James Mangold is truly one of the most unique filmmakers in a Hollywood often criticized for its homogeneity. Mangold has taken some of the cinema’s most established genres and turned them on their head.
Whether he focuses on police corruption and the morality of the cop confronting his own demons in Cop Land, or the country singer exorcising demons of a different kind in critically lauded masterpiece Walk the Line, Mangold is a director who thrives on taking risks and telling often dark and uncompromising stories.
His latest film,3:10 to Yuma is no exception. Though a remake of the 1957 classic that starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, Mangold puts a new, contemporary slant on the Elmore Leonard story. The film casts Christian Bale as a rancher struggling to support his ranch and family during a long drought.
Desperately needing money to build a well, he takes an assignment to transport a notorious outlaw, [an extraordinarily mesmerising performance by the always superb Russell Crowe] in the hands of authorities, to Yuma for imprisonment. The film explore’s the pair’s often complex relationship en route to Yuma. In this candid interview, Mangold talks about the problems getting the film made, working with Russell Crowe and the demythologising of the American western.
Question: You know, I was talking to a director the other day who said to me how incredibly hard it is to make films in Hollywood and even though you have this track record and the last film that you did won a huge amount of acclaim, is it tough even with an established track record to make the kinds of passion projects that you want to make?
Mangold: Well I don’t even have to be self-revelationary to answer our question. I can tell you the facts. This was a movie set up at Sony and they didn’t make it.
Question: 3:10 to Yuma has been around a while —
Mangold: Well I started it with Cathy Konrad in development when we were making Identity in about 2002. And when it came time to make this picture, after Walk the Line, Sony passed. And they graciously they let us take it with the underlying rights which they owned, because the original film and script were their underlying rights, and we shopped around town and every single studio in town passed.
Mangold: You’d have to ask them. You could call any one of them and ask why, ’cause they all passed on Walk the Line and they all passed on this. All I could tell you is that my own suspicion is that there’s something similar between these two films which is that they take place between New York and LA in the world that exists previously – they’re both periods. One was exploring the life of a musician who, I don’t how many people in Los Angeles studios in green light positions listen to Johnny Cash and understood the kind of connection he has and I think that studios similarly are afraid of country music and what that means. I think similarly they’re afraid of westerns and they’re afraid that Nintendo playing people can’t get used to the world of watching the latest young stars in Spandex that doesn’t somehow translate to a western.
I mean honestly when we made Walk the Line, Ray hadn’t come out – we were pretty much simultaneous with them, about a month and a half schedule wise behind. So a lot of times where people act like our movie was pulled together in response to Ray, we were little wrapping about a month or two after they did. I hadn’t even heard of the film until I was finishing shooting Walk the Line, but I think they had a hard time getting that movie financed.
I mean that reality is that that it’s really hard to get ambitious movies about people in any period made and all you have to do is look at the films this fall, last fall and the ones that are interesting and then trace who green-lit them. The truth is that most of them are pickups or feature alternate financing or independent in nature. The studios are almost taking a pass right now on real filmmaking.
Question: That seems so depressing to me.
Mangold: It’s depressing but as long as the movies are getting made it’s not completely depressing and I think that the chickens will come home to roost in a sense. Let me put it this way, the seventies are a great moment in movies and emerged from one of the worst periods of movies. There is in a sense that whenever the paradigm is shifting, there is an opportunity for alternate methods of getting movies made. That’s how the whole Sundance generation happened, it’s how the whole Miramax moment happened. Corporations are just not going to be on the pulse of anything, hey’re going to be making what worked last year until it doesn’t work any more. So when finally one of these Marvel or DC movies fails, then another one and another one, I think they’ll think again.
Question: What frightened studios about 3:10?
Mangold: It was just literally genre. They’re scared of the genre. They’re totally great and truly misunderstood and studio execs think of them as shallow or kind of simplistic: ‘Oh the white hats, the black hats, the good versus evil’ Very few westerns fit that description. The truth is they’re usually grey morality.
Question: Yeah look at The Searchers.
Mangold: That’s what I mean. I mean the good guy is the killer and the bad guy is a killer and the hero’s father is cowardly. It’s a world of damaged people. Look at Unforgiven, look a The Searchers, as you said. I mean we could just list them all. The western is not about white hats and black hats. That’s really just Gene Audrey and a couple of other kind of films, The Lone Ranger – they’re not really the western. They’re really some other kind of very Hollywoodized, and they hardly exist even in movies.
