James Mangold and Peter Fonda Talk 3:10 to Yuma With RT

Mangold: "No one's making films about people anymore."

by | September 5, 2007 | Comments

It’s chilly in the Ritz when the 3:10 to Yuma interviews begin. After I was escorted into a nippy receiving room, director James Mangold ran off to grab his jacket. This left me alone with the man I was explicitly asked not to refer to as “Cultural Icon Peter Fonda.” I wondered if I should mention trivia, show him I researched, maybe bring up the fact his character didn’t exist in the far simpler, 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma. Maybe I should compliment him on his horseback riding. Instead, I humbly greeted Peter Fonda with, “How are you?” He took a quiet breath and let out, “I’m alive…people say I’m cynical or pessimistic but you know the alternative is inevitable but unacceptable. However, if a stray bullet hit me as I’m walking out of the Hotel, it’s okay. It’s been a helluva ride. I’ve done more in my short life on film…well actually, I’m 67 so if I’ve been making movies for 45 years…that’s more than half. I used to be able to do calculus in my head!…You?”

Breathy, I respond, “Fine, thank you.”

Fonda exudes a soothing sort of peace chatting about “the ride” he’s had. Most know he’s the son of American Icon Henry Fonda, brother to Jane and father to Bridget, but few know he directed two westerns (Wanda Nevada and The Hired Hand) and a science fiction film (Idaho Transfer).

After success with his first feature Heavy, a nearly dialogue-free indie with then unknown Liv Tyler and Pruitt Taylor Vince, James Mangold made Cop Land, which he patterned after the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma. His third and fourth films, (Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line) earned Angelina Jolie and Reese Witherspoon Oscars for Best Supporting. True to his growing reputation for directing actors to awards, the performances in 3:10 to Yuma are phenomenal, making Oscar nominations easy to foresee.

In Mangold’s 3:10 update, protagonist Evans (Christian Bale) is a one-legged Civil War vet. A recent drought has damaged Evan’s ability to pay his mortgage and he faces foreclosure to a shady real estate baron who is eager to sell Evan’s property to the railroad. En route to settle a dispute with the landlord Evans and his kids see stylish stagecoach bandit Ben Wade (an astounding performance by Russell Crowe) rob a Pinkerton Coach guarded by Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda). Once in town, Evans offers the Pinkertons help in bringing Wade to the train that would bring him to prison.

Mangold’s 3:10 feels current. He shot the Wild West like it was the Bronx, and in the process he created a Western that doesn’t tread the old and occasionally tiresome paths. It feels new, but the depths of 3:10‘s morality tale remind of you of the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If only the film’s answer to the Golden Age (Fonda) had been on screen a little longer…

RT: You were not on the screen for long enough for me!

PF: I keep teasing Jim [Mangold]. He’s minus 40 frames with me.

RT: What does that mean?

PF: The off-screen presence I create — it [means] a lot. Forty frames is less than two seconds and in the scene where I tell Ben Wade, “If you’re going to kill me, just as soon get to it,” I needed just a little bit longer to look up at Wade so the audience could see us connect a little better, and then he says, “So how’d your hair get grey?” and you know we’ve known each other. [I needed] Just those 40 frames — I’m an editor and I see that. Time on screen can be very relative. Not to compare this film to Ghost Rider, but when I played Mephistopheles, you see me in the beginning, middle and end and it’s as if I’m always there because what I created — The Ghost Rider — is always there. I’m not into, “I need more close-ups.” I’m also a director, and it’s not hard for me to understand how few close-ups you need and if you parse them out more instead of always using them they become codas themselves. It’s not just showing the actor. The close-up works when you wanna punch an attitude, when you need those eyes, because it’s all in the eyes. I’m hiding behind these glasses (points to his sunglasses) because you have to pay me a lotta dough to see these eyes — (self-effacing laugh) actually I need glasses and I made it hip to wear glasses when I was 13. They were dark glasses because my father hated them and I just always wanted to f*** with him. He f***ed with me in a major way, you know?! He had no idea. I like that you felt that I wasn’t in the film enough because that meant my character had something but it is necessary to exit the film when I do. I show both sides of these stone cold killers. I don’t think Ben Wade has ever killed a child and he knows I [Byron McElroy] have killed men, women and children — Indians who were raiding the railroad. I don’t think the film [still] has the scene where I say “not a soul taken that didn’t deserve it” and Ben says, “See, Byron talks about souls.” Towards the denouement of my character Ben says, “Byron here’s never read more than one book,” referring to the Bible, and I say, “There’s no need.” But it’s Ben who quotes the bible, I don’t. I like that bit. It wasn’t in the original film. I’m a completely different foil than Dan Evans is to Ben Wade. How far can he (Wade) go down this road? He’s just about beat himself out of the trail. He wants out and thinks the world is Hell and the day he dies he’ll be freed from it.

