Warning: Massive spoilers for Logan are discussed below. If you have not seen Logan I strongly suggest stopping now.
I absolutely loved director James Mangold’s Logan. While I had high hopes going in, I’ll admit the finished film was even better than I imagined. Unlike the previous X-Men and Wolverine films that have come before, what’s unique about Logan is it doesn’t have to set up the next installment or worry about holding back because of the rating. Because Mangold and Hugh Jackman had complete freedom to tell this story, they were able to make the movie they wanted to make and bring fans the version of Wolverine we’ve always wanted to see. I really can’t give everyone involved enough praise for such a job well done and to Fox for letting them make this movie. And I haven’t even gotten into how awesome Patrick Stewart was as Charles Xavier or the rest of the supporting cast including Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, and Elizabeth Rodriguez. For more on the film, read Matt Goldberg’s review.
With the film now in theaters and kicking ass at the box office, it’s time to share something cool: an exclusive spoiler-filled conversation with director James Mangold. During my 20-minute interview he talked about the process of writing Logan, if Professor X and Logan were always going to die, making Logan without a massive superhero sized budget, filming the death of Logan, the great dinner scene, where the line “so this is what it feels like” came from, deleted scenes, if he wants to continue telling the X-23 storyline, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below.
COLLIDER: What’s been the reaction after working so hard to bring this film to life, to see the reviews the way they are? Because they’re pretty stunning, even on Rotten Tomatoes it’s like 96% with 71 reviews.
JAMES MANGOLD: My reaction has been one of immense relief. I mean, Hugh [Jackman] and I and all my collaborators on the movie got a chance to make the movie we wanted to make, that we talked about making, with the tone we wanted. Literally I turned to my editors on the last day of mix—by the way, this was only 12 days ago, in Los Angeles right before I left for all this press—and I said, “I can’t believe we got away with this,” that’s what I said to Mike McCusker, one of my editors. What I mean by that is just that we had absolutely no interference in putting something—It’s not just about the violence, it’s about the ideas, that the movie for us was a fairly adult examination of his character and the world we live in.
We were just surprised, and I have to say I’m incredibly gratified. The first feeling you have with the reviews coming in is just relief that they get it, meaning you just have this moment when you realize you put on this costume and you’re going out for Halloween and is anyone gonna get it? Or are they just gonna be, “What the fuck mess did you make?” And the fact that people in mass are getting it, including really subtle stuff, not just the overt ambitions of the movie. One of the most important things to me is that even though the movie is extremely violent, the movie also takes a very sober position in relation to violence; the movie itself exists I think unlike even many movies rated softer than R. We hit you hard, we let you see, but we also hit you hard with the ramifications of what you see, and that violence begets death not stuntmen popping up for another round. That to me and my partner on the script, Scott Frank, was really critical.
Since this is gonna run after release we can talk about spoilers. I definitely wanna ask if it always the plan when you guys were writing the script that Professor X and Logan were gonna die?
So, when you guys first sat down to work on the screenplay, how much resembles what…
MANGOLD: My first effort on the script was just months after finishing The Wolverine, fueled in a lot of ways by my own ambition to tell an original story about these characters, not encumbered by any comic saga or anything else, but just to kind of make a movie like I had made Walk the Line or 3:10 to Yuma or Girl, Interrupted or Cop Land out of these characters. Hugh had talked to me about wanting to make a powerful exit and I played with a lot of different ideas. I essentially told Hugh and the studio that I was working on an idea that was essentially an extremely bloody Little Miss Sunshine or something more like Little Miss Sunshine meets Scarface or something.
The essential idea at that point was that Logan was living in a Kentucky bourbon mill with Patrick [Stewart] suffering from a degenerative brain disease living inside one of these bourbon tanks. I at first was cross-cutting it with Laura’s escape from the laboratory, and the intention always, even when this was me alone writing, was just to kind of construct a road picture built around these three going on the road and then leaving out all other concerns except their survival. And then Charles getting hit mid-picture. But’s it’s not a random, “I’m gonna kill him” it was with a reason which is that my concept was that Logan is gonna resist paternity, and more than paternity, feelings for Laura; and as a dramatist you certainly go, “Well, what would be the most interesting thing? Take Charles away from him” meaning you have this trio on the road and then suddenly Charles is gone, and Charles is largely the reason this girl has been brought along with them, and if Charles is removed that puts the big question mark on Logan’s forehead, what is he gonna do? Is he gonna dump her, or is he gonna own it? And I think that to me became the essential dramatic flow for the movie.
