Director James Mangold talks 3:10 TO YUMA, westerns and remakes with Quint!!!
Published at: Sept. 3, 2007, 9:55 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with my longish interview with director James Mangold about his new flick 3:10 TO YUMA. I was pretty happy with it as you can see from my review.
Our conversation covers a lot of ground, from the concept of remakes, to the early days of the project when Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were rumored to be playing the leads to the fight to get a western made in today’s studio system. I even bring up WALK HARD, a spoof of biopic films that leans heavily on Mangold’s own WALK THE LINE.
Lots here, squirts. Enjoy!!
James Mangold: Hey!
Quint: Hey, how’s it going man?
James Mangold: Not bad, how are you doing?
Quint: I’m doing well.
James Mangold: You dug the movie!
Quint: I did. I liked it quite a bit.
James Mangold: That’s great man.
Quint: I know Harry really flipped for it too.
James Mangold: Oh really? Is he going to write a review as well? How does it work over there? Do you guys duplicate each other or do you…
Quint: Oh yeah, we try to double up as much as possible. We get accused of schilling for different movies sometimes when we all love the same flick.
James Mangold: Yeah, that’s what it’s all about: opinions, but then I also noticed in the talkbacks that someone was bitching you out for beating them to the punch and they were going to write one and it wasn’t Harry. Who was that?
Quint: That was MiraJeff. I don’t think he was being serious... at least I hope he wasn't! I think the first thing that I noticed about this project, before it evolved to what it currently is, was an announcement that an early package of it included Tom Cruise and Eric Bana as the two leads. Were you attached to it at that point?
James Mangold: The project stemmed from me, meaning that before there was a new script… Let me start again. When I had a deal with Sony with Cathy Konrad, we set up YUMA and the idea of making YUMA new and hire [Michael] Brandt and [Dereck] Haas as the first pair of writers on the project to work on a new script and I pitched a version, my take on it, to the studio and Brandt and Haas set about doing it while I was working on WALK THE LINE. So your question is was I attached when other cast ideas were discussed, well certainly from the very beginning I’ve been attached.
Russell [Crowe] was always my first choice. The person I wanted first for this movie beyond all others was Russell Crowe for Ben Wade and my stumbling block was when it looked like the script was becoming ripe and ready, which was also after Stuart Beattie had done two drafts and then I was working on a draft, it was becoming clear that Russell was probably going to be booked doing Baz Luhrmann’s movie for the next eight months, so we were going to have to wait over a year to make the movie, so I started entertaining other ideas.
Tom was one of them, but there became a point… It’s a complicated history, but the bottom line is that there became a point where Sony wasn’t interested in the movie anymore and at the same time Russell was falling out of Baz Luhrmann’s movie and so we just made a new package in the aftermath of what had happened at Sony.
Quint: I’m sure we’ll be covering many of the cast members, but just having those two personalities on the screen…
James Mangold: I honestly don’t think there are two better guys I could have had in the picture and in terms of the kind of masculinity and physical acting that you need in a picture like this, I think that’s a real dying art and a rarity among male actors and these two guys have it in spades. I mean they’re obviously modern men, but they also bring a kind of old world physicality and masculinity to the screen that is really rewarding to see.
Quint: When Sony wasn’t interested, was it just a fear of the western?
James Mangold: I think so. The way that Cathy Konrad always puts it to me is, and I think it makes a lot of sense, is the way that business is run these days, they run these computer models on movies to see whether they can turn a profit and when they hit the genre “western” into their computer model, the problem is it just doesn’t spit out profit. There are too many, from ALL THE PRETTY HORSES to THE MISSING to I don’t know what other ones would come up in their minds, but they just don’t gross in their mind or they haven’t and that produces a bias against the genre in general, which, to Cathy and I, seems, on its face, to be kind of idiotic.
Quint: I’ve talked to so many screenwriters that are so frustrated that they have written westerns and almost all across the board they would say that it’s some of their best work.
James Mangold: We got passed on by every studio. I mean think about this, you make WALK THE LINE, you have a very successful film that makes a lot of money for everyone involved and we go out with our next project which is, by any standard, a very commercial storyline with action and drama and great actors, great movie star actors, attached and no body wants to make it. It wasn’t like “I’ll make it for this price…” no one really wanted to make it at all at any price.
