Q&A: John Logan's busy year of 'Rango,' 'Coriolanus,' 'Hugo' and James Bond
You've heard it time and time again this season like a constant drumbeat banging in your ear: "It's the year of Michael Fassbender." Or, "It's the year of Jessica Chastain." Or, even "It's the year of Melissa McCarthy." Well, how about the year of John Logan?
The screenwriter is best know for his work on the Oscar-winning "Gladiator," but has scripted a number of high profile works over the past decade including "The Last Samurai," "The Aviator" and, yes, "Star Trek Nemesis" (it wasn't his fault Stuart Baird was a horrible director). Now, Logan is in the enviable position of having three critically acclaimed and Academy Award-worthy films either in theaters or eligible for nomination. He collaborated with Gore Verbinski for the best animated film contender "Rango," re-teamed with Martin Scorsese in the adaptation of "Hugo" and also adapted Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" for first time helmer Ralph Fiennes. Moreover, a version of his screenplay for "Lincoln" is currently in production under Steven Spielberg's eye and Sam Mendes will begin filming Logan's script for the next James Bond film, "Skyfall," at any moment. As I noted, quite the enviable position.
Logan took some time from his busy "Skyfall" schedule last month to discuss all of his films and shed some light on his intriguing collaborations.
Awards Campaign: As a rule, screenwriters rarely have so many projects coming out within a two-year span. Do you feel a bit overwhelmed?
John Logan: No, I don’t. You know, I’ve been doing my job for a long time and it’s just part of the process. And the fact that they’re all sort of happening simultaneously is sort of exciting. It’s a little daunting, but when I realized that 'Rango,' 'Coriolanus,' and 'Hugo' were all coming out the same year, also while I was filming ['Skyfall'], I realized it was going to be a busy time. So far, it’s been thrilling. Like the most important thing for me is I’ve been working on these movies for so long and they are finally coming out so all my friends can see them. I mean, they can finally see what all the many hours have been leading toward.
Awards Campaign: And it’s your screenplay for Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' that’s in production now too, correct?
John Logan: Yes. Actually, I worked on Lincoln years ago, very early on in the process. It’s moved on considerably since then. I’m happy to be associated.
Awards Campaign: Never the less, you’re a very busy man. Just out of curiosity, out of there three -- Hugo,' 'Rango' and 'Coriolanus' -- which one did you start working on first and which one was the shortest to completion?
John Logan: Wow. I started working on 'Rango first,' longest ago. No, that’s not that true. 'Hugo.' What am I talking about? Yeah, 'Hugo' I’ve been working on for years. It’s right after the book was published, ‘cause Graham and Marty had read it in [proofs] and I got one of the very first published copies. I’ve been doing 'Hugo' for many iterations for years. And the quickest was definitely 'Coriolanus' because Ralph and I just stuck in to it and no one was paying us to do it ‘cause there’s no studio, there’s no producers. We were just doing it for the love of wanting to do it and then we were just able to pound it in to actual production, relatively quickly.
Awards Campaign: I saw a Q&A with Marty -- I shouldn’t call him Marty I don’t know him very well -- but Mr. Scorsese -- and he was talking about how one of the things he really wanted to do was add characters working in the train station that weren't part of the book. Was that always something you discussed at the beginning of the adaptation or was that more of a gradual process exploring the story?
John Logan: It started right at the beginning. You know, it’s imperative to remember that Marty and I didn’t make up Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick did.
Awards Campaign: Right.
John Logan: He, from nothing, wrote the book, 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret' and everything has come from that. But, Marty and I talked about the world of the station and that sub-culture and wanting to populate it with characters [of the time]. So, some of them are existing in Brian’s book that we just sort of built up. Others are fresh and new characters. And, you know, Marty and I talked the way Hugo sees them all from his apartment and their little stories that evolve and become part of the ongoing narrative.
Awards Campaign: It's no secret that Sacha Baron Cohen is quite a creative individual. When he came on board, did he want to change stuff? Did he have suggestions for the storyline or did he leave it to you and Mr. Scorsese?
