Behind the Fantasy of the 1997 Movie Cop Land

“It was about a world in which everyone’s so tribalized, and traumatized, and fighting for their piece of green valley,” says director James Mangold, “that no one has the emotional space to exist.” Photo: Miramax Films

God knows we’ve had enough movies and shows about cops over the years. But among the few titles that have recently gained some grim prescience, we can count James Mangold’s 1997 drama Cop Land, about a fictional New Jersey town populated and run largely by New York City cops. The film looks at the phenomenon of police living far from the communities they’re supposed to protect — and the cultlike, us-versus-them mentality that emerges as a result. It opens with the killing of two Black teenagers by a drunken officer (played by Michael Rapaport) on the George Washington Bridge. Immediately, a corrupt old-boy network closes in to shield the man from the repercussions. The person who ultimately has to untangle it all is a meek, partially-deaf small-town New Jersey sheriff (played by Sylvester Stallone, in probably his best performance), who has, up until now, turned a blind eye to the criminal behavior of the cops who control his town.

Back in 1997, the film made waves for its A-list cast — alongside Stallone, it features Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Annabella Sciorra, Robert Patrick, and Janeane Garofalo — and helped put Mangold, at the time a young director with one small indie feature to his name, on the map. (Since then, he has directed hits such as Walk the Line, Logan, and Ford v. Ferrari.) Earlier this summer, the director posted a Twitter thread about not only the issues his film addresses, but also the challenges of having to work with Harvey Weinstein, who insisted at one point that the script’s central conceit — cops living outside of the city — was not plausible. I talked to Mangold about the real-life inspiration for Cop Land, the film’s journey to the screen, and the ongoing problems it tried to tackle.

Tell me about the origins of Cop Land.
I grew up in the Hudson Valley. Most of my classmates in public school were the children of New York City first responders, cops, firemen, etc. As the son of two fairly leftist painters, and being half-Jewish, I felt puzzled and confounded by the Catholic and Irish culture around me, and also excluded, to a large degree, from the network that existed among all these families — which was a very moving network, in some ways. One of the things that happens to cops and firemen is they die very young. I’m not talking about in the line of duty; I’m talking about heart disease, stress. I knew kids who had lost their parents, their fathers particularly. All this added to a kind of perspective. On one side, you knew these kids and knew their families. On another side, you felt politically excluded and judged. Even at that age — 15, 16 — I clearly saw that my politics was very, very different than theirs. I was in high school in the middle of the post–Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan moment … well, it was more than a moment. It became 12 years. Growing up, you struggled to understand how people could get so behind the right-wing agenda of the Reagan years. It was so clear to me, at that point, that it came from a kind of tribalism much more than it came from politics.

Then, years later, I was living in New York City at the height of the Dirty Thirty and the Mollen Commission in the ‘90s, during the Dinkins administration. I was trying to find a way to craft a film that somehow could be about all of this [police corruption]. I was commuting a lot to my folks’ house and back to school at Columbia University. I kept passing through this landscape in which you had nearly all-white enclaves of itinerant armed forces that commuted via rail or car for a 9-to-5 week in a fairly intense place. This was the age of crack and AIDS, and there was a lot going on in New York at that time. The level of paranoia, fear, and anxiety was high. They’d leave the suburban bliss of their homes and travel to a place that felt to them like a war zone, and then they’d return to the VCR, a cold beer, a barbecue, and their neighbors in the evenings and on the weekends. That, I think, is crazy. Similarly on the other side, if you’re living in a community in the city, the people who are patrolling you are people who have no connection to you.

I remember getting the idea for the movie while driving on the Palisades Parkway, and thinking about how to transpose a Western movie template onto what you might call a 1970s Sidney Lumet film — to make a film about these communities that were all interconnected, yet at war. I had this idea of a town that would exist and that would be similar to the town I grew up in — only exaggerated to be 100 percent cops. In many ways, obviously, it becomes a gross oversimplification, but sometimes oversimplifications can yield interesting analogies. To whatever degree Cop Land has relevance now, it was about a world in which everyone is so tribalized and traumatized — everyone fighting for their piece of green valley — that no one has the emotional space to exist. Morality becomes a luxury.

It’s been evident for some time that there is a real problem with places being patrolled by people who don’t live there — and who don’t really see those places as communities but as these scary other worlds. And it’s not just a New York phenomenon. 
It’s also applicable to foreign wars, too. I grew up at a time when soldiers had come back from Vietnam unsure of what they had even been doing. I thought that was analogous to the way cops felt. No one felt a sense of where we’re going. What is our goal? Where are we trying to get? What am I trying to do to make the world better? And when people are denied a vision of where we’d like to get, everything everyone’s doing is just a series of Band-Aids. Everyone’s arguing over tactics, as opposed to looking at the ecosystem itself and how it’s producing this misery.

After you wrote the script, did people look at it and say, “No, this is ridiculous. There’s no such thing as ‘Cop Land.’”
The few industry people I shared it with thought I should just keep working on it. It wasn’t ready. I put it in a shoebox, and I made Heavy. I will say, a friend suggested I pitch the story of Cop Land to 20th Century Fox. I got a meeting with the president of 20th Century Fox at that time and his development team. I pitched them the story. I remember the president of Fox interrupted me as I was giving the climax of the movie and goes, “Wait a second. Does this deaf sheriff kill all these cops in your story?” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “He kills all of them?” I go, “Yeah. He has to. There’s no surviving if he doesn’t.” He goes, “Well, we can’t do that.” I never got to the end of the pitch. It just ended right there and then.