So we were very lucky that we ended up getting financed by a bank and it was in fact the bank that would have been co-financing it had we been with Sony, because for the moment that Tom was flirting with the project Sony was getting prepared to make it for 100 million dollars, so the bank that does the co-financing with Sony put aside 50 for that potential. Then when we ended up getting booted from Sony Cathy called the bank and they said they still had the 50 put aside and we were like “Well, we will make it for 50” and there you go.
It was great, because we ended up having complete control of the movie and one of the things that we escaped from was with almost every studio we met with having such negative vibes about the western. The questions you get asked are like “Will it be dusty? Will it be dirty? Will the guys wear hats?” Everything being negative, meaning “yes” to any of these questions would be a negative to the studio. You just roll your eyes, because you’re like “Jesus, by the time I’m done this is going to look like THIRTY SOMETHING…. What exactly do you want, because clearly what you don’t want is this picture.” It gets really frustrating.
Quint: I had seen the Glenn Ford movie and I really liked it quite a bit and even talk about it in my review as one of the movies that changed my mind about the genre…
James Mangold: As you know, it was a huge influence on me. My first big movie, COPLAND, was hugely influenced by 3:10 TO YUMA. In fact Freddy Helfin, Stallone’s character, is named after Van Helfin.
Quint: We get hit with so many remakes it seems, like everyday we are posting something about a new remake. Sometimes I rage on them, and sometimes I don’t. It’s all about looking at a certain story and seeing how it can translate. It’s almost always down to the people involved.
James Mangold: It’s also, just to pipe in, isn’t STAR WARS a remake of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS? Is it okay by everyone if you change the names and the ethnicity of all the people involved, but it’s not if you keep the names and are actually honest about telling the story again? Will all of those guys refuse to ever watch THE MAGNIFICANT SEVEN because it’s a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI? It’s ridiculous; do they disdain any director who has ever made HAMLET?
The reality is we have great stories in our culture, the western is a fever dream of American anxiety and fear and loathing and brutality; our relationship to guns and violence, our quest for land and freedom and hypocrisies that we sometimes perform in that quest. All these things are acted out in the western and while within the world of the western there are a million stories you can come up with. There’s nothing wrong with going back to some of the classic tales of our own nation’s literature, and movies are literature.
And in my case it doesn’t at all mean that you don’t worship the original film. It isn’t an attempt to do it better; it’s an attempt to do it. Meaning it’s an attempt to just walk in their footsteps, to try out your own vision and your own voice and your own expressive ability within the context of this story.
You get it. I think what you wrote before was a fine defense… not allow it to become a story that begins and ends with one version and one telling made in one year in our history and what I was getting to is that I thought your point about THE WIZARD OF OZ – no one remembers the first one, so it obviously seems like the first one, but how many SUPERMANs were their before the Chris Reeve one, yet people get pissed and then they made a new one and I didn’t necessarily hear a lot of people beating the shit out of Bryan Singer.
When Chris Nolan made BATMAN for what, the sixth Warner Brother’s BATMAN? There’s a lot of hypocrisy inside that argument that is mainly based on people being protective of things that they hold dear. And there’s nothing wrong with being protective of cinematic achievements that you hold dear, but I think that sometimes visiting them a second time is not going to hurt the original. The great thing about movies, unlike theatrical productions, is that they live forever. They are immutable. They are physical things and they’re never going to go away.
My big thing, when people use the word “remake” I think the majority of nature of the word comes from the way a lot of filmmakers and studios will try to cash in off of a known brand.
James Mangold: They’ll go “MOD SQUAD: THE MOVIE, let’s make it!” and then they know a lot of people will think that’s cute and they’ll cast some great comedic acting talent in the movie that everyone has heard of and you throw that in and pay them top dollar, you buy the brand that everyone’s heard of and on the first weekend the asses are in the seats.
But the bottom line is when you go off to make a remake of 3:10 TO YUMA, you’re facing a reality that the movie hasn’t even been on video, except for the last 18 months, that no one has ever heard of it. Most people scrunch their eyebrows when you say the title to them and that you actually don’t have an advantage making this remake, but you have a marketing disadvantage in that most people, except a sliver of intense film geeks, have never heard of this film and then you get the bonus that most of the film geeks are pissed off that you are even making it.
