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Spring 2017 Director's Profile: James Mangold
James Mangold
A genre-defying filmmaker

James Mangold is not a fan of superhero movies and it’s that deep-rooted feeling coupled with contrarian sensibilities that resulted in his directing the groundbreaking Logan (20th Century Fox), bringing character-driven drama to a genre that’s otherwise typically the antithesis of adult-appeal, emotionally resonant storytelling.

Drawing Mangold to Logan was in large part the chance to work once again with his good friend, Hugh Jackman, whom he first directed in the time-traveling romantic comedy Kate & Leopold (2001), and then in The Wolverine (2013), a well regarded entry in the X-Men franchise. Logan marks Mangold’s return to X-Men with Jackman reprising his longstanding role as Wolverine, a.k.a. Logan.

But Mangold noted that a key condition of he and Jackman doing one more X-Men movie—with Jackman portraying Logan for reportedly the last time—was that they not be obliged to work on "another action picture hitting all the standardized default settings. We’ve all been bludgeoned by the sound and fury of conventional superhero movies. It’s not that I wanted by contrast to make a quiet film—rather I wanted to make an emotional one, to have a story mean something and to be about something."

Mangold wrote the story—and then collaborated on the screenplay with Scott Frank and Michael Green. "I asked myself what is Logan afraid of," related Mangold. "He’s not frightened over the end of the world or by much of anything. His only fear is of love, intimacy. I was intrigued by an aging superhero going through a super long life without feeling true love—and afraid to let it in. So we confronted him with the purest form of love—the interdependence that exists in a family."

That family consists of the claw-wielding Logan, Patrick Stewart as aging and ill mutant leader Professor X (for whom Logan serves as caregiver), and newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura, a mute youngster with powers similar to Logan. Laura is being pursued by dark forces, putting her, Professor X and Logan on the run, a plot dynamic which makes the trio akin to an endearing, offbeat family, and evolves the ostensibly superhero movie into an  unexpectedly intimate dramatic piece.

Helping to attain this unlikely genre-defying state, observed Mangold, was getting the studio, 20th Century Fox, to agree to make an R-rated movie. That adult rating wasn’t sought for the chance to depict more graphic violence than the norm—though Logan isn’t for the faint of heart. Instead, explained the writer-director, the R rating precluded creative decisions being unduly influenced by marketing opportunities yielding action figures, specially packaged kids’ meals, and plots tailored for the attention span of the 12-year-old-and-under crowd. "The R-rating freed us to make a grown-up movie, to depict people who have both incredible powers and pain," said Mangold.

Breaking through
Mangold’s filmmaking career spans many genres, sprinkled with Academy Award-winning performances. He directed Girl, Interrupted (1999) for which Angelina Jolie won Best Supporting Actress, and Walk the Line (2005) featuring Reese Witherspoon in her Best Leading Actress Oscar-winning portrayal of June Carter Cash.

For his debut, the drama Heavy, Mangold won a special recognition directing honor at the Sundance Film Festival. Heavy was also nominated for Sundance’s Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Mangold next went on to direct Copland with a stellar cast that included Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta and Harvey Keitel.

And further underscoring Mangold’s leap across varied genres are such films as the adventure caper Knight and Day starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, and the western 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The latter was all the more remarkable in that it’s one of the atypical examples which finds a remake of a classic film (the original 3:10 to Yuma directed by Delmer Davies and starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin) living up to its lineage, earning critical acclaim and standing on its own merits. 

Ad arena
Mangold is also interested in generating breakthrough work in commercials and branded content. He is handled in the ad arena by Aero Film, through which he has helmed such notable fare as the trailer for the Call of Duty: Ghosts videogame which follows four buddies on the trip of a lifetime through Las Vegas and beyond. Featuring Megan Fox, the piece is driven in part by a stirring rendition of "I’m Gonna Live Until I Die" by Frank Sinatra.

For spots and branded fare, Mangold is most intrigued by opportunities akin to Logan. "The studio gave Hugh and I the room to really play, to do something different. I have similar hopes and dreams in advertising—the chance to participate. If I get a job where the boards are so worked out, leaving little more for me than to say ‘action,’ I feel like a fraud. I want to make a movie—whether its two hours, thirty or sixty seconds. I want to be part of problem solving, to work with others to create something that feels fresh and alive."