John Logan: No, he was very involved. We had meetings with Sacha and Marty and Asa [Butterfield] that we would talk about the character and turn the character over and over and over again, you know, and Sacha asked the elemental questions: 'Why did he chase children? What’s driving him? And the whole sort of back story began to evolve. Remember the context, which was 1931 in France. These people have all lived through the first World War which is a major traumatic event in Méliès' life and in all these character’s lives in a way. And so the idea that he was a wounded war veteran, was damaged from the war, we thought was sort of very interesting to explore. The fact that he’d be part of the mechanical man with this sort of prosthetic leg [was one inspiration]. It was a leg brace sort of seen to fit in so nicely with the world of the story and Hugo and the automaton, the character of Lisette, that I created it to give him sort of a love story, to give him someone to open up to. Like he was very engaged in the process and he's a physical comedian and such a gifted, creative, imaginative artist, you just look forward to that engagement.
Awards Campaign: I know Mr. Scorsese knows a ton about cinema history as well, but did the book give you everything you needed to know about Méliès or did you have to double-check and sort of investigate other parts of his life?
John Logan: Absolutely. I mean, the Méliès story is absolutely part of Brian’s novel. It’s the same story about the discovery of Georges Méliès and his work and just seems to coming back to life. Because Marty is Marty and the ultimate cinephile, his frame of reference is just so vast and so broad for cinema, it was like a tutorial for me. I have a great connection for silent films and I have great respect for filming history and where we all stand in the continuum of our art form, but nothing like Marty. So, he would make references. We sat down, we watched Méliès movies and Rene Clair and he gave me movies to watch, so I could be totally familiar with what that world was. One of the great sort of challenges we kept [discussing] all the way up to production was how do we dramatize Melies at work? Which scenes from which movies? What is he actually filming? Because, you know, they’re so imaginative. And what were the images that we [wanted to sort of] exploit for our purposes? That was Marty just watching hundreds of hours of Méliès and the images and seeing which spoke to him.
Awards Campaign: I had a big sit-down with Ralph Fiennes a couple weeks ago talking about 'Coriolanus' and he's such a gentleman because he gave you a tremendous amount of credit for coming up with the concept and ideas for the adaptation. I wanted to ask you about that process specifically, but one of the things that struck me about the film is that for a first-time filmmaker I felt that Ralph has a cinematic eye you wouldn't necessarily expect that from an actor.
John Logan: Yes, he’s a complete filmmaker. When I first met him, I was so excited to meet him just ‘cause I’m a fan of his acting and I know he was interested in 'Coriolanus' which is a play that I loved and always wanted to adapt, but I had a little fear in thinking 'is this going to be an actor vanity project or is this going to be a serious endeavor'? And from our very first discussion he was looking at it as a total filmmaker not as simply an actor. And he’s obviously smart as a whip and he’s absorbed many [things during his] hours on the set and he made good use to them. So, the process of working with him on 'Coriolanus' was shockingly like sitting down with Sam Mendes and working on 'Sweeney Todd ' or Marty and working on 'The Aviator' or 'Hugo.' He just approached it as a director, as a filmmaker and from first to last. He is an incredibly generous collaborator and I couldn’t have enjoyed the process or be more stimulated by it. He’s like a dog with a bone, he’ll just keep turning the ideas and as a writer that’s all you look for in a filmmaker, somebody who can engage with you on that from that level. And when we wrapped 'Coriolanus' [I asked] when can we do the next one.
Awards Campaign: And what did he say?
John Logan: He’s very up for it. We’re talking about things and trying to find it ‘cause it was just a healthy collaboration.
Awards Campaign: In many ways, 'Rango,' 'Hugo,' 'Coriolanus,' these are challenging films. These are not softball pictures you guys are throwing out there. As a screenwriter how rewarding is it they turned out so well?
