Back when Darren Aronofsky stepped away from The Wolverine to direct Russell Crowe in the Biblical epic Noah, the emergence of James Mangold was something of a surprise. He’s an accomplished filmmaker, but his sweet spot is grounded characters with earthbound dilemmas in films from Walk The Line to Girl, Interrupted, Copland and 3:10 To Yuma. Just before he and Hugh Jackman unveiled a killer highlight reel as part of Fox’s Hall H panel, I sat down with Mangold to see why he related to Marvel Comics’ perennially pissed-off protagonist.

DEADLINE: You’ve directed actors like Reese Witherspoon, Joaquin Phoenix, Angelina Jolie and Sylvester Stallone to career performances, but with the possible exception of Knight & Day, your movies have always been very grounded in character and reality. What made you take the leap into the fantastical genre of superheroes?
JAMES MANGOLD: Several things appealed to me. The studio and the star were ready to do something different. This didn’t have to serve other films, we were operating off some perception of disappointment for the first film. To follow an act that tripped in some way gave us a lot of freedom. As for my own sensibility as a filmmaker, the opportunity I sensed was a chance to make a movie more like the comic books I’ve read and less like what I call comic book event movies. I’ve been a comic book fan since I was a kid, and they weren’t always about the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Every week, it was not about how a city, a continent or a universe will be destroyed if X doesn’t happen. That is unsustainable for the comic book writers. I think what is missing from a lot of comic book films reliant on peak battles is the angst, the character work, the things that as young people we related to. It was not infantile, but incredibly mature themes about life, death, betrayal, revenge, friendship, loyalty, parents, genetics, who we are and accepting ourselves for who we are. Those are themes in the comic books but the movies dabble in that but become about defeating a villain who’s intent on destroying the X that will occur unless Y happens to stop them. I was really interested in the idea of making a superhero film that purposely avoided putting the audience at risk. It seems all too often that comic book movies convey situations to the audience that, if the superhero doesn’t succeed, we’re all dead. I was trying to make a film that operated as a real drama, a real thriller, noir, Western or a real samurai film. Where you become invested in the heroes of the film worried about their interests, their needs, their safety, and not yours.

DEADLINE: Sequels usually pick up where the last film ended. Feels like this isn’t dependent upon the whole Deadpool storyline of the last film.
MANGOLD: When I came on, the story had an ambiguous timeline and I moved it to where it’s effectively a sequel to the last X-Men movie. The Chris Claremont-Frank Miller Japanese comics saga which this is based on, takes him to Japan. He starts out living in isolation in the Yukon, but the sense of why he’s there was less clear to me than it needed to be. By locating the timeline at the end of the last X-Men, it was less about tone than it was about the facts of that film. The X-Men are dead. Jean Grey, whom he loved, died, at his own hand. Professor X is gone. You have a character who has a real hard time making social connections at all, who is now completely isolated. He has lost whatever fractured fraternity he was part of, lost the woman he loved when he had to kill her, and lost his mentor/father figure. So you find him in this very naked and raw, lonely disconnected and angry place. That provided a great place to start, him trying to find his footing again in the world. That served my goal to have this not be about whether or not the world will live or die, but whether he will.

DEADLINE: The original intention was to shoot this Japanese samurai saga in Japan. The film got delayed after the devastating tsunami and earthquake there. Did you shoot in Japan?
MANGOLD: We shot in Japan for about a month. The tsunami made me think about how much this geographically small country has endured over the last 100 years. Two atomic bombs and a tsunami with atomic implications, which is a lot for a country and its people to bounce back from. Without directly addressing the tsunami, which may have been too close in what is supposed to be a comic book film, the resilience of the country in the face of catastrophe needed to be seen and woven in. The film opens with the bombing of Nagasaki, and Logan is there. The intent was to set up a country that heals and Logan is a person who needs to heal something inside himself, who comes to a place where they also have had to heal from great catastrophe. What I wanted to do was open the film partly as a way to honor and reference that.

