Myth vs. Man: James Mangold and Scott Frank on Logan
Writing an intimate superhero film, the summer blockbuster arms race, writing for children, and dialogue as a delivery system of lies.
After eight previous films playing Marvel’s most famous mutant superhero, Hugh Jackman promises that Logan will be the final time that Wolverine’s iconic adamantium claws will extend from his fists. Leading Jackman through what is purported to be his final adventure in Fox’s latest X-Men movie is writer/director James Mangold, who previously directed Jackman as Logan in 2013’s The Wolverine.
Before agreeing to make Logan, longtime friends and collaborators Mangold and Jackman sought as much creative influence as they were allowed on a film that is both the third Wolverine solo movie, and also the tenth movie in Fox’s X-Men franchise.
One of the conditions was that Logan would indeed be the “Last Ride” for Jackman’s Wolverine. After Mangold wrote an initial treatment for Logan, screenwriter Michael Green (co-writer of the upcoming Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049) expanded Mangold’s treatment. Later, Mangold returned to the screenplay with Scott Frank, the veteran Oscar-nominated screenwriter who co-wrote The Wolverine.
Logan is set in 2029, a time when mutants are almost entirely wiped out from existence. Logan’s mutant powers – particularly his healing – are fading, and he ekes out a living as a limo driver in Texas, while he takes care of a nearly century-old Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose vast mental powers are failing him.
The two aged mutants come into contact with X-23, a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen) whose abilities and temperament are reminiscent of Logan’s own. Laura is being pursued by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and a group called the Reavers, and Xavier convinces Logan to fight the good fight one last time and lead Laura to safety to a mutant haven called Eden that may not actually exist.
Mangold’s films cover the spectrum of genres, yet they also cross them. In addition to directing a traditional Western, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, both his 1997 film Copland and Logan are narratives that adhere to Western sensibilities.
Similarly, Frank’s writing has crossed a number of cinematic genres (and thus has been featured numerous times in Creative Screenwriting), and his first novel, a crime story titled Shaker, was recently released in paperback by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. He is also the creator of Godless, a Western mini-series that will be released by Netflix.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Mangold and Frank separately about reuniting for Wolverine’s final cinematic adventure, why the film’s R rating wasn’t just about violence, and what surprising aspect the Wolverine character has in common with music legend Johnny Cash, the subject of Mangold’s 2005 film Walk the Line.
After The Wolverine, what did you feel you still wanted to accomplish with the Wolverine character?
James Mangold: Hugh and I set a goal that if we were going to make another, that it would be the last one. In that context, we wanted to find a way to do things that had never been done with the character.
The Japanese saga [depicted in The Wolverine] had its own definite world and limits, in the sense that it really told a specific story about Logan in a specific circumscribed universe and an exotic locale. We wanted to do something more final, but for me – and I think the same was true for Hugh – there was not really an interest in going back again unless there was an opportunity for greater self-expression.
I’m not implying that we were somehow denied self-expression on The Wolverine, but the material we were adapting defined itself. The fact that we had the opportunity with Logan to start something from a blank page meant in a way that I had the chance to make an original film of my own about this character, as opposed to serving the grander needs of a comic book saga.
Scott Frank: The Wolverine was very frustrating for me, because there was a different regime running the studio at the time. When I came on The Wolverine, he didn’t lose his powers until the last five pages of the script and then gets them back. I said to Jim, “Let’s write a movie about a guy who is invincible and self-healing who loses his power on page twenty, and explore that.”
There was a lot of pushback from the then-powers-that-be with The Wolverine, to get back to the giant robots and all the other stuff. But what was really fun for us was the character study of this man, alone, in the middle of Japan, and out of his element. I kept thinking of the movie Witness. That to me was a real character study, because you could explore what it would be like to lose everybody that you love, and to suddenly understand what it feels like to be mortal. We were exploring that, and I think in the end we were stymied.
But with Logan there was a newer regime at the top of the studio, and they were very supportive of experimenting with the character, because they know that with these movies a kind of sameness sets in very quickly. They become a snake eating its own tail when they keep doing the same thing over and over again. We were very conscious of chasing down what we had started in the last one, but really doing it deeper now.
Wolverine is older and he’s at the end, and Charles is in a bad way. We wanted to explore all of that, along with debunking the whole mythology of the superhero to a degree, while at the same time re-mythologizing them. That was an exciting thing for us to do – find out what it is like to be Logan the man. It’s even titled Logan because we’re really exploring that aspect of his life.
Can you talk about the story development process for Logan? I assume Hugh Jackman was involved as well.
