EXCLUSIVE: “So you write a story about a movie I’m not doing, and you make the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro share the screen together an afterthought?” That’s my recollection of the first words that Michael Mann ever said to me, after I wrote a Weekly Variety column about how he and Leonardo DiCaprio were scrapping their James Dean movie, and oh yeah, Mann would instead direct this crime drama called Heat. Boy, was Mann right. Last night in Toronto, he and cast members Pacino, De Niro, Val Kilmer and Ashley Judd celebrated the 20th anniversary of his seminal Los Angeles crime thriller, one that took about 20 years to go from script to screen. To honor the occasion, he took a trip down memory lane with Deadline, and filled us in on his next film, the one in which Christian Bale will play Italian automobile magnate Enzo Ferrari. That project is similar to Heat, each an epic-sized drama that took forever to solve the creative challenges. Re-watching Heat to get ready for the TIFF event, Mann sounded more than pleased by how it holds up, two decades later. “It’s been awhile since I saw it on film, and you know, it doubles the world, makes it so much more real,” he said. “It’s convincing me that maybe I need to shoot Ferrari on film.”
Christian Bale To Star In Michael Mann's 'Ferrari' Film, One Hot Pic Package
Mann allowed Deadline to see the actual marked up shooting script that he, Pacino and De Niro worked off during the classic mano a mano scene between Pacino’s Hanna and De Niro. It might seem unusual to spend so much time with a 1995 film, but I think its fans will find it worth the ride:
DEADLINE: Just like the Ferrari project you’ll do with Christian Bale, the Heat script took about 20 years. Does it sit in a drawer, waiting for inspiration?
MANN: It’s a bit more dramatic than that. It’s that there was something missing, something wrong. The heart of the story was always there, in Heat. Two men who are in opposition to each other and the activities of their life, are perfect counterpoints and contain components that are identical. They’re both self aware, and they don’t fool themselves. They see their own self and the world they live in without any filters or blinders. So they’re very similar and yet there’s one or two components in which they’re exactly opposite. Preserving life is imperative for Hanna, and clearly it is not for McCauley. That basic dialectic, and its formal presentation in the coffee shop scene, is where the movie started with in its origin.
DEADLINE: Why wasn’t that enough?
MANN: There was always something wrong, and it was in the ending. So I worked the screenplay and worked the screenplay and as soon as I discovered what it was and fixed it, getting it made was rather instantaneous. It was really within weeks of figuring out what was wrong, rewriting it, and then, let’s go. Terry Semel, Bob Daly and Bruce Berman at Warners said, let’s do it. It was that rapid. Ferrari is the same thing. There’s something really golden that Troy Kennedy Martin captured. The difference is that I wrote Heat as an original, but not Ferrari. Troy captured something golden and spectacular in terms of the warmth, heart, and the real fabric of people’s lives in 1957 in tumultuous times in Modena, Italy. But there was something wrong in the storytelling that stopped [Ferrari]. When I finally discovered what it was, early this year, the whole thing clicked. All I achieved in the revisions I did was to liberate the gold that Troy put there originally, and made it all work. It’s a structural thing about how the movie really should end, and a decision about what is the critical relationship, which is between Ferrari, his wife Laura and Piero, who is his second son. His first son, Dino, had died a-year-and-a-half earlier. He’s married to Laura, he had a son Dino who had muscular dystrophy and died in 1955.
DEADLINE: What does the Ferrari story have that sustained your passion for so long?
MANN: The simple answer, which is useless, is everything. It’s one year in his life, 1957. That’s the year that, fortuitously, the parts of his life that I most care about in making a human story, all collide. It’s an opera, it’s a family drama, a tragedy, filled with wry humor. It’s a racing film, but it’s not a movie about car racing. It’s a movie about this guy’s life and his passion. He started as a race car driver and then became a racing team manager for Alfa Romeo. His passion was to make the racing team win, so he’s kind of an impresario, conductor or film director, of a race team. He’s an instigator of men, many of whom tragically die young. He’s very close to death and death is very close to him. His father died young, his brother died young. In the year of 1957, of the seven Ferrari drivers, only two were left alive at the end. He is passionate, plenty of libido. There’s part of him that’s like a metronome. As an engineer, he’s precise, like a master draftsman. At the same time, he has passion. There are other women in his life. Sex, food, death. There is a contradiction between chaos on one hand and the precision with which you determine the diameter of an exhaust valve, on the other. Someone in London who really knew the heart of this, who’s Italian, said it sounds like what you’re doing is making something so intensely local that it’s universal. And that’s it. The film is about life, danger, passion, racing with volcanic temperament throughout.
