6 Screenwriting Tips from Logan’s James Mangold

By Valerie Kalfrin · November 24, 2017

Writer/director James Mangold adores the taciturn Western hero, an archetype that he’s woven into some of his best-known work. Whether he’s crafting a story about a lonely cook (the 1995 indie Heavy), a suburban sheriff (Cop Land), or even country music legend Johnny Cash (2005’s Walk the Line), Mangold mines a reticence in his protagonists that yields dramatic gems.

His latest project, Logan, wowed comics fans and critics alike by upending the superhero genre to tell an absorbing character tale. Fan favorite Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), used to unleash metal claws from his knuckles as a member of the mutant hero group the X-Men, but now he’s grappling with aging, illness, legacy, and unexpected responsibility. Logan is caring for his ailing mentor and father figure Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), when Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen), the daughter he never knew he had, drops into his life with special powers of her own. The three hit the road as an uneasy family unit with military scientists who want Laura as a weapon in pursuit.

“I’m really interested in a film that is both really merciless and really tender … [T]he challenge for me [is] of trying to string these pearls on the same line,” Mangold said earlier this month in an interview for the podcast The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith.

Mangold previously directed 2013’s The Wolverine, which sent Jackman’s Logan to Japan. The two have been good friends since working together on 2001’s Kate & Leopold, so when the idea arose to give Logan a proper sendoff—Jackman has played the character for 17 years—Mangold looked for inspiration at character films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler, as well as Westerns like Shane.

“There’s a kind of honesty to the Western that I don’t think exists in comic book movies that often,” Mangold said. “For instance, the hero’s ambivalence about their duty, their ambivalence about their fame, their ambivalence about their notoriety … Shane doesn’t want credit. Josey Wales doesn’t want credit. … The signature of these characters is a kind of ambivalence about their heroism that I personally find much more appealing and less suspect and less self-serving.”

Mangold has story credit for Logan and co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Frank (The Wolverine, Minority Report) and Michael Green (Green Lantern, Blade Runner 2049). The film has a 93 percent “fresh” rating on and has grossed $616 million worldwide on a budget just under $100 million since its March release. It’s also getting some buzz with awards season approaching.

“I don’t think anyone expected the response,” he said. “I’m really proud of the movie.”

Here are six tips we gleaned from Goldsmith’s interview about Mangold’s own creative process that can make your story more surprising. Curious about the whole podcast? Listen here!

1) A simple situation yields complex characters.

Logan took some inspiration from its comics heritage (storylines involving X-23, or Laura’s character, and “Old Man Logan”), but the writers didn’t feel the need to include Easter eggs—or a large cast. They also focused the story on Logan, Xavier, and Laura by avoiding a world-in-peril plot, superhero costumes, or high-tech vehicles and gadgets. “If you want to make a movie about characters, you can’t have too many,” Mangold said, noting that he finds that films with teams of heroes often don’t develop the characters much not because of the writers’ skill but because of “a lack of real estate,” the time available to tell the story.

Logan runs 2 hours 17 minutes, but the pacing is excellent, partly because of the script and also the editing. “It does take its time, and that’s part of it being a character film,” Mangold said. “My greatest moments of pride in this movie are the simplest scenes,” such as Logan and Laura talking after a nightmare.

2) Plumb what your protagonist fears most.

Logan gained his claws—part of an indestructible metal skeleton—in a lab as part of an experiment to turn him into a mindless weapon. So although Xavier welcomed him into the X-Men, “he is living out a present with a past as a bad man,” Mangold said.

What scares Logan the most is love, so he’s gruff to Xavier (although clearly devoted to the older man) and rude to Laura—and we understand this, so we forgive him as we watch his defenses erode.

“The pain of being a person like that, what I immediately imagine is, there’s too much suffering,” Mangold said. “It’s like, if you could hear everyone screaming for help at once, every 911 call, which one do you pick? Where do you go? And when do you stop? When do you sleep? When is it not your job anymore? Those are interesting questions to me. When do you let people suffer on their own? And when is your gift a burden?”

3) Don’t label your characters as “good” or “bad.”

“Personally, as a writer, I hate those terms. There is no ‘bad guy.’ There’s an antagonist and a protagonist. The antagonist thinks he’s doing good shit, not bad shit,” Mangold said. Although Logan has antagonists (Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook), they’re more supporting characters. Even so, they don’t see themselves as villains. “No one wakes up … and goes, ‘How can I do something heinous today?’ They actually think they’re doing something positive. Even the most heinous acts are twisted in people’s minds into something positive. … You can find anything to justify anything.”

4) Less exposition generates more suspense and surprise.

Logan uses video on a smartphone to fill in Logan about Laura’s background because she doesn’t speak initially and then prefers Spanish, to Logan’s consternation. (“Logan is always most fun when he’s frustrated,” Mangold notes.)

The director skipped a flashback about what happened to the rest of Logan’s former X-Men teammates by the time the film’s story begins because it distracted from the focus on Logan. “There’s a tragedy back there, but we don’t have to see it,” Mangold said.

The writers also avoided setting up some of the antagonists’ machinations for greater impact. “One of the cinematic ways to take advantage of that is to play a kind of shell game with the audience,” Mangold said. “Confusion is an interesting tool. It’s not always something to be avoided. That’s why exposition is not always our friend. Sometimes the way to get an audience to lean into a movie is to make them a little confused, just not too confused.”

5) Read your action lines and narration aloud to keep it tight.

Mangold keeps his action lines and narration sparse in his final draft. “Part of the reason you write too much when you start writing is that you want to make the movie, and you can’t make the movie, so you start making the movie on paper. But you shouldn’t. You should be writing a recipe for making a movie. The primary experience you want people to have is the experience of momentum… And the way you’re going to create momentum is less bullshit. Less stuff between the stuff.”

He imagines describing the film as it unfolds. “My theory about the text in a script would be is that if you’re sitting in a theater watching this movie with a blind person, you only have as long as the shot takes to get the description out because they’re going to fall behind, and you’re going to fall behind telling them what the movie is,” he said. “Try to tell the story in the speed you can tell it live.”

6) Know where your story is going.

Mangold calls himself a messy writer because he doesn’t outline beforehand; he starts writing scenes and revises a lot. But that doesn’t mean he completely discovers his movie as he’s writing. “I know where I’m going,” he says. Give yourself some guideposts, too, however works for you.

“There’s nothing worse than sitting down and not knowing what you’re writing. That would be like picking up a phone to call and you don’t know what you’re saying,” he said. “That’s why when you’re really pissed at someone and you write them an angry text, it flows like fuck, because you know what you need to say.”

If you’re stuck, stop. “When you are stuck writing, it’s because you don’t know what you’re writing. And so you shouldn’t. You should go see a movie. Go for a walk. Hold hands with someone. Go to a park. Go on a hike. And when you think of something to write, find your way back and write it,” Mangold said.

Just be sure that you do. “The greatest failure will happen by not typing. Whatever gets anger, tears, joy, hilarity, whatever gets you writing, write,” he said. “And then sculpt.”

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