James: Hugh and I have been friends for almost twenty years now, and he was there every step of the way. For Hugh and I, the first goal was to construct something more intimate. Hugh often brought up The Wrestler and Unforgiven as examples. I used those references as well as others. I pitched to both Hugh and the studio that I had an idea for an extremely bloody, existential Little Miss Sunshine.
I wrote a fifty-page treatment for the movie that effectively laid out that our characters are on the run, and Charles has a degenerate brain disease and is being cared for by Logan. That set up a kind of Alzheimer’s father-son relationship, but in this case because Professor X has the most powerful brain in the world, his deteriorating condition makes him a threat to people.
That idea was married to the other idea I had, which was X-23 arriving on their doorstep and serving as the catalyst for the flight across the country. The most basic idea I had was that to make a more interesting movie about Logan: we had to make a movie about what frightens him the most.
That was the defining idea of this movie. He’s not frightened of supervillains, and he’s not frightened by the end of the world. He’s certainly not frightened of his own demise. Given that, it struck me that the only thing that I could think of that he is truly frightened of was love itself and intimacy for a variety of reasons.
One is the shame that he carries on his shoulders from all that has come before, and he has also been shellshocked by the very simple realization that anyone he loves dies. He tries to avoid caring about anyone because his affection almost becomes a guarantee of their doom. In a sense, romantic love is not as permanent or constricting as family love. There’s something immutable about the connection between parents and children. Therefore, I felt that was the right place to dig.
At that point, I was also working with Scott Frank on The Deep Blue Good-by, a Travis McGree movie that we were getting ready to shoot with Christian Bale. While that was happening, Michael Green came on Logan and did a pass to lay out some of the ideas I had put in my treatment into screenplay form. When The Deep Blue Good-by collapsed because Christian tore his ACL, Scott and I took over writing Logan to flesh out the story.
In some way, I felt we had still not gotten to a satisfactory ending.
The biggest breakthrough Scott and I had was this meta idea about the comic books existing in the world of our heroes. Like fallen sports stars or old Hollywood stars, these characters were haunted by their own legends. It was a way to define their own positions at the start of the story even further, but it also helped us chart how the story would take care of the second and third acts in ways we hadn’t conquered yet.
Speaking of those comic books, it was clever to incorporate the idea that the X-Men are also fictionalized comic book heroes in the future. What was the thought process behind including that?
Scott: We were sitting in a hotel room in New York City with Hugh working through the script. I don’t know how many drafts we had done at this point. This notion came up about Eden, where the idea of Eden came from, and whether or not it was even real. The notion of using the comic books became really exciting to all of us. That idea to use it in the world plays with the notion of myth versus man.
James: It always strikes me as very unusual that in some of these sagas superheroes have their own jets, spotlights that shine in the sky with their insignia, costumes, and elaborate identities. These are the kind of things that would generate a bonfire of publicity in the media. Yet, there is very little attention paid to that. How they would navigate the weight of that kind of publicity and their own infamy in this celebrity-driven world is so interesting to me.
Logan is obviously influenced by Westerns, and the movie even includes clips from the classic Shane. Why does the Wolverine character lend itself to Western themes?
James: The Western itself is more than horses, guns, stagecoaches, and varmint talk. In fact, the least interesting part of the Western to me is the Knott’s Berry Farm aspects of it. What is most interesting to me about the Western is the simplicity, clean lines, and economy of storytelling.
Westerns are essentially character-driven and not plot-driven, and they allow more space for character and interesting explorations of theme through character, dialogue, and conflicts.
In many ways, in the last decade the summer blockbuster has become a rehash of the same plotline over and over again, almost like an arms race of one picture trying to outdo the other with the level of destruction: You destroy a city, we’ll destroy a continent; you destroy a continent, we’ll destroy the Earth; you destroy the Earth, we’ll destroy the galaxy.
At the same time, the secondary arms race is the number of characters, until these movies have started to approach the Tora! Tora! Tora! level of a cast of thousands. Given the finite runtime of a movie, you have too many of them – just take 120 minutes and divide that. And you also have action sequences and titles.
It’s no wonder then that in some of these movies these characters don’t have much more of an arc than Elmer Fudd does in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Elmer actually has more screentime than they get. It’s not a lack of talent among screenwriters and directors of those movies, it’s that the architecture itself is doomed to only be able to scrape the surface of the character because you just don’t have the real estate to explore it.
Scott: The loner who stumbles into somebody else’s fight is always fascinating to me. It’s an interesting aspect of Westerns. I love it in Unforgiven and it’s a huge part of my own Western, Godless. There’s also a code, and I think there’s a code in the world of superheroes as well. The rules and the feel of the Western are different than that of the something like the cop genre, and there’s just something that I’m very comfortable with in that world.
