The writer-director of the acclaimed film talks about the new disc, Joaquin and Reese and his take on present-day moviedom
James Mangold is certainly one diverse director. After breaking onto the scene with his debut Heavy and his follow-up Cop Land, this filmmaker has been crossing genres every chance he can, making much different films each time around. His film Walk the Line is being released in a new Extended Cut on March 25 and I had the privilege to speak with the filmmaker over the phone. Here's what he had to say.
It says we get 17 minutes of extra footage with the Extended Cut, pushing this to almost two and a half hours. Was this extra footage cut primarily for time or were there other considerations? What can we expect from this extra footage?
James Mangold: Well, the musical sequences are more fully realized. In cutting the movie, one of the things I was trying to do was to not get caught up in the musical sequences. One of my anxieties was about the musical biopics that I found, a lot of times the musical sequences would wear out their welcome and go on too long. The material of Joaquin (Phoenix) and Reese (Witherspoon) doing these songs is so good, I thought for fans of the movie, I think they'd really love to see more of their performances.
We get a lot more of that on the special features too with the Johnny Cash Jukebox. Are these just the same songs in the movie, just fleshed out more?
James Mangold: That, and they're integrated into the picture. They aren't just extras. We cut them into the movie. So there are different edits of those pieces, plus there are scenes that weren't there. There's one in particular. I was always fascinated with the song I Still Miss Someone. 'I go out to a party, look for a little fun/But a find a darkened corner 'cause I still miss someone.' How that related to John and how that was originally sung, I found that profoundly spoke to John about his feelings for his brother as well as his feelings about June. The way that June almost became that angel for him in the way that his brother had been. There were some scenes in the middle of the picture that were, where I felt it was dragging a little, I've had the confidence to put them back in and there are some beautiful performances with that song and thinking about his brother. There's also an expanded scene at the end with June at the church where he goes to the church with her. There are some scenes that we cut for time a little bit and we were more self-conscious about making sure the movie didn't go an ungainly length. I think, given the popular response to the movie, there are some really great performances that you'll see in this.
I read that it took four years just to secure the rights from Johnny Cash's friend James Keach. Why was that such a lengthy process? That seems like something that would be more routine.
James Mangold: The problem was, first of all, James is also a movie director and he was planning on making a movie about John and have the rights to it. Part of it was getting to James and talking about the ideas that I had for the movie and seeing if he was willing to join up with us. James, because he had known John for so long, was the one who, when he was won over by my ideas for the picture, brought us to meet John and June.
James Mangold: Yeah. Because I had no introduction to John, so James became our introduction to John and, of course, John and I formed our own relationship.
It sounds like both Joaquin and Reese went through extensive vocal training and learning the musical instruments. Were you there for any of the training with T-Bone Burnett?
James Mangold: Oh, almost all of it. It was like an actor's laboratory. T-Bone is very close to me, so we created kind of a laboratory, working on it every day. Joaquin, even before T-Bone was involved on a daily basis, in about 2001, I believe it was, when I first gave the script to Joaquin and he said he wanted to do it, I think the very first thing I said was, 'Go get a guitar and start getting comfortable with it.' He did immediately and for the next three years... what was the movie he shot about firemen with John Travolta?
Oh, Ladder 49.
James Mangold: Yeah. I would hear stories from other movies where they'd go get him out of the trailer and all they'd hear was guitar music. So he was working all the time on it.
I read that both Johnny and June endorsed Joaquin and Reese for their roles. I know they passed before you started shooting, but what other roles did they bring into pre-production?
James Mangold: The real role that they brought were they were my source. I would ask them questions of any kind. What was your favorite movie? What color was this car? How did you feel at this point? How many pills a day were you taking? John had very much cleaned up his biography when he wrote his auto-biography. He didn't go into much detail about the darker sections of his life, so I almost had to play a role of psycho-analyst and try to pry open details. I talked to Johns family, his sister, his brother, obviously June and John, the manager, the rest of the band, the Tennessee 3. There are great details about all these stories. Even at the audition at Sun Records, there was a level of detail that had never been put down on paper about these things. Part of what I was doing was trying to fill in a very specific history. I mean, I read that John approved Joaquin and that, but John was much more trusting than that. It wasn't really that he was handing his approval out and he really didn't legally or contractually have the ability to say no to actors. John was much more trusting, once he decided to believe in the movie, he really just liked to be in the loop and know what was going on. He, of course, was a big fan of Joaquin's. There was a great story about when Joaquin met John in Los Angeles. Part of what happened was they were at a party and John and June had sang a song at a mutual friend's party. On their way out, as they were saying goodbye, Joaquin, who is kind of shy, had to introduce himself to John. Little did he know he'd be playing him in a movie in a few years and when he went up to shake John's hand, John came up to him and said, and I'm paraphrasing, 'I watched as my warriors raped and murdered my wife and killed your children.' Joaquin was like thunderstruck. Of course, this was Joaquin's line from Gladiator that he said to Russell and John had learned it verbatim. John said, 'I loved that movie,' and Joaquin, of course, was floored. That speaks to who John was. John, he may have been old, but John was very very hip and very into whatever was going on at the moment. He watched movies and listened to records all the time. I could talk to John about anything from Elvis Costello to Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan to bands from Seattle. He was listening to everything.
That's awesome. Joaquin and Reese just blew everyone away in this and Reese's Oscar is certainly well-deserved, as was Joaquin's nomination. How early on did you realize that you were dealing with Oscar-potential material?
