By Jack Egan
As a follow-up to Walk the Line, the award-winningbiopic about Johnny Cash, director James Mangold has reimagined theclassic Western and brought it into the 21st century with cinematicflourish and dramatic depth. In 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of themuch-hailed 1955 movie, he has delivered a suspenseful, action-packedfilm that scores as a complex character study where the good guys andbad guys aren’t exactly what they seem.
Topping a superb ensemblecast are two of the screen’s most admired actors, Christian Bale andRussell Crowe. Bale plays a stoic rancher whose homestead is threatenedby financial woes and other misfortunes. When a notorious outlaw,played by Crowe, is captured, the rancher decides to earn a bountyoffered to bring the charismatic villain to a town three days distantso he can be put on a train with a prison car that will deliver him tojustice.
The film, critically acclaimed and the box-office champon its opening weekend, also benefits from the contributions of atalented group of production keys. A number also worked with Mangold onWalk the Line. They include director of photography Phedon Papamichael,editor Michael McCusker and costume designer Arianne Phillips. Joiningthe Mangold team for the first time were production designer AndrewMenzies and composer Marco Beltrami.
Mangold recently discussed his Wild West adventures in making 3:10 to Yuma.
Below The Line: How much did the Westerns you saw when growing up shape your approach to 3:10 to Yuma?
Mangold:One of the first Westerns I saw was The Cowboys, with John Wayne, andthat was dynamite. It was a great character story and a very movingfilm as well. And I was 17 when I saw the original 3:10 to Yuma for thefirst time — I think it was on television. It startled me because thequestions the film asked about morality, courage, honor and family werevery sophisticated. In my view, many of the Westerns of the last 20years have been movies about movies, instead of movies about people.For modern audiences, a kind of intimacy with the characters isextremely important.
BTL: In your discussions with PhedonPapamichael, your DP, and your production designer Andrew Menzies,whatwas the look you were going after?
Mangold: It was not so much alook as an approach. We tried to make the film as if we were making amodern story. We were looking to undo something that I feel happened tothe Western in the last 20 years. With the notable exception of ClintEastwood’s Unforgiven, the Western had become over-romanticized to thepoint of becoming tedious. I wanted to capture a kind of immediacy,emphasizing character action.
That’s why we opted for morehandheld shots and close-in work to really get inside of the characterspsychologically. In addition to Phedon, one of the people I want tosingle out is camera operator Dave Luckenbach , who did remarkablework, as always. He was the operator on nearly every frame. Dave hasbeen shooting with me even longer than Phedon. He was the operator asfar back as Girl, Interrupted in 1998.
BTL: Where exactly was the shoot — it didn’t look like Southern California — and how long did it take?
Mangold: It was a 50-day shoot, from October to January of this year. We shot all but three days in New Mexico.
BTL: And what was your budget?
Mangold:It was $55 million, but if you subtract the banking fees it came tojust under $50 million. One of the reasons we pulled off the movie onsuch a short shooting schedule is that we had no choice. This was amovie financed by a bank, so there was no going back to the studio homeoffice for more cash.
But I and producer Cathy Konrad (alsoMangold’s wife) wanted to make the movie so badly that we acceptedthose limitations. In exchange I was given complete creative freedom.What also helped to stay on schedule and make the budget was that wehad a real family, both above and below the line. I especially want tocredit my longtime script supervisor, Sheila Waldron, who was great notjust on continuity but constantly keeping us on the right track.
BTL: What were the biggest problems you encountered on the shoot?
Mangold:The only tough part for us was the weather. We were two-thirds throughthe movie and suddenly got hit by a blizzard. It was the biggestsnowstorm in 50 years — over three feet of solid snow. That reallysocked us in. We couldn’t even finish building Contention, the towntowards the end of the film. One of the things I’m proudest of is inthe final chase and shootout there’s an entire sequence where thecharacters are running past raw lumber. It was there for structures wewanted to have built until the snow stopped us. But the result is theylook amazing, captured by the camera in the golden light as the actorsmove through these skeletal buildings.
BTL: There were a lot of elaborate settings in the film. How much was built?
Mangold:Contention, the town where the drama culminates in the film’s thirdact, was about nine-tenths a constructed set. Andrew did take advantageof a couple of existing structures, but most of the rest he had built.The sets turned out to be our biggest investment in the film. Inaddition to Contention, there was Busby, where Dan Evans starts, thetown where the saloon is. Andrew did a model job using an existingmovie ranch town that had been abandoned for years. In fact, much of itwas built by Italian crews 20 years ago.