Speaking of stumbling into somebody else’s fight, that actually happens to Logan in the opening scene.
Scott: I told Jim that I’ve always wanted to write a James Bond movie where at the beginning of the movie Bond is in a bar somewhere in London getting drunk, and he ends up getting the shit kicked out of him by a bunch of soccer hooligans. I thought that would be a great way to pick him up at his worst point, because I like picking up characters when they’re in some sort of extremis in order to dig them out. I thought that would be a fun way to pick up James Bond, rather than picking him up in a casino or somewhere else where he’s in a suit.
Nobody was asking me to write that movie, but they were asking me to write this one. [Laughs] I kept pitching this idea of an opening where that happens to Logan. It would also announce that it’s not going to be the other kind of superhero movie. It’s not going to be full of CG or gravity-defying effects. We even had a two or three paragraph manifesto in the script stating that. It was a great way to hum the key of the story right up front.
James, I also saw connections with Cop Land, another Western-inspired movie, which also features a damaged hero with few allies standing up against a corrupt, powerful organization.
James: That’s another movie of mine that doesn’t take place in a Western milieu, but is very much influenced by Westerns. We were more than conscious of it while we were making the film.
I feel a connection with all my films. I feel a connection between Walk the Line and Logan. I feel a connection between Girl, Interrupted and Logan. Certainly, 3:10 to Yuma and Logan. For me, it’s the idea of a protagonist who is struggling with his or her own sense of psychological stability and depression to the point of almost having a death wish.
There’s a very interesting story Johnny Cash told me personally only a few weeks before he died. I had been talking to him every week doing research for the movie, and in the months after June [Carter Cash, Johnny’s wife] passed I would call him in the morning on Saturdays.
On one particular day I was asking him random questions, including what his favorite movies were. It was a rambling conversation across different decades of movies that influenced him, but the one that was most interesting to me is that he brought up James Whale’s Frankenstein, which he saw when he was eight or nine years old.
He said he had this very palpable experience watching the movie. Everyone in the movie was frightened of this monster, but he identified with the monster and saw it as an extension of himself. He said, “I identified with Frankenstein because I felt I also was made up of all these bad parts.”
It was a very moving conversation with John, but it also would very much be the words coming out of Logan’s mouth. He is a character that feels in some way cursed and made dark by God, and is forced to live in this body with this destiny of violence and regret.
Scott, when I interviewed you about The Wolverine you told me that the only Wolverine comic book that influenced you was Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan. There are also a lot of influences from Old Man Logan in this film – the aged Logan, the fact that it’s an on-the-road story, and so on – but obviously this isn’t an adaptation of that storyline. Can you talk about the Old Man Logan influence?
Scott: The attitude of that comic is what blew me away. I never encountered a superhero story like that. It is almost like you are reading about Dirty Harry. It is a very different sort of character.
My pitch to Jim was always, “If we are going to be on the road with a man and a child, let’s do a hyper-violent Paper Moon with no sentiment whatsoever.” In fact, let’s hold off on any emotion until the very end. He is constantly trying to get rid of her.
That made it easier to write. The Old Man Logan comic, which I read while we were working on The Wolverine, was something I could relate to, whereas the other superhero stuff I read I didn’t relate to because it just felt fake. Nobody dies, nobody gets hurt, nobody ages, nobody has any real issues. If there’s any kind of humor, it’s usually winking humor.
Old Man Logan felt like it was written by somebody completely different. It had its own feel, and I loved it.
There are always challenges when you have children as major characters in a screenplay. You obviously don’t want a younger character to influence a childish tone or the character, to turn out like a kid sidekick or a designated victim. When writing Laura, what steps did you take to ensure that she would be the strong, compelling character that she is on screen?
James: First of all, you treat the character like an adult. You have to be responsible for giving the actress playing this role the same kind of depth that you would give to a character played by an adult. You also need to find an actress capable of really bringing humanity to the role, and not a kid who is used to doing cereal commercials and being cute.
I think we also did several other things that assisted. One of which was trying to undo the natural gravitational pull of writing precocious banter that adults often have with children in movies, by making her someone who didn’t speak English. Even when she speaks in the film, the movie is forced into cinema because they don’t speak the same language.
What I mean by “forced into cinema” is that I am a big believer that we have gotten way into dialogue as the delivery mechanism of meaning in movies. If anything, I tend to find that my results are much more pleasing – at least to myself – when I view dialogue as the delivery system of lies in a movie. What we see is the truth, and what we hear is misdirection.