DEADLINE: You worked with Christian Bale in Public Enemies, when his Melvin Purvis character chased Johnny Depp’s bank robber character John Dillinger. What makes Bale right for this?
MANN: His courage, his humor, the way Christian makes himself into a character. You think of him in American Hustle and then as Purvis in Public Enemies; the range is extraordinary. He understands who this man Ferrari is, his irrepressible force and how he’s always on the attack. There’s nothing generically Italian about this, it’s a local story. Modena had two opera companies, two football teams and two race car companies. The people who ran all these went to the same barber shop to get a shave every single morning. The Orsi brothers are sitting there with Ferrari, who’s sitting there reading the newspaper and says to one of the guys who runs the football team, “If your team doesn’t win Saturday, I’m thinking of moving my car company to Bologna because my drivers are being demoralized by this constant series of losses.” And the guy who runs the opera company says something, and then someone asks him, “When are you going to get a decent tenor?” That’s the nature of it. Troy Kennedy Martin captured something golden in the heart of this that hooked myself and Sydney Pollack in 1997. It’s such a great story that it has sustained itself in my ambitions ever since and did so for Sydney, until he tragically passed away. There was something unresolved about it that made it not complete. Sydney felt the same. When I figured out what it was, I did a rewrite, which did nothing but deliver in full power what Troy Kennedy Martin had put there in the first place. Suddenly, the whole thing clicked in. That’s why I’m doing it now and why the screenplay really works now and has gotten the reaction it has.
DEADLINE: Can you distill what Pollack brought to this?
MANN: Great sophistication about men and women, and emotions that are authentic and more interesting because they are atypical. Life is asymmetrical, it doesn’t fall into convenient binaries we normally impose on fiction. Sydney has an insatiable appetite for passion, emotion in real people and the way it really works. That includes tragic loss, and there’s nothing as tragic as the loss of a child. That’s something Ferrari experienced, one year before this happened. His son Dino died in 1955 of muscular dystrophy. Ferrari was certain, as the great engineer he was, that he could save his son. He could monitor the output and input of this human body and given all the skill sets he had, he could organize the best medical care and he would save his son. He told that to his wife and it didn’t happen. As he said, I misled myself, I deluded myself. That’s part of what’s going on in the script, which occurs a year and a half after Dino died.
DEADLINE: Heat sounds similar in the way you solved the problems. Did you just need it to rattle around your head?
MANN: No, it’s very specific. It came down to how the relationship should end and the breakthrough was that Neil McCauley would be fortunate enough to live the last moments of his life very close with the guy who was the most similar to him as any other man on the planet, while at the same time, also the person who killed him. The two are separate and there’s no contradiction there. They’re both true. Once I grasped this is how it ought to end, that he’s literally holding hands with the guy who just killed him, and that that’s the man he’s been closest to. As soon as that became clear, then the whole idea worked. To tell a story in which there’s these two protagonists and you are empathetic to each when you’re with his story. At the same time, they’re both in opposition to each other and trying to kill the other. The structure, if you could pull it off, had wonderful complexity. But it had to drive to where one does kill the other and then they’re instantly together and McCauley’s last moments are with Hanna. Once I had that, I could then reverse engineer that into a number of scenes so that it all built to that ending.
DEADLINE: It was one of those movies that introduced an array of characters buzzing around Hanna and McCauley, and what’s remarkable is how quickly we knew who each of them was and what they needed. Does that come from the endless rewriting and gestation period, that you gave everyone his own mythology, including the tragic getaway driver played by Dennis Haysbert? With so many ensemble movies, it is difficult to remember names or who people are. How much of the 20 year gestation was about allowing you to connect all these characters in a fast, seamless manner?
