We began by talking about Ben Foster’s kick-ass portrayal of Russell Crowe henchman Charlie Prince.
MTV: Did Charlie play on the page as well as Ben Foster plays it on the big screen?
James Mangold: Well it was a great role but it’s definitely bigger in the movie than you might see on the page. Particularly in Westerns there are people who may not have a lot to say but you can decide with the camera to really make them huge. Just because they don’t have a couple monologues in the movie doesn’t mean they have an incredible through line to play. This is a movie about fathers and sons. Logan [Lerman] and Christian play out the literal sense of that but I think Russell and Ben play out a kind of mirror relationship on the other end of the spectrum.
MTV: Christian Bale’s son in the film tells Crowe’s Ben Wade he doesn’t think he’s all bad. Do you think Ben Wade is all bad?
JM: No. I don’t believe there’s good and evil in a movie. Even when you’re making a movie about Nazis, the actor playing Adolph Hitler can’t play evil. Crowe’s character from the moment we find him in the movie seems bored robbing stagecoaches. He’s ill at ease among his own men. It’s almost like he has a pack of rottweilers that he bought a long time ago and doesn’t know where to keep them.
MTV: You’re of course playing with the color palette here as well. Ben Wade is dressed in all black and Charlie, who truly is bad, has that unforgettable white jacket.
JM: Right. We don’t believe in the conventional black and white in the Gene Autry sense. I think that’s long ago been obliterated in the Western. We’re playing with it. Ben just really felt fantastic in [the jacket]. We knew it was done the moment we saw it.
MTV: This may seem at first blush to be your first Western, but “Cop Land” really was your first.
JM: Yeah. I call it my second.
MTV: Having now seen the original “3:10 to Yuma,” it seems clear that film influenced “Cop Land.”
JM: Absolutely. It features a lot of echoes from that film. Stallone’s character [Freddy Heflin] is actually named after the actor Van Heflin. I was trying to make a Western fused with a kind of modern Jersey cop mob world. I think they are two of our most original forms, the mob movie and the Western. They’re two of America’s most original film forms where you get to examine issues of morality and loyalty in a much more interesting fashion than you generally get a chance to in other genres.
MTV: As a fan of the Western, what did you want to avoid with “3:10 to Yuma”?
JM: I felt that the Western had been hurt by a couple of things. One is the over historical epic-ization of the Western. The Western was never about historical accuracy or teaching a history lesson, not the great ones anyway. They were about character. To my taste, one of the mistakes in Westerns I’d seen was this ponderous sweeping Remington painting kind of Western with the big sweeping strings where suddenly I felt it was more about someone getting lost in the idea of making a Western than actually making a story about characters living in the West.
MTV: It sounds like you didn’t want to make “Wyatt Earp.”
JM: Could be. And then there was a post-modern thing where I felt like a lot of Westerns had just become tributes to movies. I didn’t arrive on set everyday with a frame blow-up of a Sergio Leone or John Ford movie. At a certain point I think it’s incumbent upon you to just let go. Shoot it like George Stevens would shoot it. Shoot it the way John Ford would shoot it which is to say without some kind of compendium of DVDs in your trailer. Just do it. Be in the moment and make the movie. Look at the people and what they’re doing and the sets your friends have built and make the movie. That to me was the critical mental adjustment I wanted to make.
MTV: Tom Cruise was attached to this for a while. How did you arrive at Russell?
JM: I always wanted Russell. At that point he was attached to Baz Luhrmann’s movie. When he became available it became the greatest thing that ever happened to the film because I really think he was born to play a guy like this.
MTV: I’m a big fan of “Cop Land.” It’s been a decade since that film came out. What do you think back to when you recall it today?
JM: It was my second movie and my first with big stars and a little bit of money. When I look back on it I’m extremely proud of the movie and I can’t believe the heady company I was in, in terms of the cast. I’m proud of the way it lives on in a way. We were built up so much because of the level of the cast. We were expected to be “Pulp Fiction” in terms of grosses and it was always a much less pop-y post-modern ride than “Pulp Fiction,” a far grimmer tale. There was an initial feeling I had when it came out that I had failed. It came from a huge amount of expectation that had been lumped on the movie. With distance, as it plays on cable and people watch it on DVD, I think the movie has eclipsed that momentary framing about what it was supposed to do and it now exists in a world beyond that. I was really happy making “Yuma” and I had all these memories of those times. A lot of the challenges were similar. It’s another morality tale with men and guns and a gunfight at the end.