What’s interesting is I spoke to Patrick Stewart well before production and he said to me, “I think I’m in the new Logan, I’m not 100%, there’s rumors.” So I have to ask, what happens in the development process or when you’re writing if Patrick says, “I’m busy” or “I can’t do it”?
Ah, there we go. So when you were writing it, he was completely in?
MANGOLD: I need to look it up, when Ian [McKellen] and Patrick were doing their show in New York, I went during the middle of their run and met with and saw Ian and met Patrick in the dressing room and told him what I told you, essentially that this was the story and that I needed him to commit to a window. And he was super excited, but that was either late 2013 or early 2014.
He has a very good poker face.
MANGOLD: Well, he’s one of the greatest actors in the world (laughs), he was acting.
Absolutely, but sometimes people slip up, you never know.
MANGOLD: True, sir, that’s true. But confusion is always a good thing to play, all of us can play confusion pretty well so you just play into the muddle, “I’m not sure, mmmm”
Exactly. I know you guys did not have a crazy budget on this movie but it looks like a way bigger movie than I think you had the money for. So how did you pull it off?
MANGOLD: Honestly when you’re not on green screen every shot, the money goes a lot more into the action and into specific things. There’s less massive world-building, CG painting, those shots tend to cost even up to $100,000 a shot. The biggest way we kind of economized was just not living in a sound stage. I mean, Steve, the thing I have to say is that on every level we tried to reverse what I felt were the default direct-tos of superhero and tentpole movies in general, at least in the last five years, which seems to be that they land on a set of sound stages somewhere in the world and they just shoot everything there and send people out for plates and if they go to Paris, then it’s Paris and plates with a couple of close-ups of a coffee shops in wherever they’re shooting, and on and on and on. It affects the look of the movie, it does, and it affects the performances in the movie.
James Schamus, before he was a director himself and before he was a world-class producer, was also a teacher at Columbia University when I was there many moons ago in the 90s, and he had this theory about independent filmmaking, but I think it’s true in general, which is that process defines product and you should make your limitations, budget or otherwise—this was more about making a $1 million or less movie, but I’ve always remembered it, make your limitations your aesthetic, don’t make your limitations the thing that you’re fighting against because you’ll always just look like the movie that wishes it could be more expensive. Make your limitations your asset, and in our case the simple answer to your question is we went analog, we just went at it as analog as we could.
In this movie, what’s cool on the screen is more a result of really great lighting and camera work, tremendous acting, and great makeup artists and costumers and stunt coordination, and these are vehicles driving and racing. Hugh’s driving, he’s not on a green screen, these are shots bouncing through the desert or wherever we happen to be. We took what we got out in the world and I think that had a powerful impact on the way the movie feels, a kind of indescribable authenticity, at least for me.
The death of Logan is filmed so well, talk a little bit about staging that sequence and knowing that to fans it’s gonna be this epic moment. Did you always decide it was gonna be a battle with X-24? Can you sort of talk about how that scene came together?
MANGOLD: Well it seemed to me that it had to in some way be a battle with something other than just one of the array of supervillains. What I liked about the idea on a thematic level of battling X-24 and even dying at his hands was that effectively there’s a kind of radian analysis you can make of it all, which is really interesting, which is that he’s effectively a guy who’s gone through 200 years with this burden of shame and guilt and regret, remorse, anger about the violence he’s been forced to and willingly committed in his life, about feeling that he’s been cursed that he can never feel love or sell it because those he connects to die. To put his last fight against his own self in a sense, a mirror, a kind of dark mirror—in a way, X-24 in my mind was designed to be a vision of Weapon X, that he’s essentially battling his worst self, and younger, more capable, more savage, and without any sense of conscience or morality. There were several different interesting aspects to me, one is when that part of him, if you look at it for a moment from a psychological point of view, when that mirror image of him dies, it’s very interesting how that becomes in the last minute of the film that he’s alive, the moment where it’s almost like something’s been lifted from him. And of the many things I’m proud about the movie, I’m really proud about the way—I don’t expect you to intellectually engage that, but I expect you to feel it. I do think you feel that in the wake of that battle when he turns and Laura kneels beside him, that he is suddenly capable and something has gone away inside him and he’s capable of connecting with her and saying things that the guy who has run through the previous 121 minutes of this movie could not have said, until this point.
