Avoiding Labels and Lullabies: An Interview with James Mangold
by John Esther
Remakes are a tricky proposition for a director. Take an established classic like Psycho and prepare to fend off critics wielding butcher knives; redo a well-remembered entertainment like Sleuth or The Poseidon Adventure and face audience indifference at old wine being poured into new bottles. James Mangold’s adaptation of 3:10 to Yuma, which Lionsgate released in September, runs the gauntlet more successfully than most. Delmer Daves’s 1957 Western, which was adapted by Halstead Welles from a short story by Elmore Leonard, is a sturdy film with a solid, but not iconic, reputation. Its taut ninety-two minutes are all in forward drive: Feeling the pinch from a lengthy drought, small-time Arizona Territory rancher and family man Dan Evans (Van Heflin) agrees to help transport charismatic gold thief Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the train of the film’s title, which will bring the outlaw to the territorial prison. Wade’s fellow gangmembers are an obstacle; more of a problem are the gunman’s needling remarks, which prey on the rancher’s insecurity over his finances and marriage to Alice, played by Leora Dana.
Entertaining in its own right, Mangold’s version adds twenty-five minutes to the basic storyline. It subtracts a few elements and reworks others to suit twenty-first-century moviemaking that lacks a Western tradition. (The fall’s other, artier oater, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, has a title that takes longer to say than it lasted on marquees.) Evans, trailing a Civil War past, and Wade, given to Bible quoting, are played with considerably more scruffiness by A-list stars Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. Alice (Gretchen Mol), who turned up for the finale in 1957, pretty much tends the home fires this time. A more heated undercurrent is generated by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Wade’s henchman, who nurses a psychosexual attraction for his boss, something Richard Jaeckel kept closeted fifty years ago. Evans’s son, William (Logan Lerman), who accompanies his dad on the trail, is himself attracted to Wade’s notoriety, which contrasts with his father’s simpler working-class values. The addition of a new character, hellfire bounty hunter Byron McElroy, gives Wade a thorn-in-the-side adversary and a grizzled Peter Fonda another credit in the genre.
Since cowriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas also scripted the car chase flick 2 Fast 2 Furious, the 3:10 to Yuma remake features turbo-charged action involving explosions, an additional heist, and a nighttime Apache attack (which Leonard, who has become iconic, said was historically inaccurate). Predictably, Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song bit the dust; less predictably, so does one of the principals, as Mangold revamps a film-buff favorite to satisfy the multiplex masses in 2007.
Like his mentor at the California Institute of the Arts, writer-director Alexander Mackendrick (whose signature Sweet Smell of Success also hails from 1957), Mangold prefers to keep “the industry” off guard as to what he might do next. The son of minimalist artist Robert Mangold and the realist painter Sylvia Plimack Mangold, he was raised in New York’s Hudson Valley and entered the film business at age twenty-one with a writer/director deal at Disney at the ready. Feeling he had more to learn, however, Mangold left Hollywood to attend Columbia University’s film school, where he studied under another wide-ranging talent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus director Milos Forman. While at Columbia, Mangold penned the lugubrious indie drama Heavy, with Pruitt Taylor Vince and Liv Tyler, which under his direction won the Special Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and was selected to represent the U.S. at the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight.
There is no throughline linking his seven features to date, except that all but Heavy have been produced by his wife, Cathy Konrad. Two are biopics, but 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, with Winona Ryder as the writer Susanna Kaysen (who spent eighteen months in a mental institution in the 1960s) and 2005’s hugely popular Walk the Line, with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as the star-crossed Johnny Cash and June Carter, are otherwise dissimilar. (Save as Oscar bait; Witherspoon took home Best Actress, Phoenix was a nominee, and Angelina Jolie won for Supporting Actress in Girl.) The director has dabbled in crime dramas (1997’s Cop Land, with Sylvester Stallone), romantic comedies (2001’s Kate & Leopold, with Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman), and Sixth Sense-styled horror (2003’s Identity). John Esther pinned him down for Cineaste in October for some specifics on the new film, its break with the past, and the outlaw mystique.—Robert Cashill
Cineaste: The original 3:10 to Yuma is reportedly one of your favorite films. Why would you want to remake a film that you loved?