MANN: What you ask is very insightful. For me, the experience was to compose and orchestrate the collision of all these people’s lives. That’s one. Two, is that crime and doing police work, that’s only what they do. The narrative is driven by who they are, what they want. In the scene by scene construction of the story, the most important parts to me were these choruses where you take everybody home. After the first robbery goes down, we take Neil McCauley home to an alienating blue room over the ocean. We take Vincent Hanna home to a difficult marriage. We take Chris Shiherlis [Val Kilmer] home to the dissonant relationship with his wife [Ashley Judd], who wants him to take responsibility and grow up already. We see Neil McCauley again and he meets Eady [Amy Brenneman] and things begin to change. Then you go back to the plot drive of the crime story, the police story. And then you’re back again. So the real engine is the people, the characters. It’s not really a genre film. So then, when you start getting into who these people are, it’s a very self-aware Vincent Hanna, who really is what Justine [Diane Venora] says, that “All you are is who you’re going after.” He knows he’s going to fu*k up this third marriage, too. Then there’s Breedan [Dennis Haysbert], who has acquiesced to exploitation to try and construct some kind of a life for he and Lilian and the discipline he has to have is to not give into his impulse to rebel against the exploitation of some shi*ty restaurant manager.
DEADLINE: So you have the equally competent cop and robber who think they are in control, but can’t control the circumstances of people swirling around them…
MANN: There’s Neil, living a catechism of non-attachment. That is the smart way to live your life when you’re living outside the law and you come from circumstances of alienation and loneliness. You maintain your loneliness, you maintain your alienation, except for your bond to your partners, and you don’t get attached. You don’t have anything in your life you can’t walk from in 30 seconds flat. Because you’ll make one phone call, two years from now in Brazil, and they’ll be tracking that call and if you have sentiment for that woman, they’ll locate you. So you don’t get attached. You leave that for after you’ve scored and take off. Then he described his life to Eady as a needle starting at zero and going the other way, a double blank and then you come along. So he abandons it and there’s an initial rush of living an emotional life spontaneously, which he’s not supposed to do. In making that happen, he’s abandoning navigation. So then he’s susceptible to being seduced with vengeance to go get Waingro, which is his undoing. So if you go back to the macro, another kind of guiding principle in the operating system of how the story tells itself is, what happens in these people’s lives is a function of the way they think life happens.
For Neil, there’s rigid cause and effect in his life. If he deviates, there’s going to be a cost. It is nonnegotiable. Chris Shiherlis is postmodern and has no guiding principles to anything. He is impulsively driven and so he should be turned out by Charlene in the interest of his kid and her life. He smiles and she gives him a pass, and he escapes. He lives in a world without rules. So those imperatives are what drives the events, but I’m predetermining the outcome. And that is the ultimate collision of Neil and Vincent, and reverse engineering that back into all of the scenes. So yeah, that took years.
DEADLINE: How far into the process did you fix on the idea of pairing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro?
MANN: That came when Art Linson and I were having breakfast at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica…
DEADLINE: The same place where Neil meets Eady the first time…
MANN: Yet another great restaurant that’s no longer there because a greedy landlord raised the rent. Just like Kate Mantilini, for the same reason…
DEADLINE: Where you staged the scene between Pacino and De Niro…
MANN: Yeah. So Art and I were at the Broadway Deli when I asked if he wanted to produce it with me and he said, “You’re out of your mind. You’ve got to direct it.” Then we came up with the idea of Bob and Al. Who were the best people we could imagine for these parts? It was Bob and Al.
DEADLINE: Both were in Godfather II but shared no scenes. Was that what got you excited about presenting them together the first time?
MANN: That’s kind of superfluous. It actually became something of a crutch that I had to bear. I wasn’t really that interested in the stunt, the fact that these guys had never been in a movie together. In the structure of the storytelling, there’s one scene that is designed to be the prelude to that meeting. It’s during the aborted burglary. They’re eyeball to eyeball, face to face, except it’s a video image from the surveillance truck. Hanna is looking at Neil, and it’s Neil looking at something suspicious, a noise he heard from a certain truck parked across the street. We know that inside that truck is Hanna. They are, in a virtual way, face to face. That’s the prelude to the inspiration he gets, off of a conflict with Justine. He says, “Fu*k it. I’m going to go meet this guy.”
