Call it the most expensive cross-genre experiment in the history of Hollywood.
The new Tom Cruise- Cameron Diaz film — perhaps the world’s first screwball- comedy, action-romance, Hitchcock-homage, family- drama paranoid- thriller — went through so many script versions that even the writers who worked on earlier drafts may not recognize much about the final film. It has changed names (it was originally titled “Wichita,” then “Trouble Man,” then “Knight and Day”), stars ( Eva Mendes and Chris Tucker were supposed to play the leads before Cruise and Diaz signed on) and directors (“Shanghai Noon” director Tom Dey before James Mangold took over the reins).
Hollywood development is typically a complicated equation. This looked like Fermat’s Last Theorem.
It’s perhaps fortunate, then, that the man with the task of keeping a handle on it all — and steering a $107-million picture — is known for his versatility. In his 13 years as a professional director, Mangold has made a crime drama (“Cop Land”), a time-travel romance (“Kate & Leopold”), a psychological thriller (“Identity”), a Western remake (3:10 to Yuma”) and a country-music biopic (“Walk the Line”), although one might assume that the credential that came in most handy in the face of such crazy filmmaking was a mental-health drama (“Girl, Interrupted”).
“It was a careful balance,” Mangold says, sitting in his Santa Monica office on a recent Friday afternoon. “We’d go too far out there, then we’d have to pull back and go straight. Then we’d turn again.”
The result of these maneuvers is, not surprisingly, a movie of cluttered, if noble, ambition, a film which has polarized critics and will likely do the same to audiences as it plays throughout the weekend. Some have called it a meandering jumble — “busy when it should be fizzy,” is how the trade paper Variety put it — while others, including The Times’ Kenneth Turan, were deeply enamored of it, calling it “the most entertaining made-for-adult studio movie of the summer.”
But for Mangold, an upstate New York native who sharpened his skills at Columbia University’s film program, “Knight and Day” was a moment of liberation after years of coloring inside the lines.
To describe all that is going on in “Knight and Day” is to take up the entirety of this article, but boiled to its essence, the film tells the story of a slightly unhinged daredevil assassin named Roy (Cruise) who meets the unsuspecting June (Diaz) at an airport and uses her as a mule to sneak a precious item through security. The two then spend much of the movie on the run throughout the U.S. and Europe as various agents come after them, often under hails of gunfire (and, in one moment, a “North by Northwest"-esque airplane chase scene). June, the sheltered naïf, alternates between trust and skepticism of Roy’s purported good-guy status, as their relationship, Roy’s over-the-top persona and the identities of those chasing them take frequent turns.
Nearly a dozen writers worked on the film — so many that the Writers Guild decided that no single contributor made enough of an impact, resulting in the group giving credit to one person, Patrick O’Neill, who worked up the original structure. In addition to veteran Scott Frank (“Minority Report,” “Out of Sight”) — who worked on the script, then came back to polish the work of other scribes who had come on to polish his work — the uncredited writers include, in no particular order: “Shutter Island’s” Laeta Kalogridis, “Ocean’s Eleven’s” Ted Griffin, " " What Happens in Vegas’ ” Dana Fox, and “X-Men: The Last Stand’s” Simon Kinberg. As they wrote, big moments came and went (the early scene in which Cruise and Diaz run into each other at an airport, to take one example, was originally supposed to be an Internet date).
But the primary reason the movie feels so overstuffed, as well as tonally diverse, is Mangold himself, who since the moment he was attached to direct the film in early 2009 wanted to experiment with spontaneous creativity, a technique rarely applied to $100-million summer blockbuster films.
“What I didn’t want was another film that felt so storyboarded so that it felt like a piece of machinery,” he said. “I wanted to feel like we were finding the movie as we made it.”
That happens even in the first few moments, as audiences may find themselves disoriented as to what kind of movie they’re watching. Elements of deadpan comedy, full-blown action and even tender romance flare up, sometimes with a jolting unpredictability. Mangold says that this, too, was intentional. “You win or lose your audience in each of the first 15 minutes,” he says. “As an audience member, that’s when you’ve tasted each of these ice cream flavors,” adds the director, who can’t seem to resist a simile or metaphor.
Mangold continued to throw in other elements as he wrote, before and even during production, with his wife and partner Cathy Konrad as well as with Cruise, in what Mangold describes as a “carnival of writing.” (Cruise, who has staked a lot on it by making the film his biggest release since several publicity snafus put him out of public favor four years ago, met frequently with writers and also wrote scenes with Mangold, including an exchange where Roy explains to June, with elaborate hand language, that her chances of survival are higher with him.)
“We’d be working on a scene, trying different parts of dialogue and sometimes Cathy would look at me and say ‘We’re making the world’s most expensive Dogma  movie,” Mangold says referring to the cinematic movement that uses improvised dialogue to bring naturalism back to moviemaking.
And when curve balls where thrown in — for instance, when a plot element is introduced involving parents who think their son, who is actually alive, died in combat years before — Mangold told writers and the cast that it was OK to make audiences feel off-kilter. “Jim would be in a conversation and he’d say, ‘These moments are OK to make the story work and to make it more human,’” Diaz says, adding, “This is a film that isn’t the norm. It’s not one thing.”
The 46-year-old Mangold evinces a perpetual boyishness: a cherubic face, a coiffed beard, and the enthusiasm and aesthetic sensibility of a college student (on the day we meet him he’s wearing New Balance running shoes, ripped jeans, and a blue-and-white checked shirt, as a collection of guitars and other instruments stand up in a corner of his office).
An answer to one question gives way to an answer to a question that was not being discussed, with the odds about 50-50 of whether he’ll return to the original point. It seems appropriate for a man who has just directed a movie that often flies down one path before reversing direction and going down another.
But then, Mangold also had a lot of external forces exerting their weight. In addition to dealing with the demands and expectations of the studio, Mangold was grappling with the Cruise factor. The actor not only loomed large on set but his stock will also largely determine the film’s box-office fate.
Mangold says that he embraced what Cruise brought to the production and forgot the actor’s rocky past few years. “I wouldn’t have done this movie without Tom,” Mangold says. “The magic with Tom as an actor is the moment when he’s not sure,” Mangold adds, citing the actor’s work in “Rain Man” and “Jerry Maguire.” “To see Tom have an unforgettable human moment is better than any special effect.”
Almost nothing about the process of making or viewing the film has been ordinary by any standard conventional in Hollywood. But Mangold says he found it liberating for the first time in more than five years to be working on a film without high-minded awards expectation. That, he says, paradoxically led to greater ambition.
“Sometimes with all the pressure [of making an Oscar-caliber movie] you start forcing it. You have more freedom when you know you’re not going to be under a microscope than when you do a movie that’s an Oscar drama.”
He continues, “This is my eighth feature film. What I’ve learned to do is relax. At some point, when the rubber hits the road, you have to make the movie you want to make. You have to. Otherwise you’re like the politician who runs out and sticks his finger in the air before he makes a decision.”