Scott: I read a few other drafts of the script that Jim worked on, and in all those drafts she was talking from the beginning and had an attitude. I thought that was a giant mistake. I felt like she should be mute for as long as we could keep her that way. She should be feral, but also super-intelligent. But you don’t realize that. At first, you think she’s just this animal, but the more you learn about her the more you learn that she’s super-intelligent but without her speaking.
There was a little beat that we cut from the script. In the film when she’s at the farmhouse in the middle of the movie, she walked in on the son doing his math homework and she actually helps him with it. You would see this kind of mind that she has.
There remain little things like that in the film, and you get the sense that she’s a lot smarter and that she understands a lot more than she lets on. If you can do that without saying that, she becomes a stronger character because she is much more interesting. From the get-go, I was really pushing hard to mute her.
Did you or the studio have any concern about the level of violence in the screenplay, since much of it involves children?
James: There was concern at the point when we were getting the OK to do an R-rated film. The commitment to making the film at that rating was really early on in the treatment process. I think because I made a bunch of movies for the studio before, there was tremendous trust, and because Hugh and I were allied there was tremendous loyalty between us about pursuing the goal we were after.
The other thing that is interesting is that I didn’t want the R just for the violence. I wanted that rating because I wanted to make an adult film. What I mean by that is you cannot explore adult themes in a movie that also has to entertain nine year-olds.
One of the things that people don’t consider is that in the modern economic system of Hollywood, when you agree a movie will be rated R at the get-go, the studio marketing and merchandising departments and the distribution networks have to all come to terms with the fact that it is no longer a four-box film. Because it’s not a four-box film, they understand that there will be money left on the table because you’re not going to be selling this film to nine through fourteen year-olds. That’s also the end of opportunities to sell action figures and do tie-ins with fast food companies.
It also influences your scenes. One of the first scenes I wrote early on in my treatment was the first scene between Logan and Charles in the tank. That’s a six-minute scene. That scene has no violence, but it could never exist in a movie written to also entertain children simply because it’s a scene from an adult-themed film. The emotional turns in it are just not what you’d write to keep children engaged. That is a kind of freedom brought to you by rating simply because the film doesn’t become short attention span theater; it becomes a movie for grown-ups.
Scott, your first novel, Shaker, recently was released in paperback. I see some similarities in it to Logan, and also some Elmore Leonard influences. What inspired you to write your first novel after so many years as a successful screenwriter?
Scott: The book is something I’ve been noodling on forever. I’ve been working on it since the 1990s. It was originally going to be based around the 1994 Northridge earthquake, so that’s how long ago I started.
Even since early on in my career, I had become increasingly frustrated as a storyteller with the format of screenwriting. It’s not a particularly satisfying format, though I do think that scripts are an art form unto themselves. I really do believe that a script could be a great thing to read.
But it’s difficult because you only have sight and sound. Anytime you try and use the other three senses along with it, it reads purple. You’re really just describing something that you’re watching and listening to.
I have always been inspired as much by books as I was by movies. In fact, I probably learned more about character and dialogue from books than I ever did from movies..
I wrote 100 pages of the novel, then forgot about it for many years as life took over, and then rediscovered it by pulling it out of a drawer and reading it on a whim. Suddenly I found this year of time where I thought I was going to be working on something and that fell through, so I decided to finish the book.
Scott, you are also working on Godless, a Western mini-series for Netflix. What was different about creating this series from your film work?
Godless was a feature script that I had written a long time ago, and then expanded into a six-hour story. To be honest, it was like reverse adaptation – I could go deeper with everybody, which was a pleasure. It is a real old-fashioned Western. It’s dark and it’s violent, but there’s also a large romantic element and a lot of humor.
I really miss the big, sprawling Westerns. I wanted to do something like that forever, and it was very hard to make it as a feature because studios aren’t making them. The expression they always say is “Westerns don’t travel,” meaning that you can’t sell them overseas. But now with what’s happening in television the rules are all different, and Netflix was actually really high on the idea of doing a Western.
We finished shooting in mid-December and I’m deep into cutting it right now. I was in New Mexico for eight months, and we shot for 120 days because we shot it like you would shoot a six-hour movie in scheduling a 360-page script. We didn’t shoot an episode at a time because it’s a finite series, and we used the locations as we went. It was a huge job and we encountered every season and all kinds of weather. It was a real challenge for me, and I’ve never done anything this big before.
I’m having a great time, and for me the best thing was being able to go deeper in exploring the characters, which is what I love so much about television. I got to tell more story about characters I care about. That’s what’s really exciting and fun, as both a writer and a director.
Featured image: Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine in Logan. Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein. © 2017 Marvel. TM and © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.