In a Hollywood landscape where filmmakers are supposed to be one thing and one thing only, James Mangold is something of an enigma. His first film, “Heavy,” was an intimate character study, his follow-up “Cop Land” was an ensemble crime drama, and then from there he took on a whimsical time-traveling romance (“Kate & Leopold”), a suspense thriller (“Identity”), a music biopic (“Walk the Line”), a Western (“3:10 to Yuma”), a breezy mainstream action-adventure (“Knight & Day”) and he's got comic movie "The Wolverine" on the horizon. But according to Mangold, part of his plan is to avoid easy categorization, not to mention “writing his own film biography,” as he observes some of his contemporaries sometimes do.
The Playlist recently caught up with Mangold to talk about this week's Blu-ray release of “Cop Land." In addition to talking about that film’s unconventional casting choices, he discussed the differences between its theatrical cut and the director’s cut available on the new disc (as well as the 2004 DVD), and indicated he was reluctant to spend too much time figuring out what ties all of his movies together even their subject matter seems so disparate.
“Cop Land” offered Sylvester Stallone an opportunity to be seen in a different light than his action movies defined him during the previous decade. Mangold wasn’t sure he could shake off his “Sly” persona.
“I didn’t want him,” Mangold explained. “When he was first brought up to me, I was like, ‘Please God no!’ My whole perception of Sly at that point was, and he’s a friend and he would understand, but it was like he’d made this series of slightly-less than his best tentpole movies that weren’t very taxing for him, and he was just kind of an indestructible force in one picture after another. And I was looking to cast a vulnerable guy who was soft, who can’t quite pull the trigger – and I’m getting Judge Dredd?”
In order for him to agree to work with Stallone, whose Hollywood muscle more than outweighed Mangold’s at the time, Mangold said he laid down some ground rules for his future leading man.
“All I laid out on the table was that I didn’t want to make this movie with him if he was going to take control of it, and I didn’t want to make this movie with him if he was going to change it, and I didn’t want to make this movie with him if he wouldn’t get fat,” Mangold explained. “And Sly in each case was like, look, it’s your movie, it’s your script, so we’ll do exactly what you wrote, and also, I’ll gain weight – I’d love to. And he was an angel about it in a way that a lot of other actors I’d approached before him were not angels about it. They were not happy about playing the unsexy or hesitant hero at the center of the movie, and here was this guy who was really into it. And I decided to take the leap with him, and for many reasons I’m glad I did.”
Despite the specifics of the role and Stallone’s commitment to transforming himself to fit it, Mangold insists he didn’t expect or anticipate that it would help change people’s expectations of the actor.
“I don’t know that he needed resuscitation, but more to the point, it’s a little unhealthy way to think,” he observed. “It’s like starting the season thinking of the Super Bowl; you really are thinking about winning this game, and what I wanted to do was make a film with him, a really good film with him, in which he seemed like a human being, and not like a kind of superhero. And that was my goal, and if I could somehow achieve that goal, then I’d done my job. Whatever else happened is kind of out of my control. Having said that, did I think it would make people think of him in a new way? Yeah. Did I think that the movie would be eye-opening for some people? Yes. For him as an actor, I think he was doing things he hadn’t done in a long time.”
Now that the film is arriving on Blu-ray, Mangold is happy to have audiences see his cut of the film in as beautiful and complete a version as possible.
Mangold indicated that Miramax imposed a variety of changes upon the film because of test screening reactions and expectations that its high-profile cast would turn it into a box office champ. Describing how his cut differs, he said, “I think the biggest difference is that there’s a little less effort at the end to try and tie everything into a happy meal. I think there were several codas on the theatrically released version that were made to make audiences feel that their fanny was patted, their hair was combed and they were sent home with a warm and fuzzy feeling about everybody. I definitely never made the movie trying to make the feel-good movie of the year.”
