Already a divisive film in the eyes of film critics (I loved it, but notices have been mixed), it’s difficult to argue with the notion that filmmaker Michael Mann’s latest globetrotting cyber crime drama, “Blackhat,” is anything but his unyielding singular vision. That is to say, this isn’t a film that has been massaged by studio micromanaging or interference. For better or worse, it is the 100% immersive vision of Michael Mann (here’s our “Blackhat” review).
And that means he has the same detailed singular purpose and laser focus of the film’s protagonists who surge forward to track down the hackers that committed an act of cyber-terrorism with global implications. Starring Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis, “Blackhat” isn’t frontloaded with stars (the rest of the cast is relatively unknown unless you know the supporting cast members of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” by name), it doesn’t feature much of a traditional three-act structure, and its characters aren’t really going through conventional arcs of redemption. Mann’s movie is an uncompromising crime procedural where momentum, energy, and viscera are paramount.
The movie’s also gained unprecedented cultural agency thanks to the attacks on Sony Pictures due to the release of the controversial comedy “The Interview.” We spoke to Mann by phone recently about his new film, Sony, digital filmmaking, previous films like “Collateral,” “Public Enemies,” and “Ali,” and what he might be up to next.
Between the events of the last few weeks, watching your movie, not to mention everything surrounding the Edward Snowden story, I feel like we’re more vulnerable then ever.
Privacy is a myth. It doesn’t exist anymore. I mean the world’s changed. Technocrats will always look at something and say, “this event is going to revolutionize human kind, it’s the next gizmo.” But there were a few things that actually did change the way we are. One of them is the printing press, the other one is the cyber revolution and things will never be the same again. You know it’s ubiquitous. Anybody, anywhere, with a fast enough computer and enough smarts can hack, can get into just about anything. Secrets are much more difficult to keep. It’s a new world.
The film is so prescient because two years ago, people might have thought—
It’s the same as two years ago coming back from research. Washington was talking—this was the reality already to their awareness. When we came back to L.A. to pitch it, people didn’t quite buy it or didn’t know what you were talking about. And the interesting thing for the film was to make it a credible story basically, using not just cyber threat and a hacker as an adversary.
Somebody who would cause a cyber intrusion could hide himself anywhere in the world. You have no idea where he is or who he is, he’s bouncing his malware across proxy servers in 17 different cities. But also, the message that Hemsworth uses, as an ex-blackhat hacker, are also pulled from the same cutting edge reality. So, when he tries for example to restore that code from the from the nuclear reactor in Hong Kong, he cons [an NSA agent] into taking his password which enables him to get inside the NSA and he can download some software and that’s how he puts together a location.
He gets a place, he gets a location, and that’s as opposed to telling a story by interrogating an informant, let’s say. Or something you would have had in the movie 20 years ago, or 3 years ago. And you know so that was the thrill of working on this was to be able to use that new maneuvering in our story telling.
This strikes me as a movie that’s spawned from the shocking amount of knowledge you learned in your research with an “oh my god,” aspect. And then you apply all discoveries into movie form. Is that right?
That’s pretty correct. That’s exactly what it was, but it started off as me being pretty much behind the curve. You know, knowing less than other people. I’m still kind of clumsy with the graphical user interface—like what do I do on Safari? Save it to where? How do I get into documents?
You took seven years between movies. What took so long? Was it going down the rabbit hole of research?
Not really. After “Public Enemies” I did the HBO series, “Luck” for a-year-and-a-half and then I decided I wanted to develop about three projects simultaneously. Something called “Big Tuna” and then “Blackhat.” We started developing “Blackhat” in Washington on August 8, 2011, and then we kind of got going seriously and green lit at the end of 2012. It took a while to get it right. And so I’ve been on this for quite a while, two-and-a-half years.
We should address the Sony hacks if even just briefly. Do you think it’s just emblematic of what’s around the corner maybe in a more malicious fashion?
The Sony hack is very much in the headlines, I feel terrible for close friends that are at Sony. There’s nothing about it that’s unusual. It’s only that it’s maybe more newsworthy. I mean there’s the TJ Maxx hack, the Home Depot hack, the banks and credit cards, General Dynamics, the Spider Jet; this piece of industrial equipment or defense manufacturing. So this has been going on a while.
There’s nothing new about being able to get into an organization or corporation or an individual. Not to us, it is to other folks maybe but folks who are steeped in this. If you’re seriously interested in this, there’s something available on the Internet called the Mandiant Report, which is by this guy, Kevin Mandia, who now runs a cyber security company and it’s about the intrusions from China. Their investigation led to the Department of Justice indicting five members of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army ) for cyber intrusion.
