Last night at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, as part of their “Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann” retrospective, the legendary filmmaker himself graced the stage for an engaging one-hour-plus talk. The conversation spanned his entire career tracking the very early days (TV movie “The Jericho Mile”), his debut feature (“Thief”), his crime classics (“Manhunter,” “Heat,” “Miami Vice”) and his latest film, the cyber hacker movie “Blackhat,” which he recently recut for the retrospective (read our review here).
Fiercely intelligent and an autodidact known for his near-mythic levels of research when immersing himself in a project — he’s only made eleven features in thirty-four years and abandoned several projects despite years of investigation — Mann’s films often center on the codes of men and their professions, usually revolving around crime. These men often live what Mann constantly refers to as an “authentic life,” and this deep discussion left no stone unturned in terms of the filmmaker’s all-consuming examination of character, motivation, and psychology.
Engaging, though potentially dense for the outsider, it was clear from the dialogue that Mann considers everything; all points of subjectivity, character self-awareness, the psychology of form, and more. The incredibly insightful director discussed his characters’ quest for identity, the construction of personal presentation, and the contradictions of representation with heady observations.
Moderated by sharp Vulture scribe Bilge Ebiri — who rightly called out the ending of “Last Of the Mohicans” as one of the great all-time sustained action sequences featuring just sound and music, and essentially no dialogue — the simplest questions often elicited a deep philosophical or academic digression or footnote. All of it was fascinating, some of it you kind of had to be there for (not all of the abstract and philosophical musings will translate as well to the page). But regardless, it was a spirited and engaging conversation and if/when BAM releases the entire video you should definitely absorb it in full. In the meantime, highlights from the talk below.
The impetus for recutting his hacker film, “Blackhat,” and specifically the two chief cyber attacks in the movie. The recut version, four minutes longer, had its world premiere at BAM earlier this week.
As explained in our recap, the new cut of “Blackhat” reorders the two main attacks in the movie. The film originally opened with a nuclear cyber attack and then followed it with a commodities hack that affected the stock market. In the new version, their order is reversed.
“I thought the film would benefit from having a tangible danger at the beginning,” Mann said. “Then I looked at the film a number of months ago and I thought, ‘No, it was better to have the soy hack in front.’ But it’s not just the value of two different events. The soy hack allowed audiences to track in a much clearer way the plot of the story. We start with Viola Davis saying, ‘How did [the virus] get in?’ and that’s the whole motive of act one: how did this [malware] code get in? Tracking that plot point is much more easily done in this configuration. That track is the engine that takes you down the road of the film. So, to me, it’s a much more accessible, and therefore much more exciting story now.”
Are there any plans to release the director’s cut? “We’ll see.”
His time at Fulsom Prison informed and echoed through the rest of his career.
Mann shot on location in Fulsom Prison for 19 days during the production of the little-seen (but pretty great and complex) TV movie “Jericho Mile” (read more about it here). Mann said Eddie Bunker, the professional bank robber turned actor (he’s in “Reservoir Dogs”) and Hollywood crime advisor — whose book “No Beast So Fierce” which was adapted into “Straight Time” by Dustin Hoffman (on which Mann himself did screenplay revisions) — helped him make inroads with the wardens and prisoners in Fulsome for safe passage.
“By the way, Jon Voight’s whole character in ‘Heat,’ is Eddie Bunker. That’s what the guy looked like, amazing guy,” Mann revealed. “Bunker put us in contact with Black Guerrilla Family and [several other gangs] and was able to help us negotiate an agreement between these [prison] gangs that there would be no warring,” preventing filming from getting shut down.
Mann said he thought visiting a prison would be an “oppressive situation, and the men would be oppressed by the system of guards, but it was the exact opposite. The guards were scared to death of the convicts, basically hiding in the gun tower and most of [the guards] were either short or skinny or overweight and the convicts in a joint like Fulsom had a brio that I came to understand.”
“It was a fascinating experience,” he explained. “But the most poignant one was walking by one guy’s cell.” Mann explained how all the cells were wall papered with pornography, a fantasy, he said. But one cell of a guy doing time for the rest of his life was lined with unremarkable black and white photos of himself, his wife and his life and the child he’d never meet.
“It just stopped me,” he said. “It was so powerful and moving because I knew what this guy was doing. He was doing real time. He was not fantasizing, he was aware of every single moment that he’s not part of and life goes by and he’s outside that dynamic. And it’s a very poignant and poetic thing about someone who is living life totally authentically. And that lead me to an understanding of [James Caan’s character] in ‘Thief,’ Peter Strauss in ‘Jericho Mile’ and how hard it is to do time when you can’t game yourself into being delusional.”
Arguably that also informs the characters of “Heat,” “Collateral,” “Public Enemies” and more. The oft-repeated theme of the night that seemed to consistently hook Mann was those who lead an “authentic life.”
Mann wanted Chicago Blues music for “Thief,” but settled for an electronic score in the end.
