Wednesday 21 March 2018

Knight riders

Declan Cashin

Director James Mangold tells Declan Cashin how he got to grips with blowing things up, Cameron Diaz’s legs and Tom Cruise' s baggage.

It's the day after the London première of Knight and Day, and its director James Mangold is perched on a luxurious sofa in the Dorchester hotel, sipping on an ice tea, reflecting on the occasion. "Yeah, it was nice," he starts, before adding with a hearty laugh: "But they always make me feel like it's going great, so how would I know?"

By any reasonable measure, the premiere was a big success, as the movie's two above-the-title stars Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz jetted into town to press the flesh and schmooze the assembled crowd of fans, tourists and rubberneckers for hours beforehand. It's all part of a relentless pre-release multi-media offensive to sell a movie that, in its own director's words, is a tricky one to summarise in just a pithy tagline for a promo banner on the side of a bus.

"It's hard to communicate what the movie is," admits the genial Mangold, a bearded hulk of a man that looks like a cross between actor James Belushi and a younger Tom Jones.

"In some ways, the studio has a struggle because the movie is a throwback to an older, glamorous kind of comedic adventure film. It's a little difficult to figure out how to sell that, especially if they're trying to get very young audiences interested."

In his own way, Mangold could be tacitly acknowledging the mixed -- occasionally hostile -- reception that greeted Knight and Day on its US release last month (more of that anon). The movie is a screwball action-caper -- making more than a knowing wink to Hitchcock's North by Northwest and the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn comedy-thriller Charade -- that sees rogue secret agent Roy Miller (Cruise) 'accidentally' bumping into ordinary (if Diaz could ever be described as such) gal June Havens at the airport, resulting -- through MacGuffin-heavy plot twists -- in the pair fleeing around the globe by plane, train and automobile, pursued by shifty-eyed CIA agent Peter Sarsgaard.

The 46-year-old Mangold, a chameleon-like director hitherto best known for helming movies as diverse as the mental institution drama Girl, Interrupted, the Western 3.10 to Yuma and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, aims high in this, his first foray into action movies, overseeing huge set-pieces involving bullet-strewn, high-speed, multi-car chases in Boston, leaping rooftops in Austria and running from bulls in Seville.

"Truthfully, if you were to conceive of the whole thing in advance, your brain would explode," he says. "You're much better off seeing it as a series of scenes and challenges that you'll do over six months. Luckily, you don't have to have every chase sequence planned to the nth degree on the first day you start; you just have to have the first two figured out, and you work from there."

As far as Mangold was concerned, his involvement with Knight and Day was almost entirely contingent on getting Cruise on board as leading man.

"I really didn't have any interest in doing this if it wasn't with him," he explains. "I had two reasons for that: the first is that you have the problem of how to market a movie like this in a world where only movies that are pre-branded survive, and one of the ways is you really make it an event, and that's through the sheer power of the casting.

"The second is that I really wanted to see Tom being funny. While I liked some of his recent work a lot, between M:I3, Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie, they were all very serious, grim films. There's such a charm to Tom and a beauty to his smile and a lightness to his touch that I thought we needed to see again."

For Cruise himself, there's a strong sense in Hollywood that Knight and Day marks his most serious attempt at a mainstream, blockbuster comeback, or at the very least to regain his footing in the industry, because for the past five years, his star-power and public image have taken an almighty battering.

It started with his notorious couch-jumping appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in which he announced his relationship with 16-years-his-junior actress Katie Holmes, and he followed up with his controversial, and very public associations with Scientology (check out the clips on YouTube).

His bizarre behaviour and sudden National Enquirer-friendly personal life was -- has been -- a public relations catastrophe from which his career has yet to fully recover. For instance, marketing research has found that Cruise's favourability rating among the American public stands at 37pc, down from 64pc in 2004.

Then, when Knight and Day was released in the US, it was beaten into third place at the box office behind Toy Story 3 and the critically panned Adam Sandler vehicle Grown Ups. This led to a flurry of entertainment headlines decreeing that Cruise's 'comeback' had flopped, though it should be pointed out that the movie still looks set to rake in more than $200m, as Cruise and Diaz are still huge draws in international markets.

In truth, Knight and Day finds Cruise at his most relaxed and charming in years, and he even gamely plays on his newfound 'weird' public perception, much as he did in his well-received comic cameo in Tropic Thunder. But, as Mangold states, there are people who just don't want to give him the credit for it.

"I don't understand it," he says. "The truth is that, for me, there is some unfairness as to how he's judged from a business point of view. He's an incredibly strong international movie star, almost incomparable."

But does the director accept -- unfairly or not -- that Cruise now comes to projects with baggage that ultimately becomes attached to the end product itself? Mangold chooses his words carefully in reply.

"When you do what we do, you focus on playing the game, and the game is that you try to win. Whether people are talking about if your team is up or down is really irrelevant to your job. You just have to turn up and do your work.

"There are two worlds -- entertainment and politics -- where you have to be very cautious of how the media start to treat something, because what can happen is that a mass cloud can set bars or expectations that are almost designed so that you'll fail, and so they'll have another story.

"When people ask what it's like to work with Tom, the trickiest thing is that when I say how easy it is and what a joy it is, I think people want the answer to be more complicated than that, or at least be suspicious that I'm hiding something. And the truth is that I'm not. The same kind of upbeat, driven, slightly eccentric, optimistic character whom he embodies on the screen is really who he embodies in life."

Mangold is equally effusive when it comes to his movie's leading lady. "Cameron loves what she does, and enjoys the risk and excitement that comes with it," he says. "But sometimes, because she's really beautiful, people talk about her in other terms. She has brilliant instincts as an actress that sometimes might be taken for granted because of how attractive and long-legged she is."

As for Mangold himself, he remains tight-lipped on what he has planned next, though he admits that the movie version of the stage musical phenomenon Wicked is "something I'm thinking about -- I'm certainly a fan".

"I consider myself lucky," he adds. "I have tried to navigate my path by setting myself up as eclectic early on. A lot of my heroes, like Howard Hawks, Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols, all made a lot of different kinds of movies.

"I think that, just like movies have become branded, directors have become branded too. It may make it easier at the start of your career if you're 'comedy guy' or 'action guy', but I think you have to branch out or you're going to be doing exactly the same thing for the rest of your life."

Knight & Day is in cinemas on August 6

Irish Independent

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