Michael Mann’s broody pulp style has seeped into the groundwater of American pop culture so much that we often take for granted how influential his films are. Heat alone has influenced any number of subsequent action films, including The Dark Knight, The Town, and several others. This is partly because the film remains a creative peak for Mann, a testament to his skill as a filmmaker whose signature concerns are philosophical alienation fostered by corrupt or just ineffectual institutions, and the romanticism of being a disciplined loner in a world that encourages communal identities. It’s also one of Mann’s most viscerally satisfying films, and features several career highlights, like the two-hander coffee-shop scene, the now-iconic bank heist, and the concluding airport shoot-out. Just in time for the Blu-ray release of the newly restored “definitive director’s cut” of Heat, Vulture spoke with Mann about cocaine, Walter Hill, and prison.
In previous interviews, you’ve cited Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov as an influence. Vertov promoted a theory of cinema that goes beyond the human way of looking at things and into a mechanical, or perhaps superhuman view of events. I thought about that in relation to Heat because you do not view these characters or their behavior through a moralistic lens.
I was fascinated with a couple of things. One is human life in all of its dimensionality. That’s restricted, of course, in a drama like Heat, but it’s a lot more dimensional than archetypes. I’m really not interested in archetypes. In my research, I met a lot of people who do what my characters are going to do. And, the dimensionality is always stunning, it’s always fascinating, it defines who they are… I believe them as people and that allows me, as a writer/director, to access them with more intensity.
And then, of course, when you’re making a film in which worlds collide, you want the best collision possible, so those characters, who are quite extraordinary at what they do, are attractive and Hanna is a great detective. He’s a great hunter, a great predator. He’s very self-aware to the point where he knows that basically that…the cool groove of concentration of discovering, of getting to whomever he’s targeted – that that’s a high not quite like any other. And so, he says to Justine at the end of the film: “All I am is who I’m going after.” And, he knows that he has deprioritized other human parts of his life and basically he’s left a mess behind him and he will again. So, that concentration of purpose attracted me to him and then Neil McCauley is the only other person who’s as self-aware as Hanna and in a very different world, but with a similar self-awareness and focus.
You mentioned Eady. Actress Amy Brenneman was originally reluctant to play the part of Eady because she felt like the film was not guided by morals. But that’s why you thought she was perfect for the part, the fact that she had that instinctive objection. How easy was it to get your cast and collaborators on the same page as you when it came to accepting the film’s amoral worldview?
I don’t think much of the world runs moralistically. That’s not to say characters don’t have a moral compass. Hanna has a moral compass, Neil McCauley does not have a moral compass, in the kind of dialectical collision of these two characters, they’re both identical in the way that they are self-aware, they both really know their lives. But there are other components …in total opposition, and that happens to be one of them. Hanna…not only does he have a moral compass, but he will empathize with a mother of a girl who’s been murdered because he wants to absorb, empathetically, that pain to understand it and something of who the victim was. . A very good homicide investigator will keep himself emotionally abstracted. Not Hanna. . For Hanna, doing his job, he wants to know everything and experience everything he can experience. Neil McCauley’s attitude is …about Cheritto (Sizemore’s) death, for example… he knew the risks: “it rains, you get wet.”
You encouraged and facilitated social gatherings between actors who play policemen with real policemen, and actors who were playing criminals with real criminals and their wives. How did these social gatherings change the way the characters, as you envisioned them, behaved?
Actors are very perceptive. When you get down with some of the real people, , they see the way somebody talks, the way they walk, the clothes they wear, how the guy ties his tie, how he holds a glass and actors are sponges for this,. They pick up a lot of attitude and they can ask questions, find out: “Where’d you go to high school? Where did you go to grammar school? What was your family life like? Tell me about your father. What for you in what you do is the lowest point? Why do you think you do what you do?”
One fascinating aspect of the research you and your cast did for the film is time spent talking to inmates in Folsom prison. That comes to mind once you know that McCauley wears an unassuming suit because he wants to blend in, or when you hear him say vocabulary words that indicate that he’s well-read, like penologist and iridescent. What kind of routine would you say McCauley had when he was in prison?