With “Pulp Fiction” preceding his film by a few years and the then-unconventional casting choice of Stallone as its lead, there seemed to be some vestiges of Quentin Tarantino’s genre and career-razing efforts going on with “Cop Land,” at least to the studio. But Mangold acknowledged that his film was too different from Tarantino’s in tone and execution to have that kind of iconoclastic energy. “Probably just from the media craze at the cast level, the cast that this movie acquired, is that it created the expectation that this was going to be a financial blockbuster. And it did fairly well, but the trick was that the expectations for it were through the moon, and you have to know what film you’re making. Quentin had made a kind of credible pop-confection inverted kind of joyous, braided, really super-cool rock-and-roll kind of film with ‘Pulp.’ "
“We were making something more dour, frankly, and kind of dark and linear, and a little more as you say deliberate, and more chasing influences as odd or interesting as Westerns and also 'On the Waterfront' or movies that were a little more naturalistic,” he explains.
Testament to the studio’s anxiety over Mangold’s unconventional casting choice for the lead was its decision to downplay Stallone’s physical transformation into the sad-sack sheriff Freddy Heflin.
“There was a great piece that for some reason the studio got very nervous about where Stallone wakes up the first morning of the movie and rolls over in bed,” he remembered. “You see his huge gut just kind of unveil itself as he kind of rolls out of the bed and sits up in the morning. And when the movie originally came out and Sly was still a huge mega-action star, when we first previewed it, like three guys out of 500 at a test screening giggled when they saw Sly fat, and it immediately made the studio paranoid that people are laughing at that. And it was like, well, three ‘Rambo’ fans might be, but it was like, ‘You’ve got to get that shot out.’ But the reality to me was that moments like that were such a tribute to the fact that really part of the weight gain was to play the role, and part of it was also to signal to the audience that ‘I’m not that guy – I’m not going to be that guy.' ”
With so many unexpected choices filling out his filmography, Mangold feels like that eclecticism defines his work as well as the sameness does for many other filmmakers’ bodies of work.
“I sometimes feel a little awkward trying to point out connections for people because to me they’re so obvious,” Mangold revealed. “But I think that one way that people and directors particularly have branded themselves for easier media consumption is to be like, 'I make New York City stories' or 'I make mob stories,' 'I make horror films.' To me, I’m learning all of the time, and the more I can keep jumping around like that, and I actually find that I’m carrying the lessons from my last movie into the next.”
Mangold nevertheless sees some parallels in his work, even if the particulars are strikingly different.
“I mean, certainly my first film, 'Heavy,' was a very slice-of-life kind of, certainly it’s not the fastest-paced movie ever made, and you can see a lot of that energy in 'Cop Land,' and in fact it’s again about a kind of doughy central character with a lot of people pulling on him in different directions," Mangold said. "I think that you could jump all of the way forward to '3:10 to Yuma,' and see me focus on a lot of the same themes as in 'Cop Land.' And in fact, Sly’s character’s name in “Cop Land” is Freddy Heflin, named after Van Heflin who was the star of the original '3:10 to Yuma.' But I’ve always been interested with universes and ensembles and putting kind of a slightly dazed central character in a very aggressive universe of really strong, supporting players.”
Ultimately, Mangold is wary of embracing thematic or conceptual throughlines in his work because he doesn’t want to let them overshadow the purity of his filmmaking expression.
He indicated he got some great advice from one of his instructors about the dangers of being exposed to the motifs that run recurrent in your work. “The great director Alexander Mackendrick was my teacher at CalArts, and he told me this story once where he was doing an interview later in his career with a journalist, and they said, 'Why is it that all of your films are about deadly innocence? It’s always about an innocent who ends up bringing down all of these other big fish.' He said, 'You know, I’ve never really thought about it before.' But he said it was a great observation by the journalist, but he never looked at another script without asking himself, hmm –does this fit into my deadly innocence scheme?”
“I’ve just got to make what I feel like I have a hot head to tell, and sometime later, if the work actually even holds up until then, someone can figure that out,” he added, laughing, “and I only have a few good ideas, and I keep applying them over and over again.”
Nevertheless, Mangold said he sees his job as crafting the best films possible without regard to how they might fit into the rest of his films. “It’s my job actually just to make something good, and that works to my own standards of what’s the best my actors can deliver, the best words I can deliver, and the best images I can put on the screen. But how it all unites, I’d rather have that in the back part of my brain than the front part, because whenever I feel it in the front part, I can’t explain it other than to say that I’m suddenly thinking about the way someone’s going to write about me as opposed to the movie that’s on the screen.”
"Cop Land" is now on Blu-ray at your local retailer.