DEADLINE: Where did you get all these characters?
MANN: All of them are novelizations in a way of real people. My late friend, Charlie Adamson, killed the real Neil McCauley in 1963. Fundamentally, the whole idea for the movie…sometimes these things just occur to you in a flash. The idea to do this movie came when Charlie was telling me about sitting down with Neil McCauley and they had this conversation and how much rapport there was between them. That was because there was tremendous respect, which wouldn’t interfere with Charlie blowing this guy out of his socks at the drop of a hat if he caught him coming out of a score. Charlie was a guy who would say, “Look how smart this guy is. Look how clever he is. This guy’s a real pro.” There was serious professional admiration for a guy who was a really good professional thief. That’s what McCauley was.
DEADLINE: Do you recall when you heard that idea? Did it hit you like a thunder bolt?
MANN: When I heard the story and the exchange they had, that became the whole core idea of the movie, it was at the Belden Deli on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. It was a special feeling. I don’t know if it was a thunderbolt, but you feel the electricity of the idea. It’s like, you know when you know, this is a genome of a movie. Another situation like that came when Lowell Bergman and I were developing a project on an arms merchant, and Lowell was living through the experiences of The Insider. We’re having this couple of phone calls and one Sunday afternoon he says, “You’ll never guess what happened to me today. I’m walking down the hall and Don Hewitt comes up and says this and that.” And then he says, “I don’t even like Wigand, but I know how much he is putting on the line.” I said, wait a minute. Forget this other thing. What you are living through, that’s the movie. I just knew right then and there I wanted to do that. So then I corralled Eric Roth into it and he and I did The Insider. You just know when you know on some of these things.
DEADLINE: A lot of what we see in Heat was done first in a backdoor pilot that didn’t get picked up, called L.A. Takedown. It even had the iconic coffeehouse scene. To me, that qualifies as the dictionary definition of taking a mulligan. No disrespect to those TV actors, but I watched that scene and they are not Pacino and De Niro.
MANN: What happened is, Brandon Tartikoff is a guy I loved dearly, but we disagreed on who ought to be the lead [in L.A. Takedown]. I wasn’t going to abandon the actor who was in the pilot. So I said I’d rather not do it. He’d have made the series if I had changed the lead, which I didn’t want to do. I owned the material, I deficit financed the pilot myself because I didn’t want to let this material go anywhere. I don’t know how long it was after that, maybe four years after a pilot that still had many problems in the writing. I figured it out afterwards. As soon as I figured it out, we shot it in the summer of 95 and released in December.
DEADLINE: Do you sometimes breathe a sigh of relief for the way that unfolded? Had that gone to series we wouldn’t be talking about this. You can see a difference in budget and the look. It’s stark.
MANN: Yeah. I had a lot of financial support from Arnon Milchan, the financier, as well as the guys from Warner Brothers.
DEADLINE: The Pacino-De Niro coffee shop encounter is far from the only memorable scene. You shot this bank robbery scene and the resulting shootout without visual effects in long takes, with the natural sounds of the gunfire and all the chaos adding to the realism. What’s that like to plan and execute?
MANN: It was a major undertaking. I imported some guys from the British SAS and all the training was done on the LA County Sherriff’s combat shooting ranges up around Magic Mountain. We did everything for real, in the sense that I went on to my location and I blocked all the action way ahead of time. Measured everything. You stay here behind the car, then you’re going to move to this post box for cover. Then you’re going to go from there to the next. So all of those distances were recreated with flats, out on the range. Then we trained the actors to become proficient in close quarter combat, under unbelievably intense supervision and safety regulations. Even more so than they normally have on an official shooting range. They’re very, very strict about it and the first day out there on the range I don’t think they even fired a shot. It was all about safety and protocol and taking the gun apart and putting it back together again.
