Logan Director James Mangold on Trump’s Influence, the Film’s Last Line, and the Biggest Problem With Superhero Movies

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James Mangold Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

The age of Hugh Jackman playing hirsute living weapon Wolverine has come to a close, and the person chosen to usher him out was James Mangold. The longtime writer-director — known for helming Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and the previous Wolvie flick, The Wolverine — crafted this weekend’s superhero tentpole Logan as a gory swan song, filled with hope, regret, and decapitations. Shortly before the movie’s release, we caught up with the booming-voiced Mangold at a Manhattan hotel room to talk about Donald Trump’s influence on the story, why it’s important to have the female lead be Latina, and what’s broken in the superhero-movie industry. (Warning, this interview contains major spoilers for Logan.)

Why was it important to have the movie begin along the U.S.–Mexico border?
When I first started sketching out what the story would be, the first thing I did was I put Charles in an abandoned Kentucky bourbon factory. He was living inside a distillery tank. And then there was this moment I moved it to the border. I think the political scene at the moment was already influencing me; the sense of America in a kind of upheaval. I first was writing the story in late 2013 or late 2014, but I think I moved it to the Texas border somewhere in 2015.

But it was motivated by several things. One was this sense that it gave us … y’know, you’re making a road picture, so, on a mechanical level, you’re looking for destinations and departure points — destinations that are very clean and have some value for the plot. Suddenly it’s kind of a run from border to border, like a Huck Finn run in reverse. That seemed really logical to me. I didn’t anticipate that Trump would win the presidency.*

But you have a border wall along the Mexico border and bros yelling “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” at Latinos.
Yes, well, there’s a border wall right now, actually. Y’know, X-Men movies in general and the best Westerns, heroic films of any kind, have always tapped into something going on in the culture at that moment. To me, the sense of nationalism and anxiety of people who are Other seemed to fit very well into an X-Men idea.

And what’s interesting about that is that X-Men stories often only deal with bigotry through the metaphor of mutants, who are usually straight, white men. But here, the co-star is a mutant who’s a Latina girl. Why was it important for her to be Mexican? Did you think about it politically, or just as a cool thing to do?
I wasn’t that flip. In making a film and writing a film and starting with zero, unlike the previous Wolverine movie where we had this kind of Japanese saga to begin with, I was starting from an absolute zero place. No one knew what movie to make next. All we knew was that Hugh was willing to make one more. That means me going, What’s interesting? And what’s dangerous? The first thing I asked myself is, what is Wolverine most frightened of? And it’s not a super-villain. It’s not the end of the world and it certainly isn’t the end of his life. So then, what is it? It’s intimacy or love.

So if that’s the thing he’s most frightened of, then you have to construct a movie where he’s confronted with that and the trick is, if you made it a movie about romantic love, which in some ways I did in The Wolverine, it’s too easy to break up. But you can’t break up from a child. And you can’t break up from a father. They’re there forever. So suddenly, in a way, I was constructing a kind of dysfunctional — but real — nuclear family where he is a patriarch suddenly caring for what was his patriarch in distress and confronted with a child. And not a teen, but a real child. But there’s been a lot of movies with a dark hero trapped with a wisecracking, precocious child. So [co-writer] Scott Frank and I were looking for ways that we could undermine their relationship, and language became one of them.

She’s a Spanish-speaker, as we learn in that scene where she finally talks and just unleashes this huge bit of dialogue in Spanish.
Spanish. It’s such a cool scene. She’s completely unfrightened of him, which also cements the idea that she’s his daughter. She punches him and screams at him and has absolutely no intimidation from the fact that she’s taking on Wolverine at the end of his rope. If anything, that is a testament to the fact that they are father and child.

You say he’s afraid of love and intimacy, and I get the feeling that he’s most afraid of loving himself. He thinks he’s a monster. And by the end, it’s unclear whether he’s forgiven himself.
I think you’re on it, but I think there’s another aspect. I had this thing when I was working on the last Wolverine which I wrote on the back of the script and kept thinking about while directing the film. It was: Anyone I love will die. Every time he opens up and feels for someone, they become a target. When you have a character who has existed as impervious, then the only way to get at that character is to hurt something he loves. So in a sense, the entire liturgy of Wolverine stories is the story of someone grabbing, getting, hurting someone he cares about, because they can’t hurt him. The one experience he’s had more than any other is his proximity to death. That’s huge. The other thing that’s interesting that’s a bit of a spoiler is that, in the final battle of the movie, he’s essentially battling himself.

Right, he literally battles a clone of himself that looks just like him. It’s pretty blunt, but it works.
He’s also battling Weapon X, meaning he’s battling himself at the height of his powers, at the height of his healing. Youthful, unstoppable, and without remorse. Logan doesn’t have the physical ability he used to have, plus he has a conscience, which is very much getting in the way of being a successful warrior.What I always find interesting is the moment that creature is disposed of is the moment — is the one minute — he gets to exist on this Earth in a way that is free of that shame. He looks into this girl’s eyes and knows that she will not necessarily die because he loves her.

