‘Wolverine’: James Mangold on Hugh Jackman’s outsider with a heart

July 25, 2013 | 5:01 p.m.

Rila Fukushima, left, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from "The Wolverine." (Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox)

Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, left, and Hugh Jackman as Logan in a scene from "The Wolverine." (Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox)

With “The Wolverine,” Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the rage-fueled Logan, though with this latest stand-alone film, director James Mangold partnered with the actor to create a more intimate portrait of the gruff mutant at the center of the “X-Men” universe. The filmmaker recently spoke to Hero Complex about his long-running friendship with Jackman and how that helped fuel their rapport on the “Wolverine” set, how he took inspiration from films like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “The French Connection” and whether he’d be interested in tackling another comic-book-inspired project in the future.

HC: You must be thrilled that the film has generated so much early positive buzz.

JM: What I’m very gratified by is that people seem to be getting what we set out to do. When you do something different — obviously this is a comic book film, it’s got serious action and fantasy and sci-fi elements and some ambition also understand and set up the characters — one could find themselves getting praised on the action and not feeling like the other stuff is landing. What I’m feeling is the opposite, the film seems to comfortably veer between muscular action and character work. That’s really satisfying for me.

HC: Did you feel a responsibility to the fans making this film? Did you and Hugh talk about what this character means to that community?

JM: We both are pretty well-versed in the comic book side, meaning that my introduction to the X-Men and to Wolverine wasn’t through the movies. It’s not my first adaptation. You have this issue when you make a movie about Johnny Cash. You have this issue when you make a movie from a bestselling autobiographical account of a young woman’s term in a mental institution. There are a lot of people who feel very strongly, sometimes near religiously, about a text or an artist or the way the story’s being told. In my opinion, you can only do the best for them if you really assert yourself with material, if you actually take a position and don’t serve them a kind of smorgasbord with something to make everyone happy, actually decide what kind of story you’re telling and then tell it with as much vigor and honesty and truthfulness as the comic books possess. The term “comic book movie” has tended to almost mean a kind of product absent of much character work, with some exceptions, with huge action and expense in it. For me, growing up comic books were almost the opposite. It’s an endeavor of imagination but also usually the characters you’re reading about are leading very adult lives. You’re a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old young person discovering these comic books and you are reading about their loves, their losses, their angers, their vengeance, their grudges, the damage inflicted on them by their parents. There’s a hell of a lot of adult themes in comic books and I think that the first thing you can do and the first thing underneath almost every fan’s yearning about their favorite heroes – and villains for that matter – is that you touch upon the complexity that the comic books would touch upon. It’s not as much that there’s bad guys and good guys but there’s a lot of very interesting characters with very oppositional agendas. That, to me, is the same as making other kinds of films, westerns, noir films, other things. I just brought the tools I’d use to tell a different kind of story.

HC: Could you describe how your relationship with Hugh has evolved since you directed him in “Kate & Leopold”? 

JM: We’re both very consistent personalities so I’d have to say we kind of fell right back into the groove that we had been in 12 years ago when we made the other film. The agenda that Hugh had and that I had were really compatible about this film, obviously that’s part of the reason it came together. I think we really did what we set out to do. Whether that sticks for the public is the question to be seen, but we had goals and we went after them. For him, I know the goal was to go deeper in the role, was to feel more intimate in the role to the audience, to expose or show more sides of Wolverine — what is this rage, where does it come from? We structured an agenda for ourselves about how to get there both through script and how we were making the film. This is a Wolverine with a little less quipping, a little less cigar-chomping. That’s not unintentional. You can’t make “Outlaw Josey Wales” and have a “Friends”-style punch line every three or four lines. You can’t make a film with a tone of a darker western or a noir picture of a samurai picture [with punch lines]. Toshiro Mifune didn’t make jokes all the time. That’s not to say Logan isn’t funny and doesn’t have moments of dry humor, but we just tried to recalibrate the tone so that you’re not trying to please everyone. You’re trying to make the most real Wolverine you could.

HC: Did knowing Hugh so well help you when it came to casting Rila Fukushima as Yukio and Tao Okamoto as Mariko? Could you predict that they would have the right chemistry together?

JM: They just spoke to me when I met them. Hugh was neck-deep in ["Les Misérables"] when I was going through that process. There was one point I visited him on “Les Miz” and showed him tape of both Rila and Tao, who I was really invigorated about. The last thing we did was get him together with each of them and in both cases the chemistry was just fantastic, in the case of him and Rila and him and Tao. One thing I’d say about that also, both actresses who play Yukio and Mariko have not acted in almost any film let alone a film of this scale before. For me, part of the comfort of feeling like we could create an environment where they could excel was knowing that my partner was the actor who was going to be doing many of the scenes with them and was so generous in spirit and kind in spirit. You wouldn’t invite rookies to a movie filled with stress. I can do a lot but I can’t make the stress other people are bringing to the set go away.

HC: Hugh said you pushed him on set to improve his performance — in what ways did you push him?