Quint: Well, there’s a knee-jerk defense because, like you said, most of what we get in terms of remakes are just cash-ins. And this is mostly in the horror genre, it’s…
James Mangold: It’s retreads of brands…. FREDDY, HALLOWEEN, et al.
Quint: That’s why I don’t think there should be an automatic dislike of remakes, but at the same time I can be very vocal about things that I see as being very dispassionate.
James Mangold: Well that’s legitimate. I think that you can see transparency, shallowness, a lack of ambition, or craft commercialism or hackwork in an “original” film or in a “remake.” It doesn’t matter, because half the time an “original” film is actually just another kind of remake. I actually thought the first half of DISTURBIA was really quite well done. I didn’t love the second half as much, but I thought the first half was pretty much… a lot of the beats of REAR WINDOW laid out in a line, but is there something wrong about that? We can see it, we understand it, it’s obvious, but it’s okay. It’s no like they’re knocking off REAR WINDOW. It’s not like they’ll ever replace the grandeur of that film.
Quint: I think that’s pretty much the base argument and you’re getting that a lot with Rob Zombies’ HALLOWEEN now where it’s like he seems to be making it so differently that it’s almost “What’s the point of calling it HALLOWEEN other than…”
James Mangold: The brand…
Quint: Yeah, the brand, because he could have taken his inspiration and made something original.
James Mangold: Well that’s not happening just in movies, that’s happening across the country and across the spectrum of all merchandising. There isn’t a cereal box without a toy picture on it, there isn’t a video game without a movie based on it or it based on a movie… There’s so much crossed platformed in order to promote things that originality is really hard and hard to make happen and what’s funny is when you make something like 3:10 TO YUMA, where there isn’t a videogame and there isn’t any built in audience and it’s a genre that everyone hates, I get a little testy when people accuse me of making a remake for commercial reasons, because I’m like “Dude, no one knows about this movie.”
If you took a poll it’d be like one percent of one percent of America has ever heard of 3:10 TO YUMA and I get no advantage out of it, except one and that is a terrific script. That was why I did it, I worshipped Halsted Welles’ script and Elmore Leonard’s story and I really wanted the chance to jump in there and try something.
Quint: It also adapts itself so well just to have two great modern actors sparring off with each other and having that test of wills and bonding. It’s very much like a play in that sense. I love how even though you can breakdown good guy/bad guy, at the end of the film you really want both of them to get what they want.
James Mangold: And I don’t even think it’s so clear who the good guy is and the bad guy is on an architectural basis. Clearly Russell is a felon and a murderer and clearly Christian’s character is a family man, but in the mechanics of how stories work I think you could argue this is almost a buddy picture by the time it ends and that they’re really allied together in a common purpose.
I think you’re right and I think just watching actors like this working with this material is a real treat and I don’t think there’s many guys actually who could do it. You know I think there’s an awful lot of actors that’d look really uncomfortable on a horse and in this setting they’d have a little more of that fresh out of the Malibu country mart look than necessarily fresh out of Bisbee, Arizona and sometimes you can’t take that out of someone.
Quint: Christian and Russell are both really natural actors, too, so that’s the thing. They always feel at home in whatever project they’re in.
James Mangold: Authentic and they’re physical actors and the western is a real physical genre, where acting is eyes and body as much as voice.
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about how you approached the look of the movie, because one of the things I liked so much was that it felt like an old-school approach.
James Mangold: I think that’s one of the reasons the western may also, you know another reason to theorize about why the western may have been vanquished a little bit for a while, is that we’ve been living through the age of the super digital films. CG films, if you will.
The western, if it has appeal, is also in its analogue-ness that it is real, the stunts are real, the dirt is real, that they’re not poised on wires in front of a green screen and to feed off of that was what I felt was important.