Question: When you finally got this set up, did you set it up at Lions Gate or did you have it independently financed and then went to Lions Gate?
Mangold: Yeah that’s what happened. Relativity financed the film and then Lions Gate picked up domestic.
Question: Now you hired an Australian and a Brit to play the quintessential American characters. Can you explain your casting choices?
Mangold: Yeah I do think there’s a real lack of masculinity in the American male star system right now.
Question: And also do you think that in order for audiences to buy these characters in that particular environment you need a certain kind of actor to pull that off?
Mangold: Well I think I got two of the best actors alive and frankly two of the best actors in the history of movies. I think Russell Crowe is one of the great actors in movie history and Christian Bale is proving himself to be one of the great actors in motion picture history. And I think the fact that they originated from different countries is relatively meaningless to me, at the point where those are the guys I wanted and they were excellent and at that point I stopped thinking about it.
Question: Why Russell in particular?
Mangold: I’ve known him for a while. We met at least six or seven years ago, and we kept track of each other and really admire each other and I think he loves westerns. He’s a great rider, a gunman, he knows the iconography of the west and is comfortable acting. There’s not many guys you can plop on a horse and have them act and talk and turn their horse at the same time that they’re saying lines, and they don’t seem like a guy from Malibu slightly out of control hoping the horse doesn’t go left while he’s talking to the right. And the fact is, these guys, both of them are really comfortable in this world.
Question: Let me ask you about why this this particular western?
Mangold: It was first introduced to me by my teacher, Alexander McKendrick, in the middle 80s. And I studied the movie and took it apart, put it back together. I was the teaching assistant – I would analyse things. It got really inside my blood, this movie and this story. And the story seemed to me truly vibrant and relevant whether then or now. The way I looked at it and looked at it is, I think the word ‘remake’ can include a lot of things and in a world right now in which every TV show of the 70s and 80s is being made into a movie, there’s a lot of cynicism about what remake means.
In the case of westerns, my feelings is that they are a kind of fever dream of America and they are a mythology. They are American yearnings and fears, angst and quests laid out in a kind of really beautifully barren and pure landscape that allows these themes to resonate in ways that they can’t in other settings. The only other world that I think has this kind of resonance is actually the American mob movie. That has a kind of similar code of conduct and genre, a kind of dance which allows similar kinds of moral questions to be asked. Which is why when I made Cop Land in 1995 I named Stallone’s character, Freddy Heflin, after Van Heflin and very much inspired by 3:10 to Yuma and there’s a hell of a lot of 3:10 to Yuma in Cop Land.
What occurred to me when I was making Identity at Sony was just ‘Why not?’ These movies just don’t exist and I felt why not make this film? I felt like the original 3:10 is brilliant, beautifully made and truly wonderfully acted and beautifully written. But I also felt like, unlike some other westerns, there is a quality where it’s disappeared a little and it also feels a little dated in a way that some other westerns don’t. So I thought this is an opportunity not to outdo that movie or even to redo that movie but just, I view it – to look at the Shakespearean saga and the kind of power plays of Shakespearean text and then we’ve seen six Hamlets and twelve Macbeths and nine Henry Vs.
The fact is that I think there’s some text that deserves to be reinterpreted and there’s nothing cynical or shallow about the fact that a director could come out, I think another director could come out and make 3:10 to Yuma again and I’d really be interested to see it, because I think the text is rich and allows actors flexing their muscles in this text and this landscape only produces another really interesting theatrical object to enjoy. It’s certainly not, I mean the way remakes are cynically considered is that because there’s a brand. ‘I’m making that brand again because I have an innate audience built in’ instead of, you know what I’m talking about. If you make a TV show again, if you’re making Mod Squad the movie, you have a brand. No one knows what 3:10 to Yuma is, the general public. I wasn’t getting any advantage of a brand and I was getting the disadvantage of a western which every studio in town believes no one wants to see. What I had the advantage of is great story. A great story by Elmore Leonard, a great script by Halsted Welles and a point of view about what I wanted to do with it that might make it different.
Question: Is one of the challenges to try and make the film as contemporary as it needs to be to reach a wide audience?