John Logan: Well, it’s incredibly rewarding because the degree of difficulty means a lot and the fact that when Gore Verbinski sat down and pitched me, 'I want to do an animated movie about a lizard and I want to get surreal and I want it to be theatrical and I want you to let your synapses fire as wild as you want. Don’t think about kids, don’t think about a family audience and let’s just make a real movie.' That was very exciting. When Marty and Graham King came to me with 'Hugo' and I looked at the densely complex, beautiful novel and I thought 'There’s a hundred ways to fail with this, you know. But if we pull it off, it’s going to be absolutely amazing.' And certainly, 'Coriolanus' is a movie that no one wanted to make and it was a struggle from first to last. So, when you tie those things that are outside the box that are more challenging, it’s particularly gratifying.
Awards Campaign: Transitioning to something like 'Skyfall,' you’ve got a filmmaker there in Sam Mendes who isn't your typical action director. I know that the Broccoli’s want to push the envelope as much as they can. Do you feel like you have that open door to make it a little unconventional, a little different?
John Logan: Absolutely. I mean, I wouldn’t do it otherwise. You know, there’s no point. I mean, Sam is a great friend. I’ve known him for years from theater circles and we actually developed 'Sweeney Todd' together for two years before Tim Burton came on. So, it’s a really valuable artistic relationship to me and to get to work on Bond, something I grew up with. I mean, the first Bond movie I saw was 'Diamonds are Forever.' He’s particularly exciting ‘cause it’s part of our shared sort of cultural landscape and the freedom we’ve had, this sense of artistry and originality that we’re able to embrace is very gratifying. I mean, when you see the movie in a year and we can really talk about it, you’ll know what I mean. There’s certainly no sense of it being limited artistically.
Awards Campaign: Just to jump back to 'Rango' for a second. Knowing that you guys were not making your typical animated film and that Paramount was going to have to market it to families or to kids was the box office success more gratifying than 'The Aviator or 'The Last Samurai' where it’s a big budget movie. You expect it to to make a lot of money ‘cause it’s got Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio. Did you have that sense at all?
John Logan: Yeah, I don’t really think in those terms. Obviously, you don’t want a movie to bomb. You don’t want the parent company going out of pocket ‘cause you’re playing around with the forum, you know, but it’s not the sort of concern in my mind. I was just happy that people appreciate it because we knew it was a risky endeavor and there were times that Gore and I looked at each other and sort of went, 'O.K., let’s see if they go for it.'
Awards Campaign: My last question for you is you’ve had such a breadth in your relatively short career. You’ve done musical adaptations, you’ve done Sci-Fi, you’ve done sports movies, you’ve adapted Shakespeare, you’ve done an animated film, you’re doing a Bond movie now, you’ve done basically a sort of family film in a way with 'Hugo' and biopics with 'The Aviator.' Is there anything that you’re just still dying to do. Be honest, does John Logan secretly want to write a horror movie?
John Logan: Well, I would love to do a horror movie, just because I love horror movies and I grew up on them. So, a quick answer, yes to that. There’s not a genre that doesn’t appeal to me except for romantic comedy, ‘cause I don’t give a shit, you know? I’m always drawn to the big characters, the grand gestures of a sort of theatrical sweep of anything and whether that’s a small independent movie or a large big budget movie it’s just where the critical mass is in terms of the idea or collaborators. I know the thing that I’m dying to do is write the book for a stage musical. And that’s sort of something I'm in process at the moment. I’m getting to explore those things I’ve always wanted to do, thank goodness.
Awards Campaign: Is this an original stage musical or is an adaption of something else?
John Logan: It is nothing I can talk about.
Awards Campaign: Oh, it’s even more secretive than Bond.
John Logan: Well, if you could imagine anything more secretive than Bond, yeah. At least you know what the title of Bond is.
Awards Campaign: Exactly. And, because it’s a tiny bit controversial, do you know where did the title came from?
John Logan: I’ll tell you in a year.
"Coriolanus" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. "Hugo" is playing nationwide. "Rango" is available on DVD.
For year round entertainment commentary or awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.
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