During production of Heavy, we sent the Cop Land script to the Sundance labs, and I got in. That caused the script immediately to go on a hot-read list in Hollywood. I found myself in the center of a tornado. Major Hollywood producers made seven-figure offers for the script if I’d let it go and sell it. Major directors stalking the script, major actors wanting to meet to talk about the script. My insistence was always that I was going to direct it. Ultimately, Miramax was the only one that made the deal that would not only attach me as a director, but guaranteed that I would be the director, meaning I was un-fireable. I had all that paranoia because I had been fired at the age of 21 from a TV movie in Hollywood. When I found my way back again, having an opportunity to make a film, I was hell bent on making it impossible for someone to cut me loose.

The film became insanely hyped at the time because of the cast that came together for it.
After the Weinsteins bought it, the casting was insane. In many ways, I think it overscaled the movie. I’m very proud of the movie and the ideas in it, but one of the things that was difficult for me at the time was that I’d imagined the lead being someone you hadn’t heard of before, so that their extension into a hero would be less Hollywood. I was grateful for the opportunity, obviously, to work with some of these amazing people, and I got swept up in the excitement of working with them, as well. But the story itself was one of loss, sadness, hate, and aggrievement. I think it was a harder sell. We got in the main competition at Cannes, and Harvey [Weinstein] didn’t send us. I remember his quote to me: “You don’t need a palm frond on your poster. What is that going to do?” That was because we weren’t scoring high enough on preview scores. Because you’d get the Stallone fans coming into the theater, shouting, “Rambo!” or “Rocky!” before the movie ran, and then their hero turned out to be a schlub. But then cinema fans didn’t want to go anywhere near a Stallone movie; they saw it as a transparent vehicle for him to try and get in the Oscar race or something. There was this hostility that existed on one side from the critical establishment and a different kind of disappointment and hostility that existed from Judge Dredd and Rambo fans.

When Harvey said, “You don’t need to go to Cannes,” and you had issues with test scores, did you have to make cuts?
Yes, absolutely. There was an effort mounted to try and make the movie more satisfying, which involved a small amount of reshoots, lots of cutting, recutting, and trying things, and just trying to figure out why the scores couldn’t be as high as other Miramax films. Because of the cast and other elements, I think Miramax saw the potential in this movie as high, but the scores were more the scores of an art film. It had gotten cast so aggressively that it now needed to perform in a way that justified its cast (even though Harvey, obviously, hadn’t paid them what they’d get elsewhere). They felt that there was more money in this orange if it was just squeezed the right way. It was both brothers [Bob and Harvey] on this movie. I didn’t have a lot of contact with them, other than them coming into the cutting room and telling me what had to change. Imagine being in a small cutting room on Broadway with both of those brothers sitting on a couch, just pointing at your Avid.

Miramax was a place that gave me an incredibly big shot, but it was also an incredibly thuggish place to work. It had a very unusual environment at that time. [It was] this place that seemed golden, in Hollywood’s eyes, and in the zeitgeist. You felt honored to be included, but you also felt like you were a cog in a system that was dark and corrupt. It seemed like everyone was reading their own clippings and feeling thrilled to be part of this club that was the hottest little studio in the world. The movie always has this hangover, for me, when I look at it, of a really difficult period. It was the first larger-scale movie I ever directed, and the learning curve for a director is intense when you step into a movie on that scale. I would look at the footage and wish that I had done something or tried something, but you only get the knowledge by doing the thing.

You noted on Twitter that the Weinsteins made you add the opening narration to try and explain the idea of how cops could live outside the city.
This was very interesting because it was the least important of the changes I made, in the sense that it really impacted nothing inside the movie. There was this preoccupation for Miramax that the conceit of my script was impossible. They didn’t come up with this problem until I finished production. I suddenly was confronted by the Weinsteins with this idea that what I was proposing was not possible. I was like, “Well, of course. It’s a fictional film, meaning it comes from my imagination.” But I was also confused because I had grown up in a version of the reality that I was putting on screen. The idea that it was impossible seemed odd.

At that time, one of the techniques that Bob and Harvey would use on you, as a filmmaker, was to talk to “experts” — people who had produced cop movies 20 years before, who they were friends with in the city, or the political brass in New York — and use them as a kind of testimony about what was right or wrong about your picture. By the way, they also used critics. I mean, they had this great game going where they would show your film early to a critic. Then, the critic would offer their notes. They’d literally tell Harvey that they would be kinder to the film if you made certain changes. It was this incredibly incestuous world where they had figured out how to pull people whose support they needed into the process — and thereby gain their endorsement later, when the film emerged. It was a system. Like all systems, people are rewarded with the ego gratification of being part of a process. It never feels corrupt to any of the participants in the moment because they just feel like their great, creative minds are being accessed for advice. What’s better than that? I don’t necessarily think it was nefarious on the part of the critics, but nonetheless, they ended up playing a role in that ecosystem.

You mentioned the shortened life expectancy of cops as a result of things like illness, heart disease, and stress — that is also true of many of the communities they’re operating in. You get the sense that it’s these at-risk groups being pitted against each other while others, whose life expectancies just keep going up, are doing fine.
Yeah. It’s what’s going on in our country in general, which is that as you deny resources and opportunities to people, they end up pitted against each other for what little remains. At that time, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seemed like it was only getting worse. My movie was about a community of cops and the point of view that emanated from it. My own point of view is more sympathetic toward the communities of color that are besieged. But, in the context of what we’re talking about, it seems to me that we’re never going to unlock the white pathology that participates in this cycle if we don’t unpack what’s underneath this anger. I don’t mean to excuse it but to understand how people end up way out there in a cultish anger, where a uniform and a badge unites them with other like souls, and they start to develop a mercenary and deeply cynical attitude about the people they’re actually there to protect.

Behind the Fantasy of the 1997 Movie Cop Land