The look of the film… I didn’t want to make another movie that felt like it had been storyboarded for a hundred years and had lifted off of the page of a comic book and that every frame was precious and stylized in a hyperbolic way. I wanted to shoot in widescreen. I wanted to use as much hand held camera work as we could. The same operator had been working with me since GIRL, INTERRUPTED Dave Lukenbach, who did amazing work on this film… I wanted to do a lot with pulling focus and using foreground and background in the same frame and playing actors in close-medium-and wide in the same composition. I wanted to use deep focus and I wanted to use these things, but I also wanted to do it in a way, and very intentionally, that didn’t draw attention to itself.
In movies these days there tends to be, and I enjoy watching when other people do it… it’s not my gig, a style where you try to draw attention to yourself as a director and in a way going “Look at the style I’ve implemented and look at the quotes from other movies that you may recognize that I’m popping into here.”
I don’t know what it is and maybe it is that I’m just old school, but I think at some point it’s time to take all of those movies you have seen and all of that stuff that you have processed and put it over here on the shelf and make the movie in front of you from your gut and not necessarily from your head. That isn’t to say that you don’t plan scenes and you don’t plan action, but it also is to say that sometimes making it up and figuring it out with your actors in a moment or watching it through the lens and discovering something new leads to something much more alive and organic than you might have ever felt had you just had your storyboard tacked on a corkboard and were just clocking them off all day.
And it produced a look. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a kind of look and someone I deeply admire both as an actor and very much as a director is Clint Eastwood and while his films are always incredibly solid looking, I never get the feeling they’re pushing him to the foreground as director or the style of the film to the foreground. There’s a tremendous sense of style there, but it’s quiet and it’s economical. I was really after that, because I think that’s what the great homemade westerns in our past were after.
I even think it’s the brilliant spaghetti westerns as well, while there’s much more overt sense of style, it’s more of when people do impressions of the spaghetti westerns that you get this kind of wild wildness that… I don’t know how to explain it… When people are doing these kinds of movies… Hold on, my cat’s going nuts. I’m sure you can hear him.
Quint: That’s alright.
James Mangold: (To Cat) Yes, Chuck. Maybe you want to go outside. There you go. (To me) The spaghetti westerns, too… I think they get quoted a lot in movies, almost in a tongue and cheek post modern sense with extreme flying angles and extreme close ups, but I think that there’s something to be said. Those are really passionate films and there was a lot of stuff where it wasn’t tongue and cheek where it was really inventive cinematography used to tell a really deeply felt story.
Quint: Those movies were also still very small productions and had small budgets compared to even what the Hollywood at that point was doing.
James Mangold: Well certainly at that point, because Hollywood was really, in that point – the sixties, was really competing with television and trying to do the super spectacle. In the early days and I mean even the original 3:10 TO YUMA isn’t exactly a big budget picture, it’s pretty minimal really. It didn’t have that many days outside.
Quint: It did feel very stage-like, it felt like going to a play.
James Mangold: I always thought it was kind of Playhouse 90, in a complimentary way, like a TWIGHLIGHT ZONE episode with these two men trapped in a hotel room. There’s something brilliant about that and I did not want, with all of the… we created much more of a journey obviously of Christian and Russell and the posse from Bisbee to Contention, but what I didn’t want was to somehow open up the movie and somehow destroy how incredibly claustrophobic it feels in the third act.
If anything, I thought maybe by opening up the journey when we land in this 12 by 18 room it’s going to even feel tighter, because we’ve actually allowed the audience to feel the land and the mountains first.
Quint: Especially when you set up the threat, with what Ben Foster does… It’s funny. The posse is almost like the shark in JAWS, there’s always that fear. You see them more than you see the shark, of course, but you just know that it’s bad times whenever they’re around.
James Mangold: Absolutely. I always called them the “Rottweilers.” They were Russell’s band of wild killer dogs and a metaphor I always used was this idea that you had bred this killer bunch of dogs and you had grown tired of them. Even from the beginning of the picture I think Russell plays this really delicately, but you see that he’s just so tired of having this gang of animals, while at the same time they are extensions of him, almost his id on horses, but there’s some level… Even the whole object of the first stagecoach robbery Russell would rather be sketching a bird than robbing the coach.
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about the supporting cast. I’ve noticed that there has been a tendency sometimes in these kinds of pictures to depend solely on the two big names, or the one big name. I love character actors, love them to death, and that’s why I loved seeing Alan Tudyk and Peter Fonda and these people pop up, especially Fonda. What he brought to his character was great.