RT: Conscience seems central to —

PF: It should be.

RT: What do you mean?

PF: A good movie should bring more than entertainment; it should entice you to ask, “What does that mean?” In a western, we can talk about our situations today without letting the audience really know that — but they have to sense it. If you’re looking at a good western, you’re looking at the mythology of America. You can discuss it [current issues] in a way that the audience doesn’t have to take one side or the other. Current issues are too divisive. We are the evil-doers, but we don’t see that.

(At this point Mangold joins the conversation.)

PF: As Mangold will tell you, Good and Evil aren’t terms we really want to deal with. (To Mangold) I was just saying we’re the evildoers.

James Mangold: I don’t know there’s an answer, but maybe we’re all evildoers.

PF: What other creature fouls its own nest? Humans do.

JM: There’s another advantage to discussing issues of the day through a genre like the Western — you don’t get caught up in the details. You can’t end up with Sean Hannity on Fox News saying, “We didn’t get the right memo.” You can see the world and the arguments in pure terms, unaffected by who got killed yesterday, what the public opinion poles say, it’s just the ideas [without] using Good, Evil, Christ, Country, or Money as your defense for actions. And how similar is Ben Wade’s defense of his actions to Byron McElroy’s defense of his actions? The only difference is that Peter’s character [McElroy] is defending the railroad and Russell’s character is a libertarian, outlaw who’s an anarchist if he’s anything. One is a tough man defending the system against a man who’s out to destroy the system.

RT: Historians have compared the current corporate environment to the railway robber barons. Evans is suffering corruption, drought and foreclosure, which we all know is a big issue today, and he’s a wounded vet. Did you organize these traits as points of entry to the character?

JM: Of course. I don’t think the battle with robber barons is more [of an issue] now or then or twenty years ago. It’s like feeding children red dye no. 2 and telling them that’s okay or pharmaceutical companies shooting up s*** we find out later is killing us; the country has been living under a very strange relationship with big business ever since the Industrial revolution. And it’s been pretty consistent. That’s not to say that everything that comes from it is bad, it’s just to say that’s part of our dynamism. What’s interesting about the Western is that’s it’s a mythological place. The Western is our castle in Denmark; it’s the landscape of our Shakespearean texts. We don’t have stories of royalty or subterfuge and battles and Machiavellian moves to explain our history. Our history is explained with violence and blood on a prairie between impoverished and wealthy men in a brand new land. The trick of a western is never to think of it as an historical drama but to think of it as a metaphorical drama. I lose patience when people ask “Was that steam engine available in 1867?” or “I don’t know that Remington made that gun yet.” Who gives a s***? That’s not what this is. It’s a fever dream of the American experience: Our anxieties, fears, conflicts, [and] of our righteousness — both good and bad. Sometimes our righteousness comes from our brutality and sometimes it comes out because we can do good things. All those things can be explored in a western in a way that’s not propaganda.

RT: All this beauty and meaning — but still it must have taken bravery on your part to make 3:10 to Yuma now, when Westerns have been receiving such chilly receptions.

PF: It’s an axiom in Hollywood that Westerns and baseball films don’t make money, but Kevin Costner‘s Dances with Wolves was a great film and Clint’s [Eastwood] Westerns —

JM: Unforgiven.

