While on the Australian set of The Wolverine last fall, we began our tour with the second unit, talking with the crew who were setting up an overnight shoot with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine fighting ninjas in a snowy Japanese village. We also traveled to the main unit who were shooting secretive scenes in one of the main stages of Fox Studios Australia.
Director James Mangold took some time in between shots to chat with us about The Wolverine where he discusses the development on the film, its ties to the X-Men film franchise and comics, the use of 3D and Easter eggs, and of course, mutants.
Before you came on board at one time, Darren Aronofsky was in line to direct. In what state was the project in when you came joined and how much did you have to rework?
James Mangold: “Well, I mean, pretty much any movie I get involved with I’m going to kind of take apart in some way and put together in a way that interests me. I mean, Darren, you would have to ask Darren about what he was doing on it and how he was working on it, but I mean, I don’t believe that he was on it very long. I mean, there weren’t like drafts that had come from his involvement or anything. But, I did speak to him before I became involved because I was just curious about what his experience was before I kind of got involved on it.
My whole connection to it was my own kind of fascination with Logan and immortality. I saw a real opportunity to kind of explore a lot of really interesting themes that were inside the Claremont-Miller kind of saga. I saw a lot. There was a lot of great stuff in the McQuarrie script that existed, but over the last two years, we’ve continued to work it—other writers, myself. I mean, you probably know the other writer, Mark Bomback, Chris, myself and Scott Frank all worked on it at different times, so kind of all on the same page and working on the same agenda. But for me, it was always about A—trying to really get underneath Logan, trying to get inside Logan, trying to break out of the kind of natural gravitational pull of these kind of movies to become a kind of—they’re pretty much all built on the idea of some really bad guy is going to doing something, or alien or something, is going to do some incredibly nefarious thing to earth, or a continent or at least the city. And that, to try and go, how can we make a kind of character based film—I mean, obviously it’s going to still have tent pole action and super hero action in it, but that isn’t essentially based on the same exact three act structure of super villain, stopping the super villain, how do I stop the super villain? And, trying to break out of that and make it a much more internal story about a character and his own journey, yet I mean, in many ways, there’s a whole litany of films that are kind of action based—Westerns, film noir that are mysterious, exciting, filled with gripping action that don’t necessarily have to have a 70,000 pound lizard from the planet something coming to earth. So, there is a way. It’s not like you’re abandoning excitement to make a movie about characters. You’re just trying to find a way to break out.
Also, to me, having been a comic book collector since I was a kid, in a way, the standard formula of the Hollywood superhero film was also something that didn’t reflect to me the way comic books lived, which is that very often they’re much richer and deeper in characterization. And part of what keeps you glued and hooked is not just the gimmickry or the unique powers or kind of the high octane action, but actually, the interpersonal relationships, romances, yearnings, fears, depressions of the hero of the piece.”
That’s what put Marvel on the map to begin with.
“Well, it is, and yet I think that what happens in the natural conversion of almost any kind of story to the kind of standard two hour structure is that there’s this kind of snap to grid that suddenly the movies kind of get into, and I think that’s what we’re trying very hard to kind of avoid.”
So you read the comics when you were a kid?
You were familiar with this?
“Sure, sure. I mean, I was a DC and Marvel fanatic. I was really into comic book collecting and reading. But, that particular saga, I was out of college at the point when it came out. But, for me, there was something so bold and intriguing about trying—I mean, honestly, I didn’t believe they were going to let me make the movie. I mean, I thought that the movie was so interesting, I kind of always had this sneaky feeling that I thought they’re going to find a way out of doing this because essentially, there’s so many adventurous aspects to the film. Number one being the fact that it takes place in a foreign land, and language, multiple languages are getting spoken, multiple cultures are getting exposed to one another. And so, it struck me, you know, that I mean, the cast is almost entirely Japanese. So, the natural kind of cynicism of this business made me wonder, “Are they really going to do this,” and they did, to their credit. To Fox’s credit, they pulled the trigger on it and they put a lot of resources behind this. I think they’ve allowed us to do it the right way.”
How did you like filming in Japan?