BTL: Talk about your work with your editor, Mike McCusker. You’ve worked together for years.
Mangold:Yes, Mike was an associate editor on two earlier films I did, Kate andLeopold and Identity. And, of course, he got nominated for an Oscar forhis work on Walk the Line. He’s one of the great editing talents. Cathyand I have had a lot of luck taking risks on people, as we did withAndrew, and giving them a great chance to flex their muscles. Whenyou’re working on a large-scale picture like this, with a tight budget,it’s very lucky to have people that will bust their hump to getsomething amazing done for next to nothing.
BTL: Did Mike do a first edit assembly on his own?
Mangold:Mike always does a cut and shows it to me. Then we immediately get towork together on it. During the 3:10 to Yuma shoot, we had a Christmashiatus in the schedule, but the snow extended that hiatus for anotherweek. That gave Mike and me a chance to work together editing for alittle bit in the middle of everything. Mike’s first edit was prettydarn good. But we’ve developed a shorthand between us. He can look atthe dailies and understand what I’m after. Mike, of course, can alwaysfind something different, which is the value of having an independentset of eyes .
BTL: The alternation of tempos in the movie wastelling. How much did you get from the camera capture, and how much wasdue to the editing phase?
Mangold: I’d say the changes in tempo werereally conscious. Like an orchestral piece of music — you go uptempoand then you pull back hard. The great advantage I had over aconventional movie was my stellar cast and the great script. So Ididn’t need to pummel the viewers with nonstop action for fear thecharacters couldn’t really sustain the film.
Regardless of thefact that this is a suspense film with a lot of action, there is alsothe ability to pull away with the camera or move in and allow theseactors to shine dramatically. The film is sustained by its ownmomentum. That allows the film to really breathe and have those momentsof intimacy that I don’t think you see very often in a conventionalaction movie, which, in an attempt to offer nonstop thrills, aims alittle lower in the dramatic department.
BTL: The music was another important component, and it was closely integrated with the sound mix.
Mangold:Marco Beltrami is incredibly skilled at writing music to accompanyaction, while not trying too hard to pump it up. Instead, it meshesbeautifully with the plot. What attracted him to me was a score I verymuch admired, which he did for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,with Tommy Lee Jones. I temped a lot of my movie with th
at score as wewere shooting. It was appropriate for a Western but was not an homage.You heard lineages of great Western scores in it, but Marco would findtruly original ways to create sounds. So it seemed an obvious choicefor me to go after him and see if could extend some of thoseexplorations and raise them to an even more artistic level.
BTL: Inthe Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s,one of the most striking aspects was the clothing, which was sostylized. What were you seeking from your costume designer, AriannePhillips?
Mangold: First, there was an effort to be authentic tothe styles of the period. But as Arianne said, the clothes people worein the Old West varied a lot. One of the reasons the West is such agreat setting is it’s a nexus. There’s the railroad land barons, theimpoverished working man, the miners, the immigrants, the gamblers, theoutlaws. They all brought different influences into the mix ofcostumes.
Another point: Sometimes the below-the-line work on afilm is evaluated too much on the basis of strict authenticity.Frankly, I think that’s a bore. The West is more an American feverdream than an accurate historical period piece. It’s more importantthat it seem real, rather than be real. Arianne’s costumes are anoperatic expression of who these characters are. Take Ben Foster whoplays Charlie Prince. His costume is a wonderful example, with thedouble buttoned jacket he wears throughout the film. That distinctivepiece of wardrobe becomes part of his character.
BTL: Did you do a digital intermediate?
Mangold:Yes, but mainly we used it for some very specific reasons. It reallyhelped in dealing with the weather. When you have a movie that’s shot95 percent out of doors, you have constant changes from sun to clouds.The digital intermediate affords you the chance to balance contrast.
BTL:Your film is one of the first big-budget Westerns, featuring big starsand top production values, that’s hit movie theaters in years. And it’sbeing followed by the release in late September of The Assassination ofJesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. What do you make of that?
Mangold:I think it’s a wonderful thing that people are working in this genreagain. In part, I see this revival as a response to the excessive useof computer graphics in so many movies these days. The Western is asupremely analog form. It’s about the purity and passion of the story.What we did was go out into the real world, where there’s the muck andthe cold. It really tests your filming skills, because what you comeback with from the shoot is what winds up on the screen.
Written by Jack Egan