Mangold, James: Director Profile (From Indies like Heavy to Mainstream Hollywood)

James Mangold, the director of the Sundance hit Heavy, fits the description of an indie outsider like a glove. He wears dark clothes and boasts a New York address and a brooding intensity to match.

After a frustrating time in Hollywood, Mangold found in New York’s independent film world “a good, healthy, anti-Hollywood sentiment,” where he could make movies “free of certain Hollywood aesthetic.”

Not surprisingly, the low-budget Heavy, also concerns an outsider: a bald, overweight pizza cook named Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince), still living with his domineering mother. When a young woman, Callie (Liv Tyler), takes a waitress job at the tavern, her effect on Victor and all the others is unmistakable. Dolly (Shelley Winters), the tavern’s proprietor, takes to Callie immediately, and so does her shy, homely son, who develops unrequited passion for her, observing her with fascination as she changes into her uniform. But Callie triggers jealousy in Delores (Deborah Harry), a sultry bartender who’s worked for years for Dolly and her late husband, and is now aging none too gracefully. A stunning woman unaware of her beauty–her arrogant boyfriend is partly responsible for her low-esteem–Callie is trying to figure out what to do with her life.

The sad, sexually frustrated Victor, who hates making the pizzas that help keep him overweight, feels secure in being doted upon by his mother. Blinded by her love for him, Dolly is aware that Victor has replaced her husband, but she’s unaware of her crippling effects upon him. When Callie suggests that Victor enroll in a culinary institute, Dolly can’t understand why they should pay money to teach Victor what he already knows.

Observing a dreary upstate New York town, Mangold avoids melodramatic condescension, resisting the temptation of turning the roadhouse into a metaphor for hopelessness. Nothing is predictable about the movie, which observes the marginal lives of its “little people” with empathy, with no pathos or hysteria. Told from a detached perspective, Heavy dignifies the emotions of its characters by refusing to violate the ordinariness of their experience.

Mangold’s compassionate look at Victor’s inner life is a stinging rebuke to the judgmental portrayals of most overweight characters in American films. Fat people are usually seen as riotous goofballs, amiable sidekicks, or pitiable losers; case in point is Anne Bancroft’s Fatso, and practically every film Dom DeLuise, John Candy, or Chris Farley have made. Mangold paints a precise portrait of a loner, without a trace of condescension. Boasting subtlety, Heavy is a restrained but emotionally charged film, running against the grain of both indie and mainstream cinema.

A personal film, Heavy was inspired by Mangold’s trajectory in Hollywood, whose high-point was a one-year contract at Disney that earned him a shared writing credit on the animated Oliver and Company. “My generation had this myth in our heads that you could get in bed with the studios and they would bring you up like a minor league baseball prospect,” Mangold said. “I was 21 when I got this deal at Disney–and this mythical ‘Steven Spielberg in a cubbyhole at Universal’ was in my head.”

Mangold’s Hollywood chapter came close to ending his career altogether. “Living in Hollywood after the Disney deal, I felt invisible. I had gone from being this hot prospect to being transparent. I gained 20 pounds. I would sit in my house making these elaborate breakfasts for myself, trying to get started writing a masterpiece to prove these fuckers wrong.” But Mangold channelled his frustration into a perceptive exploration of invisibility–Victor is described as “a big ox nobody notices.” Mangold’s concept of Victor was also fueled by an encounter he had with an overweight boy in a Melrose Avenue comic bookstore. The boy wore a T-shirt that said “Fuck You” in iron-on letters on both sides, and he had a baseball hat,, but his had a felt fist with the middle finger raised. Obviously he was seething with rage.

After this incident, Mangold began writing “like a maniac.” “I imagined he would normally walk down the street and passers-by would see this fat kid and would look away. With this shirt and hat, he was preventing anyone from dismissing him with their eyeballs, before he could give them a good sock in the teeth. His experience must have been this continuous rejection of strangers’ eyeballs looking askance.”

These thoughts mushroomed into a skeleton of a script, which was later developed at Columbia, under the sponsorship of Milos Forman and Richard Miller (who became Heavy’s producer). Mangold’s goal was to make a silent movie, entirely built of images–“a film that would be useless to blind people”–in which all the important things were exchanged between characters with gestures and glances. He is grateful to Milos Forman, who would not let him punch the movie up–recognizing its unique texture of fragile glances. Michael Barrow’s alert camera gives the film a harsh look, with restrained, lyrical compositions that capture, as Terrence Rafferty noted, both the romantic aspirations and isolation of the characters.

Mangold brings remarkable powers of observation: Victor’s quandary gives way to a larger consideration of the inevitability of change, conveying the illusion of security bred by the comforting routines of everyday life. The downbeat ending defies Hollywood conventions: Callie is not going to seek refuge in Victor’s big arms, and Victor is not going to kill himself in despair. “I just didn’t want to give Victor ‘the girl,’ or a lottery ticket, or some easy solution,” explained Mangold. “I thought I had a satisfying ending–just not a deliriously blissful ending. There had to be a certain level of realism or the film would be a sham.”

Heavy was acclaimed at every festival it played, winning a special jury prize at Sundance. The film quickly sold around the world, but not in the U.S., where it took over a year to get theatrical release. It wasn’t until the 1995 Toronto Festival that CFP stepped forward, though Miramax had already made a deal to do Mangold’s next movie, Cop Land, with Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro. After Cannes, Heavy was trimmed from 115 to 103 minutes, but, according to Mangold, it’s not the running time that viewers found challenging, it’s the deliberate rhythm. “Americans are so used to fast-pace movies, that they don’t tolerate any indulgence; they perceive it as arrogance.”

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).