What James Mangold’s Mentor Taught Him

By  · Published on March 11th, 2017

How Alexander Mackendrick sowed the seeds of Logan’s success.

Logan quickly passed $100m at the US box office this week, faster than either of the previous Wolverine movies, and it holds a 92% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, making it not only the best-reviewed entry in the X-Men franchise but also the best-reviewed picture by director James Mangold to date. By all accounts, the film is a towering achievement. So how did Mangold turn an R-rated, anti-franchise X-Men film about an Uber-driving Wolverine and a geriatric Charles Xavier into a runaway success? To answer that, we must return to Mangold’s roots: specifically his time studying at CalArts with his mentor, Alexander Mackendrick.

Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick came up as a production designer, writer, and ultimately director at Britain’s Ealing Studios, where he made films like The Man in the White Suit and the original The Ladykillers. After coming to Hollywood to direct The Sweet Smell of Success, he became disillusioned with the film business and accepted a position as Dean of the CalArts film school. It was there that Mangold met the famously irascible Mackendrick, kicking off a mentorship relationship that would last until Mackendrick’s death in 1993. Mangold has said that Mackendrick’s intensely high standards gave him a sense of the work required to make a good film.

Thanks to editor Paul Cronin, Mackendrick’s teachings are now widely available in the book “On Film-Making,” which compiles the detailed handouts and diagrams Mackendrick gave his students at CalArts. Perusing the book, one quickly discovers how much of the wisdom therein found its way into Logan. So many of the qualities that sets the film apart, including its emphasis on character, its classically cinematic visual design, and its mythic storytelling, have their origins in Mackendrick’s handouts. Indeed, an argument could be made that the film’s success derives as much from its careful application of Mackendrick’s principles as from its mega-franchise source material.

I. The Importance of Character

One of the hallmarks of Mangold’s approach on Logan is his decision to focus the film on character, rather than the elaborate plotting and action typical of comic book fare. Describing early talks with Hugh Jackman, Mangold remembers asking, “How can we construct a story that’s built more on character and character issues, in a way as if it almost wasn’t a superhero movie, yet it features their powers and struggles and themes?” This starting point mirrors Mackendrick’s approach. He believed Plot, Character, and Theme are the essential building blocks of a story but that the character’s needs determine the plot, which in turn demonstrates the theme. Characters and their relationships, therefore, are the only foundation for a cohesive story. He explains in one interview, “Plot is, in a way, the least important.”

Unlike prior X-Men films, the plotting of which has been largely determined by the world-destroying schemes of maniacal villains, Logan unfolds according to the needs and desires of its titular character. Haunted by his past as a killing machine, James “Logan” Howlett is forced to confront his doppelgänger, X-24, a manifestation of his darkest self and deepest regrets. (See our Ciara Wardlow’s stunning analysis of Logan’s Doubles here.) But even more crucially, the film sees Logan build a relationship with his daughter, X-23/Laura, the closest thing he has to family and his only hope for redemption. After a life spent witnessing the death of those he loves, Logan finally comes to love someone who will outlive him. Moreover, in protecting Laura, Logan finally embraces the responsibility to his fellow mutants that he has resisted since the first X-Men film. His final piece of advice to her ‐ “don’t be what they made you” ‐ brings full circle both his remorse about his past and his hope for the future of mutant-kind.

This ending would have thrilled Mackendrick, who believed, “When you reach the satisfying end of the story, there’s almost always surprise, but the surprise turns out to be something you knew had to happen.” Logan’s death at the hands of his killing-machine alter-ego, as well as his redemption in the form of a similarly clawed daughter, turns out to be just such a surprise. And if the tears in my theater were any indication, this ending surely satisfies.

II. The Pre-Verbal Language of Cinema

Mackendrick placed a great deal of emphasis in his teachings on the psychological roots of filmmaking, even going so far as to assign texts of the psychology of vision. One of his handouts, entitled “The Pre-Verbal Language of Cinema,” elaborates upon the “film is a visual language” trope to highlight the primal underpinnings of cinematic communication. The most effective directors, Mackendrick wrote, “have used the camera to communicate to audiences at a level far more primitive than the spoken word…Cinema deals with feelings, sensations, intuitions, and movement, things that communicate to audiences at a level not necessarily subject to conscious, rational, and critical comprehension.”

This understanding of the visceral power of visual storytelling permeates every frame of Logan. Rather than participate in what Mangold has called “the C.G. Arms Race,” the film derives its impact from simple, economical, intense imagery. The film’s R rating allows for the Wolverine to finally behave as rabidly as we’ve always expected him to, but it’s Laura that commands the most visual interest. Initially mute, then speaking in un-subtitled Spanish, Laura communicates with Logan through pure physicality. “Nothing makes a movie more cinematic than people having to deal with each other with language being eradicated,” Mangold explains. Played with a combination of mystery, savagery, and compassion by Dafne Keen, the role embodies cinema’s “pre-verbal” potential.

III. Cinema as Myth

Echoing screenwriter John Logan’s admonition to “know where you exist in the continuum of your art,” Mackendrick often perplexed his students by assigning anthropological texts on mythology. In a handout entitled “What is a Story?,” he writes:

“A myth, it is said, is the verbal equivalent of a rite that serves…[an] archaic need: to help the primitive mind take hold of a mystery. Stories, even in the popular context of mass entertainment, would seem to be successful when they, too, fulfill such a need, something audiences need not even be aware of.”

Although superheroes began as modern-day mythological figures, many of today’s blockbuster filmmakers have lost sight of the broader cultural import of mythic storytelling. Not so for Mangold, whose love of the Western (cinema’s other mythical genre) has given him a deep understanding and appreciation of mythology’s themes and conventions (Mangold first saw 3:10 to Yuma, a film he would later remake, in Mackendrick’s class).

Despite its pared-down aesthetic and human-level stakes, Logan is as mythical as any other superhero film. But because it is geared toward adult audiences, the “mystery” to which it acquaints the audience is not coming-of-age but death. The film forces Logan to come to terms with the death of his father-figure, Charles Xavier, and ultimately his own mortality ‐ a fate he can only face once he has reconciled himself to his regrets and secured a life for his daughter. By blending intimacy and psychological honesty with comic book scale and impact, Mangold demonstrates Mackendrick’s understanding that all stories ‐ large and small ‐ exist on the same continuum and serve the same function.

Logan has been widely celebrated for breaking the comic book mold, and indeed it hardly resembles most of the comic book films being released today. But if the original function of storytelling, and of comic books, was to acquaint the individual with the mysteries of human existence, then modern-day blockbusters have traveled far afield, and Mangold’s film is closer to the mark. By combining mythic themes, visceral action, and precisely observed human drama, Logan both transcends and elevates the superhero genre. Even Sandy Mackendrick would have approved.

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