- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Casting cinematic sweetheart Meg Ryan in the time-travel romance "Kate & Leopold" would appear enough to guarantee plucked heart strings.

The film's director, James Mangold, suggests otherwise. The casting of her beau, played by Hugh Jackman of "X-Men," proved the film's essential element, he insists.

"I think that the movie would have failed without him," Mr. Mangold says during a recent phone interview in support of the film, which opens Tuesday.

"Kate & Leopold" stars Miss Ryan and Mr. Jackman as centuries-crossed lovers who overcome time to fall in love.

Kate, a modern-day marketer, still smarts after the end of her relationship with eccentric scientist Stuart. Stuart, however, given oddball charm by Liev Schreiber, has more on his mind than second chances. His experiments with time travel prove fruitful, and he inadvertently brings back 19th-century nobleman Leopold to his New York City apartment.

Leopold favors meticulously prepared meals and stimulating conversation. Kate is a number cruncher with her dewy eyes on the bottom line. Her independence and his stalwart attempts at courtship break down the barriers between them.

"The movie hinged upon making him this nobleman, but someone accessible," says Mr. Mangold, whose films include "Girl, Interrupted," "Cop Land" and "Heavy," the 1995 Sundance Film Festival darling that began his career.

Mr. Jackman, last seen in "Swordfish," married swashbuckling hero stylings with the sensitive romantic archetype.

"I think of Hugh as like Errol Flynn Cary Grant. He reminds me of movie stars of a bygone age," Mr. Mangold says.

To embody Leopold, the actor had to convey a historically masculine image while traipsing about in Victorian garb. "With Hugh, there's a gravity, a weight to him," Mr. Mangold says. "It allowed the movie to be more than funny."

The director wrung plenty of humor out of Leopold's misadventures in modern-day New York City, but he also made sure not to allow Leopold to pratfall his way through the Big Apple.

He calls his protagonist "a forward-thinking inventor he wasn't going to spend the whole movie with his mouth agape."

As for Miss Ryan, the role may seem like so many winsome parts of the past, but Mr. Mangold says her Kate presents a more caustic portrait of the single woman.

"It didn't rely on her being likable in the front of the movie," he says of the part. "It gave her a chance to play with someone with a lot more edge."

"The sex roles were reversed," he says. "The guy is the figure of glamour," while Kate is absorbed by her career.

Mr. Mangold didn't mind tackling yet another Hollywood "fish-out-of-water" yarn, what he calls a "a classic device in literature, the outsider who doesn't understand how the world works."

He was fascinated by how the ideas of romance have changed through time.

"For me, what's interesting is the cultural meeting," he says, rather than the technological chasm between the digital and gilded ages. Having Kate as a marketer plays into those differences between the cultures, a separation the film gently mocks.

"One of the great differences we're all so connected we don't think for ourselves," Mr. Mangold says. "We need a committee to know what we think. We see a movie we like, and we wonder if it's at the top of the box office."

In comparison comes Leopold, "a man who knows what he thinks and means what he says," Mr. Mangold says.

Today, "people try not to get caught with their hearts on their sleeves," he says a bit ruefully about the differences between romance then and now.

Mr. Mangold courted the script for several years after his wife, producer Cathy Konrad, first brought it to him.

The concept intrigued him, but the prospect of tackling a romantic comedy, a genre dear to his heart, gave him pause. "Making a comedy is a very terrifying thing," he says.

Mr. Mangold, who won the Sundance grand-jury prize for best direction for his debut feature, "Heavy," has another daunting assignment up next.

He will direct "Cash," a biopic about Johnny Cash, sometime next year.

"He was a man who came from nowhere who becomes part of the birth of rock and roll," says Mr. Mangold, who couldn't share any news on casting possibilities.

He is more forthcoming about one of the more intriguing scenes involving movie-test screening for "Kate & Leopold."

The process of tinkering with films based on early audience reaction angers some directors, fearful of having their vision defanged. Mr. Mangold takes a measured approach to the practice.

"As a moviemaker, you make a movie for an audience," he says, adding that "Kate" performed "very well" during its round of test screenings.

Like Leopold, though, Mr. Mangold eventually draws the line. "There's a point at which, as an artist it gets a little silly," he says. "We have to remember, 'What do we want?'"

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