They got so good that the footage of Val Kilmer, firing in two directions and doing a reload without a cut, they used that at Fort Bragg for Special Forces training. Like, what percent of you is going to get as good as this actor? Just smooth. I wanted the actors to feel that they can do this for real, with live ammunition. Just like you would train if you were in the sheriffs or if you were in LAPD.
MANN: Actors have this crazy rapid learning profile, particularly when it comes to eye-hand coordination. So their skills were acquired very, very rapidly and they became very, very good at this. Just like Will Smith becoming a boxer in Ali. He just became a boxer. So it was all laid out and then we shot on a sequence of weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday downtown, for six weeks. There’s an elaborate sound effect worked up by Lon Bender, but as good as that was, it was theatrical and nothing that was equivalent to the way sound bounced off those buildings. It was frightening.
DEADLINE: I recall some claiming cops would not engage in a shootout like that with civilians all around, but then there was an actual bank robbery later that unfolded in eerily similar fashion.
MANN: I remember. They made one mistake though, assaulting the police instead of fleeing the police. The whole point is to shoot your way out. You’re supposed to leave because police assets accrue rapidly, the longer you stay. You’re assaulting the police to shoot your way out but the point is to get out. They just stood around.
DEADLINE: Back to that scene with Pacino and De Niro. You dreamed up this pairing, after Charlie Adamson first described it. You cast them, and then you keep these stars apart. Then you are sitting next to them when it happens, with the eleventh take being the one your used. Describe all that.
MANN: The three of us formed this little ensemble for that scene. We were all kind of smart enough to not do things like rehearse it. We talked about what the scene meant. We paraphrased some of the interactions. We all knew it was the heart of the whole movie. Everything leads up to it and everything is a result of it, afterwards. I wanted all of the magic that happens spontaneously to occur when I’m shooting the actual scene. So both actors were shot simultaneously. Because I expected…they’re both so terrific and were so attuned within their characters, not as Bob and Al, but as McCauley and Hanna. They were both so attuned to this meeting of disparate people who were opposed to each other, who were actually sitting together, staring right across from each other. The slightest movement or body language or gesture by Al, a resettling of his weight in a chair, produced a reaction from McCauley, De Niro. McCauley’s thinking, is Hanna’s right hand moving three inches closer to where he suspects he has a gun holstered? Should he shift his weight so that he has access to his weapon so that he could be two or three milliseconds faster?
That kind of minute thinking is going on in one part of the brain. While in the other part, they are moving into such intimacy that only strangers can have. When you tell somebody what you dream and then McCauley says I have a woman. He’s telling him things you couldn’t tell anybody else. He knows that Hanna has already confessed that his life is not barbecues and baseball games and that it’s pretty fu*ked up. He runs down that I’ve got a stepdaughter who’s a mess. I’m on my third wife and that’s not going anywhere, because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. Then he starts to get almost Dear Abby advice from Neil McCauley on what he’s doing wrong. Hanna takes in that advice and says, “What about you?” When McCauley says, “I have a woman,” he asks, “What do you tell her?” “She thinks I’m a salesman.” Then he asks, what are you going to do if you see me around the corner and he says, “I’m going to flee, and that’s the discipline.” You could tell that Hanna doesn’t quite believe him.
Now, cut to when Hanna’s convinced he’s lost McCauley. McCauley is going for Waingro [who spoiled the bank robbery], and Hanna’s heard it. He lands by helicopter and there’s a crowd of people. He looks through the crowd and the masses of people and fire engines, and he sees a woman alone in a car. And he knows that’s where McCauley is.
DEADLINE: So McCauley revealed too much…
MANN: That’s why Hanna wanted the meeting and why McCauley wanted the meeting. So the question for the actors is, what’s my action? Why do I want to meet this guy? What am I there for in the first place? It’s because you may learn something. They both are so skilled that they know that their subconscious may pick something up later on because of something that they’ve registered or learned by being face to face. What they didn’t expect by being face to face is that they’re in many ways the same guy and they didn’t expect there to be this rapport. Real respect and rapport for each other, and then regret. So of course Hanna is not going to hesitate for a moment to shoot this guy. He has total regret that he’s just ended the life of Neil McCauley. That’s not a contradiction. They’re both true, and that’s the way life is. It’s only in fiction that these things become these neat, symmetrical contradictions. So the challenge of the whole movie was to try and make a drama that is really pulled from life, is about life, and is the way life is. For me personally, that was the challenge.
