By Isaac Butler
Continuing on from last night's post:
-- Bilge asked Mann to discuss the long gestation of the movie, and how he figured out its structure (particularly vs. "L.A. Takedown"...in some ways this was a continuation of their discussion in Vulture, which was also great and you should read it. )
-- Mann said that the coffee shop scene was essentially the genesis of the film. Chuck Adamson, who was Dennis Farina's partner in the Chicago PD and killed the real life Neal McCauley, was investigating McCauley and ran into him on the street. Mann described it as a moment where they were both tacitly reaching for their weapons, and Adamson just said "hey, buy you a cup of coffee?" While their conversation isn't reproduced accurately in the film, the action of that coffee they got is maintained: namely the two guys are prodding each other, and sizing each other up, and trying to figure out when they come to face each other, what will the other guy do? What is he capable of?
-- It took a long time to figure out the rest of the movie, but he felt that once he had determined the ending, the rest of it fell into place. "Once I had that dialectic, and the fugue-like nature of the audience's response, I could rewrite it to serve that ending."
-- He talks about the fugue-like structure in that interview linked above. But basically, he was really interested in getting the audience to identify with (and in some ways root for) Hanna and McCauley both even though they can't both win at the end. He wanted the audience to essentially sympathize with whomever they're following (other than Waingro, obviously).
-- Part of the appeal of Hanna and McCauley, Mann believes is that "they are the only characters in Heat who are fully self-aware." (Self-awareness, it is clear, is in many ways a cardinal virtue for Mann. You see this most extremely in Blackhat where Hathaway is totally self-aware and seems to be able to accomplish anything he sets his mind to).
-- Structurally, Mann thinks of Heat as a police-crime story that breaks apart into a chorus of five personal lives in the middle.
-- Bilge asked Mann if, being on the frontier of experience in making movies was ever hard for him. Mann told a very charming story about not being able to sleep during the making of Collateral because they weren't shooting on film. It was the first major motion picture shot entirely on digital video-- "We were essentially using these newscameras" he said-- and he kept having nightmares "that the film did not exist" as a result of it having no tangible form.
REAL LIFE STORIES WITH FAMOUS CHARACTERS (THE INSIDER and ALI):
-- Even though Mann left The Aviator because, after Ali, he didn't want to do another real life story, he said in the conversation that he finds this kind of work "exciting.... If Chris Plummer can build Mike Wallace within him, I can overcome your belief without needing a lot of makeup"
-- Mann also talked often with Mike Wallace while they were making The Insider (Wallace was pissed about the movie and would call Mann up to kvetch about it and shit-talk Lowell Bergman). Mann, with Wallace's permission, taped at least one of these conversations, and things Wallace said ended up in the movie.
-- Genesis of The Insider was an arms trafficking movie that Bergman and Mann were working on about a real-life arms trafficker living in California who I bet is the basis of the mercenary guy in Blackhat, who, like that film's subject, is a Lebanese former member of the Phalangists. Anyway, the events of The Insider were happening while they were developing that movie and Mann at some point realized (and told Bergman) "This is the movie we should be making
-- Mann was drawn to the subject matter in part because Bergman both felt bad for Wygand, and felt he didn't get the protection he deserved and needed, and on a personal level did not like him. Again, Mann seems drawn to these contradictions, these moments when two things that should be mutually exclusive are both true, because it makes the story more interesting.
-- Ali meanwhile, was thrilling because of its "great ambition." (Important here to remember Mann's background in campus radical politics in the 60s, and that Thief is a The-Wire-Style ideological critique of capitalism. ) Mann really fell in love with Ali's language, with his raps, with the way he manipulated and used words.
-- In particular, he really fell in love with the book Redemption Song about Ali & Dylan and their use of language, and with Norman Mailer's book on Ali. He was fascinated by a man constructing what he stands for while trying to not be owned by any one movement, like Dylan with the anti-war movement, or Ali's increasingly conflicted relationship to the Nation of Islam. That dynamic and Ali's language interested Mann a lot more than making a biopic, a form he calls "uninteresting." Also, he and Ali lived through the same moments in American history, moments he was attracted to revisiting
-- Bilge asked about the dreamlike montage opening of Ali, whether that was a formal statement saying "this isn't going to be a normal biopic." (An interesting note, having read a lot of interviews with Mann, despite the fact that he's obviously on some level a formalist, he will basically always demure that there's a formalist statement that motivates any of his directorial choices, just as he resists the label of "stylist.") Mann said that the purpose is to drop you into what it's like to be Ali, to "Experience being black in a white world." He was really interested in moving the audience into the contradiction of being black and "facing mid-century white cultural imperialism." He then cited Ali's hilarious and powerful rap on Angel Food Cake (which is amazing, please, please watch it).
