Combustible Celluloid

Interview: James Mangold & Peter Fonda

Mad About 'Yuma'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Hot off the success of his Oscar-winning Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which featured a kind of cowboy singer, director James Mangold, 43, wanted to make a full-on Western. And not just any Western, but a remake of Delmer Daves' 3:10 to Yuma (1957), based on a story by Elmore Leonard and starring Glenn Ford as a dangerous bandit and Van Helfin as poor farmer who agrees to escort him to the title train that will take him to prison. But even with Russell Crowe in the bandit role and Christian Bale in the farmer role, Mangold had trouble raising money. His gamble eventually paid off, however, and he has made a good, solid, rousing shoot 'em up, full of horses, guns, action and men of few words. Peter Fonda, 67, a veteran of cowboy movies stretching all the way back to his own directorial effort The Hired Hand (1971), plays a bounty hunter hot on the bandit's trail. Fonda and Mangold recently spoke with Greencine about the fun they had on their project.

JMA: I love Westerns and I'm glad to see a few coming back.

Peter Fonda: I absolutely agree. It's a wonderful way to tell stories about today. We can tell stories about what's going on today in the past tense. You're tricked because you only see it afterwards. While you're watching, you're not thinking 'fuck Iraq.' This is what elevates it beyond other kinds of movies.

JMA: There's a wonderful lack of exposition. I love how Dan Evans (Christian Bale) gets up out of bed, there's something wrong with his leg, but we don't know what until almost an hour later.

James Mangold: You don't need much exposition in a Western. Like, I love The Bourne Ultimatum, but those movies have so much explaining. And when you make a modern film, even in a movie like Identity (2003), there's so much explaining you have to do. And the beautiful thing about a Western is that there's none of it. It's like: he's there, they want him dead, and they're trying to get from here to there. Done.

JMA: How did you sell the idea of a Western today?

James Mangold: I didn't. I failed miserably to sell it. I went to every studio in town with Russell and Christian and this whole package and they all passed. We got financed by a bank. They sold it to Lionsgate while we were in production, but the fact is that I was an abysmal failure selling it. No one wants to make Westerns. It took dogged determination and my cast holding together as we went from one place to another and got handed our walking papers. I think the Western has gotten really misunderstood lately, and people view it as kind of a period picture, or a historical picture. I don't think that's what they are. They're kind of a fever dream. They have as much in common with science fiction as they do with The Age of Innocence. They're a kind of incredibly beautiful barren landscape on which to stage really intense human dramas. And in the context of that, they're generally very free of exposition and they get to the point very quickly and very effectively. I've always thought of the Western as one of our nation's great contributions to world culture along with jazz and rock 'n' roll. The British took rock and took it from us and ran with it, and the Italians have taken the Western for a while and it's time to take it back. And do something interesting with it again. It's not a dead form. In the 1950s, the Western was still a period piece, but the fantasy of the West was alive, and I think partly the fantasy of the West has dissipated for people. They may have more science fiction fantasies or comic book fantasies. But as long as people like Johnny Cash were embraced, a Western can be. It's really about truth, bare-bones truth.

JMA: You shot in New Mexico?

Peter Fonda: Yes. It was so bloody cold. You have no idea. These guys didn't know how cold it was gonna get in Santa Fe and I did. I had four pairs of long underwear on and one of my surf tops cut into a v-neck so you couldn't see it. I would bitch and moan and yell at them: "Get those North Face jackets off! We'll get that scene this quick!" But once I heard 'Action' I didn't know temperature. I didn't care. I was this character. I got to play this guy. This is terrific! What cold? Then: 'Cut' "God damn it!" We all wanted to move along.

JMA: You're a professional.

Peter Fonda: That's the way it is on a movie set: hurry up and wait. My son is a camera operator. He says: "hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror." You work very hard, but you come to the set and you don't know how the other actors have worked their roles out. So you're doing a dance, and you have to adjust. That's the fun part. I'm not sure which way they're going to go, so I have to be ready to roll with it. Those moments of sheer terror for me are sheer moments of delight. We were all able to do these little things, these little tastes. Jim Mangold allows us to, by putting it on paper. And our gig is to take it off the paper and put it in the mouth, put it with blood, with energy, with nervousness, with love, with hate, whatever it might be. And that's what we're supposed to do. And if we can do that, you're sitting in the motion picture theater, and suddenly you're not watching the movie. We've transcended two dimensions -- because the camera takes away one dimension. So all of our jobs, behind the camera and in front of the camera, are to try to put that one dimension back. We'll never get there, but if we do our jobs really well, it might make you forget you're in the theater. I'm in the damn thing, but I watch it and I'm riveted. I've seen it three times.

