James Mangold Moves into Aero Film

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If there's one word to describe James Mangold's oeuvre, it's eclectic. From Copland, his bruising breakthrough film about police corruption that almost single-handedly resurrected Sly Stallone's career, to the Oscar-winning feminine mental health saga Girl, Interrupted, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and most recently, the Western remake 3:10 to Yuma, the filmmaker has never been one to confine himself to creative cliches and stereotypes. Now, with notable resume in tow, the writer/director is moonlighting with commercial production by signing to Cali outfit Aero Film. Recently, Creativity chatted with Mangold about his aspirations with directing spots, the connection a piece of work can make and his advice to commercial directors going the other way into feature films.

What spurred your interest in commercial production and why did you choose Aero Film?

It's something that I've thought about for a long time being a writer/director. I think some guys who are just directors, you have periods where no scripts are in fruition and you're [fiddling] around and you go, hell, why not direct spots? I think for me because I've always been writing something, there's always been something to do. But I'm fascinated by film language and with storytelling. One of the beautiful things historically about television spots is that they're just incredibly economical exercises in storytelling. Very often, they're more sophisticated cinematically than a lot of what you can do sometimes in a standard, three-act storytelling situation.

So, there's a lot of experimentation and a lot of wonderful technical work that goes on as well. It's stuff that's always really interested me. [In film], you keep moving every thirty seconds until you fill up two hours. To me, that kind of attention to detail is very natural and something I'm very excited about working on.

Is there any specific limitation or hesitation on moving from feature-length film to the 30-second spot?

That's part of what's beautiful about it. You get to experience a new world and a new set of aesthetics on each spot. The commitment isn't obviously two years of your life, which is what it is for me on a feature. Of course, I'm not leaving behind features. It's not like I'm moving from Atlanta to Richmond.

What do you hope to achieve at Aero and is there a specific client type you'd like to work with?

I'm really interested in adventurous spots and I don't have a particular [taste]. My resume has varied from Meg Ryan romantic comedies to a John Cusack horror film to Westerns and Robert DeNiro/Sylvester Stallone crime films. The last thing you'd see me doing is telling you that I'm only looking for one kind of spot. I'm not a member of the post-modern crew of my generation that makes self-referential, ironic films. I enjoy all those movies, but I'm much fonder of the classic lines of Hollywood filmmaking. I'm very interested in ways that I can bring that kind of storytelling into the 30-second world.

The thing that's most important to me in filmmaking is the relationship between the camera and the actor. It's an area where I continue to explore ways to push the envelope no matter what genre I'm in. What's unique to me about filmmaking and film acting is that in film, you can literally see right into someone's soul. The special effect, even when you're making a straight drama with no digital special effects and explosions, that I'm trying to achieve is an emotional moment, comic beat or human beat where someone goes, how did they do that? How did they make that human moment happen under all this equipment and all this pressure? How did you make something so fragile as that moment with Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line with Reese or that moment with Russell Crowe?

It's carving out that indescribable human moment, and for me, it's something I'm always searching to do and something that I'd certainly be searching to do in any spot. It's carving out a moment that's a special effect. It's one of those jaw-dropping moments where you go, how did that emotional moment happen? To me, in advertising, some of the most memorable spots we've ever seen are of course the spots that touch us or make us laugh in a way that we want to visit again and again. The emotion in the spot is like a magic trick because it has a repeating value.

Do you feel the soul-stirring connection you have in film will be compromised when doing a spot?

The truth is that all filmmaking is a battle with elements and reality. You're always trying to make something real happen in front of a lens in order to capture a moment. You're battling time, budget, weather and equipment and everything in a sense is always a compromise. It's what you do under that pressure and how well you can work with your crew under that pressure is what yields the result.

While you're going into commercials, spot directors are leaping in droves into feature filmmaking, Is there any advice you can heed to them?

The one thing I always say to people who are trying to break into feature directing and when the opportunity starts to be there is make sure the first project you take on is a movie that you'd like to be your last movie. I think the saddest thing that can happen to a really talented voice in filmmaking is that when the moment arrives for them to get a shot at making a feature, they pick a project cynically, one that'll get made quickly. In a way, it's a flawed project, the script is flawed and the ideas in it are weak and inherently what can happen is it becomes their tombstone in their directing career as well as the stars'.

To me, the most important thing is to always make that movie as if it were the only movie you get a chance to make. Then, no matter what happens with box office or anything else, you know you've got your shot to say the thing you wanted to say instead of just saying action for 90 days. Make the movie you really want to make. Don't make a movie that someone thinks is a good break. Whatever that first picture is, and it turns out good, you're going to be the guy that made that picture and people are going to be looking for you to do that again. If it's something you never really wanted to do but did cynically, then you've really boxed yourself in. The point is to be making a statement like an author or a novelist would and something you really want to stand behind.
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