Logan’s Last Run: James Mangold and Hugh Jackman reunite for ultimate Wolverine adventure

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At first glance, filmmaker James Mangold seems to routinely move from one genre to another, having directed biopic Girl, Interrupted, romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, slasher-thriller Identity, western 3:10 to Yuma and action-adventure The Wolverine.

“I’m not so conscious about trying to pick different-flavored Life Savers every time as much as I’m looking at having a different experience,” Mangold says. “You spend two to five years working on a movie, so I’m trying to keep myself interested and challenged. You learn a lot when you are operating in different arenas and experimenting with various kinds of storytelling techniques. It’s a phenomenon of the modern era that directors get so branded within a specific genre. Other than Alfred Hitchcock, most directors, from Billy Wilder to William Wyler to Michael Curtiz to Mike Nichols to Sydney Pollack, all moved around within different arenas with some flexibility and mobility.”

Twentieth Century Fox’s March 3 release Logan marks the first time that Mangold has revisited a character, with Hugh Jackman reprising his signature role of an immortal with retractable metallic claws and a ferocious temper. “When I made The Wolverine, I was trying to live with the tone values of the pre-established series. With this one, I literally told Hugh and the studio that I was only interested in making the film if I was going to live entirely within my own space. I meant to make it a personal film for me.”

A conscious decision was made by Mangold to avoid producing a glossy epic with stylized acting and outlandish design elements. Instead, the story revolves around the family relationship between an aging Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), an Alzheimer’s-inflicted Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and a hunted adolescent mutant (Dafne Keen) who seeks their protection. “It was always going to be about that, even when the movie was nothing but two paragraphs I had written down to pitch the studio.” Mangold states.

Collaborating with cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator), Mangold adopted a simplified approach when it came to capturing the required footage. “The modern moviemaking production methodology is to have a lot of cameras and to shoot the hell out of things,” he observes. “It produces a look that too many movies have. Put a camera where you want it and don’t just crank the zoom lens when you want to be closer. There’s something that happens, not only with the photography but also the performance, when you are focused. Even the insert shot is loved. It’s not something that the C cameraman tries to grab while you’re trying to get another shot at the same time. I view making a movie like writing a book. I don’t want to write four sentences at the same time. I don’t want to multitask my movie. The mise-en-scène and style that I admire generally come from a true single camera.” The color palette was not reinvented during the digital-intermediate process. “John and I were tremendously focused on authenticity and photographic beauty, using light and old anamorphic lenses to break up some of the misgivings that we have about digital photography.

“I wanted a sense of journey,” he continues, “so the biggest thing within the budgetary confines was being able to track a reasonable journey across America and head north to the Canadian border. We wanted the audience to feel the quality of light, topography, culture and architecture changing around them. John, production designer François Audouy [Dracula Untold] and I put a tremendous amount of work into trying to divide up the different looks in this journey across this imagined semi-future America.”

The production shot mainly around New Orleans, with additional filming in New Mexico and Mississippi. “Finding a graveyard where the graves are not above the ground in Louisiana was a challenge,” Mangold recalls. An effort was made to minimize the use of green screen for the scenes within the car. “Really shooting on the road with the light hitting the actors, what the actors feel steering the vehicle, the way the wind blows in the hair and the sense of confinement were important to me. I had this idea that I was essentially trying to make Little Miss Sunshine with superheroes.”

“We did extensive storyboards and several different kinds of previs [previsualization],” the director explains. “I love doing with my stunt coordinators what we call video vis, which is not computerized previs but we get together with the actors or the stuntmen or doubles in a studio with pads. We act out the fights and shoot them with a GoPro or an SLR with a video function or combination thereof and then we cut them together. They’re not so much beautiful realizations of the scene as much as rough graphite sketches of the action. The action tends not to become like a videogame, because you are really doing it with real people.” The camera placement contributes to the realism of an action sequence. “Every time you fly the camera through a keyhole or under a door or through a skylight or sunroof, there’s a wow factor, but you are also making people entirely aware of the technique, like the helicopter in Miss Saigon. You commit to the idea of authenticity, so when staging scenes with a camera you’re not putting it in ridiculous places where the cameraman would never survive.”