James Mangold: In a sense, I don’t view it as repudiation. I view it as an embracement. If you loved Hamlet, why would it be bad to do it? I’ve loved this film for a long time. I wrote another movie, Cop Land, which is in a way based on it. At a certain point I thought there was no reason not to return to that wonderful Halstead Welles script and try to update it.
Cineaste: Which of the characters do you identify with the most?
Mangold: We wrote Christian and Russell’s characters as almost like opposite sides of a mirror. I don’t think anyone could say they identify with Ben Wade or else they’re living a very rich fantasy life or are doing time. But the fact is that we all do identify with the ease, charm, and grace of Wade, who eliminates what he doesn’t like from the world and embraces what he does like. We also identify with the hesitancy and thwarting of what modern life, and family life, can be, and earning and holding the respect of your wife and children, and how hard that can be in a world filled with compromise and power greater than your own, which is what Christian’s character is about.
Cineaste: What kind of political intentions did you have with the film?
Mangold: Westerns have a tradition of being able to gracefully and easily fold into their subtext ideas about the moment. One of the things I was very interested in was making Dan an amputee war veteran. Also there’s the concept of how during the Civil War men were drawn into local National Guard-type militias, then into the greater war. They never had any intention of doing anything beyond protecting the local communities, which were completely unthreatened at that point in the Civil War. Having both Russell and Peter Fonda’s characters defend their violent activities with the Bible was intended to poke and prod a little bit into some of the things we’re living through right now. There’s also a piece of dialog I wrote in which Peter Fonda refers to the Apache as “insurgents.”
It’s not like there’s an agenda per se to convince people of a point of view about some modern issue, but more to allow people to explore both sides of some modern quandaries without the baggage of having to pick sides, as happens when you render it in a modern setting. You don’t go, “Oh, I’m a Republican. I hate people like that.” All you know is that there are two men using Christ to justify murder. And there’s Dan, the one character who has the least faith in God, justifying hesitation. The interplay of that was really interesting.
Cineaste: There is also the theme of protecting powerful interests.
Mangold: That was something I was very interested in adding. The arrival of big business into the world of the West spells an end to the world of Ben Wade. That was really exciting to me. The West is really a transitional moment—a mythological moment in a sense—between two great eras. As we follow these train tracks, we see the near slave-labor working conditions of the Asians. It was all very intentional to lift the veil and ask how evil is Ben Wade in robbing from the people who are doing this? By the end of the movie I’m hoping you’re in a complete quandary. Not an unpleasant one but actually a joyous fruit salad of confusion in terms of whom to root for. That’s where movies get interesting. They get really boring when they go, “Hi, I’m Dick Dastardly. I have a thermonuclear device. I’m going to blow up the world. It’s up to this kid in spandex, in front of a green screen twirling around on a wire, to stop me.”
Cineaste: Westerns deal with myth and your film explicitly raises the issue. Dan Evans asks Ben Wade to help him create a myth for his son Will. What does this conspiracy to delude say about our notions of manhood, 150 years ago and today?
Mangold: It’s real. We all live our lives looking backward through our own mythology. We are allowed to remember our experiences through this mirror of the mythology of winners and losers. Our society, more than many, judges itself on the basis of winners and losers. I find that interesting, but I don’t have a position. Is Dan Evans right for putting himself in so much risk in the end to prove a point? But what are we if we all bail?
Cineaste: No pun intended.
Mangold: [Laughs] Yeah, right. For me it’s better when a movie asks questions rather than provides answers. Asking questions is what we really set out to do.
Cineaste: Why did you cast two non-American actors in the leads?
Mangold: Best guys for the roles. I didn’t have an Affirmative Action program for American actors. You’re making a Western and you need men of power and physicality, and who carry an innate masculinity, in order to be able to just step into this genre. To cast a couple of kids from Malibu who look awkward riding horses and make me think of Young Guns would be a disaster. There’s something very exciting about seeing these two guys pitted against one another.
Cineaste: Why are you attracted to telling stories about outlaws and outcasts?
