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Director series-James Mangold

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Shot entirely on location in Tennessee, James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line is a rich feast of above-the-line talent and below-the-line artistry. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the young “man in black,” and Reese Witherspoon as his later-to-be wife June Carter, it focuses on the lesser-known portion of the legendary rock ’n’ roller’s tortured early life.Mangold, determined to make a musical that played like a film, insisted upon star performances from his leading actors—not only in dialog but in their vocal turns as well. Phoenix and Witherspoon sang all the material, injecting each musical scene with emotion and greatly enhancing the story’s narrative sense. The sound department, for once, was brought center stage, both enhancing and complementing the film’s sensational visuals and award-worthy performances.Mangold talks to Below the Line about his almost decade-long journey to Walk the Line.Below the Line: What was it that appealed to you about Johnny Cash’s story, and what was your vision for the film?James Mangold: There’s a lot of myth-making about Johnny Cash. People think he’s done time in prison; he wasn’t the “man in black” for a long time. These are things I wanted to explore. I liked how he was saved by a woman, by his art, by this wonderful tangle of things—I thought this was great grounds for a movie. I first had the idea in 1996, when I mentioned to Cathy Konrad, my producer and wife, that I was interested in making a film about Cash and especially the early years of his life. I was fascinated by the period of Sun Records when rock ’n’ roll was born, and his incredible love affair with June Carter, and in using that as a frame for the story.BTL: What kind of access did the Cash family give you?Mangold: They were our primary sources for the screenplay. I was in Hendersonville, Tennessee several times for weekends at the house interviewing, and we spent massive amounts of time on the phone with John and June, their friends and family members. I got to know two really wonderful and inspiring people. There was a lot to unearth. John’s autobiography covered only part of the ground. There are things in the film that not a lot of people know.BTL: How did you go about picking your crew?Mangold: First and foremost, I look for great talent in their craft. I have two things I evaluate people for: the quality of the work and the tone that’s set. For me the film set is a laboratory, and in many ways I’m looking for people who are able to be part of a wonderful environment on set. And then this being a low-cost movie—the budget was $28 million—with a very intense schedule, I was looking for people who were ready.BTL: Were there certain people you had worked with before?Mangold: My DP Phedon Papamichael [ASC] has shot two movies for me. I’ve known him and we’ve been friends for even longer. His crew, and everybody involved in camera and grip, are phenomenal. Like Bob Hall, first assistant, and Dave Luckenbach, who’s one of the best operators working today. Phedon has a really wonderful sense of the actors. I’m not fond of crewmembers who talk about actors as aliens; it’s a danger sign to me. I like the crew and actors to be working together. That’s one of the reasons I think Phedon is one of the most brilliant cinematographers working today. He’s phenomenally aware of the actors and their fear of performance. With Phedon, I have a remarkable relationship: within a blink of an eye we can understand things.BTL: What kind of visual style were you going for?Mangold: I wanted the songs in the movie to advance the story, as opposed to stopping the film and recreating an event that has no narrative sense. And that translated to a visual style, in all departments. The camera would live on the stage, and the audience would experience what it was like to be in a show like this. I wanted to experience the narrow corridors of the backstage world, the stage, the sawdust, being really intimate on stage with the audience. That was of particular importance to John and June, as some of the only places they got to be alone together were on stage. There was a lot of handheld camera, a lot of shots on the stage, from the stage, over the actors, and frontal shots where we were trying to catch the wings of the audience for depth, but focused on being connected to the players.BTL: The actors looked really natural on stage. How did you recreate that?Mangold: The actors had to know how to use the instruments and they needed to be actually singing. Chris Pack, who was a prop master, deserves a huge amount of credit for that. There were a ton of period instruments being played live on stage, it was a huge job, and Chris is an extremely passionate man who has a powerful connection to the material. Props are there to help me solve problems in the medium. You have to had someone you trust. It takes an eye, because sometimes props can overly complicate a scene. It takes a special relationship in which prop master and director can understand each other.BTL: In the film there are different nightclubs, different houses, a prison, a span of three decades… that’s a lot in terms of production design. Talk about your production