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.”
Chatting with Mike Wallace: Christopher Plummer played the legendary journo in 1999’s “The Insider,” and the ever-detailed Mann insisted that, when they weren’t allowed to shoot in the “60 Minutes” office, they’d recreate them. They got someone to snap photos. When Wallace found out, Mann said, he was furious. Yet he and Mann would still have some late night conversations. “He was usually railing on the real Lowell Bergman,” Mann said, referring to the news producer played by Al Pacino. “He’d launch into some acerbic and very funny dialogue. I said, ‘Mike, can I record this, because it’s great and I’m putting it in the movie?’”
Studying Muhammad Ali: Mann broke down the boxer’s famous pre-bout raps, finding them to be dense and playful. “Some of his raps he became a kind of revolving narrator. He had three minds. He’d be Uncle Remus, then he’d break into somebody else, then break into a third person,” Mann says. He remembered meeting him to get permission to make “Ali,” and was struck by the way he sat: He’d put his hands daintily together on his chest. “I asked him about it, and he said he was protecting his hands, like a pianist. They’re the most fragile and important [parts of his body]. Those are his tools.”
Why he went all-digital with “Collateral”: The 2004 thriller was among the first studio films shot entirely with digital cameras. Mann hasn’t returned to 35mm, but he says that’s not on purpose. “I don’t have a principle about it. Each film’s different,” he said. For “Collateral” it simply made technical and aesthetic sense. “The whole movie’s taking place at night and I wanted that world to be alive,” he explained. “Never in a million years could reveal that world on film. You’d have f-stops that would be wide open, you’d have no depth of field. All the backgrounds would be de-focused into blurs. You wouldn’t have that sense of landscape and clouds in the night sky. The whole movie took place in one night. That was the reason to push ourselves into R&D-ing the technology to shoot ‘Collateral’ digitally.” (Still, the movie was never shown digitally, as DCP didn’t exist. One can see it projected digitally on Tuesday.) It still made him nervous. “No one had ever shot a whole feature film like this, on basically newsreel cameras. For the first three weeks I kept having these nightmares that it didn’t really exist. They were spending all this money, shooting all this tuff, but it only exists in memory. There was no record of any film.” (Luckily he was just being paranoid.)
And why “Public Enemies” was shot on digital: Mann said they were “right down to the wire” about whether they’d shoot his 2009 historical crime epic on film or video. “We ran tests and the cars, the objects, the rain, the night streets all looked elegant on film. They looked like beautiful historical artifacts. Digitially it looked like I’m there. I’ve suddenly entered the time tunnel and I am alive in 1933.”
Why he moved around the nuclear power plant attack in “Blackhat”: In the pre-release cut of last year’s thriller shown to some journalists, the power plant attack happens 2/3rds of the way through the film. He put it at the beginning for its theatrical release, then moved it back for the new cut that was shown this week at the retro. “I thought the film would benefit from having some tangible danger be there at the beginning. Then when I looked at the film a few months ago, I thought it would be better to just have the soy attack,” he said, referring to the villains’ first hack strike. Having it back where it was originally, he said, makes the story easier to follow.
Will this new “Blackhat” cut be released on video?: “We’ll see,” he said obliquely.
Will “The Keep” ever get re-released or re-worked?: Mann doesn’t talk much about his 1983 horror flop, often treated as a bad cinema classic. He’s not enthused to return to it, but he said it was “a joy” to make. He fondly remembered working with John Box, the legendary production designer of “Oliver!” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” who built a truly awe-inspiring set at Shepperton Studios in England. One problem was the death of Wally Veevers, the storied visual effects supervisor, who had worked on such biggies as 1936’s “Things to Come” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “We were never able to quite figure out how he was going to combine all these components.” That may explain why the monster looks a bit silly.
Does he read writing about his work?: Sometimes! “There are some books that are esoteric and I can’t get past page two or three,” he said, chuckling. Some really get the deeper details he was going for. He was surprised, in a book called “The Philosophy of Michael Mann” (“an embarrassing title,” he cracked), that a writer had sussed out the specifics of the three judicial systems in “The Last of the Mohicans” — of the Huron people, the American colonialists and the Brits — which had come from deep dive research.
Lastly, the current status of his Enzo Ferrari film?: Christian Bale recently dropped out of his next project, about the Italian racer. So what’s up? “I can’t talk about that,” he said. “We’re in the process of recasting and deciding whether or not we’ll do it. Maybe we’ll do it this year or next year.” Stay tuned!