By Isaac Butler
Just came back from watching Vulture's Bilge Ebiri interview Michael Mann at the BAM Harvey. I took notes as quickly as I could through the whole thing. I thought folks might get a kick of knowing what was discussed, and how, so here they are, in somewhat rough form. Any direct quotes from Mann are transcribed by me in real time, so take them with a grain of salt.
Also, one major realization from the evening: Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat is almost certainly doing a Mann impression with his dialect work. if you want to know what Mann sounds like, he sounds like that.
This is part one. I'll put Part Two up tomorrow.
On Beginnings As a Filmmaker:
-- Mann was an English major in college and felt directionless, one night he saw Pabst's Joyless Street, and as he walked home after the screening "it struck me: you're going to be a filmmaker."
-- Other silent film work that'e extremely important to him: Murnau's Faust, Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, the latter of which he watched while making The Insider to study the treament of faces.
-- In the silent era, film "encodes into visualization so much content, meaning, and theme" and he wants to do that with the addition of sound
-- Insurrection '68: About the Paris revolt in '68. Documentary. Will never be seen because NBC owns the footage, some of which was used in news broadcasts.
-- Mann in London felt "the world was in turmoil and I was in tune with the organizers of the general strike"
-- Documentaries vs. later films: Mann did another doc called 17 Days Down the Line in which he drove across America for seventeen days. He eventually ran into riots in New Mexico.
-- Draw of documentaries: "What affected me most is the poetry of expression." He gave an example of a Chicano woman at a meeting during the riots saying "every time a hippie throws a brick, a Chicano gets shot." The succinctness of that, the simple poetry of it, really appealed to him.
-- Some of the footage of 17 Days ends up in Ali
-- He's interested, regardless of form, of the particularities of language expressing experience.
-- Film is set in and shot in Folsom Prison. Mann had seventeen days to shoot it and was told that if there was violence the shoot could still go, but if there was a gang war or a race riot, they would have to stop. So...
-- Eddie Bunker, the convict who wrote the novel that became Straight Time, whose screenplay Mann did an uncredited rewrite on, helped out unofficially on the film, helping to negotiate amongst the prison gangs so they wouldn't cause too much trouble during shooting. he also helped Mann with casting, pulling from the various gangs to be in the film. (Eddie Bunker is also the basis of the Voigt's character in Heat, and, in particular, his look).
-- "Guards were scared to death of the convicts, but the convicts had a brio. Folsom was the end of the line in those days. It was a mature population." Basically, you only ended up in Folsom if you were too much trouble to be in San Quentin. These were lifers, etc.
-- Mann told this story of walking by the prisoners' cells. Each one was lined with pornography, with a kind of simulated experience that was substituting for real life. And then he saw this one prisoner's cell, and instead of pornography it was very poorly shot black and white photographs of the convict and his wife having sex during a conjugal visit, and photosgraphs of her giving birth to their kid. He said he was quite struck by this moment, that in the middle of all of this simulated reality, there was someone living without delusions, aware of what life was, of what they were missing, and this became the basis for Frank in Thief. (Really, if you think about it, it's kind of the basis of many of his protagonists).
-- "Everything in prison is a substitution for life on the outside." He included gangs in that, they were sort of play acting at being gangs because none of them were getting out, yet that play acting was real, because the violence was real. He was interested in "how hard it is to do time if you're not delusional."
-- Frank in Thief is "the convention of a wild child colliding with our society. He had to imagine the life he wanted to build while in prison. There's a naïveté that I found powerful." By having this outsider with no real idea of how society works collide with society, Mann could highlight things about how our society works he wanted to critique.
--He reiterated that Thief is an "ideological film, like Bitter Rice, filtered through genre."
-- "Frank and Leo's story could happen in an ad agency," he said, if you imagine Frank as an artist who takes a job to make rent and Leo as the head of creative.
-- Thief is intentionally shot so Chicago feels like a maze for Frank. Mann detailed two subtle tricks for how he did it: shooting driving at night so the street lights are doubled in wet pavement and the roads feel three dimensional, and never shooting the tops of buildings during the day, so you're always feeling that we're at the bottom of something.
ON FILM SCORES:
-- He loves the score to The Revenant
-- He's most proud of the fake-live-Sam-Cooke medley at the top of Ali. He said that numerous R&B singers tried to do the medley and couldn't pull it off. The only one he would name is R. Kelly.
-- Mann mentioned that he still doesn't know if he should've set Thief to the Chicago Blues he grew up seeing live. Bilge then implored him not to recut Thief, getting one of the biggest (and most sincere) laughs of the night.
MOTIF OF MAN STARING OUT AT EMPTINESS:
-- Mann said he never plans for that moment to be in every movie. "It's nothing self-conscious. If I imagine alienation, solitude, contemplation, it's that image." He mentions two examples, DeNiro's furnitureless, undecorated home, where we see his home is "not a home, it's a way station" right before he first meets Edie, and Crocket gazing out from the high rise condo while they're sweating an informant early on in Miami Vice, a moment where Mann is trying to reveal the character desires more.
-- In the 70s, Mann became interested in some bogus science that had wound its way into the penal system, specifically a medical procedure (The name was lost on me, sorry) where a surgeon claimed that making certain incisions in the amigdala could modify behavior. This led him eventually to a serial killer named Dennis Wayne Wallace, who had tried to get the procedure. Mann kept up a correspondence with him. Wallace had suffered horrible infant and child abuse. He was, in Mann's words, "manufactured." Wallace is the basis of Dolarhyde for Mann, just as much, if not more than, the Dolarhyde of the novel. In particular, the scene where Graham says to Crawford that he has absolute pity for Dolarhyde as a child, but as an adult, he's responsible for his actions is in part a reflection of Mann's own feelings about Wallace
-- "Courage and authenticity is in maintaining contradictions"
PROCESS WIH ACTORS:
-- "Directing actors isn't about notes."
-- Mann says that as a director, he feels obligated to know an actors' language. The example and vocabulary he used made it pretty clear that what he meant by that was the method.
-- He said that his job is to set the actor up "so that when the stimulus comes, he can react"
-- Lots of prep, very little rehearsal. He designs a curriculum with the actor as they're approaching the character. Then they are in character in rehearsal, and "it happens by the fourth or fifth take"
-- With shooting on video, he found that specifically in Collateral, Tom Cruise found it helpful to do multiple takes (or even parts of a scene) without cutting, and that that kind of repetition without a break was conducive to his performance.
-- He chose Day-Lewis for Mohicans because he was "tenacious and a great actor."
-- Some casting decisions are clearly intuitive. He cited Robert Prosky in Thief as an example. he was the only one who could combine the avuncular qualities with the necessary menace. Another example: Tom Noonon in Manhunter. Mann introduced himself to Noonan (who is 6'8") and Noonan just looked down at him and said "No introductions let's just read the scene."
-- Mann spoke at length and very admiringly of Tom Noonan. He said that, since Dolarhyde is such an extreme part, Noonan was "wise enough to isolate himself" and do what it took to summon the role. He and Petersen avoided each other on set (note from me: they had to know each other from Steppenwolf, right?) and so only "met" when Graham came crashing through the window.
(Tomorrow: Part 2, with notes about Heat, real life bases of characters, biopics, digital video and more)