“I loved it. I mean, it’s very challenging, but I loved it. We had a great time and we all love Japan and we’ve spent a great deal of time there, both mentally and physically, meaning like, even when we’re here (motioning to the set), we’re kind of in Japan. But, and we have so many Japanese people as part of the cast and kind of consulting with me and working on the film that it’s kind of this continuous immersion in Japanese culture. But, I love it.”
Yeah, I wanted to ask, so two questions relating to that. Does the Wolverine character—like in the books, he’s got so many years, so many experiences, so he’s actually very intelligent and can speak multiple languages, does he learn to speak, or can he speak Japanese in the film?
“He doesn’t really speak much Japanese in this movie.”
“We play this as his first trip to Japan. I kind of didn’t want to get involved in—I find that it gets really complicated in a film to be suddenly opening a film and bringing someone, for instance, to Japan and going, ‘This is our fourth time here.’ It’s kind of slightly anti-climactic. So, this would be the story of kind of a lot of the elements, most of the elements that exist in the Claremont-Miller comic are in it, but the only difference is that he’s experiencing them all for the first time. He’s meeting Mariko. He’s meeting Yukio. These things are all happening as a first, as opposed to feeling like you stepped into the third or fourth episode of a saga. You’re kind of starting with all these people kind of coming up against it for the first time.”
On Monday, you and Hugh did a live chat with Ryan [Penagos aka Agent M]. A big highlight from that was how grounded in reality this is and how it’s not just like, full of mutants. It’s a character piece, but Wolverine is a super human fighting a lot of humans. How many mutants are in this film as well?
“I’m not going to give you a count. But, I’m just going to tell you that there’s (Laughs) less than 10, but more than six! No, that’s bullshit, by the way. The reality is that I’m not going to give you a count. There are other mutants in the film, and the world of mutancy exists in the movie as a live cultural element in the movie just as it does in the X-Men universe. But the point being that on the most simple structural level, if you have a movie in which Wolverine is your protagonist and it’s not about cutting away to five or six other team members, it completely changes the complexion of the film. He owns the movie. I mean, there is almost no scene—I mean, I’d say maybe two or three percent of the scenes in the picture don’t feature Logan. Hugh and I are together every single day shooting the movie, and it presents a unique and really exciting challenge for us doing stunt work because it’s not like you can farm it all out to just kind of a double because the fact is that he’s got to be there because A—the way we’re shooting, it is close and intimate, and so that it’s not like it’s so easy to just double someone. And B—in your normal movie where there’s five or six super heroes and different stars, someone can be shooting this scene with them while someone’s doing an action scene with the other guys who aren’t working that day. The fact is, that the hero of this film was working every day because he’s in every scene.”
Was there any pressure—I mean, this is a standalone story but with the other X-Men: First Class sequel going on—was there any pressure like, somehow interweave or set up something, like that kind of thing?
“I mean, all these things exist in the world around me, and friends of mine and people are working on them. But the fact is that, no, the simple answer is no. I mean, we’ve been underway and kind of producing our saga and getting our script solid for the last two years. I mean, what’s happening with the other pictures is still in play and kind of we’re way ahead of them by a year or two. So, our focus has been entirely on making this the very best Wolverine movie we could.”
Logan’s had a lot of love interests along the way.
How do you bring in this new character (Mariko) and convince the audience that she’s the love of his life?
“Well, one of the ways you do it is the way you do it in any love story, which is you just, you get terrific actors who have a connection with each other, but you also—I think that it’s been no secret, and we talked about this in the chat, that the Logan we’re finding in this movie is someone who’s adrift, who is without anybody, so a connection to anyone, and certainly doesn’t really believe in love anymore. So, the job in relation to his relationship with Mariko in this film is certainly one from he’s starting from a place of zero, which is as someone who’s made romantic films before, a good place to be starting when you have a romantic element in the film, that someone doesn’t believe even in the possibility anymore.”
Some of the clips we saw on the set of the second unit, Wolverine was more unleashed than we’ve seen him before, and it was more violent than we’ve seen before. So, is it going to be more violent than we’ve seen before, or is it still going to be PG?
