'Logan' Director James Mangold on Pushing for R-Rating, Hugh Jackman's Last Day on Set and His Comic Book Movie Future

Fox’s Logan, opening Friday, is many things. It’s billed as the swan song for Hugh Jackman as the mutant superhero known as Wolverine, aka Logan. It’s the first R-rated Wolverine movie. It’s a Western. It’s a comic book movie for people who don’t like comic book movies.

It’s also remarkable that the same person who directed the second Wolverine movie (2013’s The Wolverine), which very much followed the tropes of what is normally expected in these kinds of movies, then did such a 180-degree turn to make a film that some critics are calling the best X-Men movie yet.

That person is James Mangold.

Heat Vision spoke with Mangold about the politics of making an R-rated superhero movie, making Patrick Stewart more than just a device for exposition, and being done (or not) with comic book movies.

What did you set out to accomplish with this movie?

For both Hugh and I, and all of my compatriots and collaborators, the goal was to try and do something out of the box and try to undermine a lot of the kind of default settings of these movies in terms of story methodology, storytelling style, being more naturalistic, having less green screen, less visual effects, more analog, less characters, and not building the film on presumptions of kind of these kind of epic stakes that the world will be destroyed as we know it.

Essentially the movie is built on much more local stakes, smaller stakes, and with the hope and some confidence that we actually care more about characters when we have the space to get to know them and care what they care about and feel their predicament as opposed to just worrying about whether our world will survive the latest onslaught from whichever super villain has been painted blue and is wearing strange contact lenses.

The other Wolverine movies weren’t R-rated. Why make this R?

One of my main reasons for wanting rated R wasn’t just to be able to deliver for audiences the kind of action they’d been wanting for a while with Logan. Because as much as this movie kind of dived into the violence of having a lead character and a daughter with claws, I think it’s also about feeling the weight and the loss that the aftermath of violence results in. And that is what I was most interested in, in making an adult-themed film, a more sophisticated film. For me, getting the studio to agree to rated R is also when the movie stops being about the four boxes. The movie stops being a vehicle for moving merchandise. No one’s watching the film through the prism of a 9-year-old or a 12-year-old and hoping to be able to sit through this six-minute scene between Charles Xavier and Hugh Jackman.

Was there any point that you guys were saying, ‘Let’s make this a PG-13 movie,’ or was it always a hard R?

I wrote a 50-page outline treatment for the film, which basically laid out the main flow of action chart with Logan caring for Charles, as a degenerate brain diseased person, X-23 knocks on his doorstep et cetera, et cetera.

And from that moment out I was arguing that we commit to making the film an R and he [Jackman] was backing me up. I think Hugh very much wanted to make a different kind of movie, a less expensive film, a more ambitious film, a more naturalistic film. I knew if I accepted the argument, "Let’s just make the movie and then we’ll decide later when we look at it," then invariably the market forces would end up pushing the picture into a PG-13.

From a studio perspective when you make a movie rated R, at least this is the conventional wisdom, you’re "Leaving money on the table." So, you have to get them to leave that money on the table at the start. Because it’s gonna be impossible, particularly if the movie's playing, to get them to consider that later. But you know, ultimately I guess it wouldn’t have mattered because the movie, I don’t think you really, without disemboweling it, could cut this movie into a PG film. The tone even of itself is just too adult.  It’s not about any one single scene or act of violence or use of blue word. It’s bigger than that.

What was Hugh’s last day on the set like? Was is ceremonial or reverent in any way?

It was a scramble against daylight before it went away, to be honest. We were doing his final scene in the film …The truth is that both Hugh and I felt the weight of these things as we were making the film but my goal, to whatever degree the director is also coach, is actually to not feel them. That is a feeling that is best explored when we’re not actually making the movie.

But the second the sun had gone behind the mountain and we all realized we had just finished his last picture, there was of course a huge feeling of finality. But as Hugh says, this character will always be a huge part of him so I don’t think he really feels like he’s saying goodbye as much as he’s just trying to end things on a high note.

X-Men fans will see Patrick Stewart, and Professor X, in a different light in Logan.  How did Patrick take to his role in this movie?

I thought Hugh and Patrick both give performances that are among the best, if not the best, of their career. I think they’re both really amazing and vulnerable and taking big risks and eschewing vanity and just going for it in these roles. You know, it had gotten to a point where (Patrick) very much played the kind of the guy explaining the plot in a lot of these movies. Generally, other than being kind of a father figure, he didn’t have much of an emotional arc to play out in these pictures. I think he relished the opportunity here given the fact that it’s really just a free character movie.

He went for it, he really did. I’ve had actors in the past that hesitated when you’re asking them to play frail. It’s very threatening to the actor because they don’t want to suddenly get pigeonholed as only being able to play frail. Patrick is hearty and hale and is one hell of a physical specimen and yet the bravery of kind of going for it was huge.

Are you done with Wolverine and the X-Men universe?

I don’t make proclamations like that. Unlike Hugh, I’m not playing the same character time in and time out and for me there’s no reason to draw a line like that. So I’d never say that. My thing is, is it interesting? What are we doing that’s new, or is it just, are we just fulfilling a need for another one economically. If it’s that — then I’m not interested in participating in that. But If there’s a story that’s interesting and I think worth two years of my undivided attention, then I’m in. And that goes for anything.

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