“The Wolverine” may look like just another in a long line of superhero movies to hit the screen this year — it’s the latest installment in Marvel’s “X-Men” franchise — but it’s certainly the first one directed by a guy who cites director Yasujiro Ozu of “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” fame as an influence.
Director James Mangold, best known for his Oscar-winning movies “Walk the Line” and “Girl, Interrupted,” has often said he was heavily influenced by the Japanese maestro on his breakthrough 1995 debut “Heavy,” which featured great performances by Liv Tyler and Pruitt Taylor Vince and an Ozu-esque understated subtlety.
Subtlety isn’t to be expected in a superhero movie, but Mangold focuses on character, and the demons driving Logan — the indestructible, metal-clawed Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman — as he comes to Japan to visit an old friend who’s on his deathbed, only to be swept up in a whirlwind of corporate and yakuza intrigue.
Promoting the film (which is titled “Wolverine: Samurai” in Japan) at a Roppongi hotel, the director talks of encountering the tranquil old Japan he knew from Ozu films while shooting around Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, but says that shooting in Tokyo was problematic.
“It’s very challenging in this city,” Mangold says. “It wasn’t as though doors were shut on us, it’s just the complicated negotiations over action or lighting, like, you can make rain on the street but not on the sidewalk. I never really got a good answer as to why. So you aim a hose in the air, but how could you possibly not get both wet? I think the tradition of shooting film in Japan is a little more guerrilla style, a little less permits and street shutdowns and all this stuff that Hollywood films do. So we got used to it.”
While the local crew were against the idea, fearing chaos if they took Hollywood stars onto the streets, Mangold shot guerrilla-style in Akihabara, Ueno Station, Zojoji Temple in Minato Ward and at several other locations around the city. For one train station shot, Mangold describes how “we hid the camera behind a column and we sent Hugh and (co-star) Tao (Okamoto) out into the crowds of commuters, and no one even noticed. Maybe once in a while you notice a commuter kind of looking back just as they exited the frame, with a look like ‘Was that … Wolverine?’ ” he laughs.
The film’s signature action scene comes with a furious rooftop fight in and on top of a shinkansen; needless to say Japan Railways did not allow the filmmakers access to one, so they built their own.
“We staged the fight against green-screen,” Mangold explains, “and we shot the background plates here on a highway (using) a special truck with six cameras pointed in all these different directions.” The resulting visuals of buildings rushing by were further sped up to simulate the bullet train speeding through the city — and thus the illusion is complete.
When asked what Tokyo could do to make life easier for foreign productions, Mangold has a clear answer: “There is no film commission; that’s the biggest obstacle. When you shoot in places like Australia or South Africa or Italy, there’s always a film commission, someone who helps you find out who to contact, which police department covers that street, how do you get (use of) a train station, stuff like that. There’s no facilitator here, so you have to figure out everything yourself. And it’s hard to figure out, because it’s such a different culture.”
Further complicating the shoot was the fact that while certain Japanese locations were available, many others weren’t, which meant shooting elsewhere and making sure everything synched up fluidly. Mangold describes one scene in which Jackman and the cast attend a funeral.
“We shot them going up the big steps and into the temple in Tokyo, and when they come out the other side they’re in Sydney; that garden is an actual garden in Sydney,” he says. “When the battle breaks out at the funeral, it starts in Sydney, then goes back outside to Tokyo.”
Rooftop chases alternated between the two cities within the same scene, even. If this sounds a bit crazy, Mangold insists “it is a bit crazy, but we do it all the time. You need to plan, and you need to have a good sketch in your head of how it works.”
While Jackman’s nemesis in the film is the familiar face of Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai,” “Ring”), Mangold went with a pair of newcomers for the female leads, casting models Okamoto as the mysterious heir to the Hashida clan’s corporate fortune and Rila Fukushima as her psychic sword-wielding half-sister. When asked whether he worried about relying on first-timers for such major roles, Mangold says he’s not that nervous about actors with less experience.
“When I directed Liv Tyler in “Heavy,” it was her first film, she was 16 years old. Sometimes actors with a lot of experience think they know too much. So I’m not looking for experience, I’m looking for the ability to share your own soul, or vulnerability, with the lens.
“For models as successful as either of those two women, it’s more than just they have a nice figure or pretty faces; to get as successful as they’ve been means there’s some projection of personality and identity, that you have a relationship with the camera. Tao has a very advanced understanding of how to withhold and how to give to the lens. In Rila’s case she’s incredibly volatile and vulnerable, and makes very strong emotional connections to people. From the moment I met her, I knew she was going to play this role.”
When he was still in film school at Columbia University in New York, Mangold studied with legendary director Milos Forman (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Hair”); Mangold recalls him fondly, saying: “I got many things from him, but he was a great writing teacher. I didn’t like writing classes, because I felt they were inherently structural. People were teaching you about what happens in the first act, the second act, etc., and I found all of it a turn-off. Milos had a very different process, though, and I wrote “Heavy” under his tutelage.
What he told me to do was, ‘Don’t worry what it’s about, just keep writing, and we’ll figure out what it’s about later.’ I got about 75 pages into writing the script and I didn’t know what I was doing, but he was reading the pages, and one day he comes into class and just says to me, ‘page 46 is where the movie is.’ It was the scene I wrote where this overweight man’s mother dies, and he comes back from the hospital, and people ask how she is, and he says ‘Fine.’ He said that’s all you need, that’s the dramatic event of the movie. He was very smart that way about finding the essential dramatic engine of something, even if it was very human and subtle.”
“The Wolverine” opens in cinemas across the country on Sept. 13. Giovanni Fazio’s review of the movie will appear on the Film Page on that day.