designer David Bomba.Mangold: It was a huge amount of locations. This is my first movie with David Bomba. He’s from the South. He has a house in Mississippi, so he has a connection beyond the research book to the area. And he has a Rolodex. He has a sense of where you find things. He found out where we could plant a cotton field at the right time. Where we could find a place that looked like Dyess in the ’40s. He was very adept at it.BTL: Did you shoot in any of the actual places the story was set?Mangold: Some, yes. We had an advantage in that it’s not a part of the country that has been very developed. For example, the diner scene, that space was almost exactly as we found it. That was one of the ways we saved money: it may cost more to bring people to locations, but you save a lot when there is a world under glass that has been preserved. The first big theater where Johnny Cash sings “Get Rhythm,” that was a Masonic Hall and Temple in Memphis, and we had to do very little to it. The hand-painted backings, the backstage areas, the vintage pulley systems, the lighting switchboards were all there and preserved from the ’50s. There were many locations we found like that.BTL: Your costume designer Arianne Phillips’ designs really defined the characters, revealing many things about their characters. What were some of her ideas?Mangold: Arianne has a phenomenal vision with costumes. The costumes literally sing in this film. Especially with Reese; her costumes reflect the playfulness of what June Carter was like on stage. Arianne came, like David [Bomba], with an innate knowledge of this world. She works with people like Madonna and Lenny Kravitz as a stylist on rock tours; and she’s done great period films. She created outfits for June that knocked you out. And while John is known as “the man in black,” that’s what he became at the end of the film. Arianne created an interesting trajectory to that point.BTL: What were some of the challenges for your hair and makeup departments?Mangold: As with the costumes, the hair and makeup really defined the characters, especially in the transformation of Reese Witherspoon to June Carter. This is a film in which the hero is already married to someone else and he falls in love with someone with a family already. That was a difficult thing to pull off and have the audience accept it. June had to be one of the most winning characters. The look of Reese’s character was one of the things we struggled with. We had to make her an amazing flower. I think Reese is a magnificent brunette. Her hair [styled by Anne Morgan] throughout the whole picture was brilliant.BTL: The story was told so beaut
ifully, and the flow was captivating. Talk about the contribution of your editor Michael McCusker.Mangold: Mike is someone who’d worked on two previous movies with me as associate editor. My regular editor, David Brenner, was taking time off to write a script so we decided to give Mike a shot at editing the film. Technically it was a complex job, with cutting the music scenes, but Mike was expert. There was a lot to cover and a lot to chip away at; Mike had a lot of wisdom about that stuff. And the moment to moment edits were where he was really strong. The movie felt unified, there was space, there wasn’t a wedge between the music sense and the action. You never felt like one thing stopped and another started.BTL: Did you use any Cash recordings, or was it all rerecorded for the film?Mangold: Everything was rerecorded. On an aesthetic level, that we were generating the music ourselves was paramount to the success of the film. Music people live and think music all day long. To have an actor playing a guy who anytime a musical choice might occur to him, would feel incapable of doing that, would be artificial, and would dishonor the spirit of Johnny Cash.BTL: Sound was an integral part of the movie, how the music played, the era, the mixing. And it seemed to find a perfect balance. What was your philosophy in terms of sound?Mangold: [Sound recordist] Peter Kurland recorded with a lot of vintage mics. We were adding reverb and echo to the music with period boxes and true tape delays. He was recording the real audience reactions. One of the things that became clear to us, was you felt the audiences were out there. This wasn’t a canned audio track. We always had Joaquin and Reese’s mics open so if they laughed, or reacted, you heard it. That was an elaborate set up that Peter had to work out: playing the band’s music out there, and getting the actors’ dialog clean as well. The performance of the audience and their reactions are antisceptic and strange if you don’t have all the music and sound there. We never compromised the feeling of the live music.For the mixing stage, Paul Massey and Doug Hemphill were people I had wanted to work with for a while. When I was in preproduction on the movie I sent Paul a copy of the script and said, “I don’t have a lot of money, but if there’s any way you guys would mix his film…” And Paul went out of his way to make a deal to make it work. We really couldn’t technically afford A+ anything in this film, at the budget level, but so many people came forward with A+++ putting in really impassioned work that was very hard and technically brilliant.

Written by Sam Molineaux

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