DEADLINE: That scene you mentioned with the fire trucks and chaos around that hotel where McCauley kills Waingro. McCauley’s decision to leave Eady and escape doesn’t take longer than the 30 seconds he talked about in that coffee shop. Was it that precise?
MANN: Hanna is running down Century Boulevard, headed to the airport. He doesn’t know which way to look, as people are running past him. He turns over his shoulder and I ramped him to slow motion. You don’t really perceive it but in fact he slows down ever so slightly and the sound starts to disappear. You’re suddenly seeing what he’s seeing. Then there’s that long lens shot of this woman, alone in that Camaro. She looks anxious. He starts to walk and then he runs right for that car. This is the woman McCauley had mentioned. He knows by now McCauley went for the bait. And then McCauley sees him, and knows he’s never going to see this woman again.
DEADLINE: Why set the climax in that barren place near the planes like you did?
MANN: That was the most transient place I could find. I wanted to find a landscape that was so transient that it started to achieve a surreal effect on you but still maintained the gritty reality of the movie. For me, it’s always the couple hundred yards before the runway starts at airports. Most people don’t go there, it’s a place where transients populate. There are towers, those orange and white buildings. I’m just attracted to places like that. The edge of runways, with those blue lights in them for example, they’re quite beautiful at dusk or at night. They’re part of our urban landscape but they have an unusual quality. The same way that Vegas in the 70s was kind of a Twilight Zone because you had all of these empty lots and then a casino. That’s all gone now.
DEADLINE: You’ve had memorable pairings that were critical to films all through your career. I always wonder how you know that two actors will be the right chemical match. How did you know De Niro and Pacino would mesh, when their styles are so different…
MANN: That’s because the characters are so different and that’s where it starts. Neil McCauley, his life is lived from the inside out and he’s a very inward directed man. He is very thoughtful and has a lot of forethought and logic to what he’s going to do. So he’s somebody who takes his own counsel a lot. Hanna is the same, but there’s a part of Hanna that engages in displays of street theater, all to an objective. When he is particularly frustrated and he’s just being himself…I’m talking about Hanna now, not Pacino. When their surveillance of the burglary goes wrong because one of the uniform cops sits down and his rifle hits the wall in the truck and McCauley hears that and because of professional discipline, he just says we walk. I don’t know what it is. There’s a noise that doesn’t belong here. There’s some trucks that don’t belong here. We’re walking away, and they just walk.
Vincent gets in an argument with the uniformed superior who says, arrest them anyway for breaking and entering. Hanna’s pissed off and is frustrated beyond belief and they’re going to have to start over. That whole scene, the rage is completely contained. He’s very, very quiet and it breaks into the rhythm of his words and it’s a wonderful little scene that’s totally contained. On the other hand, when he’s working with one of his informants like Albert Torena and Richard Torena, played by Ricky Harris and Tone Loc, there’s a hilarious scene in this chop shop that’s behind a dog fighting kennel, an illegal abattoir we found in an unincorporated part of Wilmington. It was all real, we just moved the cameras in. When Torena says my brother’s not here, and Hanna breaks into song and says, don’t waste my motherfu*king time, that’s all street theater. That’s all to convince your informant that he cannot predict your behavior, and because you are not predictable, you are dangerous and he’d better come across. It is meant to disrupt and disorient the informant. It’s all to a purpose. So it’s Hanna, acting. I have such a high regard for both men as artists of stunning integrity and authenticity, that the idea of working with the two of them together in the same film was kind of a dream. Al Pacino is Vincent Hanna with that theatricality, and the tremendous intensity that De Niro is capable of that made me know it was going to make Neil McCauley work.