When I spent time in Folsom on Straight Time and The Jericho Mile, it was the end of the line, there was no Pelican Bay, If you were in San Quentin and you committed a murder, you would then be sent to Folsom, so it was the end of the line. It had a very mature prison population, meaning it was a very dangerous place, but it was ordered. If there was a killing among prisoners, it was not because someone couldn’t do time and freaked out. It was because someone had violated something known, like a drug deal or crossed gang boundaries. So, cause and effect was knowable in Folsom. That meant you could understand the system and imagine McCauley there. Men like McCauley who have a strong ego and are disciplined, will ask themselves existential question: “Why don’t I commit suicide? If I’m not going to commit suicide, what is time? How am I going to do it?” And, the strong willed amongst them will have a commitment of working on their body or their minds, so consequently, people educate themselves,… some convicts you encounter are stunningly literate. But, they’re literate not because they took undergraduate philosophy. They had personal practical, fundamental questions that they wanted answered, like: “How should I view my life in time? What’s property?” They’ll read Kierkegaard, and Sartre and Marx and Engels,. You encounter it with people that have sixth grade educations, who become quite astute in this raw kind of way. A friend of mine, Jerry Scalise, a bank robber in his 70’s, who’s in federal prison, you’d think is a lit professor.
In an earlier version of the script, Hanna has a cocaine habit, which sort of explains his outbursts. That seems to make his addictive personality too literal. Why was that particular trait removed from the film?
Al was edgy enough so that you didn’t need to add that he was using coke, too. If I had done that, it would explain behavior that I didn’t want explained chemically. So it became a crutch we didn’t need. You take the crutch away, and you’re better, y’know what I mean?
At one point, you offered Heat’s script to Walter Hill. I can see a lineage between Hill’s films like Hard Times and The Driver and your own style, though after a point your two personalities become distinct. When was Hill approached, and what projects or aspects of his filmmaking led you to approach him for the project?
Walter Hill and I have been friends since 1972. This is a small community and we talked to each other yesterday. Our families are close. And, he would have been a terrific choice if he wanted to direct it. It wasn’t a matter of approaching a stranger. I know the way Walter thinks and I know his work very, very intimately. And, that’s what that decision of approaching him was based on.
Both you and Hill refuse to take the edge off of characters that, in any other context, would obviously exhibit a pathological behavior or self-destructive attitude.
That’s a pretty astute observation, though I don’t think that some of these characters are that pathological.
One of the things that makes your films so distinctive is the sound of gun violence. You can always tell you’re watching a Michael Mann gunfight because gunshots are thunderous. Each spent shell has weight; there’s no immaterial action. What kind of direction did you give your sound guys for Heat’s action scenes?
For the big shootout at the bank, I had a sound design of edited sound effects that was very elaborate for all the gunfire. It would have taken five days to mix. And, they weren’t as effective as the actual sound from when we shot the scene, the production tracks. And, so that’s what I wound up using . We shot with full-load blanks, meaning with full charges of gunpowder in them. And, that’s the sound the weapons actually made and you couldn’t imitate or improve upon them. It was terrifying as hell because we were in these glass and steel canyons and the gunfire reverberated in a certain real way, so they had an authenticity to the place that really was unique.
That bank-heist scene and the ensuing chase are so iconic. Are there contemporaries whose style of action choreography you admire, or that you look to for inspiration?
I don’t know. The thing I’ve seen recently … Mel Gibson’s film from last year had great action in it.
Those action scenes were really well done. They had a flavor and an edge that felt real. I believed in them. And it came from one scene that was used very wisely, and that had mostly to do with the speed of the scene — how fast the explosions are in the scene.
One that’s always so fascinating is Danny Trejo’s death scene. McCauley isn’t hesitant at all when he pumps Trejo for more information about who hired Kevin Gage’s character. Would McCauley have walked away if Trejo hadn’t asked him for a mercy killing?
No, I don’t think so. [Laughs.] Why would he have walked away, and let him suffer?
What comes to mind when you revisit Heat?
What do I see? Oh, I don’t know. It was pretty challenging to have on a collision course two protagonists, really, as well as antagonists, at the same time. And I see long nights [laughs], a lot of long nights. And, a great time. Working with the actors was fantastic . Val Kilmer would fall by on his day off to see how Bobby and Al were going to do a scene. And, Jon Voight’s work was extraordinary. It was very much like a repertory company. It was really a powerful and rewarding experience.