For director James Mangold, making Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was an exercise in revisiting – and then reshaping – the past on two very different levels.
First there was Mangold’s personal connection to the franchise’s roots. Like pretty much every movie fanatic of a certain age, the filmmaker still retains a visceral, core memory of encountering Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“I was in the Orange Plaza Mall in Middletown, N.Y., all alone at the very first matinee 42 years ago to the day, actually,” the 59-year-old Mangold recalls. “I was 17, and I was no further into the film then when Harrison Ford looks back over his shoulder before he crosses that Peruvian creek in the opening, and I remember going, ‘Yeah, this rocks.’”
Mangold already knew by that time that he wanted to make movies himself – a decade and a half later, he would release his first film, the Liv Tyler indie drama Heavy, before moving onto such bigger studio fare as Walk the Line, Logan and Ford v Ferrari – but he could not have possibly conceived that he would one day be collaborating with his Raiders idols: Ford, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams.
“These were people from the Mount Rushmore of cinema who were coming to me to make a new Indiana Jones movie – how could you not find it flattering?” Mangold says.
But while the director “knew that there was money to be made, that the franchise was a valuable commodity” that would get made one way or the other, he wasn’t so sure that he had a reason himself to make the movie. Then it hit him – an idea, one of those big juicy themes, hidden just beneath the surface of the very proposition of another Indiana Jones adventure itself.
“Let’s make a movie about aging, about getting older, about being a hero at a time when the world around you no longer recognizes the exploits that you did in the past,” Mangold says. “What happens to Indiana in the late sixties when no one is looking down at archeology and everyone is looking up at the stars and space? What does a greyer time look like and feel like for someone who comes from a golden age?”
But to contrast one age from another, Mangold realized he had to go backward as much as forward. Which led him and his team to create Dial of Destiny’s outrageous opening sequence, a thrilling and unprecedented bit of technical wizardry that de-ages the 80-year-old Ford to place his whip-cracking hero in the thick of the Second World War, during his Raiders heyday.
While Hollywood has been making steady advances in digital de-aging practices over the past decade – think of Ang Lee shaving a few decades off Will Smith in Gemini Man or Martin Scorsese smoothing the visages of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman – Dial of Destiny represents a wild next-gen leap. For the film’s 25-minute sequence, which focuses on Indiana trying to retrieve a MacGuffin from the hands of a Nazi madman played by Mads Mikkelsen, Mangold has his star punching, shooting and leaping his way out of trouble, all while sporting the wrinkle-free face and athletic body of a shockingly spry swashbuckler.
When we first see Ford’s de-aged mug – in a nicely meta “aha!” reveal moment, during which a Nazi soldier pulls a black hood off a tied-up Indiana – Mangold forces his audience to do something beyond a double take. This is triple- or quadruple-level innovation, with Dial of Destiny leaping straight past the uncanny valley into something more paradoxically organic.
“There’s a theory that I have that you always want to be on the right place of the curve when you invest yourself in new technology,” Mangold says. “Clearly there’s a lot of brilliant people who have been working on visual effects like this for a while, and every time that they finish a new film, they learn something new. So we could come in at a good place.”
The Dial of Destiny filmmakers also had the benefit of resources other productions couldn’t claim: Production company Lucasfilm retained a vast wealth of archival photos and film negatives capturing Ford during the original Raiders shoot.
“We had this incredible data repository of Ford in any kind of lighting, with any kind of expression, captured in any kind of close-up or wide-shot,” Mangold says. “The artists and computers could then build something not from their imagination but based upon reality.”
The result was that Mangold could film Ford with motion-capture dots placed on his face one day, and then two days later he would be able to see footage of the actor looking 35 years younger.
Still, there was a not-insignificant risk in conceiving of such an opening – unquestionably the film’s high point – before knowing whether or not the visual-effects bet was going to work or not.
“That’s what I do every day as a filmmaker, though – make these calculated bets,” Mangold says. “My whole life is trying to take a risk that’s broad enough but not so far out on a limb that I can’t deliver.”
But more than that, Mangold wanted to ensure that audiences recognized that this was the Indiana Jones who they grew up watching – just as Mangold did in that suburban mall so many years ago.
“I wanted to give audiences a taste of something that they missed and loved, which is classic golden-age Indy, because I knew that we were after going to land in a period of time where that kind of adventure can’t happen that way any more,” the director says. “Part of how you set up that loss or disorientation is to give audiences exactly what they want, and then take that away. You watch the character earn their way back to getting that mojo back by the third act of the movie. It’s never worthwhile to make a movie if we’re not challenging the audience.”
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny opens in theatres June 30.