I completely agree. I loved the line “So this is what it feels like,” where did that come from?
MANGOLD: Scott Frank. We were trading the script back and forth between NY and LA and he wrote that line and sent it to me. Oh my God, I loved it, I knew those were the final words the second I read it, and to me it has two wonderful meanings and Hugh brilliantly plays both of them, one being for a man who has died 450 times in movies, let alone in his career, and yet never dies because of his healing factor, he has no idea, it’s like a tunnel he goes into and never comes out the other side, so there was that very literal meaning in relation to death. But there was also this moment of him holding his daughter’s hand and seeing utter emotion in her eyes and feeling the purest kind of love which is family love, and letting it in for the first time in his life.
I am always curious about deleted scenes and what didn’t make the final cut. What did you learn in friends and family screenings or any test screenings that maybe impacted the finished film?
MANGOLD: If anything, we just have a couple of scenes, a couple of different moments that were on the road in the journey where I think you can tell I’m playing with the very limits of what I—there’s a certain pace anticipation with tentpole movies and I think I’m playing at the very outer edge of a very adult, serious movie pace where I have no hesitation and did in delivering kind of high octane action sequences. But what is generally missing, and it’s not just comic book movies, just tentpole movies to me in general with some exceptions of course, is that the movies seem to be nothing but action sequences strung together with kind of sketches of simulated human emotion that are really there just to set up the next set piece. And more often than not there’s not even any human emotion, there’s just literally maps and diagrams and discussions of the next tactics to the battle or war they’re in and then off they go with some pseudo division of tacit disagreement between some of the players and then of they go to the next.
I wanted to make a dramatic film, a genuine dramatic film, with kind of physical action. It’s not like I feel we invented any wheel, this is what the 70s are filled with, it’s what Westerns are defined by, that it’s a smoldering film, a character film, and then there are gun fights or big conflicts that erupt and you feel much more in relation to these battles because you’re invested in the characters, not in a cursory way, not in a surface-y way. But when you’re saying things we lost and came out, what I’m getting to is that there were places where I felt like we couldn’t hold you anymore, that I was bordering on making—It’s just truly entirely a character piece and then I felt like we had set up a level of anticipation and pace, that we had to move on. Certainly they’re gonna be on the Blu-ray for the movie because they’re great scenes, it’s just it threw the overall pace.
I’m assuming that those are gonna be deleted scenes and not some sort of extended cut.
MANGOLD: No, I couldn’t say that because this movie is my cut. There’s a reason you keep reading people like Hugh and myself and producers of the film talking about what a remarkable experience this has been with Fox, and I think the reason we’re saying that is not because we’re hoping to get another movie right away but actually that it has been a remarkable experience. From the moment dailies were coming in, from the moment—even the decision to call it Logan, there’s been several counter-intuitive commercial crossroads faced by Fox on this movie, and in every instance they’ve sided with us and gone with our instincts. Just calling the movie Logan, I’m sure there where people inside Fox arguing that by not putting the word Wolverine in the title you were leaving money on the table, there’s somebody who isn’t gonna see this movie because they won’t put it together, and the bottom line is that they did it anyway. That is the kind of beautiful microcosm and beyond the movie itself there were many moments where we were wondering, “Can we do this violent, can we have a scene like this, can we talk about death in this way, is this tone too much, do we need to round the corners of it?” I’m sure these conversations may have been had away from me in building 88, but they never tamed me, ever.
Do you think that you could’ve made this movie at Fox, or just made this movie in general, without the success of Deadpool showing what an R-rated movie could do?