JMA: Peter, I was thinking of your film The Hired Hand (1971) when I watched this. They're two completely different Westerns. This one is more of a story, and yours is more of a poem.

Peter Fonda: It's still character driven. I start out the movie and you know there's going to be some kind of fight. The way that gun fires, shooting McVey's (Severn Darden) feet, shocked the audience. I had this whole axiom: "expected violence is accepted violence. Unexpected violence is unacceptable." Then you have to deal with it. You have no idea what's going to happen. It's shocking. You take this long ride, the journey. And we go from hell into heaven, to this paradise, the barn that I'd abandoned seven years earlier. And then we have to go back into hell to right things. But there's the conflict. Do I save my friend? 'Cause I shot the guy in the feet, not Arch Harris (Warren Oates). Also, for me, that film, the central character was a woman. It had never been done in a Western motion picture. Women adorned men's arms in Westerns. But she was dynamic. The axle wheel turned around her. That was tough for an audience to see.

JMA: I love the soundtrack in this, those wonderful Western sounds, steel bolts, and hinges and axels and leather, and especially the chugging train during the climax.

James Mangold: The key with sound is to do less. Most movies, they're just blasting music and effects and everything at the same time. In my old movie Cop Land, we did a completely silent gunfight. Where it gets interesting is when you reduce it to just a few elements instead of so many. That's just this kind of hard-sell cacophony that you get in most movies. Just the throbbing chug of a train can sound orchestral on its own.

JMA: I know I'm not supposed to notice it...

James Mangold: Well, it's hard not to in that moment, when such pivotal action has occurred and you're used to the sweeping strings coming in and cradling you. And that's not what we were after.

JMA: I like this better than the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Whenever I've spoken to filmmakers about remakes, they deny the term "remake."

James Mangold: It's like getting called a "liberal." It's fine to call it a remake by my terms because I think it gets silly to try and avoid it. The part of it for me that's important is that -- a lot of remakes -- and the reason people are frightened of the world -- are made for very cynical reasons. There's a brand out there, people know the title, so they make a movie with a built-in audience. We weren't that smart. Probably less than 1% of America knows what 3:10 to Yuma is. So we were doing a remake of something no one has seen, so we had none of the upside, but you still have the critics calling it a remake, so you get only the downside. But the truth is that I love the original film, and I was inspired by it. If I'd come in here and made Hamlet with Russell Crowe, would you say, 'Another remake? Do we need another Hamlet"? And I can say that, 'Well, this is a new one.'

JMA: There can never be enough Hamlets...

James Mangold: Right. Because I think in many ways we learn more about what acting and moviemaking is when you see the same story told by different people. It's a great opportunity to see: what does Russell Crowe bring to a movie? What does Jim Magnold bring to a movie? Because I can see the same text told by some other guys. It's an instructive lesson as to what we each bring to a picture. The first credited writer on this movie is [the late] Halsted Welles. Most of the material is still the original screenplay.

JMA: In every scene where anyone has a bullet extracted, someone has a metal dish. Why is that?

Peter Fonda: They want to hear the cling. Written in the script is that, when I get that gut shot, I just grunt. And that's what happens. It stings, you go into shock and you walk around. You'll bleed to death, but not before I get that sonofabitch to Yuma. If it hits your spine, you're screwed. I'm the only one on that set that had been shot. I shot myself by accident when I was a month shy of my 11th birthday. We were in upstate New York shooting trap. There were three of us, and one of us brought a pistol: single shot, break open, eject the shell, like a shotgun. When you put the shell back in, that motion cocks the damn thing. The trigger lay on the stem, like a Derringer, so it didn't have a trigger guard. The first shot I did okay, but the second one I was just too cocky. I slapped the barrel, and it turned around and blew off right in my stomach. The bullet hit my rib cage first, then tumbled through and blew the top off my liver, went through the top of my stomach. It lodged just in the skin, like a bump, like a big bee sting, right in the middle of my left kidney. They were tracing the bullet's path. Tumbling through me, it passed by my heart just on the contraction. You know the phrase 'timing is everything'?

August 16, 2007

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