Sharp comeback: James Mangold hones new adventure for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine

James Mangold is the director, but the superhero known as Wolverine is (pardon the pun) man gold. With the new film The Wolverine making the perennially popular character an even more valuable franchise—and with the equally popular Hugh Jackman making his sixth appearance in the role—this latest 20th Century Fox film based on Marvel Comics' X-Men hopes to be what 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine was not.

Not that that previous solo outing was a dud: Made for an estimated $150 million, it grossed over $373 million worldwide—which by the rule-of-thumb of a film having to earn twice its production cost to turn a profit makes director Gavin Hood's Wolverine a more-than-respectable earner. But some films have a stigma, and despite good reviews by the likes of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, USA Today and Film Journal International itself, most critics were unimpressed. As the late Roger Ebert pondered about its hero—a mutant with preternatural self-healing abilities, fused to a metal skeleton with retractable claws—“Why should I care about this guy? He feels no pain and nothing can kill him."

Mangold—who among other efforts directed and co-wrote both Girl, Interrupted (1999), which won Angelina Jolie an Oscar, and Walk the Line (2005), which earned one for Reese Witherspoon, plus a nomination for Joaquin Phoenix—understands what Ebert meant. In the new film—which finds Logan a.k.a. Wolverine anguished over having had to kill his love, a world-threatening Jean Grey, in X-Men: The Last Stand  (2006)—our hero isn't kindler and gentler but he's notably more vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. He's still up for a good fight, though, when he has to be: In a story that takes him to Japan—where a dying electronics mogul offers to take away Wolverine's healing powers and give Logan the ability to grow old and find peace in death—the taciturn X-Man finds himself facing ninjas, Yakuza, a power-sapping mutant named Viper and a power-suited foe called the Silver Samurai. One amazingly original action sequence, taking place atop a 300-mile-per-hour bullet train, is like no train-top sequence you've ever seen.

We spoke by phone with Mangold, a New York City native who as a child moved upstate to the Hudson River Valley with his parents, painters Robert Mangold and Sylvia Plimack. He came onto the film in June 2011 after director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie had developed a version for several months. Reworking the script—based largely though not entirely on writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller's 1982 four-issue miniseries Wolverine—he shot primarily in Australia from late July to late November 2012.

Film Journal International: That top-of-train fight scene was one of the most original I've ever seen.

James Mangold: That's great—thanks. The idea occurred to me when we were scouting in Japan and I was riding the Shinkansen bullet train all the time to find locations. It's so interesting that you say "original"—and I appreciate that, believe me—because it is and it isn't. The history of movies is just filled with fights on top of trains, but never at this speed. And the idea occurred to me because when you ride on these trains you're seeing overpasses and underpasses and power girders, so if you were somehow clinging to this train, these flying guillotines would be going by at 300 miles an hour with such a small tolerance of space between the top of the train and the overpasses. Of course, you couldn't imagine doing a sequence like that if you weren't doing it with a hero who has built-in claws and could cling to the surface of the train at that speed almost instinctually.

FJI: And there's the point—you did something with it that was intrinsic to this character, which makes it different from the train-top fight scenes in the last James Bond movie and in The Lone Ranger, both of which were very good—but those characters couldn't have done this sequence.

JM: It's a kind of a trope of action films, the fight on the train, and the great task, without being gimmicky, is to try to find a new way to do these things. To me the important thing is to find a way that actually relates to your character and his unique abilities, so it's not something you could just plug into any movie.

FJI: After Aronofsky left, there reportedly were eight directors on the shortlist and you were up against people like Doug Liman and Antoine Fuqua, to name just a couple. Did you sit down and talk to the producers so you could feel each other out? A lot of times, so directors tell me, what it comes down to is they'll get assigned a movie after they sit down to a meal and pitch their vision.

JM: Well, certainly, I did that with both Hugh and 20th Century Fox. But I had made Walk the Line and Knight and Day for this studio, so I was a known quantity for them. And I think that what I was pitching was a very serious take on the film and a serious departure from what was already written. It wasn't a complete abandonment of what was there—I still love [Christopher McQuarrie's] source material. But I wrote on the back of that script five words: "Anyone I love will die." He had lost everyone he had ever known or loved, some even at his own hand. He had lost Jean Grey, he had lost the X-Men, he had lost his mentor, Professor X, and to be a character in that much pain and the belief that you're almost cursed, that your own affection, intimacy, could actually bring about that much death of your loved ones… So you put yourself in self-imposed isolation to avoid hurting anyone more than you already have.

FJI: You've talked about the burden of immortality as one of this movie's themes, but I'm not sure how that speaks to the human condition since it's not a real burden any of us have.