“My gut wanted me to use Chicago blues, because I loved it and listened to it live in some of the best circumstances possible,” he explained, discussing seeing Muddy Waters in a bar in 1962. “Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, that was really what I was driven towards, it had regional specificity, but the dilemma was that… it had important themes that I thought would emerge better with something abstract like electronic music. And the Tangerine Dream’s roots are in blues, so even though it was electronic it was a 12-bar blues structure.” Mann added a little later that he still wasn’t sure if he made the right call about the score, to which Ebiri hilariously rejoined, “Please don’t recut ‘Thief.’ ”
The evocative image of the protagonist staring out to sea or emptiness which is witnessed in “Thief,” “Blackhat,” “Heat,” “Public Enemies,” and almost all of Mann’s pictures. What does it mean?
“It’s nothing self-conscious,” Mann said. “If I imagine alienation or a sense of solitariness or contemplation, that to me becomes that image.” Mann said the shot is iconic and something he stole from a Canadian painter he couldn’t remember the name of.
Mann discussed using the shot in “Heat” when Robert De Niro’s career-criminal is staring out into the distance, and the meaning of its psychological import. “There is an emptiness [to it]. There’s an emptiness to that room. It’s not furnished, there’s no stuff in it. He doesn’t really live here, this is a way station passing through that’s supposed to be your own. It’s not a home. And that’s how I wanted you to feel about him the moment before he…bumps into [the girl he will fall in love in the film played by Amy Brenneman].”
“But I don’t go searching for that moment, ‘where’s my shot?’” Mann laughed.
Mann gave a shout-out to David Elliott, the actor and singer who played Sam Cooke in “Ali.”
Mann said famous R&B singers from all over Chicago came to try out for the Sam Cooke role, Including R. Kelly.
The rumor that Tom Noonan would sit in a dark room on set of “Manhunter” to prepare for his role as the insane serial killer.
It wouldn’t be Michael Mann to not launch into a long circuitous answer about the original serial killer of whom the character was based on, a manipulative sociopath that Mann actually interviewed three or four times (“…he walked around with a hardhat that had a Mad Magazine sticker on it that said, ‘Support mental illness or I’ll kill you.’”), revealing to the director his very, very dark past which included severe infant and child abuse. But Mann did address Noonan.
“It was such an extreme character that Tom was wise enough to want to isolate himself — within reason, sometimes beyond reason — and live that role,” Mann explained. “So he never really made contact with Billy Peterson until he came through the window [in the movie]. They would avoid each other and Billy respected this until this moment. I’m sure he’s out there stalking people at night,” Mann quipped.
An early adopter of digital filmmaking, has Mann abandoned film completely?
“No, I don’t have a principal about it, each film is different,” he said. “ ‘Collateral’ was shot digitally because the whole movie takes place and you want that world to be alive…it all takes place within that night … you could never in a million years reveal that world on film. Because you’d be working at f-stops that were wide open, you’d have no depth of field, all the backgrounds would be defocused, you wouldn’t have that sense of landscape or clouds in the night sky. You wouldn’t see any of it. And this movie took place within one night so that became the reason to really push… the envelope.”
Mann noted that while shot partially on digital, it was released on washed out film prints. He recommends seeing it in the new DCP print that BAM is showing on February 16th. Is this the first time in history of time a director has recommended watching a DCP print?
Mann changed Jamie Foxx’s character in “Collateral,” who was originally written as a New York Jewish cab driver, not a African-American one. Why the switch?
“Jamie Foxx was more colorful than Woody Allen,” Mann joked to much audience laughter. “As a guy who had been a Jewish cab driver, I mean me, it wasn’t terribly well written and I thought it would be much more interesting to have a middle guy who was repressed and suffers from ambition.”
If Michael Mann is disappointed in any of his recent films, “Miami Vice” appears to be the one.
As usual, it’s what Mann calls a “very long story,” but the short version is, a drunken cop was killed on the set of of “Miami Vice” by the security details which were local army officials. The result of this event was Mann not being allowed to shoot any further scenes in the triple frontier — the tri-border region where the borders of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet. Mann had to rewrite the ending to take place in Miami. “Everyone’s a smuggler there. It’s an exciting place to shoot,” Mann said, “We did a tremendous amount of social engineering to be able to shoot there, but it was supposed to be this kind of gonzo [mission] where Crockett and Tubbs go off the reservation and, acting extra illegally, organized a group and an assault to rescue Gong Li. But we had to rewrite it all for Miami.”
But the true bastard child of the Mann oeuvre is “The Keep,” which the director doesn’t plan to restore or revisit.
Ebiri asked an Internet fan question about whether Mann had plans to re-release his 1983 sci-fi horror film. The answer, a simple, “No.” The reason seems to be the cheap visual effects that Mann suggested were never up to snuff because tragically, their visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) passed away during post-production which caused enormous problems because nobody knew how he planned to finish the visual effects scenes in the movie. “And we were never able to figure out how we were to combine all these components that were shot (pre blue and green screen). That one’s going to stay in its…” he trailed off, but it’s clear, it’s not a film he’s ever going to clean up or revisit for any kind of special edition.
What’s the status of his Enzo Ferrari movie that Christian Bale just dropped out of? Don’t ask.
“Oh, I can’t talk about that,” Mann said. “We’re in the process of recasting and deciding whether or not we’re going to make it this year or possibly next year.” That’s all he would give, but the hopeful should note Mann can devote several years to a project, develop it, grow it, come close to making it (as he nearly did with Bale) and then eventually abandon it. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen though.
BAM’s retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann runs through February 16. Update: you can watch the full talk below.