Mangold: Well, to speak as an actor’s director for a second, what you’re describing is a result and I don’t usually make movies thinking about a result, as much as I think about the process and the result happens. What does that mean? Well, that I didn’t think about the product I was going to make in this way that it’s going to be modern. I thought about ‘How would I tell this story?’ And I thought about what I felt had gone wrong in a lot of westerns made in the last twenty years – and Clint Eastwood is a vast exception, and there’s a couple of others, but I think that generally, I think what’s gone wrong and hurt the western standard is that people have turned them into one of two things. One is an historical epic in which it stops being what westerns really were and starts being a kind of tribute to factual accuracy, historical accuracy and it starts becoming a kind of Remington painting, as opposed to what westerns really were in their heyday, both in Italy and this country, which is morality plays. And they start becoming a kind of sweeping saga. I’m not interested in that and that’s not what Shane or High Noon or Unforgiven or Rio Lobo or Searchers – none of those are to me ‘sweeping sagas’.
Suddenly it was like there was a, I don’t know how to explain it but I think there a westerns that taught people that westerns could be boring and uninteresting. It had too many subtitles on the screen about where you are right now and what day it is and what year. ‘Who gives a shit?’ is my answer. I watch Hang ’em High, and I don’t know where it takes place. When I watch Once Upon a Time in the West, where does Henry Fonda get his head blown off? I don’t know. Where’s Charles Bronson riding? Where’s that train station? Who the hell knows? It doesn’t matter. Because the dream of the American landscape, the quest for freedom from religious persecution, the change to become an entrepreneur, to stake your own ground, to start your life again -that’s what’s important in a western. It isn’t the age of innocence. It isn’t an historical document. It is a kind of – it’s aesthetic. It could as well be a science fiction film. The setting is barren enough and open enough it allows us to explore man’s desires, greed, cowardice and bravery without the distraction of cell phones, television, cars.
You know what I’m saying. And that’s what’s so attractive to me about the western. And I felt that’s when it got off track. So when I set about making this, I clearly was not interested in making a movie that was about a kind of accuracy of the West itself. It’s a very small sliver of time – post Civil War and pre Mechanical Revolution – that is like a moment that existed. And I know I’ve just delivered a major dissertation here, but the other thing I didn’t want to do was make a post-modern self-referential movie which is the other thing I think a lot of filmmakers in my mind had gone astray doing, which is they were so anxious to make a western that when they got the chance to do one they were only making a movie about movies. They weren’t making a movie about the characters on the screen. They were doing a gun fight like this movie and a stand-off like this movie, then in the end, it was a kind of simulation of The Searchers or a simulation of High Noon as opposed to just a movie standing on its own. All of that seems to me a way of intellectualising about something as opposed to really being there. Does that make sense?
Question: Yes it does. Now both this and Walk the Line have a certain degree of nihilism, in that they are both dark character pieces and take risks. Do you want to do something very different next time around?
Mangold: Well I’m sure I will. I mean I think that you’re more gifted than most to be seeing something really connecting the two directly. I think that the films have issues of fatherhood and family but, yes, I don’t think I’ll be directing another western after this, that’s for sure. I do think the most interesting connection I often thought about when I was finishing this movie and having gotten close to John Cash, was that he would have really liked this movie, because John I don’t think was ever a Nihilist but I think he was a realist and I think he was fascinated by the world of stark choices and life or death choices.
Question: What do you hope to do next? Do you have any idea at all?
Mangold: I don’t. I’m writing something right now that I don’t want to talk about but it certainly isn’t this …
Question: If a studio just offered you a movie – a director for hire – which is just a crappy summer movie and they offered to pay you all the money would you think about it or have you decided that’s not the route you’re going to take?
Mangold: Well every single thing I’ve made I’ve developed, at this point. And every single thing I’ve made I’ve written on, as this point – whether I get credit for it or not is a whole separate question. But the fact is that for me, the word that stands out in the question you just asked me is ‘crappy’. No I won’t make a crappy movie, intentionally. I won’t take on a crappy script. I wouldn’t ever rule out the fact that someone hands me some really interesting material – ‘Are you interested in doing this?’ But I really don’t feel – it’s two year of your life or more. And it’s a lot of work making a movie. I mean the whole thing when you’re talking to this person you were interviewing the other day. That is true. I mean it is labour. It’s serious labour. And you don’t do that, you don’t wake up every day at four in the morning wanting to gag from lack of sleep to do something crappy. It doesn’t seem to make any sense, at least when life is affording you the chance to make something at least potentially decent or morally valid or enriching but maybe make less money.