chat room

Michael Mann Looks Back on His Career, Talks Innovation, Dialogue, and Diversity

Photo: Unique Nicole/Getty Images

Michael Mann, one of Hollywood’s most groundbreaking mainstream filmmakers, is currently the subject of a retrospective series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (running through February 16) that allows viewers to appreciate the full arc of his career. The 73-year-old started off as a writer for movies and television — working on such shows as Starsky and Hutch — before making his feature directorial debut with 1981’s somber, influential crime drama Thief. The film won praise from critics, but it wasn’t until the hit 1980s TV show Miami Vice that Mann broke through to mainstream success.

Over the years, his films have explored driven characters in extreme circumstances — be they in a period epic like Last of the Mohicans, a crime drama like the masterful Heat (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary), the Oscar-nominated journalism drama The Insider, or the boxing biopic Ali. Along the way, the director has continued to experiment with form, and in recent years, he has used digital video to forge a more immediate and fragmented style. Tonight (Thursday, February 11) I will be moderating an onstage conversation with Mann at BAM; in advance of that, we recently spoke about his career, the way his style has changed, and whether a film like Heat could even be made today.

While rewatching your films for this retrospective, I was reminded how much your style has changed over the years — from the composed style of Thief and Manhunter to the more fragmented, immediate style of Miami Vice or Collateral. What accounts for this change?
What drives me is the desire to push narrative. I do some of my best work when I’m on a personal frontier, pushing different ways of conveying an emotion, or how a story tells itself. And that evolves. When people are bombarded with as much content as we are now, audiences come to impute, fill in blanks, extrapolate, and project. So the requirements for plot specificity, for example, reduce. I mean, if you’re living in the late Middle Ages in a peat bog, and you go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in England one time in your life, the religious story told by that piece of architecture, with its towering nave and stained-glass windows, will blow you away. That’s one story in a lifetime. We encounter 20 stories in a day. That’s what I am interested in. How should stories work next? And how to encode meaning in formal components.

How different do you think a film like Heat might be if you were to make it today? 
There are sections of Heat that would probably have a different iteration, and there are some sections that would be exactly the same. But I don’t know that you could get something like Heat made today as a feature film. Something of that size and scale, and shooting for over 100 days, you’d be hard pressed to set that up. Because, though people characterize Heat as a crime thriller, that’s the last thing it is, at least in my mind. It’s a very formally structured drama, and its structure is a character-driven dialectic of Hanna [Al Pacino’s character] and McCauley [Robert De Niro’s character]. Its plot is driven by a crime story and a police story to a certain point, and then it breaks into a kind of chorus. In that chorus, we see slices of these different people’s lives.

The fuguelike nature of the narrative is what was so exciting to me. When you’re with McCauley, you are subjectively immersed in his life, and you want what he wants, his expectations, his ambitions — his heart is your heart. You want him to get away. When you’re with Hanna, you want him to intercept McCauley, and you want him to achieve what’s driving him. That the two of them know and like each other while they’re headed for a lethal collision, and that they’re two of the only people who are like each other in the invented universe of this movie, that’s the construction. It’s brutally rigid construction. There were other story tangents that I might have gone off on. There was at one point a fence played by John Santucci in a scene — but this kind of structure is a harsh mistress, so I cut it.

I was interested to read not long ago that German Expressionism made a big impression on you when you were young. What was it about those films that appealed to you?
When sound came in, cinema took a couple of steps backwards. It became filmed theater. Before that, to express content without sound, the drive impelled visual form and montage — in films like Nosferatu or Faust, for example, by [F.W.] Murnau. It was adventurous cinema, and I was very taken with it when I first got interested in film. When I was doing The Insider, trying to make a suspenseful drama from two hours and 45 minutes of people talking, the first thing I did was go look at Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Nobody shot the human head as adroitly and expressively as he did. 

Some of the most enduring scenes in your filmography are these long scenes of two people talking. One of the greatest is in Thief, when James Caan and Tuesday Weld go on their first date to a coffee shop, and he tells her all about prison and what he wants out of life. What’s the secret to pulling off a lengthy dialogue scene like that?
A scene doesn’t work in isolation. It can’t be separated out from the totality of the story. It’s driven by the invention of a character and what he wants, and the story of him trying to get that thing. In Thief, Frank’s a very unusual character. He’s like a wild child who’s been in the wilderness from when he was a teenager, and now, as an adult, he’s landed in modern times. The movie is about his collision with the social forms and political economy of our life — everything from how to ask a girl out on a date to how do you operate in the material world. Do you stay independent? Do you go to work for somebody like Leo? And Leo’s based on two Outfit bosses in Chicago: Leo Rugendorf and [Felix] Alderisio. You do scores for them, you do your own scores, but you’ve got to pay a tax. How do you navigate that world? The movie is ideological, but it’s projected through the prism of genre. Which is not a new idea; it’s got its roots in Italian neorealism. So the scene with Tuesday Weld is integral to the totality of the movie: We want to hear his story and what he wants. But it’s the story that allows a scene like that to work. Frank’s such a curious character that you want to know his history. Plus, Jimmy Caan’s a great storyteller. 

