Like the great classic tough guy filmmakers John Ford and Howard Hawks, Michael Mann is a Hollywood filmmaker who’s also seen as an artist. Where Ford and Hawks were uncomfortable with people like Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride treating them as such, Mann embraces it, even encourages it. His films, including “Thief,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat,” “Collateral” and last year’s “Blackhat” invite deeper readings, not only into themes but into his oft-pioneering craft.
Mann’s work is currently the subject of a rare complete retrospective at BAM in Brooklyn, NY. The filmmaker swung by BAM’s Harvey Rose Theater for a 90-minute conversation with Vulture film critic (and Mann superfan) Bilge Ebiri (who also did a terrific interview with him before the talk). The discussion explored his entire career, even, briefly, his 1983 boondoggle (and secret semi-success) “The Keep.” Here’s the highlights:
R. Kelly tried, failed to mimic Sam Cooke in “Ali”: Mann’s 2001 film about Muhammad Ali kicks off with a mesmerizing, time-jumping montage set to a medley of Sam Cooke songs, which had to be recreated. “It was an adventure trying to find anybody who could do that,” remembered Mann. He wound up casting David Elliott, Whitney Huston’s cousin. “He’d been singing spirituals since he was four. Only because of that did he have the power to carry that medley. I had a lot of famous R&B singers who said, ‘I’m gonna kill it,’ and after three takes they were done. Including R. Kelly.”
Why he chose Tangerine Dream to score “Thief” (and later “The Keep”): Released mere months before MTV, “Thief” wound up being compared to music videos, with its reliance on dreamy scenes set to tunes by the German electronic music outfit. “My gut wanted me to use Chicago blues,” Mann said. “The dilemma is that it would have given it regional specificity. I had what I thought were important themes that could emerge better from something abstract. Tangerine Dreams’ roots are in blues, so even though it’s electronic music it’s still a 12-bar blue structure.” He then wondered if reworking the score with blues would make it a better film before Ebiri reminded him, “’Thief’ is a pretty f—ing great movie.”
Why he cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans”: Before “Mohicans” Day-Lewis was not thought of as an action star. What made Mann bet on him? “He’s a great actor,” he replied. “I knew enough about him. I knew that he was a long distance runner, so he was very athletic.” But Mann doesn’t cast on mere athleticism. “What I look for is the spiritual side, the inner man. I look for that affinity to his character. All the other physical attributes we can train.”