James Mangold was first mentioned in Variety on June 30, 1982, when he won a $1,000 student prize for the sound on his film “Future View.” At California Institute of the Arts, he found a mentor in director Alexander Mackendrick (“The Ladykillers,” “Sweet Smell of Success”), who stressed the importance of character and story rather than “fine-art” film-school fanciness. It’s a lesson Mangold has used on all his films, including “Cop Land” (1997) “Walk the Line” (2005), “3:10 to Yuma” (2007) and his latest, “Logan,” a spinoff of the “X-Men” franchise. Still, Mangold convinced Fox to make “Logan” a film about real people, rather than a VFX green-screen extravaganza.
“Every tentpole seems to be about the end of the world. I felt the formula was tired,” he says. “I think even audiences are exhausted and certain aspects of storytelling have gotten monotonous.” Instead, he wanted to focus on a makeshift family and its members’ very human concerns.
The gamble paid off with big box office ($617 million worldwide) and Oscar buzz.
When did you know you wanted to direct?
I’d been making Super 8 since I was 12. At home in upstate New York, I had an editing system I’d built in the attic; I was building miniatures, animating — I was a one-man band.
Then you applied to CalArts?
I started when I was 17. At that time (1982), Disney was building Epcot Center; Disney and General Motors wanted a documentary about automobiles and transportation. I was among the students interviewed by producer Bob Rogers, and they asked me to make the film. At home, I had been a one-man operation and suddenly I was learning about budgets, communication with marketing executives, and responsibility in dealing with huge companies like General Motors and Disney. I learned a lot.
What was “Future View” like?
It was basically a promotional film, and the sound involved a lot of revving engines and supersonic jets. It was fun.
Alexander Mackendrick was a great director. How was he as a teacher?
He was like a West Coast dad for me. He didn’t usually work with first-year students, but he liked my Super 8 projects. He was an island of narrative-driven storytelling, which I was very attracted to.
What advice did he give you?
I was his teaching assistant for two years. In my third year, he wanted me to transfer to the acting school. He said the problem for most filmmakers is that they focused on the equipment, on the technical aspects of making a movie — but they were lost when it came to blocking, acting and working out the story with actors. He thought the actual act of telling a story in front of a camera was the greatest challenge for young filmmakers. I think it still is. Sandy believed you didn’t need more than what Orson Welles had in terms of technology, and it’s really about what you’re putting in front of the camera that determines the quality of the film. To some directors, the crane shot and the digital-vs-film arguments and the prime-vs.-zoom lens athleticism are more attractive than the nuts and bolts of “How do I make an emotionally arresting scene that moves you?”
So you transferred to acting?
I auditioned and got into the acting program, and I spent one year there. I was still Sandy’s assistant, but I was an actor learning movement, fight training, voice training. Don Cheadle was another student. It was eye opening. That was a breakthrough year in my life; it was thrilling.
Is that why you like to work with actors?
I loved acting. I think Sandy recognized that he was creating something that was good. I was the only one. I was the prototype for the program that now exists at CalArts — a film-directing program that’s a combined effort of the theater and film schools. It started then and it all came from Sandy’s impulse.