First of all it’s a fascinating read, it’s great reading. But when you read through it you get a sense of the kinds of cyber intrusions that have been going on for the last four or five years. So there’s nothing surprising about the attack on Sony.
Do you think some kind of big cyber terror attack is somewhere around the corner?
There are people whose job it is to be concerned about that, people that know how easy it is. It’s not quite as easy as it is in fiction, let me put it that way. It takes a long time with some really smart people to write all that code, to do some of that. It’s definitely a possibility.
Well, the potential ramifications of what’s depicted in this movie is very chilling.
Let me put it this way, the Iranians probably hacked [Saudi Arabia’s] Aramco [Oil] and the way they did it, they destroyed their pipelines and a tremendous amount of data. They did it by overwriting, it’s a method of sabotage. That’s not that different than the method theoretically used by the North Koreans at Sony.
And it’s not that the Iranians did it, it’s that they are trading partners, so who knows, it’s all speculative. But one thing you know that is pretty certain is you know when you’re talking about some majorly difficult hack that had to happen over a period of time, if it needed 20 or 30 top coders to be writing that malware for months. That’s probably state authored.
You know the topic of this isn’t traditionally very sexy for audiences, in the history of cinema. What did you find most difficult to shoot or convey?
One of the biggest challenges was to conceive of and do the CGI in opening sequence of the film—you know the immersion into scanned electronic microscopy down to the transitional layer in a chip, and how to pull that off and keep it as faithful to physical reality as possible. We’re looking at structures. In the real world they are 40 atoms wide. I didn’t want to do people riding motorcycles on 3D grids. If a piece of conductive metal has a surface of electrons and it goes through a transistor it’s going to be a 0. If it has no electrons it’s going to be a 1. But the conductive metal, the copper or aluminum is not really going to change color. It’s all taken from a 3D model that Qualcom was gracious enough to give us—a 3D model of a chip that’s three years old in cellphones. They make about 95% of the world’s cell phone chips.
You need to grasp fundamentals from the bottom up it sounds like.
I like to understand the fundamentals. I’m still kind of behind the curve on the application of some of this stuff but the fundamentals are interesting to get [into]. If I can start from the ground up I can grasp a concept. After you get past that, it gets very, very complicated real fast.
You were a early adopter of digital filmmaking. What do you think of the Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s of the world that are trying to save film?
Well I’m all for it, Chris is my pal. I’m not hung up on digital. If a movie takes place at night in L.A. and I want to see two miles into the distance and get that burnt umber kind of color to the bottom of the marine layer, those clouds at 1200 feet, you know it has to be digital. So I shot “Collateral” digitally. It was the first photo real digital film. We were really on the frontier, there were no lookup tables, nothing. We were flying blind. But then on the other hand, when we were shooting the club scene of “Collateral,” and it was lit, contained, and I wanted to move fast, I didn’t want the cameras encumbered by wires, we just shot those scenes on film.
Right, I remember hearing that a few sequences were shot on celluloid.
I almost shot “Public Enemies” on film but at the last minute I decided I wanted the immediacy that you get with video that makes you feel like, “I’m really there.” Rather than the kind of distant or historical luster that period has when shot on film. It makes it really feel like a beautiful artifact, but an artifact from the past. I wanted to feel like you weren’t in the past you were right there in 1933.
That certainly was considered a controversial choice at the time, one that many haven’t reconciled yet either.
Yeah, it was. People are used to seeing historical films with that kind of liquid surface that you get you know with photo chemical and it was disturbing to some people. The other thing about that by the way is, at the time they were not so many digital cinemas. So people were seeing photo chemical release prints from a digital master. And those were notoriously poorly made. So they were seeing a lot of bad photo chemical release prints. If the film was released today digitally, people might feel differently about it. So there were just some prints that were ugly.
Weren’t parts of “Ali” shot digitally too?
No, “Ali” was shot all on film. There were a couple of sequences in it, that I shot digitally. When he’s running at night, in Overtown and in ’68 when Chicago is burning during the riots with Martin Luther King, that stuff. That’s what turned me onto digital.
You mentioned some of these projects early on, “Agincourt” and “Big Tuna.” Are you going to go back to any of these projects?
Oh yeah, we’re still developing “Agincourt “and “Big Tuna” is very active, I have to decide when I’d like to make either. It’s something that [“Up In The Air” co-writer] Sheldon Turner and I wrote and I own it so I can pick and choose my time.
You were going to do a project on Robert Capa at one point, is that still happening?
No, that one’s gone.
“Blackhat” opens in theaters nationwide today.