Appearing on the big screen for the first time is Laura Kinney/X-23, who is a clone-daughter of Wolverine. “I’m always focused on trying to avoid tropes and clichés of modern moviemaking,” Mangold says. “The idea that Laura was Hispanic, hardly spoke, and when she did was a Spanish speaker was important to me because I thought it helped us to break out of the standard mold of cute white children getting dropped into these movies. What I was looking for was an incredibly gifted 10 to 13-year-old actress who was Spanish-speaking, looked Hispanic, and was incredibly physically gifted at fighting and tumbling. It was incredible at that level of criteria how quickly the list gets down to but a few people in America, Europe and South America. From the moment that I got an iPhone video of Dafne Keen doing a couple of the scenes in the movie, I was sure that we had found our Laura. I hadn’t seen an audition so clear since Angelina Jolie read for Girl, Interrupted.”

The shooting script remained largely intact, as there was no need to dramatically shift scenes around in the edit suite. “This is not a movie that would lend itself to a rebuild, meaning that it’s a lot easier to reorganize multiple character pieces,” Mangold notes. “When you’re following one linear continuity with three characters on a geographical journey, they can’t get to Oklahoma before arriving in Texas. They certainly can’t be in the Rockies before going through the Plains states. You don’t have a lot of options. Most of the tooling of my films is not reordering scenes. Its much more within the scenes tinkering and usually more making lists. I tend to write scripts a little long to give myself opportunities to trim fat in the cutting room, as opposed to only on the page.”

Realism influenced all aspects of the Logan production. “Even with the blades, we wanted to pull back on the over-‘shingification’ where they sound like someone pulling a Japanese sword out of a sheath and ring for the next 30 seconds,” Mangold explains. “The whole idea of the movie was essentially about putting these characters in the real world and one that operates by the same laws of gravity that are in our own lives.” Despite the ability to do anything with modern technology, restraint is needed. “All of that high-tech wizardry is intoxicating and addictive, yet it’s empty if there isn’t heart. The films that live on are the ones where we want to revisit the feeling they gave us, not just that cool shot or sequence. That’s what I’m chasing after with every movie I make.”

Mangold contends, “The production of comic-book movies has become an industry and there are default settings for them. When you’re trying to do it differently, you find that your greatest job is one of communication. You’re reminding everyone every day that we don’t want to find the same process solutions that they’ve used on the last 16 movies of a similar type. I don’t think that comic-book movies are a genre. There are as many comic books as there are novels. When people use the term comic-book movie, it’s generally a pejorative. Even if they don’t mean it that way, it is implying that the movie’s reality is fake. As a comic-book collector since I was nine years old, I never felt those things about comic books. They felt extremely real to me and provocative. The modern comic-book movie has evolved more into a vessel for merchandising, branding, sequel generation, toy tie-ins and advertising tie-ins. It’s more like directing an episode of a television show where you’re having to keep the brand alive for next week and less about doing something new or different.”

Mangold elaborates on one way Logan is different: “When our three principal characters launch the second reel, it’s a big action sequence shot in New Mexico. They escape in a broken-down limousine into the Mexican desert from the characters who are pursuing them. By putting these three epic characters in a mundane vehicle on the highway driving across America, you really feel the freshness of it.”

Social-media platforms and websites have been abuzz with personal commentary. “There’s a tremendous amount of near-religious adoration of these titles and characters. Fans want the timeline and the world to be seamless from one movie to the next, and at the same time often complain that there’s a lack of imagination or adventurousness in the filmmaking. I wanted to do something different. In some ways we have gotten closer to the original Wolverine comic-book character than any other film has, and in other ways we may be blasphemous to people. However, the reality for me is you can only get people doing exciting work if you loosen the reins a little bit. I’m excited to see people’s reactions to Logan. I can’t wait.”