JM: I think it does, because people yearn for it in certain ways without considering the downside of it. We all fear death. We all want to cheat death—we're looking to live longer. In a sense we're all working against our own mortality all the time. We try to do the healthy thing, try to exercise…we're all working to increase and expand our lifetimes. What I wanted to present to the audience was, what is it like to feel a prisoner in a life you cannot escape? You accumulate pain and loss, and keep that with you as you keep on going. And that becomes a part—maybe even the explanation—of the gruff exterior of Logan.

FJI:  There's also the idea that sometimes we have to kill—or more likely in everyday life, send away—something we love, or leave something we love, because we have to.

JM: Absolutely. In the changes I made to the script, I was very surgical about what I wanted to do in terms of unfolding this idea and this theme. I'm a big believer in—whether it was a film I wrote, like Cop Land or Girl, Interrupted or this, which I worked on with two friends while I was scouting and preparing—I was always interested in the idea of…let me use an example: In Ridley Scott's Alien, what's really beautiful is the way it's not just a horror film or a science-fiction film. It's also a real exploration of what it is to be human and alive. The way the story is constructed, it's no accident that the cat is on that spaceship. It's about the human and the non-human: you have the non-human monster and the non-human cat, each capable of killing, and then you have a human being, like Sigourney Weaver's character, and you even have an android, a soulless thing that looks like a human. The story starts to transcend the obvious tropes of horror and starts to become a meditation on what it is to be alive, to want to live.

Learning from films like that, I tried very hard to populate this film with an immortal or godlike character who's almost looking for a way out, looking for a way toward death. Then you have a mortal character in Old Man Yashida [Hal Yamanouchi], who is facing death and looking for a way to live. And then you have his granddaughter, Mariko [Tao Okamoto], who's young and not facing death, but is looking for a way out [of, among other things, family obligations that endanger her life]. You have a young mutant in Yukio [Rila Fukushima], who can literally see death around the corner.  You end up constructing a story in which you have so many people who have this relationship to the finite nature of human life.

FJI: One thing you changed was that in the original script, Logan was in Japan through amnesia.

JM: I'm just tired of amnesia. I mean, characters who can't remember anything? There have been some excellent films about characters who can't remember who they are, but usually it's just a puzzle film. That's not my style, and I think there's so much to mine in Logan without robbing him of self-knowledge.

FJI: This movie, where Wolverine's lost much or all of his healing power, seems an answer to Roger Ebert questioning why we should care about a character who can't really be hurt. Was that conscious choice or something already in mind or something he'd put in the back of your head?

JM: It was supremely conscious. Roger is a hero of mine, as well as a real supporter and a good friend over the years. He communicated with me and I remember what he said about the first film. I think what he said was dead-on. If you have a hero who can't be hurt, there's only one way to create stakes or jeopardy and that's to put people he cares about in harm's way. And, not unlike the amnesia thing, that can get tired really fast.

FJI: Why the Japan story, which goes back to the 1982 miniseries?

JM: Well, I have to say that Chris [McQuarrie] is a brilliant writer, but Hugh was determined to make this new film and really latched on to the Miller/Claremont saga ever since he made the very first X-Men [movie in 2003] and was reading the comics. It occurred to him that that was just such a rich world.

FJI: Australia offered a lot of financial incentives to have you shoot there. One would think Japan would have liked to host a big-budget production. So what's up with that? They just not into tax breaks and things?

JM: Well, it's a combination of things. It's more complicated in Japan than just [a matter of] rebates. You know, the culture [of filmmaking there] is not used to location shooting. We did shoot in Japan—we shot there for a little over a month. The trick is that most Japanese movies are made on a back lot or on a soundstage or in the [rural] country where you're not having to close down streets. And although there's a great neorealist tradition in Japan, it's kind of not happening now. So there are logistical challenges in Japan. There's a chase sequence [in The Wolverine] with [the ninja archer] Harada [Will Yun Lee] chasing [bad guys] from the rooftops and Logan and Mariko running on the streets, where a lot of that I shot pirate-style: We put Hugh and Tao in a van and we'd just jump out of that thing and start shooting on a crowded street. I would pinch myself and think, "I'm making a hundred-some-million-dollar movie and I'm shooting it the way I shot [the 1995 independent drama] Heavy!" But the other side was that it was this wonderful, magical thing that you were really out there—I think it even helped the sense of urgency and realism.

FJI: Fox didn't know it was getting guerrilla filmmaking!

JM: [chuckles] I have to take my hat off to them, because they gave me tremendous latitude on this film and were very brave in letting me release it very much as I had envisioned it. You could have a studio having a great deal of anxiety about the more adult and mature aspects of this movie. I don't mean things that would push the rating—I mean things that are complicated and intricate, issues of the human heart that I don't think find their way into films like this that often and are, frankly, the only things that keep me interested in the narrative.