Michael Mann on Directing, Visual Motifs, and That Scene in ‘Heat’

If you poke around film circles on the Internet long enough, you’ll discover Michael Mann has become a strangely divisive figure. His quasi-mainstream productions of the 1990s – Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider – are generally well-regarded; ditto his early 2000s work, in which he began to dip into riskier formal experimentation and a sui generis digital-heavy aesthetic. But his last three pictures (Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat), which went all in on that style, have seen a decidedly mixed reception from critics and audiences; thus the Mann-iac was born, digging in his/her (usually his) heels on his auteurist brilliance and shrugging that everybody else just doesn’t get him. Confession: I’m a bit of a Mann-iac myself, so I was in proud attendance at our convention last night, aka the “Conversation with Michael Mann” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The 90-minute talk was a centerpiece event of “Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann,” BAM’s 12-day career retrospective, and it found the somewhat elusive filmmaker – with the help of Vulture film critic and frequent Mann booster Bilge Ebiri – in fine form, with thoughtful examinations of his films and four-star turns of phrase like “actual kinetic action at a distance” and “the poetry of expression” and “solipsistic perception of the universe.” It was a wide-ranging talk, in which he discussed his work, his process, and some of his most famous sequences.

The most famous of all, of course, is the Pacino-DeNiro duet in his 1995 masterpiece Heat, in which a career criminal and the cop who’s doggedly pursuing him put their business on hold, for just a few minutes, to share a chat and a cop of coffee. That scene wasn’t just the impetus for the script, Mann explained, but a scene taken from real life. DeNiro’s character, Neil McCauley, was based on and named after a real Chicago thief, while Pacino’s Vincent Hanna was based on Detective Chuck Adamson, who worked with cop-turned-actor and Mann mainstay Dennis Farina. Farina told Mann the story of their cup of coffee, which played out much as it does in the movie. “Both [were] motivated by the exact same agenda,” Mann explained, “which was I’ll sit with this guy, and consciously and subconsciously, I will find out stuff about him. I will just sense things about him. And maybe now, maybe two months from now, maybe a year from now, I will have to make a decision about what he’s gonna do or not do. And the more I know, the sharper my intuition’s gonna be, and that may save my life. So that became the kernel, the nexus of the movie.”

That scene found him working with two of the most famously immersive Method actors of our time; he’s directed such similarly intense thesps as Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Crowe in other films. The secret? “There is no secret, there’s just work,” he shrugged. “I have a tremendous admiration for what actors do, and I feel that it’s my obligation to know their language and how they process stuff. What I take to directing is to set the actor up, so that when the stimuli comes, he has a set of reactions, and I may want to adjust his reactions so they may be different… I work with them in designing the curriculum, so by the time of rehearsals, the actor’s in character, he is where we’re moving towards what we might do, but don’t actually get there – and the idea is, all that happens on take five or six or seven.”

Bilge Ebiri and Michael Mann at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

That word, curriculum, seemed particularly noteworthy; he tends to make films about characters (usually men) who are very particular, businesslike, focused, perhaps even perfectionists. One gets the sense in listening to him talk that he operates in much the same way (there’s a reason nearly all of his films have seen post-release “director’s cut” tinkering, up to and including BAM unveiling a revised cut of last year’s Blackhat). But all of those characters have their depths and reveries, and Ebiri pointed out that many of his films find their way to a key, recurring image: of a man gazing out into a void, usually the sea. The motif is “nothing self-conscious,” Mann explained, but it does convey “a sense of solitude and contemplation, that becomes that image.” When he uses it in Heat, to show DeNiro in his apartment, “there’s an emptiness to that room, it’s not furnished, there’s no set decoration. He doesn’t really live here – that’s a way station he’s passing through as opposed to being a home. He’s not home.” So he knows it’s there, “but I don’t go searching for, y’know, oh where’s my moment to have my shot?”

Yet those little moments, those unexpected cutaways and escapes and mirages, are in many ways what make a Michael Mann film. How does he find those moments? “They present themselves,” he said, as long as he’s interested in seeing his characters as people rather than as chess pieces in a genre exercise. “Everybody has a life, and I really wasn’t interested in two-dimensional antagonists or villains. Everybody is somebody else’s mother, brother, father, sister, child. Everybody’s got a life that’s dimensional.”

“Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann” continues through February 16 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.