Editors’ Note: Deadline’s latest series, Reopening Hollywood, focuses on the incredibly complicated effort to get the industry back on its feet while ensuring the safety of everyone involved. Our goal is to examine numerous sides of the business and provide forum for leaders in Hollywood who have a vision for how production could safely restart in the era of coronavirus.
Michael Mann is renowned for series that include Miami Vice and Crime Story, and he’s shaping the tone by directing the pilot of a major new HBO Max series Tokyo Vice, an hourlong crime drama that stars Ansel Elgort as a Western journalist covering the crime beat in Tokyo who finds himself running afoul of a major crime boss. The episode was just finding its rhythm when coronavirus shut everything down. How to recapture the momentum?
DEADLINE: What an unusual moment, where you head to Tokyo to shoot a pilot, and then, wham.
MICHAEL MANN: It’s a weird time, but what can you do? I have this sense that the conscious perception of people is that this is a state, it’s temporary, and it’s going to end. With antibodies, vaccines, or just…the season will be over. I’m not so certain. What’s interesting is that for the first time, everybody on the planet is sharing these circumstances simultaneously, in real time. That’s never happened before, ever. It’s globalized; whether you’re in Mozambique or Taiwan, you’re wearing a mask, or you know that you should be socially distant. This is like science fiction, where the population of the planet is suddenly threatened by a death ray. That is fiction of course, but there’s some kind of homogeneity that it’s all people on the planet. Well, this is actually the first time there is that. It’s really unusual.
DEADLINE: If a death ray was being aimed at us, the movie would have global forces and leaders banding together to fight a common enemy. So much of the reaction to the pandemic has hobbled by polarized politics and blaming others and not being accountable…
MANN: You know, even if you are violently opposed to Trump, which I am, everybody is infected with the modality of thinking coming out of Washington. It’s this polarization. There’s no sense of empathy. People blithely want to disregard separation and social distancing, and there’s nobody…as one person said, I’d like to take you, go show you some of the dead bodies in the morgue, and what this does to you. You know, there’s not even a projection of empathy.
DEADLINE: Baltasar Kormakur has a studio in Iceland and restarted a Netflix series and Tyler Perry is doing the same at his studio. Despite uncertainties in areas from insurance to completion bonds to safety measures, there is a collective resolve that this industry needs to get back into production. How do we get these productions back up?
MANN: Yeah, it’s very difficult, and unusual in our circumstances. When we decided to leave, I had shot six of 18 days, and the conditions in Japan were vastly superior to the conditions here.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
MANN: Well, first of all, the infection rate at that time was reported to be about 2,000 in the whole country, on March 19. They may have been painting a slightly rosy picture on infections, because they were at that time wanting the Olympics to still happen, and then they gave up on that. The sense of life on the street in Tokyo was that starting in February, half the population was walking around in masks, and they all took the social distancing extremely seriously. And that’s easier to do in a country that has a homogeneous culture and is on an island, and it’s vastly different from this country. But the level of social awareness was already there; if someone gets a common cold in Japan, they wear a mask to not infect other people. Even when we left after March 17, 18, during that weekend, everybody was wearing masks, but the restaurants were mostly full, and life continued as normal. I don’t think it is now, but the reason we left had much more to do with the anxiety of our American crew’s families in the United States, those in New York that had to deal with actual conditions.
DEADLINE: What were they saying to you?
MANN: I wish I could have my family here, was what many of them told me. That’s why we pulled it when we did, and it was Endeavor Content’s Todd Sharp and Joe Hipps — Todd happened to be in Tokyo when we made this decision — John Lesher, myself, HBO Max’s Sarah Aubrey, Alan Poul and Satch Watanabe. It was decided to wrap. It was a very well-handled decision, and the way the crew was treated, the Japanese crew and the American crew, by Endeavor Content was, and HBOM, was very good.
DEADLINE: Many of the shutdowns came because governments said, no more.
