet or something like that. And in most cases they try to create more spectacle, so that you have a reason to leave the house as opposed to waiting to see a film on your high definition television at home.
I think there’s a whole mix of things going on. The addiction to sequels is not new. And I think that’s something that’s as much the audience’s fault as it is the studio’s, that audiences like going to known quantities.
There’s a safety, a studio feels, to pre-branded entertainment, because they feel there’s a pre-installed base. And when you’re risking a hundred million dollars, you’re relieved that there’s an audience. So, whether it’s comic books or best-selling novels or sequels, anything that gives them leverage to get audiences in is a huge advantage.
I think that is a big factor. 3D is a whole other topic. I think it’s a cool thing at times, but I also think it’s also a way to charge twice as much for a ticket.
Would you consider shooting a film in 3D?
I wouldn’t rule anything out, but if you make a blockbuster film and you can justify charging twice as much for the ticket’s face value than when it’s 2D, that’s a lot more money in the coffers of the film, so for a small investment in extra equipment or time they get to add an extra chunk to the gross. That’s plain wrong.
I’d be really interested in making a dramatic, low key 3D film. The reality is that the most perverse, interesting thing would be to do something completely unexpected.
One of my favourite movies is Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. It’s shot in super wide screen, and it’s beautiful. And by any rational, normal logic, you’d ask, “Why would this be in the same format as Lawrence Of Arabia?”, but it looks fantastic, and that’s why.
And so I think there are times when technology like that can be applied slightly eccentrically, and could be quite interesting.
There was a line in the film that said “someday is a code for never”. In terms of your career, what’s your someday or never, or your dream that could become reality?
I’m really very lucky. I get to do an awful lot. I’ve been able to make an incredibly wide range of movies and work with an incredible array of people.
I still dream of making a science fiction movie. I dream of making a serious action adventure picture, and there are certain dramatic stories that… this is a very hard time right now to get human-scale movies made, but they’re all attainable.
It’s a good question. I’d love to be able to travel the world more and not be spending three days, but three weeks in places. And that’s the one thing that filming shoots give me, but it’d be nice to visit Asia or Africa and spend three or four months not – it’s a pretty common wish – not have to work! [laughs]
You’ve got quite a large slate of films that you’re working on that are listed in development –
At least on IMDB, which is about as accurate as the National Enquirer…
…so what percentage of projects listed on IMDB are genuine?
Well, I couldn’t give you a percentage because I’d have to look it up, but I’ve literally been working with a publicist trying to get several extracted because I’ve no idea where the fuck they came from [laughs]. It always seems like someone can send something into IMDB saying, “I’ve got this in development with Jim Mangold,” and they print it.
But most of them, I’d say, have some semblance of reality.
Yeah, that’s in development with Warner Bros. It’s not about to go, but it’s a science fiction script we’ve been working on.
Going back to Knight And Day, what struck me about Cameron Diaz’s character was that she’s a mechanic, so she’s kind of a tomboy, but at the beginning she’s also a kind of throwback to the sort of blonde, screaming stereotype that can’t use a gun. Was that an intentional nod to old movies of the 50s?
It wasn’t. When you’re making a movie you find yourself in the position where you ask, “How many blondes know how to use a gun, and not scream when they’re riding the wrong way down a highway at high speed?”
So, it dawns on you, the reality of the depiction of people. Not just women, but of all people in predicaments like that. You’d pretty much be screaming your head off and begging for mercy, and holding guns awkwardly.
But we played with a lot of identities for [Diaz’s character] because we wanted her to grow into more capability as the movie went on. I’m sure it was exhausting for Cameron, but part of the fun of those sequences is the fact that the character in the middle of the billing is saying, “This can’t be happening!”, that they’re fighting it.
That is the staple of the genre, that in the standard action adventure, you cut to the determined face of the hero as he cuts his way through the labyrinth.
In this kind of film, you cut to the panicked face of your hero as they beg for mercy. It is what it is. There wouldn’t have been any place for her character to go if she was comfy the whole time.
But we were very conscious, and without making the film seem old-fashioned, that we were really conscious of doing a throwback, and I think some people do get it and some don’t. There are funny movies, and there are action pictures now, so you have your huge CG action pictures and they’re very serious, and they deliver their thrills with ancillary videogames, and then you have silly pictures, and we were trying to do a throwback in the sense of having a funny movie with real actors as opposed to Saturday Night Live comedians.
There could be some thrills and action in it, but there also might be some character in it. North By Northwest is a touchstone, as is Charade, and the Peter Falk, Alan Arkin movie The In-Laws was a big inspiration for me and Tom in terms of his character.
These are wackier movies, but also movies that harken to a day when there was a little more style and a little less logic, I have to say. If there’s anything I’d say against IMDB, it’s that I’m so weary of the people who are catching things and writing in.
I mean, guess what? There was a whole fuckin’ crew there. There was no fourth wall on the set, and the reason they’re in a corn field at night, and they still look so beautiful is because we had fuckin’ lights. [laughs]
It denies something that I just don’t. Movies aren’t just supposed to be a representation of reality. They’re supposed to be an art. And this whole, “Why did they have a gun in there if they were in…”
And I’m, like, yawn. It just bores the shit out of me. I’m like, “Oh, you want me to add ten minutes so one geek on the Internet can have an explanation for the thing he thinks of? No!”
It’s like watching North By Northwest. If those guys were alive when Alfred Hitchcock made North By Northwest, they’d say [adopts sarcastic tone], “So why is he trying to kill him with an airplane? Who would try to kill a man with an airplane? Are they going to spray him with pesticides so he dies in five years from cancer? What is the point? Why would they try and murder a guy in the United Nations? And why exactly would someone build their enemy secret bad guy lair underneath Mount Rushmore?”
And you could go on and on and on, and the truth is… [pause] there’s a beautiful energy, a beautiful movie-loving energy that comes out of the Internet, but there’s also, I think, a level where, when you make a movie, these are the least important things.
Are we entertaining people? Are these characters engaging? Does it look good? Does it capture you? Does it capture your imagination? And the litigious nature of making a movie, and the kind of, almost, did you fill out your W4, your tax form… almost a level, where making a movie be fully explainable and realistic every second is actually a choice. You can do that or you can not do that.
And I’m a big proponent of, at all times, not worrying about it, because there are a lot of good things and exciting, creative things that can happen in a movie, and your first priority isn’t always that chap in his pyjamas at 3am in front of his terminal trying to find mistakes.
James Mangold, thank you very much for your time.
Knight & Day is released in the UK on 6th August.