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's 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. I recently had the chance to talk with Fonda and Mangold about the fun they had on their project.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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