MANN: When we wrapped, we became the only film that stopped shooting in Japan. Japanese production continued. Subsequently, they too stopped. If you were in Japan, you wouldn’t have felt threatened. 75 million people, and they had, at the time, less than a hundred deaths and 3,000 people infected. When we flew out on March 19, there was nobody at Narita Airport, and every airport worker had a mask on. We landed at LAX, and no masks, no gloves, no protection, nothing from customs officials, the CSA, immigration, nothing. My daughter was shooting in Spain on a Netflix two hour, and she was on the last plane out. She expected to return to a severe quarantine, and she landed at JFK, same experience. Nobody’s wearing gloves, nobody’s wearing masks.
DEADLINE: Where are you in terms of being able to get back in and restart?
MANN: We’re in probably better shape than productions that will have to start up. That has to do with insurance coverage, frankly. We have a policy. I think any new production that’s about to begin, the production’s going to be faced with the business affairs side of the studio saying, insurance companies aren’t going to insure us against claims because of COVID-19. They’re going to exempt that. If you were in production and you were interrupted, I think those studios feel secure in continuing. The bigger issue for us is, we want to do it safely, responsibly. There’s going to be new protocols put in place. The DGA is working on those in conjunction with the studios. What kind of testing will go on and what kind of separation, how to shoot a crowd scene. There’s no firm date. I don’t believe there’s much of a playbook. First of all, Japan has barred people from reentering. That has to be lifted. What kind of tests are they going to want? Because, the infection rate in the U.S. is much greater than Japan. So, they’re nervous about us. What kind of separation, what kind of daily testing? I shot six days. I had 12 days left. We have mothballed everything in Tokyo. We’re ready to resume. It’s when we can, and that’s an unknown, determined by all these other factors.
DEADLINE: Ever had a situation like that before, where you started production, and then you had to stop?
MANN: I did, but we only stopped for about three days. That was during the shooting of Miami Vice, the movie. I agreed to delay the production till the summer. I knew we were heading into the hurricane season, on the basis that they had to cover us, meaning the studio, if we ran into anything north of a tropical storm. And of course, we ran into the worst hurricane season in the North Atlantic in the last 100 years. We had Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Wilma, had a tropical storm, and at one point we had to stop in the Dominican Republic, and had nowhere to go, because Hurricane Wilma then destroyed our production offices, and Florida shut down for 10 days. We wound up going to Paraguay, and then back to Miami, and then finishing that up, and then going to Uruguay. But there was a lot of rewriting, you know, three days and three nights to change the ending of the movie. But I’ve never actually had to stop like this.
DEADLINE: What’s the hardest thing about that, visually and creatively?
MANN: You shoot material, it’s fresh in, all kinds of sensory detail about what you shot. Wait a minute, didn’t he turn to the left in such-and-such a moment, or, there was this great moment here in this shot. How do you pick up on that four or five months later, and the answer is to avoid that. So, I’ve been spending editing those individual scenes. Not a final edit, because the whole of the movie isn’t there. The whole of the hour isn’t there, but I’ve edited what I could remotely, which is a whole new experience.
DEADLINE: How is that?
MANN: Editing remotely is not bad. It’s the system everybody’s using now called Evercast. My editors, one stayed in Tokyo. I’m here on my computer. Another editor is in Glendale, and the assistant is somewhere else. No one is in the same room. But I’m seeing everything we’re doing in real time. It’s not bad, you know? I mean, when it’s working. And then suddenly everything goes out of sync, and the whole system crashes, and then you got to go get a cup of coffee while somebody fixes it. But you try not to get nuts and throw your computer out the window.
