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James Mangold’s Identity Crisis

James Mangold’s Identity Crisis

Articles - Directing

In 1985, at the age of 21, James Mangold was the
envy of every aspiring moviemaker. Only weeks after graduating
from Cal Arts, he landed a development deal at Disney, garnered
himself an agent at ICM and traded phone calls with Michael Eisner
and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

But things didn’t work out the way he planned.

Three days into shooting, he was fired from his
first directorial assignment and at the end of the first year,
his deal at Disney was not renewed. “I felt
about as low as you could feel,” recalls Mangold. “I felt like
I’d blown it.”
Ultimately, he decided to go back to film school, this time to
Columbia, where he found a mentor, Milos Forman, who helped continue
the mentor-student journey that Mangold had forged with director
Sandy Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success) during his earlier
stint at Cal Arts.

Mangold wrote Heavy while studying under
Oscar-winner Forman (Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and that film, which was independently financed by Mangold from
friends and family, went on to win the Director’s Prize at the
1996 Sundance Film Festival. After the success of Heavy,
he found himself, at 32, directing Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel,
Ray Liotta and Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land.

During the making of Cop Land, he also met
an important collaborator, producer Cathy Konrad (Scream, Citizen
Ruth, Kids
).

“I remember getting the script,” recalls Konrad.
“And it was quite long—like 139 pages—and I remember thinking
‘great.’ But then I was really drawn into the way Jim told stories.”
The two later married and Konrad has produced all of Mangold’s
subsequent features, Girl, Interrupted, Kate & Leopold and his latest, the thriller, Identity.

Ryan Mottesheard (MM): You
scored a development deal with Disney at the age 21. Did you think
that you “had it made?”

James Mangold (JM): I didn’t have
it made, ultimately. It was a bumpy road. It was like being thrown
into a world where you don’t even know how lucky you are because
you haven’t struggled that much. I graduated from Cal Arts in
June and I was writing in my office at Disney in August. It was
a great early experience in understanding the business side of
filmmaking. Understanding the politics of this business is a big
part of doing well in it. There were a lot of early lessons for
me in that. And I didn’t play everything the right way. It wasn’t
a matter of learning by observing; I learned by making mistakes.

MM: Your deal at Disney was not renewed
at the end of that year. How did you feel at  that point?

JM:Coming out of Disney, I felt about as
low as you could feel. The funny thing is, when I went back to
Columbia Film School, I was the ultimate film school student’s
nightmare come true. I graduated from film school (the first time)
with a hot short film, I got signed by a studio and a year later
I was on my ass, going nowhere. None of my fellow students wanted
to hear my story because all they hoped for was to get the opportunities
I had when I was 21. I carried a good bit of baggage about “blowing
it.”

James Mangold with producer/wife Cathy
Konrad on the set of 2001’s Kate & Leopold.

MM: Did you ever consider giving up?

JM:Sure. I thought about becoming a novelist.
I started writing short stories and poems and books and would
send them into quarterlies and get feedback. I ended up calling
the head of UC Irvine’s creative writing school and he told me,
“If you’ve gotten as far as you have, and you’re only 22, then
you might want to stick with it.” I was looking for a mentor.
That’s the main reason I went back to film school. Some people
put down film schools, saying, “What do you really need them for
when everything you need to learn you can learn by watching great
movies?” Which is true, in many ways. But one of the things you
don’t get is a community. If you’re working in the business, everyone
is so starving that no one has time for anyone else.

MM: What were some of the most important
things that you learned from your film school mentors, Milos Forman
and Sandy Mackendrick?

JM: Sandy was a brilliant man, but he had
a lot of formalized rules about filmmaking—where exposition should
go, how you should structure things, how stories worked from the
Greek times. The real lesson that Sandy taught me was if I turned
in a 10-page short film script, he would come back the next day
with 11 pages of handwritten notes. What he was doing was not
only making you believe in yourself, but he also made you take
yourself seriously, because he did. He also made me understand
how much hard work goes into filmmaking.

Milos was also a great writing teacher. He would
go through a screenplay with me and pick out pieces and say “This
is good, this is better, this is not so good.” It was about finding
moments inside the script. One of the reasons why he’s so good
with actors is finding moments in the screenplay. I wrote Heavy
while I was studying with Milos.

MM: You’ve gone from a smallish independent
film,
Heavy, to directing much bigger budgeted projects
for huge studios. How were you able to make that transition?

JM:I think the job of directing a movie remains
essentially the same—at least for me. It changes more for the
line producer or the DP, who will have more lights and more people
to hang those lights. But for me, you’ve got a 35mm camera—I did
on Heavy, I did on Identity—I have actors’ faces
and a script and a scene and I have to finish the work and be
satisfied with it.

MM: Identity is the first film in which
you don’t have a script credit. Was there a certain liberation
you found in working from someone else’s script?

JM:No, I don’t think so. What’s weird is
that when I’m directing something I wrote myself, I still think
of the person who wrote it as this other person. By the time you
arrive on the set and a line isn’t working or whatever, the director
in you just says, ‘Oh, that idiot writer.’ There’s a very clear
switching of hats in order to be healthy as a writer/director.
Certainly, [something that’s been] very helpful for me has been
having a very smart, creative producer at my side—and also have
a really smart cast.

John Cusack and Amanda Peete are part of
the talented ensemble cast in Identity.

MM: You’ve always been able to put together
interesting casts, particularly in the smaller roles.

