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James Mangold – A Director Walks the Fine Line Towards the Oscars

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

James Mangold and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of “Walk the Line.”

James Mangold

A Director Walks the Fine Line Towards the Oscars

by Brad Balfour

Throughout his career, New York-born director James Mangold has offered an uncanny look at relationships since his first film Heavy, whether it be with cops (Cop Land), women (Girl, Interrupted), or a couple (Kate and Leopold). Now, with his latest, Walk the Line, he again examines a couple – but in this case, a near-mythic one – the late music star Johnny Cash and his singer/wife, the late June Carter-Cash. Bracketed by his history as a poor white kid who rises to both country music stardom and also as a crossover success with the alt-music set, Cash became a legend, and this film is garnering Oscar talk.

Because he didn’t look exactly like Johnny, actor Joaquin Phoenix was remarkable in his way to manipulate himself to look like Johnny.

I take issue with that statement and have with everyone else that has made it – look the pictures of the young Johnny Cash in the ’50s. I think he looks a lot like Johnny. It took me ten years to get this movie made and every studio in town passed. The reason why they passed was the image they had of John was a 60-year-old man. I set off to make this movie and had this idea, what I wanted to do was make a movie of Johnny Cash and model it after East of Eden. I wanted that same structure. I wanted the naturalism and dynamism of James Dean. That was what I was looking for to eradicate that legendary image on John. I had to find my Johnny Cash slash James Dean to build that model. In one of the interviews I had with John [who worked closely with Mangold on this project before he died], I asked him how he married Vivian [Cash’s first wife] so fast. And he said two words, “Pier Angeli” – who was James Dean’s girlfriend. I was like “Holy shit.” He saw himself as James Dean. When I told him how I was seeing him as Dean when I was writing this, he said that was dead-on. [Producer/director] James Keach had the rights to the movie, and he was trying to direct it himself. But I kept calling James every year after 1996 asking if I could direct it. We were always respectful about it. But three years later in ’99 he had gotten to a place that he wasn’t going to do this movie. Then he met with us and I came on to work on the script.

Did Reese Witherspoon [who plays June Carter] have a little more of an edge on the singing since everyone actually is doing the singing in the film?

Reese had worked more than Joaquin had. I think Joaquin felt it was an advantage to play John. He was a guy who never thought about singing at all and had to become Johnny Cash and could construct his whole attack on singing as a way to get closer to John.

What did he do to channel that?

Well one is the reasoning behind it was clear to both actors. This was a philosophy for the whole movie. I didn’t want to cast any one in a singing role who couldn’t really sing. The logic was really simple John and June were such incredible presences on the stage, the idea of doing a playback and having someone else’s voice singing other than Reese seemed wrong. It was not something that Joaquin had earned and owned. The whole idea to moving your mouth to preexisting recording puts the emphasis on things that John didn’t. He was not the prodigy on the guitar. He was a great storyteller and he was committed to his audience. You can listen to any of his albums and think he could have done better takes. But he could never do a better take on hitting the idea. That’s where the idea came from, to capture their souls.

Reese Witherspoon and James Mangold on the set of “Walk the Line.”

Did you personalize this movie through another way besides through the music?

The truth of it is that this isn’t really John’s story [as a musician]. I don’t feel you can make a movie about that. It would be like artistic issues turned dramatic. I want to know about what those people are feeling at the moment. John would be the first to tell you that he didn’t feel like he had a vision for his music. It was through his emotional struggles that he found his artistic identity. The incredible power of John’s writing and vocals was just who John was. He was never going to undo that. He wanted to be a crooner. But what happened for him was what should have happened to him. I don’t think I could have made a movie about that. I wanted to make a movie about what they were feeling on a day-to-day basis. And you watch the art grow thought the circumstances in their lives. No one sits down and says that they’re going to be a great songwriter. They just find their soul. They connect to it and they say someone hear me. To make a movie about him in which I didn’t show that his success and artistic achievement was in some way greatly based by the participation of others would be a lie. I really don’t believe anyone has an issue making bio pic movies. I do think they have a problem making movies about human beings. I had everyone pass on this film. Movies about people are very rare these days. I don’t think Ray or Walk the Line had a hard time getting made because they were about a period of music. I think it’s just a tough time for people to like movies that are not comic book movies.

What convinces you to do a movie?

I love the story. I loved John and there was no other reason for me to make the movie. I loved his story. This will be the only Johnny Cash movie that will exist in the next few years. But I could cover every base and make a good movie. I had to make my Johnny Cash movie. It was about his passion and his true love and his demons.

Every film has that speech which sums up its theme.  During the scene where Johnny talks to his dad at Thanksgiving seems to be that speech for this film.

Yeah that’s a good one. The other one is when Sam Phillips says to John, it’s not about believing in God. It’s about believing in yourself. John’s gospel albums of the last ten years of his life are beautiful; the ones in the ’60s were not so great. The ones he made towards the end of his life were incredible. Why? Because he was ready; he had found himself. The guy in the ’60s had not found himself yet. You can’t be taking a fistful of uppers and downers and abandoning his family and being close to God. For me, I wanted this film to not be easy. I didn’t want that scene to end with them hugging. Sometimes people move an inch and it’s a mile. That I learned making Heavy. if eel that when dramatic films is when they get too manipulative. Sometimes dramatic films try to give everyone a bow on its story line that makes it not resonate with us. Sometimes we don’t just find peace sometimes we don’t find resolve.