What is interesting in putting the scenes together, is how much I learned, primarily about the character that Ansel Elgort plays, and the promise of it. It’s theory before you shoot it. When you shoot it, it becomes realized, the French term of directing is realisateur, when you realize it in cinematic terms. I felt, this is better than I thought. This is really exciting and dynamic, and a breakout kind of character, Ansel as Jake Adelstein is. I think this will be a breakout, both for his work and for this kind of a character. It’s unusual, in very unusual circumstances. So you really learn, here’s where to go with it, here’s how to have a lead in a series that is just fascinating to watch. He’s on this quest to be a journalist, to be a reporter, to reveal some history that people didn’t know, to reveal the truth about something that happened, small truths, small pieces of history. Ansel has been ferocious, in prep. He wrote about three stories. Lowell Bergman, my friend from The Insider, hooked us up with Jason Felch, who teaches journalism but was an investigative reporter at the LA Times, used to be from the LA Times, and James Queally, a great crime reporter at the LA Times. We spent a time in South Central, downtown, and Ansel did three different stories to learn the complications of that job. He couldn’t do that kind of immersive work in Japan, given the language issue.
He threw himself in a four-hour, Japanese-language only classes every day. After an intense four weeks, he can walk into a restaurant and have a conversation and Japanese-speakers say his accent is good. He has a musical background, so his ability to memorize is something I noted from musicians and boxers, that for the same reason, they can memorize numbers or sounds in long sequences. Boxers because of the training, the one-one, three-one, the two left jabs, a right hook, and musicians, for obvious reasons. JT Rogers wrote the pilot and created the series. His character’s determination is to become a reporter in a very different culture…and at the same time, he’s got an American impetuosity that he has a difficulty restraining. That native impulse both services and disservices him. The locals in his neighborhood know him. He’s embedded there. Everywhere else, he’s a gaijin, he’s an outsider, in a society that’s not necessarily tolerant. I’m thrilled with what I’m seeing. It’s a very immersive piece of work he’s doing. That’s what I wanted from him, and it’s certainly what he’s done.
DEADLINE: Some of the best scenes in your films and series involve great dialogue in close quarters. How do you do that, post-pandemic?
MANN: Well, people are going to have to know that the people that they’re working with and acting with are free of this virus. I’m fairly maniacal about safety, for crews and cast. I’ve never had anybody seriously hurt, let alone killed, nothing like that in any production I’ve ever done. And so, you know, that has to be there. Everybody has to be secure in that, or they’re not going to be able to work. That means testing, daily testing, it means all of that.
DEADLINE: Knowing if your actor gets sick you shut down, which isn’t necessarily the case with a crew member who can be quarantined and then come back, are masks and gloves the new reality?
MANN: We were wearing masks when we stopped, everybody on the crew was wearing masks for four days before that. Masks were available, and sanitation was available. First thing we did is get rid of communal food, like the bowl of nuts everybody sticks their hands in. It happened gradually over six days, but everybody became alert. By the end we were taking serious precautions. There’ll be guidelines, and until they are established and can be implemented, no one is going to go, nor should they, go back to work. Steven Soderbergh is heading a committee that’s doing exactly that, working in conjunction with the studios. The DGA will say, here’s how we operate. The DGA, as an organization, is well equipped to run most things on the planet. We’d all be better off.
DEADLINE: Movie theaters are slowly trying to re-open and there were loud fights when Universal went straight to SVOD with Trolls World Tour. What’s the future look like for cinemas?
MANN: I don’t know. That I mean, I think that massive presentation is not going away, ever, any more than people are going to stop filling up soccer stadiums in Europe. That’s not going to stop, because you want to be with a mass of people, and in cinema particularly, the massive presentation isn’t going away. I shoot for it. Large presentation’s impact is irreplaceable. The less-than-massive presentation, multiplexes, and that part of it, I’m not sure. I don’t know what that business model is. These are real pedestrian observations. I would guess there’s going to be a rush to be able to get out and go back into restaurants, go to theaters. After that, what’s the fallout going to be? How fatal is this to exhibition? The future is very indeterminate. Like I said, I do not think this is a process that has a termination, a defined ending. This could sputter out a little bit. It could then come back, and through mutation and different ways, a flu season in October, November. I don’t think there’s any predictions that really apply to this.
DEADLINE: How’s your book imprint going, and when are we getting that prequel to Heat?
MANN: It’s a stack about 10 inches high on my desk right now. We’re on it, and I’m putting time into that and a screenplay I can’t tell you about. But I absolutely want to make a movie of the Heat prequel.