Wild West
Western 3:10 TO YUMA

Lock 'n' Load: Peter Fonda gearing up and contemplating a kill, in September's "3:10 To Yuma", James Mangold's remake of the 1957 western starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.  (All Photos: Richard Foreman/LionsGate)

By Omar P.L. MooreBy Omar P.L. MooreBy Omar P.L. Moore


eter Fonda and James Mangold have just entered the room.  Fonda, lean and sprightly, wears darkly tinted sunglasses and his mane of golden brown hair remains impeccably in position.  He sports a windbreaker jacket and blue jeans.  Mr. Mangold, a dark-haired man of compact build, opts for slightly more formal attire.  Blue blazer jacket, white shirt and jeans.  For the last two minutes they have been playfully quarreling (though it looks fairly real) about which of them gets to drink from the right-hand side glass of the two glasses that have been placed before them, glasses soon to be filled with Evian water.  If this was Contention, Arizona, in say, 1898, you'd probably be forgiven for expecting both the actor and the director to duel for the right to drink out of the preferred glass of choice.

But four online journalists and the two film artists are in the here-and-now of San Francisco, California at the Ritz Carlton.  Mr. Fonda and Mr. Mangold are promoting Mangold's "3:10 To Yuma", a LionsGate release which opens on September 7 in the U.S. and Canada, a western that also stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.  The film is a retelling of the original western of the same title, which opened in the U.S. on August 7, 1957 and starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and was directed by Delmer Daves and based on Elmore Leonard's novel.  In the new film, Ben Wade (Crowe) is an outlaw fugitive from justice, whose band of rootin'-tootin'-shootin' varmints (that include Fonda and Ben Foster) are on the run and trying to rescue Wade, who is under the charge of one Dan Evans (Bale), a man who fought in the Civil War and is trying to hold his family together with the little money he has.  Evans stands to gain a substantial reward if he is able to get Wade onto the 3:10 train at the Contention station that will be heading to Yuma, the location of the jail house from which Wade escaped.

When asked about the treatment that Mr. Crowe's Ben Wade character gives Mr. Fonda's Byron McElroy in the film, the storied actor of such films as "Easy Rider" and "Ulee's Gold" replied that Crowe was great to work with and that "he's a very serious actor.  He's very concentrated, he works very hard. . . he did some things for us that improved scenes, not restaging but refining the stunt gags."  Fonda, very relaxed and calm, proceeds to do a bit of ventriloquism when Mangold makes similar comments about Crowe's acting prowess.  Every bit the comedy duo, Mangold and Fonda entertain their questioners with the kind of shtick that might have made legendary American comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello proud.

"The western is much more a kind of really . . . incredibly human and intimate drama with action, unlike our kind of modern action films which tend to be kind of just about supermen and computer-created semis . . . hitting helicopters," said Mangold, wisecracking about a certain action film that played in theaters back in the summer. 

"It's a stretch, but I'll go for it.  I'll try that shot," Fonda adds.

"Why not?" Mangold retorts.  "All you have to do is shoot a man in front of a green screen and send it off to ILM!"

"No, I mean the helicopter and the truck," replies Fonda.

"I think they did that in "Die Hard", or something, I don't know," Mangold quips.

"Dang.  I'm always. . . ", Fonda drifts.

"One step behind, always," Mangold says.

"Dang.  Maybe forty frames behind," Fonda suggests.

"You're like an elephant.  You never forget," Mangold sarcastically declares.

Both concede that the dynamic they exhibit for their interviewers is 180 degrees from the one on the set of "3:10 To Yuma". 

"On the set it's an incredible challenge . . . we're faced with this daunting task of doing this stuff," says Mangold, presumably referring to the weight and visage of the 1957 film, which is still beloved by many fifty years later.  Fonda is quick to add that "[Mangold's] side of the camera basically is always active, whereas we (as actors) sit.  And wait.  That can be very dangerous.  Because if we wait too long, or if we don't understand the process, we can just drop -- drop our energy, drop our character, drop our preparation.  Drop anything that makes it possible to interact with other actors and the camera."

Shooting and shooting: Russell Crowe in action during "3:10 To Yuma", with the film's director James Mangold (in green cap) setting up a shot, surrounded by crew members.  "Every decision you make hurts someone," the director said, when talking about people management on a film set. 

Mangold is a self-described sports fan, and he analogizes the interplay on the set of this virtually all-male film (sprinkled with two prominent women characters, one played by Gretchen Mol, as Alice Evans, the wife of Dan, and Vinessa Shaw, a former flame of Ben Wade's) to a "game". 

"People get pissed on the field with each other . . . there's stuff happening all the time.  But that is part of it.  I mean, sometimes the give-and-take is exhilarating.  And what you have to recognize is what we're dealing with -- our stock and trade -- is human emotion.  So that part of what I think some people can get intimidated about with actors, is that . . . if their commodity -- if what they spend -- is their soul and their feelings, then obviously that's not something you can just turn on and off when some dick like me says, 'action!'  You have all these feelings.  What does it feel like to be in a scene and then suddenly . . . a helicopter flies over, and its over.  It's awful.  It's an awful feeling to be there and stopped," said the director.