He dies in front of her and says two brilliantly on-brand final sentences before dying. How does one go about writing the last words of Wolverine?
Ultimately, to make movies like this, it’s no different than making a movie about Johnny Cash. There’s a huge amount of people who are attached to this icon. You have to put it out of your head. I learned this, weirdly, making Walk the Line. Almost every day, Joaquin [Phoenix, who played Johnny Cash] would come up to me before we’d start shooting a scene, he goes, “Say that thing.” And I go, “You’re not Johnny Cash.” And he goes, “Thank you.” In order to channel Johnny Cash, he had to free himself from the weight of expectation, from the pressure of mimicry, from this intense sense of importance that people attach to a role or a scene. So the easy, but confounding, answer is that you actually have to just pretend I’m writing a death scene for Christian Bale’s character in 3:10 to Yuma and that it’s not so important. That’s the only thing that’s going to free your mind.

Sure, but how does his final line come about? Who writes it?
Scott Frank sent that to me one morning. One day, we’re trading the script back and forth in emails and I get that. I got chills and I knew it was done. It has multiple meanings. The reason I kind of started doing cartwheels around my office when I read it was it’s not just what death feels like — it’s what love feels like. I’m holding your hand. I’m looking in your eyes. And also, I’m going down this dark tunnel. I’ve always gone down this tunnel and come back again, but now I sense I’m not coming back. I tried to remind Hugh that that line is ecstatic. The gravitational pull of expectation is this scene is so sad, but, in fact, I don’t view it as a sad scene. I view it as this character, who’s lived four lifetimes of pain, finally getting set free.

I was struck by how non-futuristic the setting is, despite it being set in 2029. It reminded me of what Alfonso Cuarón said about his near-future world in Children of Men, which is that it shouldn’t look futuristic because everyone got so depressed and hopeless that they stopped inventing things.
I’m happy with any parallels to that film, because I think it’s an incredible film. What I agree with is, I feel like I’ve grown up through the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st with a lot of pronouncements about how different the world is going to look 10, 15 years from now — and now that I’ve lived long enough to see those 10 and 15 years come and go, I’m always startled that it’s very modest, what’s occurred. Maybe it’s that there’s an economic interest in our own stagnation. But the world doesn’t move that fast.

Listening to all this, it’s pretty apparent that Fox isn’t running its superhero properties the way Disney or Warner Bros. do with theirs. You weren’t being told to keep things close to a franchise-wide tone or a shared continuity. What do you think about the state of the modern superhero film?
Blockbuster summer extravaganza movies, their template is costing more. There’s a kind of arms race. They’re costing nearly — if not more than — a quarter of a billion dollars per picture. And that’s before marketing. So the money they’re making is getting closer and closer to how much they’re costing. This devil’s bargain of it doesn’t matter that we’re spending so much because we’re making so much is getting closer and closer to the point where it’s getting frightening. You sit and watch these movies and start to zone out, despite the fact that you’re watching shots that cost $100,000 per second go by. It’s not holding you. So the experiment granted to us under the umbrella of saying good-bye to Hugh’s character was, Try something different.

To be fair, for a lot of people in the audience, that’s more or less what they want to see — consistent tone with changes at the margins. Variations on a theme.
And for some people, it’s not a movie anymore. It becomes just an episode in the world’s most expensive episodic television show. The point I’d make to fans, before they get up in arms, would be: The comic books themselves reinvent the worlds over and over and over again. There are multiple Earths circling on opposite sides of the moon. There is time travel. The original Superman is not the Superman we saw in the ’60s and not the one in the ’90s and he’s not the one in comic books now. Artists from Frank Miller to Neil Gaiman to Chris Claremont to Joe Kubert and on and on and on are reinventing the design, the philosophy, the tone, the style, the uniform, in every way with these characters, and no one had an issue. In fact, everyone loves it. But the idea that the movies themselves have to be perfectly sealed is … I don’t think it works for everyone.

I think also there’s a unique bargain that the internet press and the press in general have played, in the need to be able to generate copy. There’s a never-ending fount of stories you can write about when someone is breaking away from canon or not, and create many controversies all the way through preproduction and production and even until a movie opens, about whether or not they’re breaking canon. Is it a blasphemous movie or not? At some point, you gotta stop and say, Is there this expectation that it’s like we’re doing Godfather Part I and II, only it’s going to nine movies? And we’re just gonna cut them into this kind of Berlin Alexanderplatz that never ends? We’re gonna suddenly take a moment to really savor the fact that these movies exist in an identical tone? The reality to me is that you can’t have interesting movies if you tell a filmmaker, “Get in this bed and dream, but don’t touch the pillows or move the blankets.” You will not get cinema. You will just get a platform for selling the next movie on that bed, unchanged and unmade.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It has also been updated to reflect Mangold’s prediction about the 2016 election.

Logan Director Mangold Talks X-Men and Trump’s Influence