James Mangold: It was wonderful, wonderful work. Look, the bottom line is that what sinks a picture is the world. If you can’t make the world real. And the way you make the world real is not just having a couple great actors and then a bunch of doofs, but the fact is that everyone has got to be committed, including the guy who knocks on the door and has a UPS package, because even the postman or the UPS man can sink a scene or they can make a scene. Sometimes that guy knocking at your door while you’re on the phone brings character and change and changes the color of everything.
In every way, I am conscious when I’m making something like this of a really building a fabric. You’re not only the sum of your lines in terms of role size. You’re also how much attention the director gives you with the camera and there’s a lot you can do with just a little bit of screen time if you get it in every scene. The wonderful thing about westerns as well is because they’re not solely about dialogue, but they have a silent acting quality to them at times. There’s a hell of a lot of set up that characters can do for themselves in the seconds that they get to own the screen in reaction to things.
I think it’s a big level of what’s going on because if you really add it up, Peter and Ben don’t say a hell of a lot early on in the picture, but they make an incredible impression just from the fact of who they are and what they’re wearing and the way they move and look at people.
Quint: Ben Foster’s a perfect example of that. You’re going to get a lot of people comparing this role to what he did in ALPHA DOG just because they’re both kind of insane characters, but I’d say here it’s so much more refined and more subtle.
James Mangold: He’s an incredible actor. Like your remake bias, the other thing I would always say is that I really think it’s unfair to actors to ask them… Some people create this bar where you measure an actor’s ability or greatness by how radically different they are from one role to the next and I think that that’s, while an interesting way to evaluate an actor, I think it’s not the only way to evaluate an actor.
There are a lot of actors that we, movie fans, celebrate… I mean, how different was Humphrey Bogart role to role? How different was Lee Van Cleef? How different was Jack Palance? How different was Alan Ladd? How different was Jimmy Stewart? It’s not always about reinventing yourself or finding a new accent, it’s not always Meryl Streep’s School of Complete Chameleon Reinvention, but it’s bringing your soul and your fire to the screen.
And I always feel sad, because as you know I work with a lot of wonderful actors and I’m always shocked sometimes at the level these people are at and the kind of acclaim and the great performances they give how frightened they are that someone is going to tell them “Oh, you’ve done that already…”
Sometimes they’re avoiding a kind of obvious right choice in a scene simply because they are terrified of what fans or critics might say telling them that they are repeating themselves. What I always say is “You are playing your career and not the scene right now.” Meaning that your character would do this, but the actor is so scared of what people are going to say because you did something like this in another picture, that you’re actually not playing your character and actually defending your career.
At some point you have to give it up, forget what people are going to say and you have to play the character. That’s what Ben is doing, I mean yeah he played a hardass in that picture, but it’s like he had a job to do here and he didn’t blink about it. He just went for it.
Quint: And he really stands out in a film where he has to represent the right hand of Russell Crowe who is such a charismatic and interesting actor, it’s got to be tough.
James Mangold: It’s got to be intense, but also he adds tremendous vulnerability to the role and a really interesting… I mean is it a father son relationship or is it a lover relationship? What exactly is he playing out? It’s pretty damn cool and interesting and I think that that is stuff that Ben brought that is really cool for the role and adds a real dimension of his loyalty to Russell’s character.
Quint: The big point is that there are so many giants on the screen and to have people like Fonda and Tudyk and Foster…
James Mangold: Oh it’s incredible work. Whenever I watch it with an audience, I realize how he’s charming everyone with every moment he’s on the screen and it’s incredible. I also think Gretchen Mol, I was so thankful she came out, it was in many ways a very quick piece of work for her, but she has one scene with Christian that I think is so profoundly great in the cabin right before he leaves and I think they are just wonderful together and I’m grateful for her, because those are the kind of moments when you get an actress that wonderful to selflessly come in and go “You know, I don’t get very developed in this movie, but I have a couple good scenes to play” and she comes in and just kicks their asses. It’s great and I’m really grateful as a director, because it makes you look good.
Quint: It’s a very thankless role, just because she…
James Mangold: That’s why I’m thanking her!
Quint: (laughs) But, if she had played it in any way controlling, then she would have made the audience hate her.