Then in Heat, there’s the coffee-shop conversation between Pacino and De Niro, which is also amazing. A practically verbatim version of that same scene appears in your earlier L.A. Takedown, the TV movie that’s essentially a shorter, more compressed version of Heat. It’s interesting: L.A. Takedown didn’t make much of an impact, but Heat did.
L.A. Takedown was made in 20 days, and as a TV pilot. It’s derived from the Heat screenplay, which wasn’t in its final form at that point; it was a really great idea looking for an ending, which I didn’t have. So I thought maybe I’d do Heat as a continuing serial for television for NBC. I was careful to own it, in order not to lose any of the material. [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff would have made it, but he wanted to change the lead, which I wouldn’t do. And that was it.

Meanwhile the film of Miami Vice didn’t get a ton of love from critics or audiences, but over the years, it has grown in stature. Many of us consider it one of your absolute best films. Are you aware of the cult around that film?
No. I don’t know how I feel about it. I know the ambition behind it, but it didn’t fulfill that ambition for me because we couldn’t shoot the real ending. But whole parts of the film are very evocative to me still, especially when it comes to the romance. It was about how far somebody goes when they’re undercover, and what that really means because, ultimately, who you become is yourself on steroids, manifested out there in the real world. There’s an intensity to your living that’s incredible — the relationships in that world, the really heightened experience of it. And this is from speaking to some people who’ve done a lot of very dangerous, deep undercover over long periods. That’s what Crockett does.

As Tubbs reminds him, about Gong Li, in the hangar before they take off for the final confrontation, “Fabricated identity and what’s up are about to collapse into one frame. You ready for that?” But Crockett’s not. He’s 100 percent with her. Tubbs says, “She may be a white-collar money manager. She may be true love. But she is with them.” And Crockett answers, “I ain’t playing.” That’s the telling moment to me. That’s a kind of a passion a man can have for a woman he meets under those circumstances. A lot of the film is driven by that. The romance of the planes in the sky, the offshore race boats, driving Mojo back from Cuba to Miami — he is swept away. It’s a very torrid kind of story, which I really loved. Those are the parts that really work for me. But I’m always curious to hear other people’s take on it. People who love it — I’d be really curious to know why they love it.  

Well, you’re right that it’s a very torrid story, and it really is a film about men and women more than it is a crime or action flick. It’s all about these intuitive, unexplainable connections, and how they can take over your life. And the film’s very expressive form enhances that — the fragmented cutting, the way it moves toward abstraction, even the pixelated quality of the video. Everything feeds the romance. Plus, I love the contrast between Crockett’s romance and Tubbs’s relationship with Trudy. There’s a great scene with Trudy that I think is only in the director’s cut, after the bad guys send her these flowers, which is an indication that they know where she lives and can get to her. Right after that, we see her telling Tubbs not to worry about her. It’s not some soft, sacrificial thing. It’s like she’s ordering him: “You worry about you.”
Because she’s a pro. She knows: “If you worry about me, that’s gonna get you distracted, it’s gonna get you killed.” It’s not merely selflessness. It’s her protecting her man.

I know you’ve been revisiting some of these films recently as well, overseeing restorations or new edits or making new copies. What are the ones that jump out at you?
The movie that shocked me pleasantly the other day is Collateral. I’m used to seeing it on film or on a Blu-ray, which isn’t bad. But this is the first time it’s been screened digitally. It was shot digitally to fully embrace what digital uniquely can do: deliver a new experience of L.A. as “night town.” But, there were no DCPs [digital cinema packages] in 2007, and the original photochemical release prints were poor, washed out. This is the first time it’s projected in its native format on a big screen. It’s not just the visuals. It’s the skin of the characters. You feel yourself crawling inside their minds. It’s a whole immersion in the reality of L.A. at night. The deep view of distant vistas, the fact that you’re seeing things you don’t normally see, gives Vincent and Max’s dilemmas an intensity. 

You’re known for doing an immense amout of research into your projects. What drives that need for you?
Researching intellectually is great, but researching in real life is adventurous. I can’t imagine why anybody would want to do it any other way than to be able to immerse yourself completely. It’s magical. How you’re going to re-create human experience and that period is another story. So, in Last of the Mohicans, you want to know not only what people’s clothes and hair looked like in 1757, but how they thought, what was courtship, how they related to a woman that they liked, did they go to the father’s family or the mother’s family. And who were the Mohicans? Where’s a first-person account, an oral history? How much of their culture is alive today, so you can meet people who think maybe 50 percent the way people did back then. To me, these are fascinating challenges, and they allow you to immerse yourself in that world.

There’s been a lot of discussion of late around the issue of diversity in Hollywood. Your films are a bright spot in this regard. You’ve made several films with African-American leads, and your casts in films like Collateral and Miami Vice and Ali and Blackhat seem to be more diverse than the average Hollywood production.
Diversity is brilliant. It’s the unintended and intended genius consequence of our history. It’s not just casts — I’ve never tolerated racism, gender bias, or exclusion. In Collateral, Jamie’s role was written for a Jewish cab-driver in New York who was having an identity crisis and had a difficult relationship with his mother. I transposed that to a middle-class guy from Ladera Heights who’s repressed.

What do you think about the recent controversy over diversity and the Oscars?
I’m a governor in the Academy, so I cannot talk freely. We have meetings that are sometimes filled with disputes, but everything stays in the room. But I can tell you that this is a full industry issue. The Oscar nominations are for achievements at the top of someone’s career. It’s less an Academy issue than an employer issue. Employers have to hire with diversity for people to do content that can become choices for Academy members to nominate. I dispute the notion [that] Academy members vote by race or gender. The choices presented to Academy voters are the choices presented by the industry, which elected which movies to make and which people to hire. The real change has to occur at the base. It’s a huge issue.

Michael Mann Looks Back on His Career