“Well, I want to be careful about the words I’m using only because it has a lot of power one way or another, influencing all sorts of people. I want to make a more gripping, intense film. I feel like that – and I think you know what I mean, and I think the reality is that this character is built – he’s not Superman. He has limits, but one thing he has built into him that’s a part of his character is anger, and the anger of being forever, the anger of being misunderstood, the anger of being a mutant, the anger of being damaged, the anger of the losses he’s suffered in this incredibly long life he’s already lived, the anger of the fuck-ups of humanity that he gets to watch us do over and over again. Those things I want living and breathing in his character, in his action, in his interactions with other people, and also in the way we depict action in the movie, which is that less fanciful, more gritty, more urgent, and more real in the sense that you want it to feel like it’s not straining the bounds of credulity every moment that action is happening.”
So what are your plans for the music? Will there be a big Japanese influence with the soundtrack?
“It’s very interesting. I’m cutting right now and we’re hardly – I mean, music is really something—Marco Beltrami will be working on the score with me, and it’s not something I’ve thought about too much. But one thing I’m always cautious about is kind of that, you know, we’re past that days in the 1940’s and 50’s when like, if the movie takes place in China it goes (Sings) Dunka—dunka—dun—dun—dun—dun—dun, and then, they fly to Rome, it’s like someone’s playing Italian restaurant music. So, I mean, I think what’s really honestly in the broadest sense so exciting to me about this movie is, I mean, you asked me like, I own a set of about 120 CDs of the scores of Takemitsu. I’m a huge fan of Japanese films, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily the answer for a movie like this to lean in in every way to Japanese culture. My own inclination is that this is really an international film, and that part of what’s so exciting for me about it isn’t only the Japanese aspect, but it is the fact that we’re bringing those ideas and that culture in conflict with Logan and mutancy and other characters in the film who represent other cultures, and the kind of clash going on, to me is really exciting.
We recently learned that the film is going to be post converted into 3D. This is the first X-Men film to do that. Can you tell us a little bit how that affects how you set up the scene or direct a scene?
“I met with the folks who were doing it, and the great thing about it is it doesn’t really affect me all that very much other than having a good idea about how you want the 3D to work. I mean, the way I shoot films generally is as I’ve understood from meeting with them is actually very conducive to the conversion because it’s like—well, it would be hard to explain, but I would just say that there’s a kind of grammar you either use or don’t use in making the film that can be helpful in making something that isn’t grating on the eyes and actually has depth. Also, though, my own taste in 3D is not to use it as a gimmick, just to kind of allow the film to actually breath and have a spatial quality and not to kind of try and get into every three seconds, you know, something flying at your face.”
So it’s going to more of like, a window and less—?
“Yeah, like I thought what Ridley did on Prometheus looked beautiful. I thought that it looks like a window into a world. There’s actually a lot of theories on all that. I mean, there’s a lot to consider and a lot to talk about. I mean, one of them is just one of the things you establish when you’re working in 3D is how far from the performance stage things will break. These are all decisions that get made. For me, I’m more interested in it being a window into a world than a world that’s flying out over your head and making you duck. I mean, I think that this film strives to be mature in a way that is both reaching young audiences and older audiences, but speaking, and I think what a lot of Wolverine fans want, which is a slightly higher reading level.”
The one last question I had is fans of the franchise and the character have certain expectations, I suppose. Is there going to be Easter egg references or even cameos to other things that will please the fans?
“Well, it’s a universe. And so, within that universe, there’ll be all sorts of things. I will tell you that my own thing is I don’t know whether it’s fans who love the Easter eggs or companies that love planting the Easter eggs to get you to come back six times to find them. But the fact is that my own feeling is that movies with integrity open and end. They have a sense of when they start and they have a sense of when they end, and that what we’re trying to make is something that functions as a movie, as a film. As it would, if it wasn’t a branded character, that it would if it wasn’t a franchise, that it would function if it was about—you know, when I bring up the films that have influenced me, The Outlaw Josey Wales hadn’t sold hundreds of millions of copies of Josey Wales comics. It functions as a film. Our goal was to make something that doesn’t rely upon the franchise to build interest, but actually just functions as a movie in and of itself with the added benefit that it’s a character who’s so unique and means so much to so many people.”
The Wolverine is directed by James Mangold off of Mark Bomback and Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay. It stars Hugh Jackman, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, Brian Tee, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Rila Fukushima.
The Wolverine hits theaters July 26, 2013. X-Men: Days of Future Past hits theaters on July 18th, 2014.
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