James Mangold: And what she is saying makes complete rational sense and you see her as a jewel, like he’s a very lucky guy as she is a beautiful woman and she really loves him, but she’s really pained for him and feeling disconnected from him and it’s just really delicately preformed which is good in that sense, because you’re ensemble and you’re only as good as the weakest part. It’s like a team, your ensemble, so for me that is a huge goal in putting together a picture.
Quint: Before we’re pulled away here, I really have to talk about how you worked with [Marco] Beltrami.
James Mangold: It was really fun and I was a really big fan of his score for THREE BURIALS, Tommy Lee Jones’ movie. I really thought it was beautiful. In fact, I used a lot of it as temp as we were cutting. I was really excited to work with Marco, because I felt he had a real passion for this genre and he really understood where I wanted to go which was, in a way, I really wanted to take from the spaghetti westerns and the great (Ennio) Morricone scores in the sense of I wanted it to be unconventional. I didn’t want the sweeping strings and conventional Hollywood score, but I also didn’t want to ape Ennio’s music. I wanted to just find something very current and groovy and intense, where you felt all of these things leading up to this score, but you didn’t exactly feel like we were just kind of aping it. I’ve heard movies where it seems like they’re just doing a spoof of a Morricone score and I think Marco really dug deep and did something amazing and he’s really incredibly talented at scoring action and using rhythm sections and unique instruments. I thought he did a really amazing job on the film.
Quint: What I loved about the score from the very beginning, from that opening title, was that there wasn’t that fear of “Is this going to be too big? Is this going to be too small or just right?” It just went for it.
James Mangold: It’s going for it and it is the Goldilock’s theory, because music is like… it can be too much and it can be too little and it can be just right and sometimes it’s hard to talk about it. It’s like what Elvis Costello said about talking about music is like dancing about architecture and one of the real tricks sometimes with scoring a picture is not over intellectualizing.
You’ve got to find a composer, and I know in Marco I did and it’s been true in other cases with other people, where you pick up instruments and you play them and you make sounds and you essentially experience what you’re doing so that you’re not only just chattering away theoretically about music, but you’re really talking about the way sounds affect you and affect what’s going on on the screen.
The other thing that is really important is that I always ask for the music to get delivered to the mix broken up, meaning unmixed already, so that we can mix it together with the sound effects as one. So often you find that if they mix the score in one place and you are busy working with the sound effects and dialogue in another, then the two are brought together that they are fighting one another.
You could have so much of the music existing in the low end and then these great galloping horses are also in the low end and they are kind of canceling each other out and if you can bring everything together at the same time, you can find that perfect balance and sometimes that means killing a piece of the music and sometimes it means killing some of the sound effects, but sometimes making those decisions about what’s more important right now sonically produce more spectacular results than just dumping it all on. I’ve seen in a lot of contemporary films music blasting and sound effects blasting and people screaming and you’re kind of just getting assaulted and in my opinion the most exalted sonic moments I’ve had in movies are usually where it’s really one element getting to shine as opposed to nine.
Quint: Definitely and I think that’s about it.
James Mangold: That covers a lot of ground.
Quint: That covers a whole bunch of stuff. Have you seen the WALK HARD trailer yet?
James Mangold: You know, I was just going to download it. I had friends telling me about it, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Quint: They say you have made it when you can get spoofed.
James Mangold: You know the funniest thing for me about it is that we made WALK THE LINE for like 25 million dollars and Sony passed on it at that price with Joaquin (Phoenix) and Reese (Witherspoon). Somehow, though, they found it in them to make a spoof of our movie for 50 million dollars, so yeah I guess stock prices have changed, but none the less I look forward to seeing it.
Quint: It looks funny. It’s the Apatow team and those guys know what they’re doing, so…
James Mangold: Yeah, they do.
Quint: Cool and thanks so much for taking the time.
James Mangold: No problem, I’ll talk to you soon.
That about covers it. Many thanks to Muldoon for busting his ass transcribing this one for me. It’s appreciated, man.
Got another really solid and long interview hitting soon (within 24 hours) that covers a lot of interesting ground. Horror, sci-fi, comedy… lots of good stuff in that one, so keep an eye peeled!