Last night at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, as part of their “Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann” retrospective, the legendary filmmaker himself graced the stage for an engaging one-hour-plus talk. The conversation spanned his entire career tracking the very early days (TV movie “The Jericho Mile”), his debut feature (“Thief”), his crime classics ("Manhunter," “Heat,” “Miami Vice”) and his latest film, the cyber hacker movie “Blackhat,” which he recently recut for the retrospective (read our review here).
Fiercely intelligent and an autodidact known for his near-mythic levels of research when immersing himself in a project — he’s only made eleven features in thirty-four years and abandoned several projects despite years of investigation — Mann’s films often center on the codes of men and their professions, usually revolving around crime. These men often live what Mann constantly refers to as an “authentic life,” and this deep discussion left no stone unturned in terms of the filmmaker’s all-consuming examination of character, motivation, and psychology.
Engaging, though potentially dense for the outsider, it was clear from the dialogue that Mann considers everything; all points of subjectivity, character self-awareness, the psychology of form, and more. The incredibly insightful director discussed his characters' quest for identity, the construction of personal presentation, and the contradictions of representation with heady observations.
Moderated by sharp Vulture scribe Bilge Ebiri — who rightly called out the ending of “Last Of the Mohicans” as one of the great all-time sustained action sequences featuring just sound and music, and essentially no dialogue — the simplest questions often elicited a deep philosophical or academic digression or footnote. All of it was fascinating, some of it you kind of had to be there for (not all of the abstract and philosophical musings will translate as well to the page). But regardless, it was a spirited and engaging conversation and if/when BAM releases the entire video you should definitely absorb it in full. In the meantime, highlights from the talk below.
The impetus for recutting his hacker film, “Blackhat,” and specifically the two chief cyber attacks in the movie. The recut version, four minutes longer, had its world premiere at BAM earlier this week.
As explained in our recap, the new cut of “Blackhat” reorders the two main attacks in the movie. The film originally opened with a nuclear cyber attack and then followed it with a commodities hack that affected the stock market. In the new version, their order is reversed.
“I thought the film would benefit from having a tangible danger at the beginning,” Mann said. “Then I looked at the film a number of months ago and I thought, ‘No, it was better to have the soy hack in front.’ But it’s not just the value of two different events. The soy hack allowed audiences to track in a much clearer way the plot of the story. We start with Viola Davis saying, 'How did [the virus] get in?' and that’s the whole motive of act one: how did this [malware] code get in? Tracking that plot point is much more easily done in this configuration. That track is the engine that takes you down the road of the film. So, to me, it’s a much more accessible, and therefore much more exciting story now.”
Are there any plans to release the director's cut? “We’ll see.”
His time at Fulsom Prison informed and echoed through the rest of his career.
Mann shot on location in Fulsom Prison for 19 days during the production of the little-seen (but pretty great and complex) TV movie “Jericho Mile” (read more about it here). Mann said Eddie Bunker, the professional bank robber turned actor (he’s in “Reservoir Dogs”) and Hollywood crime advisor — whose book “No Beast So Fierce” which was adapted into “Straight Time” by Dustin Hoffman (on which Mann himself did screenplay revisions) — helped him make inroads with the wardens and prisoners in Fulsome for safe passage.
“By the way, Jon Voight’s whole character in ‘Heat,’ is Eddie Bunker. That’s what the guy looked like, amazing guy,” Mann revealed. “Bunker put us in contact with Black Guerrilla Family and [several other gangs] and was able to help us negotiate an agreement between these [prison] gangs that there would be no warring,” preventing filming from getting shut down.
Mann said he thought visiting a prison would be an “oppressive situation, and the men would be oppressed by the system of guards, but it was the exact opposite. The guards were scared to death of the convicts, basically hiding in the gun tower and most of [the guards] were either short or skinny or overweight and the convicts in a joint like Fulsom had a brio that I came to understand.”
“It was a fascinating experience,” he explained. “But the most poignant one was walking by one guy’s cell.” Mann explained how all the cells were wall papered with pornography, a fantasy, he said. But one cell of a guy doing time for the rest of his life was lined with unremarkable black and white photos of himself, his wife and his life and the child he’d never meet.
“It just stopped me,” he said. “It was so powerful and moving because I knew what this guy was doing. He was doing real time. He was not fantasizing, he was aware of every single moment that he’s not part of and life goes by and he’s outside that dynamic. And it’s a very poignant and poetic thing about someone who is living life totally authentically. And that lead me to an understanding of [James Caan’s character] in ‘Thief,’ Peter Strauss in ‘Jericho Mile’ and how hard it is to do time when you can’t game yourself into being delusional.”
Arguably that also informs the characters of “Heat,” “Collateral,” “Public Enemies” and more. The oft-repeated theme of the night that seemed to consistently hook Mann was those who lead an “authentic life.”
Mann wanted Chicago Blues music for “Thief,” but settled for an electronic score in the end.
“My gut wanted me to use Chicago blues, because I loved it and listened to it live in some of the best circumstances possible,” he explained, discussing seeing Muddy Waters in a bar in 1962. “Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, that was really what I was driven towards, it had regional specificity, but the dilemma was that… it had important themes that I thought would emerge better with something abstract like electronic music. And the Tangerine Dream’s roots are in blues, so even though it was electronic it was a 12-bar blues structure.” Mann added a little later that he still wasn’t sure if he made the right call about the score, to which Ebiri hilariously rejoined, “Please don’t recut 'Thief.' ”