The new "3:10 To Yuma", which was written by Stuart Beattie ("Collateral") is not awful by a long shot, and the actor and filmmaker alike hope that today's audiences some of whom can only reference "Unforgiven" among the westerns they are familiar with, will connect with this remake.  Mangold says that a western allows you to "talk about the current situations and current topics around the world . . . and you can take ideas and concepts that our country is struggling with right now and embed them in a story like this," the director said, in a way that doesn't polarize people with politics and overtly left and right-wing characters.  "In a sense . . . you feel the new America being born, and in a way, part of I think what Crowe not only represents as a symbol, but even represents as a character is the last kind of gleaming of being the anarchist, a kind of libertarian American spirit."  The director added that the rhetoric by today's political leaders in the U.S., "where murder to defend freedom of commerce and oil, and whatever other freedoms we're defending, is good, but murder by someone else's justification, is bad," creates a contrast to the iconography in the new film as embodied by Mr. Crowe.  Mangold also said that westerns have always given a filmmaker a chance to explore political themes and ideas in a social vacuum to reach the widest possible audience, and without overt polarization.

"3:10 To Yuma" was shot largely in New Mexico, and partly during the snow season that visits the state, including the city of Santa Fe.  During this interview Peter Fonda talks about how cold it was, but also mentions managing to focus despite the wintry temperatures.  "It certainly made life hard for the last month and a half of shooting," Mangold said of the snow.  The crew spent time and money digging out snow in order to preserve the continuity of the film, which was filmed in order.

Mangold directed the Oscar-winning film "Walk The Line", which featured Reese Witherspoon's winning lead acting performance as June Carter Cash in the biopic on Johnny Cash, a man of shades of gray.  The director says that he misses the late musician's ideas in his songs of realities and harsh complexities in big screen films.  Mangold intones Rutger Hauer's and Alan Rickman's bad-guy portrayals as sorts of run-of-the-mill villains of the week.  And he jokes, somewhat sympathetic to Gene Hackman's villain in a past film, a character wanting to blow up the west coast "so he could create new beach land.  At least I . . . understood what his rationale was," Mangold remarked.

"Villains bore me.  People with different agendas clashing doesn't."  

On the other hand, for Fonda, who has been acting for over 40 years, the process of acting and the preparation of a character has for the most part stayed constant, with the approach to inhabiting Byron McElroy being no different.  "I really start to build the character when I've built the shell. . . .  mostly we do wardrobe first . . . and so that's when I start working -- how do I fill this bill?  How do I fit these clothes?  That becomes, how do I fit this character?  That becomes how do I fit the moment?  And then how do I fit the idea that the director has in mind?"

Christian Bale as Dan Evans, Gretchen Mol as Alice Evans, and Ben Petry as Mark Evans, in "3:10 To Yuma", whose latest poster is shown above.
James Mangold is asked about people management on the film set and how he approaches this as a director on his films.

"What often gets missed is the relationship with the actor and gets mystified.  It becomes to a lot of directors something almost threatening.  Like you have to speak some special language.  And to a certain degree that's true.  But it's not true in its restrictive way.  It's real simple.  In our normal course of affairs, we don't generally speak in results.  We don't talk to our loved ones with results.  We don't tell our kid, like, 'show me how smart you are.'  We say, 'let's work on our homework together.'  So when actors are confronted by a director going, 'be funny!' or, 'scare me!'" -- here the director interrupts himself with -- "I wanna cry one more time!  Make a scene where I cry one more time," the director says, recalling his own experience with studio executives who demanded more from Mangold after a screening of his 1999 film "Girl, Interrupted".  "What do I do?  Do I do a scene with a dog getting hit by a car?"  The director had acted himself, he recalled, when he was younger, "and got to experience what it's like to be talked at when you're in a role.  And the idea of being in a moment is a really complicated thing, especially as magnified by a movie lens, different from the stage.  And it's a very fragile thing, and it requires an understanding." 

The other thing that Mangold has learned throughout the years on his film sets "is that different actors have different cooking times . . . some are great in the mornings, some are great in the afternoons, some are great as the last shots are getting in a scene . . . some are better right at the very top . . . and sometimes it's different on different days.  Sometimes you have to change it up -- because even if I realize that one actor is better always early in the day, well does that mean that every day I have to shoot them early, and every other actor waits till the end?, or they start getting pissed!"  Mangold said that this kind of people management naturally extends to the director of photography, or the prop person. 

"You can't make everyone happy . . . and you have to make a judgment call, because from where you sit as a director, every decision you make hurts someone."

James Mangold is writing a script "right now" that he would only describe as "something radically different from this."   Several things are on the horizon for Peter Fonda, and the actor said he will definitely do "a children's movie, somewhat like 'Black Beauty' was, between [an] 8 and 14 year-old audience, it's a remarkable little story, it's a fable, it's a character that I've never played before.  So it's a thrill for me."

And plenty of thrills, action and adventure await audiences beginning on September 7 in "3:10 To Yuma", a film that gives definition to Mr. Crowe and Mr. Fonda's characters.

"Russell's the rogue.  But I'm a snake," Fonda intones in a cold-hearted, but playfully seductive voice.

By Omar P.L. Moore


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