Photo by Debra DiPaolo

AT FIRST GLANCE, JAMES MANGOLD seems a paradigm (one of his favorite words) of both the 1970s cinema acolyte and '90s indie-film veteran. He studied postgraduate at Columbia University with Milos Forman, who served the same function for him that John Cassavetes famously did for the young Martin Scorsese, convincing him that his talent was not meant to be thrown away on Hollywood trifles. Later, the young director's 150-page script for Cop Land, a sprawling police epic and self-admitted “giant male dirge,” drew the rabid attentions of Miramax's Bob and Harvey Weinstein — even as they roundly rejected the opportunity to distribute his first feature, the independently financed Heavy, an interior study of a fat, lonely fry cook that plays like The Pawnbroker without the death-camp flashbacks.

When the star-pocked Cop Land, which starred Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, failed to prove the unadulterated Oscar bait Miramax saw it as, Mangold once again found his way back to the quiet realm of character study, with the newly released Girl, Interrupted, albeit under the auspices of a major studio, John Calley's Sony Pictures. Based on a 1993 episodic novel by Susanna Kaysen about a private mental facility in the '60s, the film is executive-produced by and stars Winona Ryder in possibly her finest adult performance. While it's tempting to see the irony of true indie spirit finding safe harbor amid the faux Main Street of the Sony back lot, the director is having none of it.

“I think it's all a studio,” says Mangold, from his corner office in the TriStar Building, “whether you're financed by Canal Plus or it's Miramax or it's Columbia. It's very hard to parse out as a filmmaker when you're free. It's really not quite that simple anymore. For a lot of filmmakers, Sundance is a giant NRG [National Research Group] test screening, done by people with cell phones, in which you show your film and you're advised how many minutes to cut, or how it could use a remix or a better score or a different ending.”

As it turns out, he knows what he's talking about. In 1985, at the age of 21, this New York­born son of successful painters, with only a 16-minute short film to his name, was headhunted out of CalArts by Disney, where he was almost crushed between the sliding tectonic plates of ego that governed that era. Michael Eisner and Barry Diller both initially pursued him; Jeff Berg represented him, convincing him that acquiescence on a minor deal point would appear a crucial sign of weakness, and he soon became an unwitting pawn in an early power struggle between Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Suddenly, at 21,” explains Mangold, “I was pressed face to face with the notes, the demands, the threats to be fired, the fears that this shot is too dark, the incredible and intense gauntlet a director must move through.” He wound up sentenced to the then-Siberia of animation, where he scripted the retooled Disney's first animated feature, Oliver & Company, and was ridiculed for suggesting children's properties such as Stuart Little and James and the Giant Peach, inadvertently dictating the next 15 years of global family entertainment. (“I doubt that,” he says drolly.)

Four days after wrapping Cop Land, Mangold launched into Girl, Interrupted at the invitation of its star, who, oblivious to the burgeoning mania surrounding the Cop Land cast, had sought out the director on the subtler strengths of Heavy. Part of his mandate this time around was an attention to the character nuances of earlier eras evident in the likes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, obviously (although he studiously avoided re-watching it out of deference to his onetime mentor), but also connoisseur touchstones such as Black Narcissus, The Innocents and Slaughterhouse-Five. “More urgent than the material itself at that first moment was the fact that this actor was seeking me out for the energies of my first film,” he says. “And I felt like an invitation was being extended to me, not just by Winona, but also somehow through this movie to return to some of the intimacies of that first film, and yet commingle it with some of the stuff I was learning.” Part of what Mangold learned was that sometimes success is more than picking up skills, sometimes it's a matter of just surviving until the world around you can get right again.

LA Weekly