Interviews - Directors >
Feature Interviews K to O >
WALKS THE FINE LINE TOWARDS THE OSCARS
PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: November 27, 2005.
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
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
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
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.
Did you personalize this movie through another way besides through the
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
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
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
Yeah that's a good one.
The other one is when Sam Philips 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. Some times dramatic films
try to give everyone a bow on its story line that makes it not resonate with
us. Some times we don't just find peace sometimes we don't find resolve.
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 Pasty Klein. 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
How do you react to people's expectations about this film and the
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 make 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.
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, when
ever 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]. Leiv Shreiber 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
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.
Return to the features page