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line.”

Did you juggle the story at all?

I didn’t manipulate it. In fact, there are scenes in the movie that are true evocations that John and June told us about that hadn’t ever been in a bio pic of him before. No one really ever address these tours and how things went down on them. For me there wasn’t a lot of distortion. The idea working the way to their marriage and getting them to come together was a big deal.

Did you find that you felt a certain pressure to give a historical context of the film?

I tried to very carefully lay out the music you’re hearing. I wanted you to feel how soft it was before the explosion of the sun. Here was cool black blues music on the fringes and the Patsy Cline. All of America was about round edges. I wasn’t making a documentary, but I wanted to feel it even in the songs John was trying to learn.

How has making this movie changed your life?

John and June had proven to me that the power of life can change lives. People wanted to save him because they felt he had to be saved. It wasn’t just about that he was a good guy it was about that he was an important voice to be saved. Even June knew that there was something magical about him.

How has the making of this film changed your filmmaking?

I think I got really spoiled. I hit a team on this movie where everything was humming. I felt like I was riding a magic carpet. I think Joaquin and Reese were something magical too. Something magical happened on our set. I don’t know if you can recreate that.

How do you react to people’s expectations about this film and the Oscars?

Well of course, you’re glad people are saying great things about the movie. For me it’s hard to get great movies made. It’s hard to get people movies made. All I ever ask in this case is that [people appreciate] that Joaquin and Reese’s work is so astounding. The only thing I think is unfair is that because it comes after Ray it might diminish it. I hope people see these movies for what they are, which is great, great performances.

Do you think it’s important to know how to do movies about characters and how to do that in genre films as well?

I’m very proud of my work on this film. I feel I learned a lot making two genre movies, Kate and Leopold [romantic comedy] and Identity [suspense/supernatural thriller]. What was great in making those two movies is that they were “unimportant” with concern to the Oscars, so I showed up to the set every day relaxed. I had more fun doing those movies and I hadn’t had that kind of fun since I was making super-8mm movies when I was sixteen. For me, it was a joy making a movie and having fun with the medium. When I came to this film, I really felt like I learned some serious lessons, not to have that feeling of importance overwhelm you.

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line.”

Was it ever difficult for you to work with people who are perceived as stars and who might not be easy to direct?

Actors in general, whenever you get ready and ask if they’ll trust you–actually the most difficult person can be the guy coming to play the UPS man. Stars aren’t screwed by the system because they’re getting paid a lot are easier. People who are screwed by the system are more difficult. A-list actors have a lot of trust for the director because they get to work with such good directors. My theory of directing is I have three days. If my actor is coming to the set every day for three days ready to work and at the end of the day, they feel the work they arrived ready to do was better than the work they finished doing on film, then they’re going to hate me. The actor has to feel the interaction with me is better. If I don’t succeed in that in those first three days in the shoot, there will be mistrust.

Do you feel you are somewhat of a psychologist on the set with actors?

Absolutely. Movies are photograph of thought. That’s my whole purpose in making a movie – the idea of the importance of dialogue is a lie. It’s how they look at each other [that counts]. The truth of the movie is in their eyes. I call it “the litigious nature of dialogue.” The truth of the movie is what is going on through their teeth. As a writer, I believe in abundance or indulgence, but I really minimize [as a director]. Liev Schreiber gives a speech in Kate and Leopold that I love. That is a moment to indulge in speech and the beauty of the spoken word. But I don’t want the movie to be wall-to-wall dialogue.

Do you feel your career deals with couples a lot?

Well I always thought of Girl, Interrupted as a cleaved film in the way that Angie [Jolie] and Winona [Ryder]’s character were halves of one whole. But in this film, I felt both John and June’s characters had contradictory identities. Johnny Cash was the womanizer and he was also shy and sensitive. They’re both real and really him. June has to put the shine on and the amazing stage presence, and at the same time she was a single mother of two at a time where there weren’t single mothers.

Do you find it easier directing men or women?

I don’t find it easier one way or another. Men are easier to get out of the trailer. But I don’t find it easier either way. I think the reality is for me I find it easier when I get to know people. What I had on this film – which is really unusual given stars of this magnitude to be this way – I had unending trust. I’ve experienced that in all my films. The one thing that has to work between actors and directors is they can’t be second-guessing. They have to believe what they’re seeing and their part. These weren’t actors who were watching dailies or watching playback.

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: November 27, 2005.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2005.  Courtesy of Fox2000.  All rights reserved.#2 © 2005.  Courtesy of Fox2000.  All rights reserved.#3 © 2005.  Courtesy of Fox2000.  All rights reserved.#4 © 2005.  Courtesy of Fox2000.  All rights reserved.

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