James Mangold has enjoyed a career of remarkable versatility, directing such eclectic efforts as Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Identity and Kate and Leopold. That versatility made him the perfect choice to helm The Wolverine, which along with First Class helped the X-Men franchise find a second wind. The new Blu-ray version of the film, released today, delivers a bloodier version of the story, adding an R-rated harshness to the combat scenes that wasn’t possible with the theatrical release. Mangold screened this new version for the press several weeks ago, then stayed afterwards to engage in a lively Q&A with a Fox moderator.
Question: Hugh Jackman has played this role seven times if you count the cameo in First Class. What is it about this actor and this role?
James Mangold: I made Kate and Leopold with Hugh after he made the first X-Men movie. To me, it doesn’t seem like the same role almost. He was part of an ensemble in that film, and I don’t think he was aware of what was happening with it, even after he completed it. It’s easy to look back and say “wow, seven movies!” but in the beginning, he was part of a crew.
The evolution since then has been a natural evolution. First off, it’s a great character. To that you add one of those really rare moments, where there’s an alignment of the right person for the right job. And Hugh is versatile too. He’s not someone who’s going to get locked into a role like this. He’s uniquely equipped to both transcend and live within a role like this. He can sing and dance. He can do romantic comedy. He can do a wide variety of projects, and then come back and find something new to do with this wonderful character. I think the moment Hugh stops feeling challenged by this character – personally challenged – that’s when he’ll stop.
Q: The aesthetic for this film is much different than other mutant movies. Wolverine’s hair isn’t as high, there’s less of a comic book feeling. It’s grittier, it’s more grounded. Tell us about some of those decisions.
JM: They were all part of a general strategy I had, just to make a movie I would want to see. I looked at images of Hugh in the previous movies, and frankly I felt he looked like he was wearing a wig. It’s tough hair. Wolvie’s got tough hair. But for me you’re always walking that line between some kind of relationship to the existing comic book art and making that work on human flesh. I have a barometer of what I’ll reject, and I didn’t want Wolverine looking like a flock of seagulls.
Just pushing that through the offices of 20th Century Fox when they’ve made as many movies as they have with his hair like that, that’s a challenge. But given that the previous Origins film had not been extremely well received, you could kind of say, “let’s rethink some things about how we’re doing this.” We were very conscious of all those details, and even tried to make some story decisions that could be interpreted as a way of addressing it. So he goes to Japan and he gets bathed and has his hair cut by girls who might not be familiar with the official Marvel style.
Q: How much time did you spend with the Claremont/Miller miniseries? There are elements here, you have the bear and many other things, but it ultimately charts its own path. How did you find that path?
JM: When Darren Aronofsky left, I was working on a pilot in New York, and I didn’t have any thoughts about getting involved. First of all, following a talent like Darren felt like a suicide mission. How do you win in that scenario? Anyone who even attempted it was just going to get slaughtered for all the things Darren could have done or might have done. It’s like following Springsteen. Why would you do that? What would be the point? But then time went by, and while it wasn’t forgotten, people sort of moved on a bit. Fox did First Class. And then it sort of came around to me.
All of the principal characters were lifted from the Claremont/Miller book, at least in part. The trick is that it somehow has to relate to the other films that have come before it. You can’t just pretend those movies didn’t happen. So you have to take this story, and plug it in to the existing movie universe. This wasn’t going to operate on the “will the world be saved” question. It was going to live and die on whether you’re interested in him as a character… a character we’re seen before in six other movies and forty years of comic books. It doesn’t have a villain who’s threatening millions. The whole thing is operating on a different architecture.
The first thing I asked myself was, “where does this take place in terms of what I’ve seen already?” More specifically, why is he in the Yukon? You don’t ask that with Claremont/Miller because comic books have their own logic and he can be wherever the story needs him to be. But in the context of the movie, you have to ask why he’s here. And it struck me that the reason he’s there is that he wants to be alone; he doesn’t want to be a part of the larger world anymore. That’s not necessarily a change to Claremont/Miller, more like a support mechanism to Claremont/Miller. And that leads to another question: why go to Japan? It occurred to me that he’s running away from the people he cares about because everyone he cares about ends up dead. Jean Grey is dead, he killed her. Charles is dead, at least as far as he knows. And he has these other people he cares about – the other X-Men. How long before someone else gets killed because of him? Storm or Rogue or Kitty? That’s the dark side of immortality: you get to ride this slow, horrible train where you watch everyone you care about die. And more aggressively, your enemies will kill those close to you in order to get to you. I decided to take this narrative and set it after X3, to make it almost a sequel to that film.
Q: Wolverine isn’t precisely invulnerable. He can get hurt; he just has the ability to absorb an incredible amount of pain. That is what defines him to a certain extent.
JM: When I came onto the movie, I wrote down a single sentence on a piece of paper: “Everyone I love will die.” Logan is immortal; we wishes he could die, but he can’t. Mariko is mortal, but she shares the same wish. She wishes she could die, but she can’t. Her grandfather is on the edge of death and will do anything to stay alive, to claim Logan’s immortality. Yukio can see death all around her, she can see when people are going to die. And then there’s Jean, who is actually dead. It’s not like I want you to get that when you see the movie, but I find that if I follow that process, we’ll always find something interesting to write about. The characters will always have something to say to each other. And you follow it wherever it goes. Hopefully, there’s a good movie waiting on the other side.