James Mangold for “Identity”

The man who managed to temporarily resuscitate Sylvester Stallone’s career in Copland, and directed Angelina Jolie to an Oscar in Girl, Interrupted, has an eerie new ensemble thriller due out late April, a film that takes claustrophobic horror to new heights. Coupled with the coolest promotional web site, James Mangold’s Identity is shaping up to become one of this spring’s most awaited hot new films. In this exclusive interview with our man in Los Angeles, Paul Fischer, Mangold talks about the film and the growing importance of the internet as a marketing strategy.

James Mangold has literally just put the finishing touches of his latest film, Identity, a star-studded ensemble thriller starring John Cusack and Ray Liotta, which has everyone talking. A claustrophobic thriller shot predominantly on soundstages at Sony, the trick for Mangold is to try and go where few filmmakers have gone before.

The acclaimed director agrees. “I don’t see this as a genre that’s tapped out at this point”, he says, from his Sony production office. “You can make it sound dead end but these remain some of the most cinematic films ever made, whether you’re talking about Rear Window, The Others, Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Dead Calm, Carpenter’s The Thing, Alien, huge piles of great films that buck conventional wisdom that a movie should be cinematically broad like a Lawrence of Arabia.”

Identity tells of ten travellers, caught in a savage rainstorm, who are forced to seek refuge at a strange desert motel. They soon realize they’ve found anything but shelter. There is a killer among them and, one by one, they are murdered. As the storm rages on and the dead begin to outnumber the living, one thing becomes clear: Each of them was drawn to the motel, not by accident or circumstance, but by forces beyond imagination, forces that promise anyone who survives a mind-bending and terrifying destiny.

There were some specific challenges for Mangold to shoot a film that he explains is “set over one night and within the confines of a hotel and for me, it was thrilling to tap into the more thematic elements of the piece” while at the same time trying to find the line between character and plot, in dealing with such a multi-character-based script. “One of the staples for a movie like this is that 14 strangers arrive. In the kitsch level it can be on a Poseidon Adventure level and on a higher end it’s The Thing. Whichever type you do, what is essential is some kind of a sketch and one of the things I reminded our actors of, was that we couldn’t spend the entire first act trying to instil things forever in these characters and I needed each one of them to find a shorthand.”

In trying to develop such a wide collage of characters, Mangold adds that he felt, with this particular genre, “that it was my responsibility to deliver a group of which you’re interested in the majority. I didn’t really want to get into that Towering Inferno kind of syndrome, where you like watching Steve McQueen and Paul Newman and roll your eyes at Robert Wagner. I want people to see thrills everywhere they turn and to be looking for clues even about the others throughout the film.” Mangold shot Identity the old fashioned way: On a soundstage. “Nine-tenths was shot on stage 27 at Sony which was one of the great thrills for me.”

Mangold utilised the services of renowned production designer Mark Friedberg, who designed Far from Heaven and Mangold’s own Kate and Leopold, to transform a vacant soundstage into this complex set, complete with endless rain. “He designed a hotel that fit within our requirements and ended up with a swimming pool, 14 rooms, etc, and with surrounding desert.” Mangold takes pride in emphasising that he was able to shoot on the same stage that once housed The Emerald City. Though a thriller, Mangold insists that Identity is “audacious and not a down the middle thriller, but a film that’s extremely challenging and it really throws some questions at the audience and stylistically it’s a noir throwback.

No wonder the director says, Identity will be far more cinematically expressive than one might thing. A movie such as this lends itself to endless marketing opportunities and offers high praise for the film’s official interactive web site, which the director helped to facilitate. “After we wrapped, I talked to Sony about getting a site up and one that’s more exciting than the usual one sheet with the synopsis and a trailer link.” Mangold worked with his production designer and a New York-based company to deliver a web site that offers something different, including some dazzling title sequences “What I’m really happy about with this site, is that I realised that a lot of wonderful people have gone to a helluva lot of work to take a lot of the mysteries and energies of the film and make something new that’s beyond marketing. It’s more a creepy and strange place.”