JM:That’s the critical part. Cathy and I
both pay a lot of attention to that. A movie can be undone with
those roles. Even when you’re making student films, it’s apparent
when you have your friend come over to play the UPS man in a scene.
They always stink, and it’s a huge catastrophe. As I’m writing
or directing, I try to make sure that every character has a moment
to assert themselves; an aria, almost. Because I’ve seen movies
be destroyed from lack of this.

MM: How did you come upon the idea of
casting John Cusack in the lead for a dark noir thriller?

JM:Cathy and I both felt like John was perfect
for this role. When you think of movies like The Grifters,
you don’t feel like it’s such a stretch. I’d met John a few times
and there’s this great “Everyman” sense to him. And while there’s
this great warmth to him, especially as he’s grown older, there’s
also a simplicity, a gravity to him. There’s something very solid
about John.

MM: You shot Identity on stages
at Sony?

JM: Yeah. You’d have been amazed if you’d
visited during shooting. We built literally 95 percent of what
you see in the movie. It was incredible what we got away with
on the stages. It allowed me to make a stronger film. I mean,
having done nights in rain on location, it’s just brutal. It’s
a lot harder to control all the elements and still be worried
about composition.

MM: So you filmed it like an old Hollywood
director?

“You can only go
so far with every stylistic touch…
It’s not about me, doing my little
film aria, it’s about staying in the story we’ve
constructed.”
—James Mangold

JM: Yeah. Shooting a movie is never 9-to-5,
but I found myself getting home and having dinner, which is so
unusual for me when I’m making a movie. In this case, there was
something very methodical to making the movie. And in many ways,
it was one of the reasons I was interested in this film. The storytelling
was the star.

I’m a big fan of single location movies, whether
it’s Rear Window or whatever. It’s almost the opposite
of the dictum of “opening things up,” which is often applied to
plays or book adaptations. To me, some of the most cinematic movies
have “opened up” without doing the obvious. They’ve kept themselves
in one world and said to themselves, “Somehow I’m going to keep
opening doors into this one world.” I’m not going to allow myself
to cut to, say, New Delhi or cut to London, etc.

MM: Do you like to put those restraints
on yourself?

JM: Yes, I do. I like having a very concrete,
formal hurdle. Like when I made my first film, Heavy.
I set out to make a silent film, almost in response to these tongue-in-cheek,
rock and roll, über-violent films that were around at the time.
I set out to do something incredibly reductive. And in [Identity],
what I wanted to do was take some of the exuberance and operatic-ness
of horror films and marry it to a better class of acting and character
work and also the audacious set of twists that was in the material.

MM: A lot of those slasher films cancel
themselves out anyway.

JM:Well, it becomes about the guitar solo.
There are times in movies that you can go so far, and this is
true not only with gore, but with almost every stylistic touch.
Where you go so far as to say, ‘It’s more important that you recognize
me, doing my little film aria, than staying in the story we’ve
constructed.’ That’s always the battle—for me, anyway. I think
the great practitioner of the boundary was Hitchcock. He very
often did amazing things that we could talk about on an athletic
basis, like a shot that cranes from the ceiling down to find a
key inside someone’s hand. But they’re story points!

MM: And you don’t see those things until
you see them for the second or third time…

JM:…Or if somebody tells you to look out
for that moment. But it’s so un-self-conscious with him. My favorite
Hitchcock movie is Shadow of a Doubt, which has these
incredible dinner scenes with Joseph Cotten and everyone at the
table. That’s where you really see how great Hitchcock is. It’s
really gratifying to me when the less showy scenes have an incredible
design to them. That’s where you really see the greatness in some
directors.

MM: In some of your earlier interviews,
you mentioned the influence of Yasujiro Ozu. Whose work, or which
films, did you look at for
Identity?

Mangold directs Cusack on the Identity set.

JM:There were already such icons in my head
once I realized that the beginning, middle and end all occur in
this one place. One of them is John Carpenter’s The Thing, which
I think is a really great film. But it was extremely influenced
by Alien, which I think is another extremely great film. I think
of [both of these movies] as absolute penultimate integrations
of the horror film, the monster film, into a modern styling.

MM: There’s this acute attention to detail
in your films. They’re all very intricately detailed, from shot
composition to production design to editing transitions.

JM:The devil is in the details. The films
that live do so because of that care. I think every movie has
its flaws. One of the things that can really paralyze you as a
filmmaker is when you watch something like Citizen Kane,
and you wonder how you can even be playing in the same ballpark.
But if you watch it as if you made it, you might say, ‘Wow, that
was kind of a stinky scene.’ Now the scene before it and the scene
after it are so great, but even in that stinky scene there are
great details, even if it’s a prop or a look or whatever.

MM: Do you feel like you’re a different
moviemaker than you would’ve been had your early experience at
Disney turned out differently?

JM:I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder how things
would’ve turned out if everything had gone right at Disney. I’m
just glad I’m a little older and a little wiser about making movies
now. Maybe if I would’ve been a little more successful back then,
I might’ve done two or three films and then burned out. I don’t
know.

In any event, I think it was a blessing in disguise,
because after going back to film school again, it helped me differentiate
between wanting to make movies and needing to make movies. With
everyone I met back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, who came out
of the New York independent scene, the movies that got made were
because the people behind them decided they had to happen. Whether
it was $1 million in foreign money or $10 million from a studio
or $200,000 that was cobbled together from friends and family.
Those were the movies that had to be made. MM

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