Evidenced by his success with “Cop Land,” “Walk the Line,” “3:10 To Yuma” and “Knight and Day,” James Mangold has a knack for turning populist entertainment into personal expression. But when 20th Century Fox announced that Mangold would be taking on “The Wolverine,” a sequel to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” his fans seemed concerned he might be overwhelmed by the enormity of a franchise sequel, and the constant scrutiny that seems to come with one. (Never mind the fact that he’s directed critical and commercial darlings alike with Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise, and came away with fun, interesting pictures that still feel like they belong to him.) But Mangold told The Playlist that he thought that a sequel was the best place for him to be able to imprint his personality on the property, since he’s unencumbered by the requirements of an ensemble piece or an origin story.
“You could actually just tell a story about this amazing character from the start, just the way they do when you really read a comic,” Mangold said via telephone Friday. “You don’t have to spend the first hour saying how they were born; you can actually just find them in an emotional space, in the middle of action, and what happens is you’re not crowded with cutting to nine other action heroes. You can really make a movie about this dude.”
The Playlist spoke to Mangold for the Blu-ray release of “Cop Land,” his 1997 sophomore effort, which is available on November 1 via Lionsgate. Discussing his work on “The Wolverine,” however, Mangold admitted that he was initially reluctant to take the film on, specifically because of the attention director Darren Aronofsky attracted to it when he signed on to direct and then pulled out. “I spoke to Darren a bit about it before I ended up taking it on,” he revealed. “But I will tell you that when Darren stepped off, I was in the middle of doing a lot of other things, and when it was brought up to me, I actually didn’t even consider it for the very reasons you’re talking about. It was, oh, who wants to do that, and follow that, and I could hear all of the media swirl about it.”
Eventually, that media buzz died down, enabling Mangold to get a better look at what he might be making if he agreed to helm “The Wolverine.” “Several months went by and I hadn’t even really read it, and later when they came back to me and I kind of took it in, and a lot of that hand-wringing had kind of died down,” he explained. “What I saw was some really promising material, and to me an interesting character played by a great friend of mine who’s a terrific actor, Hugh Jackman.” (Mangold previously worked with Jackman on “Kate & Leopold,” an unconventional romantic comedy he wrote and directed in 2001.)
Mangold said that he was intensely drawn to the locale of the film, which was not just markedly different from the first film, but an environment in which he felt like audiences hadn’t seen a superhero movie take place. “It’s a kind of adventure following such a unique character also in a really unique environment,” he said. “I mean, the fact that half of the characters in this movie speak Japanese, this is like a foreign-language superhero movie that’s as much a drama and a detective story and a film noir, with high-octane action as it is anything like a conventional tentpole film.”
That said, however, there was still the concern that Mangold might simply be inheriting Christopher McQuarrie’s script, despite having previously written five of his eight feature films. But the filmmaker said he’s already done a lot of work collaborating with screenwriter Mark Bomback, ensuring that his voice and his vision will be represented in the finished product.
“Mark Bomback and myself have done a tremendous amount of writing on the movie,” he revealed. “There’s not a page that hasn’t been worked and reworked and rethought and story-boarded. So it just is what it is; I mean, kind of the part of connecting to the movie and developing the scenes and finding the locations and devising the action is all about not only making it good, but also in the process making it your own.”
Mangold also said he was keenly aware of the conventions of the genre he would be exploring, and felt he’s been able to turn it into a more unique story than most other superhero movies demand. “I think part of the reason I’m doing this picture has been because it isn’t to me a conventional superhero movie. It isn’t an origin story, so I’m freed from that burden, and it also isn’t a save-the-world movie, which most of them are. It’s actually a character piece; I actually think it has more in common with 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' and 'Chinatown,' what we’re doing, than the conventional, ‘will Wolverine and his compatriots save the world from this thermonuclear device’ question.”
Following the success of the first “Wolverine,” fans speculated – and in fact hoped - that the second film would examine the comic book story lines written by Chris Claremont, in which Wolverine spent time in Japan. Mangold said that he wants to take advantage of those fish-out-of-water opportunities, and then combine them with storytelling, and of course, action sequences which maximize the influence of the world around the characters. “I think that this movie is much more an intense psychological and action-packed character piece, that’s much more about Logan getting lost in this very unique and insulated world of Japanese culture, gangster culture, and ninja culture,” he said. “The fighting is going to be unique because it’s all influenced by Japanese martial arts.”
Ultimately, however, Mangold insisted that “The Wolverine” would focus on the ideas that are at the core of the character, even as he delivers a visceral, intense, and entertaining film. “I think more than anything, it’s a character piece, asking really interesting questions that are what pulled me in about what it means to be immortal. What is it to live forever, when you lose everyone you’ve ever loved? Either you watch them get killed, or you just lose them by attrition. What is it to feel the burden of saving mankind through all of its mistakes, over and over and over again. What’s the toll it takes on you as a living being that is somehow living this Frankensteinian, eternal life? And there’s a lot of interesting dramatic questions we’re going to deliver on as well as some really inventive action.”
In fact, Mangold said that because he’s unfettered by considerations of back story or ensemble plot lines, he’s optimistic that his film will finally deliver the Wolverine story that fans have been asking for since he was first brought to the screen. “I like to think that we’re out to make that Wolverine movie that people have been looking forward to seeing, which takes on some of the darker and more intense aspects of the character, and his own journey, that have not necessarily been possible in the origin story that they did or obviously when he’s sharing so much time as a character with so many others in X-Men.”
“It really just was a simple choice,” he admitted. “Do you want to jump on board and take this thing on, with such a cool environment and a world, and this moment when they might actually explore the character? [And] there was so much intriguing in there that I thought could be mined and something really interesting done with it.”
“Cop Land” debuts on Blu-ray November 1, 2011. “The Wolverine” is tentatively scheduled for release in 2013.