MANGOLD: I think Deadpool definitely contributed. We were on our way script-wise and idea-wise way before that movie came out, but I do think they had that film in the can and they knew they had something. But I think that’s not even giving Fox and movie executives in general enough credit. On one side, I think everyone’s got eyes and ears and they’re sitting through these movies and they know these movies are starting to cost an excess of a quarter of a billion dollars and they’re light shows and they’re sound shows, but we’re leaving and the feeling of seeing the movie is completely disposable for most of the audience right now. That’s worrisome, even on a business level because even if you’re just looking at an Excel spreadsheet you’re looking at outlandish expenses of money to make and market these movies and the fact of what they’re making back in general is not a multiple of what they’re spending anymore. And so there’s a whole other very acute pressure which is how do we figure out how to make movies that fans are gonna come out to without spending so much and budgeting them so hard with these visual effects, which go hand-in-hand, how do we do it another way and involve them? And I think they’re willing—particularly because Hugh and I were so committed to trying something like this in the last movie—to experiment with a really serious movie that was gonna try and deliver. Its special effect would be human emotion first, as a first priority, as a second priority it would be the set pieces, but then what we’d be trading on first would be your feelings about these characters.
One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is the dinner scene at the farm house, and it’s just this perfect, great moment for all the characters before everything goes wrong. Could you talk about writing that scene and what you wanted to accomplish with it?
MANGOLD: It was kind of a magical day on set. We had written different versions of that scene, but they all felt—in all honesty, if you look at the words—fairly pedestrian. But the fact that we found these characters with the great journeys they’ve had for so long sitting anonymously as guests in a farm family’s dinner table, what started to happen and the magical chemistry that came out of these actors in that moment, some of it which was just improvised, we’d give them a subject to go off on—that whole discussion of the school, about being a special needs school and Hugh commenting, that’s all improvised dialogue, literally just doing a dinner scene and letting the actors—again, it’s like what happens when you direct a superhero movie but you direct it more in the style of Mike Nichols or Sydney Pollack, without just an eye for, “How quickly can I get out of this scene and to the next?” And so that, again, was in my head at every juncture. In fact, one of the extra scenes you’ll see on the Blu-ray will be another whole direction I took for the actors in that sequence, they produced a whole other wonderful scene. You just had to choose between them because they were redundant, but it was another miraculous scene that kind of grew between them.
How many cameras did you have when you’re filming an improv sequence like that?
MANGOLD: I’m not a big multi-camera guy, you couldn’t do that and then just say, “Oh let’s do that again” meaning I move the camera to a new place and you go, “Let’s just write down what people said and now that’s the scene” it’s not that you have to capture it every time, and we keep changing it a little bit. It all magically comes together in the cutting room. I think that part of the way, again default settings of movies, these movies have all started to look the same is the run four cameras at once, swing and pan and tilt and connect and dah, dah, dah. To me, insert shots don’t look beautiful anymore, close-ups all look like they’re shot from a distance away and the camera swings from one character to another, the whole thing feels—it’s not filmmaking to me, it’s coverage, to me filmmaking is a single camera putting it in the right place and shooting. Obviously you can find some other setup within the same context, but I’m not great at—I’m very monomaniacal and I’m very old-fashioned and I like to tell one story with a single lens, one shot at a time.
It’s interesting, Hugh delivers such a great performance in this, you got Angelina [Jolie] to deliver this great performance in Girl, Interrupted, and recently Joaquin [Phoenix] in Walk the Line. You manage to bring out these great performances, so I have to ask you, what is the secret or do you out something special on the water on set?
MANGOLD: I don’t know about the water, but friendship to me is the biggest secret. Creating an environment where people are having fun, they’re not frightened, the pressure, when you have to let the pressure of doing Hugh’s last scene. The way I deal with it is I don’t talk about it, honestly. I don’t talk about it, I’m not thinking about the press kit or answering your question, I’m thinking about, “How do I get the best fucking scene I can?” It’s a bunch of friends working on something together, that’s how I’ve tried to make every movie and I think when actors pop is because they feel comfortable to risk something, to take a chance, to follow an emotion in a unique director or around the corner, that’s how cool shit happens.
Do you envision yourself wanting to continue to tell the X-23 storyline, or do you feel like you’ve made two great superhero movies and like, “I’ve done it”?
MANGOLD: I definitely would like to explore what we could do. When you ask me about actors, one of the biggest things is when you find great actors you don’t move on without realizing this is something that you won’t find everywhere. Dafne [Keen] is an incredible find and an incredible talent, and so answering your question, it would give you serious pause to think about how she might grow older in this role, and I think it might be something magical to see on film.