James Mangold: To be honest, we didn't think about it. When you're making a movie about someone who is so beloved, you're almost more terrified than thinking of all these achievements or accolades you might get. You're terrified about the axe people are going to take to you if you screw it up. I think both actors were very aware of that. It was very challenging for both of them. It was asking them to do a lot more than they had done in other movies and I think that, much more than anyone counting their chickens before they were hatched, I think everyone was more hoping to God that they weren't an embarrassment. Honestly, everyone involved in the movie is very good at what they do, but they're also people. As people, it was an awesome challenge and there were moments when Joaquin or Reese would come to me or T-Bone and say, 'I don't think I could do this.' All we said to them was to keep plugging and I'll fix it later. (Laughs). 'Don't worry. If you screw it up I can fix it later.' They never did.
James Mangold: No. I mean, to me, the only things I'm not interested are stories that are just full of shit.
James Mangold: My problem is more that I think most genres, the way movies are made these days, they're so market-tested and so pulled in so many different directions to appeal to so many people. That struggle has never been, to me, whether to make a certain genre but to make something that speaks authentically to people about what life is like and what the beauty of movies can be. Now, movies are such a vehicle for selling video games and comic books and merchandising and for trying to attract every 14-year-old in the country, that they're hardly movies anymore. They're actually more like an event, a sales event. So, that's the only genre I'm not that interested in, sales-event movies. I'm just trying to just make the kinds of movies that I grew up watching which moved me emotionally. On the directors side, from Michael Powell to Billy Wilder to Sidney Lumet to Sydney Pollack, Mike Nichols, they weren't boxed in, people weren't so boxed in by genre. I think that's the thing that happens with directors a lot lately is they brand themselves as a certain kind of filmmaker and, in a way, it makes it easier to get publicity. You know, I'm Mr. Post-Modern Revisionist or I'm Mr. Action or I'm Mr. Horror or I'm Mr. Sensitive. Whichever it is, they're never able to expand and roam around and bring those sensibilities to other landscapes. My own thing, maybe it's just luck - it's not my own brilliance, I think it's just luck. I somehow started out and made some disparately different movies from Heavy to Cop Land to Girl, Interrupted. The themes are very common and similar between them, but the tones and the genres of the film certainly are different enough that I think I was very lucky. It was subconscious on my part, but it set me up in a way that I wasn't so boxed in. I think I also, frankly, got less publicity as a director early on, because no one knew how to sell me. You know, the internet sites that make heroes out of the fantasy directors, I wasn't that. Oscar world that made heroes out of drama directors, well I wasn't that. It was like I belonged to know club and I think that made it harder. Now that I will be working on what will be my eighth and ninth movies, people are more understanding A) I'm not going anywhere and B) the movies, in their sums, start to add up to something more than a brand.
Yeah. I totally agree. With the writers strike over, is there anything that you've been cooking up lately that you can tell us about?
James Mangold: Well, there are several things I've been working on, one with a wonderful writer named Mark Bomback. I've been working on a mini-series, actually, for HBO that's an adaptation of some great books, one of which that won a Pulitzer Prize by Richard Ford, The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. It's kind of like a man's life in America, going through family, divorce, near death experiences, problems with his children. We see almost every sliver of life represented on cable. Every single segment from Mormons to gays to Westerns to psycho killers and Mafia, but the most underrepresented segment of American life is the heterosexual American male and how he's dealt with the changes in the late 20th Century and how he's dealing and trying to cope. This is a really wonderful six-hour piece that we're going to make for HBO about Frank Bascomb, the sports writer and his journey, his life. Great roles for actors and it's just a really wonderful canvas. I'm not a guy who goes, 'I only make feature films.' I wanna do or make anything where I'm allowed to go more deeply into something and in features right now, that's less easy. Even in 3:10 to Yuma, which was a very commercial film, it was financed by a bank because every studio in town passed on it.
Yeah, I read that too and that just blew me away. I loved that movie.
James Mangold: The other thing I'm doing is I'm writing a script called The Rich Part of Life that's an adaptation of a book by Jim Kokoris. It's a wonderful - I wouldn't call it a family film because it's not for kids - but it's about family. It's about a father learning to connect with his children. I'm a big fan of Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment and those films of the 70s that were so rich in character and family and exploring what it is to go through life. I'm working on that right now, the script.
Finally, if Johnny and June were alive today, how do you think they'd react to the movie?
James Mangold: I don't have a doubt in the world that they would've been thrilled and, also, frankly, relieved. I think the experience you have, when your life is being turned into a piece of drama, is that in some way, they're going to get it really wrong. I think what John always wanted, what he always said to me, was that his one issue with current popular culture and, specifically, psychological culture, is that everyone's problems were caused by something else. John's mistakes in his life were his mistakes. While he knew that his father hadn't been perfect, far from it frankly, he knew that he had addictions and psychological attractions to addictive behavior. He didn't want to use that as some kind of excuse. He felt that he had made mistakes and that he had to pull himself together and he felt, if anything, he wanted to make sure that June got credit for saving his life, which is very much what she did.
Well, that's about all I have for you. I'm a huge fan of your work, by the way. Thank you so much for your time today, James.
James Mangold: Brian, thank you. Keep up the great work. I check out the site all the time.
Great. Thank you, sir.
Walk the Line: Extended Cut hits the DVD shelves on March 25.