The Auteurist Trap

NAME: James Mangold

DESCRIPTION: Hot director at Sundance fest.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Heavy”-weight helmer dropped out at Disney.

For many young directors whose first features get accepted in the Sundance Film Festival, the Park City gathering is their first encounter with hardcore Hollywood.

Not Jim Mangold. Although he fits the description of an indie outsider – dark clothes, New York address, brooding intensity, Columbia film school – the 31-year-old writer and director of “Heavy” in fact spent several years pursuing a mainstream gig in Hollywood that came close to ending his career altogether. The high point, or maybe low point, was a one-year contract at Disney that earned Mangold a shared writer credit on the animated feature “Oliver and Company” and a one-way ticket back East.

Mangold’s disastrous experience out West has a happy ending – “Heavy,” an emotional drama centered on an overweight pizza cook (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and his mother (Shelley Winters), clicked with Sundance auds last month (see review, page 75), and Mangold soon will direct another indie film from his own script.

But the director’s early missteps, of which he now speaks freely, are a primer in that subject rarely taught in film school: the business end of auteurism.

Mangold remembers well that Monday in 1985 after his graduation from CalArts. The 21-year-old was headed home to a summer job at a photo shop in the Hudson Valley town where he grew up. (His parents are artists Robert and Sylvia Mangold.) The phone rang as he was packing in his dorm. It was Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who had seen Mangold’s short student film.

“As you may know,” Mangold recalls Eisner telling him, “I just took over a studio, and we need people like you.”

The phone rang again. It was Barry Diller, then in charge at Fox, with a similar message.

The next call was from Jeff Berg, chairman of International Creative Management. Mangold went home for a month, then returned with a one-year exclusive writer-director deal at Disney, negotiated by his new agent, Berg.

Mangold was walking on air, but not for long. He quickly learned that in Hollywood, the chase is everything. “Once they’ve got you, inertia sets in,” he says. “You’re placed, and nothing else is so important.”

Mangold discovered that Eisner’s enthusiasm for his potential was not matched by Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was ruffled by a deal point in Mangold’s contract granting the young auteur an assistant. Mangold says he didn’t care about the assistant but was counseled by ICM not to back down. “If they tell me it’s important to have an assistant, I guess it is,” the director remembers thinking.

Meanwhile, the studio put Mangold to work directing an ABC-Disney telepic, “Deacon Street Deer,” which he describes as “The Red Balloon” set in Manhattan. But the studio found his interpretation “too dark,” says Mangold; he was removed from the project. “Getting fired from a movie is very instructional,” he says.

Then Disney assigned him to co-write “Oliver and Company.” When his year was up, “Katzenberg told me I wasn’t part of the Disney family,” says Mangold. “The bottom fell out, the star was tarnished. I was the writer of an animated movie that would come out in three years – and this was before anybody cared about animation.”

But the saddest part, he says, was when he realized “I wasn’t gonna get to make my ‘Duel'” – a reference to the TV movie that launched Steven Spielberg’s career.

Mangold banged around L.A. for about four years, writing trailers for Cannon Pictures films, penning a Will Vinton TV special and pondering becoming a novelist. “I ran out of steam,” he says.

Faced with the prospect of being “hooked into the food chain of television,” Mangold realized he had to make an independent film. “All the directors I really admired, people like Martin Ritt and Martin Scorsese, worked in independent film before Hollywood.” In 1989, he enrolled at Columbia University film school.

“A lot of my friends were shocked that I was going back to film school,” says Mangold, “because I’d already gone further than them in the business. It was like the ultimate retreat. But I needed a place where I could be encouraged, not a mill.

“Basically, I needed a development deal, and I decided to use my film teachers as studio executives.”

Mangold developed “Heavy” under the guidance of Columbia film school chief Milos Forman, and shot the low-budget, self-financed film over seven weeks last spring.

Mangold, who has a new agent (Joanne Roberts at Susan Smith & Associates) and a manager (Daniel Rappaport at 3 Arts), says he has no bad feelings toward Hollywood. “On some levels, I have to thank Jeffrey Katzenberg for derailing a train that was going nowhere. I’m sure I would have ended up a very slick, Spielberg-Scorsese emulator – a B-script director.”

Nor does he write off working in the mainstream – now that he’s smarter about the system: “No matter how much they promise about ‘bringing you up,’ the life expectancy of a studio executive is too short to follow through on that agenda,” he believes.

His advice to the next crop of auteur wannabes: “There’s an attitude that film schools are vocational schools – and the studios perpetuate that by looking for 21-year-olds to direct. It’s a myth. Don’t step up to the plate at the majors until you’re ready to hit a home run. Until then, you’ve got to construct your own path.”

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