Mangold: Good and evil are so boring to me. What’s in between is much more interesting. I don’t believe in the condition of evil. I don’t think there’s anyone who is evil. There are people doing the right thing for themselves or others and who are incredibly misguided by society’s standards. I’m interested in the way you can draw an audience into questions of morality that are fresh. One of the really interesting aspects of Walk the Line, for example, was that it was, inherently, about a man who left his first family for a second one. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do. In the kind of Doris Day morality of movies it was almost deemed impossible to structure a movie in which you would root for him to be with a woman he was really in love with instead of staying with the one that he had married. In some sense I’m always trying to push and understand how we can make movies about things the way they are as opposed to the way they ought to be.
Cineaste: Johnny Cash and Dan Evans try to do the honest thing, which is difficult.
Mangold: The difference between the original version of 3:10 to Yuma and this one was that I tried hard to make sure that you see Dan Evans as someone who is not just a coward—which is how he’s played in the original, as the innately hesitant or nervous man—but a man who has been wounded. When he stood up, he was knocked down. At some point, when you keep standing up and getting knocked down, you start to hesitate standing up. We understand that man as opposed to saying, “He’s frightened.”
Cineaste: You mention how exciting it is when films raise questions. What do you think about these interviews where you talk about your work? Do they serve the work? Should the work speak for itself?
Mangold: Well, when you’re making dramatic films with complex characters in a world in which studios are less and less inclined to make them, you have to sell. If you want political change, you’ve got to go out and work for it. If you want to make the movies you want to make, you’ve got to go out and work for them because it’s really hard out there for movies that are offbeat.
Having said that, I do think it’s an interesting question because I’ve tried—I don’t know how consciously—to remain unbranded. I move from genre to genre. I’m really excited that I haven’t become “The King of Horror” or “The King of Comedy.” The only thing people tend to brand me with is, “You’re pretty good with actors.” I’m more than happy to take that to the bank, but the fact that I’m continuing a really wonderful journey in movies has been a joy for me. I do question the way some filmmakers tend to try to brand themselves with the press so quickly. I think it’s theirto advantage and their long-term disadvantage. They sell themselves to something, assuring their next gig, but then they kind of box themselves in. Billy Wilder was a hero of mine. He didn’t make a comedy until his sixteenth movie, but he’s remembered as one of the great comedic directors of all time.
I’ll say one last thing about this, because that’s a really interesting question you ask. My great teacher Alexander Mackendrick told me a story about how shortly after Sweet Smell of Success he was sitting down with a journalist who said, “Are you aware that every one of your movies is about a deadly innocent.” Alexander Mackendrick said, “What do you mean?” And the journalist replied, “Well, the little old lady in The Ladykillers or J.J. Hunsecker’s sister [Susan Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison] in Sweet Smell of Success or the Mad Inventor [Sidney Stratton, played by Alec Guinness] in The Man in the White Suit. Each one of these characters is a kind of naïve innocent who winds up bringing down entire companies.” Alexander Mackendrick stopped and thought about it. Then he said, “You know, I never have thought about that.” And what he said to me was, “For the rest of my life, whenever I considered working on a script, there was always this moment when I asked, ‘Is this a deadly innocent movie.’” Mackendrick felt he would have been better off not knowing that. In some way it rendered a new question in his head whether he’s filling his prophecy or not.
Sometimes it’s really useful to keep exploring and let other people talk about you. In a way, it’s the ultimate hubris to start to brand yourself, to talk about your message. I don’t know what my message is. I just know I’m alive and I do what I’m interested in. I’m sure there is pain and fear and certain things I am obsessed with that come up consistently in my material, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily useful for me to start advertising like that.
Cineaste: You say you “jump from genre to genre.” What does that mean? Is that not branding movies as much as saying somebody is an “action director”?
Mangold: Yes! I hate record bins. Why is Professor Longhair in “New Orleans”? He fucking rocks! Why is Johnny Cash in “Country”? Why is Al Jarreau in “Rock”? I’m like, “Nothing fucking makes sense.” It’s all based on these corporate labels from a time long gone. It only serves to alienate work. I know if I were Emmylou Harris I would be desperately trying to make an album that was put in the “Rock” section instead of “Country” because nobody’s walking by that “Country” section. She’s one of the great voices in American music of the last seventy years.
Maybe that’s why I’m always trying to avoid a label. There’s a tragedy in the way people get pushed to the side if they do one thing over and over again.