-- Ali was also important to Mann because the real life people were on set and pretty involved. Will Smith befriended Ali, trained for nine months to be a boxer, etc. Mann said the little details that he gained from Ali's involvement were really important. For ex, when Ali sits down and is at rest, he's often quite daintily crossing his hands at his sternum (you can seem him do that in the video above). Mann realized he was protecting his hands. That he was like a great pianist, and his hands were everything.
-- Bilge asked Mann about moving it from New York to LA and changing the race of the cab driver from Jewish to Black. Mann responded, after some prodding that, "Well, speaking as a Jewish cab driver, the Jewish cab driver wasn't very well written" and that the film was more exciting if it was about a middle class Black man.
-- Collateral was shot on DV because Mann wanted to capture what the city feels like at night, and getting that feel (where it appears like everything is naturally lit, an you're at night, and the city is around you) on film, you'd have to keep the f-stop on the camera so far open that doing anything with depth of field was pretty much impossible.
-- The problem, though, was that the equipment for screening Collateral properly didn't really exist, and the prints made of it at the time where cheap and not very good. So... and this is important for Manniacs... Collateral will screen for the first time ever on the equipment intended to show it on Monday at BAM
-- The decision to shoot on digital was down to the wire. They did extensive tests on film and video. "On film, it looked like a beautiful historical artifact" on video "it felt like I'm there" so he opted for that immediacy over a kind of traditional compositional beauty. (Note if you've never seen it: Public Enemies is very strange looking but often quite beautiful)
-- Public Enemies, however, also suffered from the cheap print problem.
-- Bilge told Mann he could've easily just filled the whole night with Miami Vice questions and the roughly half of the audience that loves that movie (including me) applauded. Mann clearly is still not happy with the film because the ending had to be changed.
-- Original ending involved Crocket and Tubbs going off the grid and leading a gonzo extralegal effort to rescue Gong Li (you can see the build up to this in John Ortiz's scenes throughout the film). But that required filming on location in a remote smuggler's town in the Dominican Republican. This became impossible because, while filming in a different part of the DR, a drunk police officer tried to gain access to the set to meet the actors. The security for the set was provided by the Dominican Army, and the police and army don't get along. The cop pulled a gun, fired off a couple of rounds, and then was shot by the army.
-- Since after that security was in doubt they rewrote the film to end back in Miami. (When the film came out, Slate reported on some of the on-set troubles surrounding the film).
-- As part of the Mann retrospective, Mann unveiled a revised cut of the film (Sam Adams at Criticwire, gives a good precis of all of the changes, which are significant here). The biggest change involves restoring the original order of the plot events of the film. In the theatrical cut, a nuclear power plant explosion that happens nearly 2/3rds of the way through the film was moved to the film's beginning. The revised cut moves it back where it belongs, which has a lot of huge (and positive) trickle down effects, because the patch work required to make that move work wrecked a lot of the audio mix and required a lot of clumsy dubbing.
-- Mann said that he was responsible for moving the plant explosion to the beginning (there were some rumors that it was studio pressure)... because "I thought we needed a tangible danger in the beginning" but then reconsidered (part of the Revised Cut includes some heavy lifting to establish why a major run on soy futures would be high stakes, which it does very well).
-- Starting with the soy hack know "allows the plot to come clear" so the first act is really about solving a question, which Viola Davis asks in a new scene: "how did it get in?"
-- Blackhat in the revised cut is "an event-driven narrative made up of character-driven scenes"
-- "A lot of things are changing now. You no longer need a transnational organization for organized crime."
-- He also talked about the effects of living virtually on our psyches. Some of this came with talking with real life hackers (in particular, Wired's Kevin Poulsen and Stephen Watt). There's a high in their work, the high of being in the coding zone where you think only 15 minutes have gone by but it's been hours. And of "creating kinetic reality through manipulating ones and zeroes"
-- This high, he said is "solipsistic" and is akin to the performance of social media... "people used to have experiences," now they document and perform those experiences
-- There are no current plans to release the revised cut to the consumer market.
-- Bilge asked if Mann will do a revised or cleaned up version of it. Mann said, but did not elaborate on, that "the materials aren't there" to supervise a new version or restoration.
-- He clearly has no desire to revisit the film but he said that shooting The Keep was really fun, but, of course, the special effects supervisor, Wally Veevers, who did effects on a huge host of movies including 2001: A Space Odyssey, died. He left no guidance behind for how to realize what he was doing, and Mann, by his own admission, failed to really put the pieces together with the remaining team.
WRITING ABOUT HIM:
-- Mann singled out The Philosophy of Michael Mann for praise. He said some writing about his work is very "ponderous" and academic and he can't "get past page two" but that book, despite its somewhat unfortunate title, goes really in depth. He said it was clear that the writers had gone back and recreated some of his own research. For example, in Last of the Mohicans there are three different judicial systems that overlap and affect the plot, and they're all based on historical research and he was greatly impressed that someone had gone back and looking into that research again.