JM: Hugh works so hard, it’s very kind of him to say that. Maybe he views it as pushing, I just tell him when I don’t think he’s done it yet. More than anything, I try for all the actors to serve as their kind of third eye. I’ve read with them from the beginning when they auditioned, with Hugh I’ve made a whole other motion picture and I watch Hugh very carefully in other people’s movies as well. He’s capable of delivering so many kinds of performances, if I play any role with him, it’s making sure he stays monomaniacally on the Logan track. There are some actors who don’t have so many colors on the palette, you don’t have to play guard rail for them quite as much. You just have to push them in a different way, to try to actually do something different within their limited range. With Hugh, there’s so much he can do. If he comes on set in a really buoyant mood I have to make sure it goes away on the screen. There’s so many moods and colors to him, but I just wanted to see Logan. The reality is pushing isn’t really in my repertoire with him but when you’ve been friends with him as long as I have, just being honest, telling him what I think we’re missing, then he goes back in. The way he rewards a director like me is there’s never a moment of exhaustion. What there is is the hunger of someone who just dives back into the ring. That’s all you can ever ask for.

Hugh Jackman is Logan in "The Wolverine." (Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox)

Hugh Jackman is Logan in “The Wolverine.” (Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox)

HC: The fight scenes have a gritty, visceral feel to them.

JM: I make all these different kinds of movies but I tend to bring the same aesthetics to all these different genres. I didn’t set out to reject the way other people were making other movies but just to make one in the way that I make mine. For me, the first thing I [thought about] when I was doing the movie was “Outlaw Josey Wales,” “The French Connection.” I wasn’t talking about comic book films. For me what makes those movies work and tick is that I believe them. When I read comic books when I was young, they occurred in my world, they took place in my world. There was a sense of style to the drawings and to the artistry of the telling but still in my imagination they lived in my world, particularly the X-Men because of the kind of edge and modernity of the characterizations. My fears were that the natural gravitational pull of production of these kinds of movies would pull me into so many kind of constructed sets or false locations that the movie would get artificial. My tremendous agenda on the picture was to do it as down and dirty and real and passionate and in your face as we could. Hugh had to do most of the action for that. Everyone had to do most of their action because part of what creates that other aesthetic that’s more about style and smoke is sometimes it’s the director trying to figure out what to shoot when he can’t shoot his actors because they’re not doing it, it’s a bunch of other people. The reality is that part of the reason I could shoot it so directly and matter of factly, if you will, is because everyone in the film was working on this action everyday themselves. Ninety-nine percent of what you see Yukio doing is Rila, 99% of what you see Hugh doing is Hugh. There’s a lot of commitment by everyone to work. When hiring someone like Hiro Sanada for Shingen meant I got one of the great action actors of all time in this film who also ended up being a kind of mentor and teacher to most of my cast including Hugh. Hiro was in the workout room everyday helping to choreograph fights, helping the younger players, helping everyone learn their moves and do them right.

HC: Could you describe Hugh’s relationship with Logan? What’s at the root of the bond between him and that character?

JM: Some of it is inexplicable, it’s like talking about great music. You can analyze it but there’s a point where the words become silly. But I think on a basic level I think you have in Hugh both a man of incredible masculinity and physical power and acting power who can mount this gruff exterior and play this sense of resentment and rage and being an outsider and connect with it. At the same time, you sense this tremendous heart, which is also a functioning feature of Hugh Jackman’s real-life character as well as his performance. I think what you’re always facing when you have dark heroes or dark characters, the challenge that is always there for the actor that you don’t really want to speak about because it’s not something you can look in a mirror and figure out how to play, you just have to do it – how do you do tough, aggressive, even vicious as a character and yet the audience always knows they’d be safe with you. They always know you’d take care of them. I think what he so brilliantly embodies is that duality of the dark hero, which is both somebody who’d be dangerous to anyone I don’t like, but I know would take care of me. I’d be safe. He’d make me laugh. He’d protect me. His ability to put that on the screen is just a function of the fact that he so completely possesses those two qualities.

HC:  Would you consider another comic-book-inspired project down the line?

JM: The short answer is yes. I don’t have any genre in the world that I would say no to. Every movie I’ve made has taught me stuff that I carry to the next. I learned things making “Identity” that I brought to “Walk the Line.” I learned things making “Kate & Leopold” that I brought to “3:10 to Yuma.” It doesn’t always make sense to people but you’re always learning and the different genres teach you to be brave and cautious in different ways. This project presented to me a really unique opportunity in its setting in Japan, in the general agreement between Hugh and the studio and even the public that we needed to do something differently than the last time they had done this. That gave me a lot of authority, it gave me a sense that I could try to do something unique. The Japanese setting, the sense of trying to reboot the tone and the trust Hugh put in me to try to re-engineer it in a different way, to retain what’s wonderful about his characterization and performance but to also kind of use the move to Japan as a kind of umbrella under which to actually retool the character and the tone of the picture. So if someone came to me with another opportunity where I felt like I’d have the same kind of autonomy, I of course would jump. What I never felt like for a day was that I was making something to sell lunch boxes or to sell other movies or action figures, not for a moment. The movie’s got a pretty healthy amount of Japanese and subtitles in the film. There’s a lot of things about the movie that I kept pinching myself and asking myself, are they really going to let me do this? And to their credit, they did. That kind of opportunity I would never pass by.

– Gina McIntyre | @LATherocomplex

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