PF: Well, most of his Westerns, in fact, are very successful so he gets to make Westerns. It was much harder for Jim [Mangold] to get that [made] because he’s coming from films like Heavy and Cop Land.
JM: But the truth also, is that Costner’s Dances with Wolves sat on a shelf for a year after it was made. Orion was going bankrupt and they didn’t want to release it because they thought it would be a bomb. Eastwood has produced his films for a really good price and I think the problem with studios and the Western is the same as the problem with studios and all other films. No one makes movies about people anymore. They’re made about marvel characters or DC characters or toy lines. The act of getting a film made about human beings is really a test of how good your relationships are in Hollywood and how financially successful your last film was.

PF: Yeah — you’re only as good as your last picture.

JM: The truth is there’s so much risk in making a movie about human beings and there’s so little risk in putting some young dude in tights and having him jump around in front of a green-screen. There are guarantees on what the 14 year olds will show up to see. There are guarantees about what the video business will do that make it a good investment.

RT: You two have made many films in many different genres but ultimately there are some very consistent traits among them —

JM: One thing I’d say is it’s not good for us to know that.

PF: You took the words right out of my mouth.
JM: It’s good for you to know it because it’s what you do. There are three unhealthy things about us talking about that. First thing: it gets us self-aware and involved in our own hype. To frame that question and answer it means I’m looking at myself like I’m a famous movie director and thinking about my consistent themes. I think too many of my peers do too much of that already, which is why so few good films are being made. They’ve already figured out that by their second movie they’re the king of the horror movie, or the king of the post-modern whatever. Billy Wilder made 16 films before he made one comedy. If you had asked Billy Wilder that when he made his fifth movie what would he have told you? And what would he have limited himself to? The reason this story occurs to me is that my great teacher was Alexander McKendrick [Sweet Smell of Success, Lady Killers, The Man in the White Suit] told me a story [about] how he was doing an interview, much like this one — I don’t know for which film — and the reporter asked him a similar question and he waffled a bit and the reporter said, “Are you aware every one of your movies is about deadly innocence? Whether it’s the little old lady in Lady Killers or JJ. Hunsecker’s sister in Sweet Smell of Success, your films always have a daffodil of innocence that ends up destroying a great evil.” And then he went, “I never was aware of that.” And he said he never picked up a script again without thinking, “Will I fulfill my ‘Deadly Innocence’ prophesy?” It makes you self-conscious about your own work, when what you really have to do to make good work is to get out of your head and into your gut. I’m sure I bring the same bag of tricks to every picture and I’m sure I bring my family issues and life issues into each film but I’d rather deal with that in my personal life and not frame them in my work life because I want to keep growing.

PF: I’ve played a lot of really different characters in my career.

JM: And when I met Peter I was trapped by his oeuvre. I said, “I don’t know if the beekeeper can play someone this savage and tense killer. I imagined him as Robert Shaw in Jaws I think Peter does an incredible job finding an original way to attack this role, but if I operated from my sense of his gig then I was limiting him. Both sides are true: he brings his core energy and you can see moments of The Beekeeper in Byron McElroy. They’re not the same man, but the same soul is bringing life to each of these roles.

PF: I’m with Jim. I have a certain way of acting, and I know how to bring that to each character, but I think if you haven’t explored the other side of your body and mind you’re in deep doodoo.

JM: Peter has one mouth, one set of eyes, one body; he can’t play a fat man. We have things that define us. There are movies I can do better than others, but I don’t know if the person I will be in ten years will be different or a permutation.

PF: And I could get a fat suit.

RT: How quickly you evade being limited!

JM: Fine, or CG. What I love about the golden age of Hollywood actors is that they seem to understand and feel less pressure — there are different definitions of acting. There’s the kind of acting like Alec Guinness where you put a powdered wig on your head and become a different human and then people like Jimmy Stewart was not very different from one film to another. At the same time, I wouldn’t say Jimmy Stewart was playing the same role in every movie. That’s a really fine line. Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, they were not different in every movie, but I wouldn’t say they were playing the same part again and again. Those men found a way to bring something incredibly true to the screen, and it’s not easy. You get in front of a Panavision lens, six inches from your nose, and bring your true soul to the screen. It’s really hard.

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