Michael Mann on Luck | Interview
The film director bets on HBO’s Luck.
I’d heard film director Michael Mann can be a tad contrarian in interviews. I realized what that meant when the man behind movies about a serial killer (Manhunter), whistle-blower (The Insider), hit man (Collateral) and bank robber (Public Enemies) took exception to the idea that he’s interested in outsiders. As executive producer and pilot director of HBO’s new series Luck, the Chicago native turns his attention and famously rigorous research to the people involved in a California racetrack, including Dustin Hoffman’s ex-con magnate Ace, Nick Nolte’s weary trainer Walter and four degenerate gamblers. (Just don’t call any of them “outsiders.”)
What made David Milch’s script for Luck, as you’ve described it, one of the best pieces of writing anyone had ever passed to you?
It’s about a world that’s esoteric and arcane. I own a horse and ride, but I don’t know racing or betting. And what was so brilliant about it was the way he reveals everything about the people from the inside out, without the history, the prelude, the exposition or even the context. That is very difficult to do, and it’s very challenging to direct.
That suggests The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis’s take on you. She said what gives your films their power isn’t your stories but how you turn the ineffable—states of mind, feelings—into cinema.
That’s a high compliment from Manohla Dargis; it’s a very high compliment. And it’s not inaccurate. To just tell a story from beginning, middle and end doesn’t motivate me that much.
Why does this approach motivate you more?
When you can pull it off, it’s a much more intense experience when you feel that you’re just dropped into somebody’s life. It feels more real. The internalization of perspective really fascinates me.
It also asks more of TV audiences who are used to quickly paced plots. The L.A. Times said Luck moves with “slow, often maddening deliberation.” Entertainment Weekly’s very positive review said, “Luck will need its own kind of luck to convince HBO subscribers to go with the rhythm of its storytelling.”
I don’t underestimate audiences’ intelligence. Audiences are much brighter than media gives them credit for. When people went to a movie once a week in the 1930s and that was their only exposure to media, you were required to do a different grammar. The exposure people have had to media across all these decades means not only do you not have to waste time with a sequential revelation of who people are and what the story’s about, but when you do, it’s boring. It’s boring to me to do.
When HBO saw the pilot, did they ask for some more plot to hook viewers?
No, not at all. These guys are great to work with. They’re there to roll the dice. If you go to HBO and present them with a conventional project, they’ll say, “That’s terrific. You really belong at NBC.”
Your films, and Luck as well, focus on strong men with a “world-weary machismo,” as one critic put it. As you’re growing older—you turn 70 next year—do you find yourself more interested in those strong men aging?
No [Laughs], no. It’s great to have people who possess the power of some wisdom. At the same time, what does never cease to excite me is youthful aggression.
The recurring figure in your work of the outlaw or lone wolf appears here with Hoffman’s and Nolte’s characters. Why have you been so compelled by the outsider figure?
I would dispute that. I don’t really think Ace is an outsider. Ace did three years in prison that he shouldn’t have had to do, but he was part of an organization. Nolte is a trainer who comes from a society of Kentucky horse breeding; he’s been expelled in a way and is a loner only now.
Yes, he’s a loner when we meet him. And Hoffman’s only real society is his bodyguard.
Just because you take counsel with yourself mostly doesn’t make you a loner.
You don’t think your work has been interested in the outsider? The whistle-blower in The Insider, Dillinger in Public Enemies—
I think that’s a bad generalization. [The Insider’s] Lowell Bergman’s surely not a loner or an outsider. He’s an insider who then gets kicked out.
An insider who becomes an outsider.
He’s not an outsider. He went to work for Frontline. In fact, the only guy I can think of who really was totally a wild child, an autodidactic guy is maybe Frank in Thief. Everybody else is part of a society; they have relationships with people.
Ace says, “Hands are dealt. We get to see how we play them.” Is that your worldview?
No, I have many worldviews. One of the things I think—none of which constitute a philosophy that’s coherent or unified—is, What do we do in life?, which then gets to, What is luck? Somebody defined it as preparation meets opportunity. We bring our preparation to the table, and opportunity may present itself, and if you are well prepared, you can seize opportunity and then maybe something good happens, and you call that luck.
How does that pertain to your own life?
It doesn’t. I like it when I’m prepared and don’t like it when I’m not.
Luck premieres January 29 at 8pm on HBO.