DEADLINE: A moment on some of the other pairings. Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe made such a romantic couple in Last of the Mohicans. I would not have imagined Daniel Day Lewis coming out My Left Foot could become a frontier hero, or that Stowe could emerge a frontier woman. How’d you know?
MANN: Well, she’s not really a frontier woman. She’s very extroverted, she has fantastic, flamboyant energy. She’s half Colombian and half English. The idea was somebody playing opposite to that, meaning in a fictional character. I imagined her living in Grosvenor Square, an upper middle class neighborhood of the middle of the 18th century. I know the music she would have been listening to in 1755. She would have come from a society that had very strict codes and very strict mores and values. Not to say that there wasn’t rebelliousness, but that I wanted a woman who was passionate and was restrained by the very hierarchical class system, and the morays and values of the society she came from in the Middle Georgian period. So I liked casting somebody as volatile as I knew Madeleine could be.
When I met Daniel, I just thought he could do anything. He was a great athlete, a long distance runner with no upper body development whatsoever. It’s interesting who got it, when I said Daniel Day-Lewis. Roger Birnbaum and Joe Roth at Fox got it immediately. I didn’t even have to explain it. What a great idea. Everybody else was like, the old crippled guy in a wheelchair from My Left Foot? Daniel is a great athlete and it came down to his sense of commitment to project himself into a culture totally alien to him. That is to say, make yourself Daniel Boone, which is culture and skill sets appropriated from Native Americans. Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, many other young males went to live with some of the native peoples. Now, you talk about Madeleine and Daniel, when he is coming on to her. Courtship among the Iroquois was forthright and candid. Sex was permitted, premarital sex was accepted, marriages were monogamous, and if you saw a woman you liked, the accepted approach, the norm, would have been a very forward invitation. That’s why he has that look when they’re in the infirmary. That’s where it’s coming from.
DEADLINE: How long did take for Daniel to become that character?
MANN: Daniel was on it for seven or eight months. He started running, carrying a musket, in England. How he didn’t get arrested I have no idea, because they weigh a lot. Just to build himself up. He did a lot of work in England before he came here.
DEADLINE: His transformation was remarkable and so was Will Smith’s for Ali. Which of your actors put the most rigorous prep into realizing the character on the page?
MANN: There’s a number of them, but it’s not rigorous prep. It’s an adventure. Who wouldn’t want to? If you have serious artistic ambition, and self-confidence, who would want to do it any other way? To go on the adventure, if you’re an actor, to be able to become a character that you’re invested in?
DEADLINE: How long did it take Will Smith to become a boxer skilled enough to handle himself in the ring? I interviewed him then and he looked like he could beat up anybody that I’ve ever met.
MANN: He did. When we were sparring in Africa, one of his sparring partners was either the No. 1 or No. 2 boxer in Zimbabwe. They got into it and Will probably won two of the three rounds that they fought. That took eight months. First of all, Will and I both had a real commitment to make that movie. Will wasn’t getting any younger. At 33, if he was going to play Ali, that was the time, this was the screenplay. I am one year younger than Ali and he was my hero in growing up in the ’60s. What infuriated Ali, whether it was the murder of Patrice Lumumba, or the atrocities in the South, the civil right struggle or the politics of Vietnam, infuriated me too. So we shared the same reactions to things that were occurring on the 6 o’clock news in 1964 to 1967. So Will and I were both very committed to do that movie and that’s why we put into it what we did. I built a gym about four blocks from my office and Will was there every single morning five days a week for a half day of boxing with Angelo Dundee and we had Michael Olajide, great trainers, and then Ali, whenever he was around. Which was a lot.
DEADLINE: Tom Cruise? He really looked like he knew what he was doing in Collateral.
MANN: He did. I had him out stalking my various crew members for assassination, without them knowing it. They’d be coming from the gym early in the morning and they’d be putting their gym bag in the car and all of a sudden they’d feel a tap on their back and someone had planted a Post-It there. It was Tom, who’d been stalking them for four days and figuring out the kill. It’s also Breeden, Waingro, it’s William Fichtner becoming the money launderer Roger Van Zant. It’s my responsibility, as well as the thrill of it all, to try and help an actor get to that point where when I say action, they are it, they are the guy. They’re filled with confidence and they know exactly what they’re doing. The slightest gesture is all coming from someplace of conviction. To me, that’s the most exciting thing. You have to be working with terrific actors and actresses, whether it’s Amy Brenneman or Ashley Judd, Diane Venora. And Jon Voight was incredible, in both Heat and Ali. His character in Heat as Nate is based on somebody we both knew.