DEADLINE: Bryan Singer’s X-Men films highlighted that fact that Logan’s mutant gift wasn’t his indestructible adamantium skeleton and his claws, but rather the power to heal. He feels victimized by those who made him indestructible. How does that factor into your film?
MANGOLD: He hates it. Part of the reason I created the opening scene in Nagasaki was influenced by Bryan’s use in that first movie of the concentration camp scenes in talking about Magneto’s origins. I love that these films are connected and woven into history as opposed to operating in some vacuum outside it. The first thing I wrote on the back of Christopher McQuarrie’s script when I came on, was an idea I wanted to install in the material. I wrote five words: Anyone I love will die. It was this idea that not only has Logan suffered losses, but like the hero in Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, he’s living the dark side of immortality. You love, and whether it’s through your own hand, through diabolical reasons, or just old age, you watch everyone die and you have to keep going. For a character as socially damaged as Logan, the idea of a forever where you lose people, seemed thematically rich. Marrying that to the Claremont-Miller storyline adds Yashida, a crime lord at the end of his life who doesn’t want to die; you have an immortal Logan who would just as soon be done with his life; you have the young woman in Mariko Yashida who has her whole life ahead of her, but would like to get out; you have a young assassin, Yukio, whose one mutant ability is she can foresee anyone’s death. The whole movie becomes this meditation on life, death and what that means. And obviously there is a mystery, an action picture going on as well. For my own ambitions, the best of these movies are actually about something. The themes about Logan’s ambivalence of his powers are very healthily explored here.

DEADLINE: Coming out the other end of your first superhero movie, do you want to play on this large a canvas again?
MANGOLD: My heroes range from Howard Hawks to Mike Nichols, Sidney Pollack, Sidney Lumet…

DEADLINE: None of whom made superhero movies.
MANGOLD: But they made big movies. I’d add Steven Soderbergh to this life. Movies like these superhero films weren’t options for most of those guys but they moved from larger-scale Technicolor musicals to smaller-scale black and white movies. The media and the business brands people too quickly as the horror guy, the indie guy, the superhero guy. Remember, Billy Wilder didn’t make a comedy until his 16th movie. The idea we are supposed to arrive fully formed in the genres we’re hired to direct in is a crazy assumption. There’s nothing in film school or commercials that prepares you to direct a big feature. But to answer your question, I love the form and feel less that I got to make a superhero movie than a samurai film or a Western with a hero who has an adamantium skeleton and skeletons in the past. It has more in common with Clint Eastwood or Toshiro Mifune than people might acknowledge. The other great thing about Logan is that his powers are earthbound, as you described my movies. He can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound, he doesn’t come from alien parents. He doesn’t save cities, doesn’t leap up to take a 747 out of the sky.

DEADLINE: Basically, he’s hard to beat up.
MANGOLD: He’s hard to beat up and he’s angry. And he heals. He’s Josey Wales with healing powers. That is easy for me to connect with. If I found another movie I connect with like that, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it. The other unique thing here was, Fox wanted something out of the box and I’ve had a long friendship and the confidence of the film’s star. We’ve been close since we did Kate & Leopold years ago. Having a studio ready to change the tone, from giving Logan a haircut to reevaluating the look and feel of the movie and his character down to the claws, was a real opportunity.

DEADLINE: So no pressure to lump in 20 other mutants. After The Avengers, these movies seem to be gravitating toward these big All-Star team gangbangs.
MANGOLD: I think they all internally regret doing that in the last Wolverine. I’m taking the X-Men storyline but making a Wolverine movie, where they called the last one Wolverine while still trying to do an X-Men movie. It’s simple math. You have 120 minutes and in order to do an ensemble justice you need to give each of them eight minutes. Put in seven principal mutants and do the math. If you’re doing them justice, you don’t have time left for an internal examination of your main character.

DEADLINE: The other way The Wolverine is different is that its star is also the behind-the-scenes flame keeper of Wolverine’s film mythology. Beyond coming to work in unbelievable shape film after film, he’s very involved in the exploration of the tortured character he originated. How does that factor into the freedom a director has to tell his story?
MANGOLD: Having a star be so involved this way can be uncomfortable or really great. I have always been close with Hugh, and that helped. He’s so collaborative that once he establishes where you’re headed, he gives you the map and lets you take him there. Our goals here were the same, to use the launching pad of the Claremont-Miller storyline as a way to get deeper into his character. Hugh feels that more strongly than anyone because for so many years he has heard from all the fans who love Claremont-Miller and yearned to get closer and more internal with his character.