DEADLINE: That was Eddie Bunker, right?
MANN: Eddie Bunker wrote a book that became the movie Straight Time. There’s such calibration in the bolo tie, the scruffy hair, his slow movements. Compare that to his Howard Cosell, which took 4 1/2 hours of makeup every morning. When he was in that makeup he was in character, the whole time.
DEADLINE: Small world. Danny Trejo was a drug counselor who came to a movie set to help keep a guy straight, and ran into Bunker, who knew Danny when he was the boxing champ in the prison where both served time. Next thing, Trejo was training the star and fighting him in the movie, and he walked away with a SAG card and new career. I always wondered about that scene where the bank robbery is about to go down and Trejo calls McCauley from a pay phone to says he’s out, because he can’t shake police surveillance. Later, when it’s clear he was double crossed, McCauley comes to kill him and finds Trejo battered and dying in a pool of blood, his wife massacred in the bedroom. It’s ambiguous, but a deleted scene indicated Trejo was in on it with Waingro and Van Zant’s thugs. What happened there?
MANN: The deal was that he and his wife had been grabbed by Waingro and the other thugs and he had been compelled to make the call and betray the robbery. Then he was double crossed and they killed him and his wife anyway. Their home had already been invaded and his wife was taken. The phone call came first and you couldn’t give it away there, because I didn’t want you to know when they were recruiting Breeden, that the robbery had already been ratted out to the police.
DEADLINE: The precision and attention to detail is something you don’t see that much of anymore in crime procedurals. How much harder has it gotten for a filmmaker who tells stories that aren’t reliant on four quadrant targets or massive visual effects? Studios look for billion dollar grosses and that means mass appeal. How much harder is it to ply your craft now than it was back when you made Heat or The Mohicans or The Insider in the ’90s?
MANN: I don’t think it’s any different. I’ll tell you why. Those films have really good stories and very good writing. For me, I believe that a great story, something really terrific, that’s well-written, absolutely transcends all of the perceived conventional wisdom of what’s supposed to work and not supposed to work. Everybody, whether they’re financiers, distributors, actors they respond the same way. What a great story. We kind of have some faith that audiences are going to respond that way as well and then when they do, all of a sudden there’s a new trend. We’re in a very exciting period. There’s great writing in television. There are a lot of good movies.
DEADLINE: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu lamented to Deadline the studio preoccupation on superhero movies. He felt they were not good for storytelling because there were not grounded dilemmas that human beings struggled through. Instead, they rely on an institutionalized higher power to save the day. Do you feel good about the way the studio business is going?
MANN: I don’t agree with that analysis, at all. Whether it’s a movie, or great literature like Henry James, or great religious art, quality makes for something resonant and lasting, that has compelling power where you look at it and it hooks you. It’s like when you’re walking into La Chapelle, which is around the corner from Notre Dame, for the tenth time. It catches you the same way, each time. It can happen when you’re watching a movie. I disagree with what he said. Take The Avengers, the movie Joss Whedon directed. That movie works, because the story is good. It’s wry, it has sarcastic humor. Those can be really powerful.
If there is a powerful story that really is resonant, it makes the movie transcends the conventional wisdom of whether this genre works or doesn’t. You can think of these movies as general categories of genre, but that is a very quantitative way of doing it, and it gets trumped every time there is something completely different that breaks the pattern. That happens, all the time. For example, when Heat was released in December, 1995, I don’t remember it being preceded by a recent epical drama on its scale. It did about $75 million, which means there were 25 million people who came to see it, when tickets were a few bucks. Today, when tickets are $10 or $12, the picture would have grossed what, domestically, $300 million? You knock them out, you knock them out. Period. I believe in the power of story, and nothing can save a movie if the story isn’t there.
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