A Mann's world
Director Michael Mann returns to his hometown to be honored by the Gene Siskel Film Center
When the Gene Siskel Film Center holds its annual gala on Saturday 2, born-and-bred Chicagoan Michael Mann will be the man of the hour.
The world-renowned director-writer-producer will be presented with the center's 2005 Visionary Award for Innovation in Filmmaking to honor his career contributions, which were inspired right here in the city—where Mann watched movies before he even knew he wanted to make them. Years before his 2004 box-office hit Collateral dropped, before his production work on The Aviator got an Oscar nomination and before Robert De Niro came to regard him as one of his favorite directors.
Throughout his career, Mann, 62, has continued to use Chicago as a location for projects such as Thief (1981) and the Muhammad Ali biopic Ali (2001). Thief, Mann's first feature, starring James Caan, tells the story of a Chicago gangster trying to get out of the game and lead the straight life. His strong body of film works also includes The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999).
Mann's films are notable for their gorgeous framing; taut, minimalist scripts; and sly modernization of the noir film genre. His protagonists are dynamic, deeply troubled, desperate characters who appear larger than life but still feel as realistic and fallible as the people in the theater seats.
Mann began his career with the 1971 Cannes-winning short film, Juanpuri, followed by the documentary 17 Days Down the Line. He went on to write for the television shows Starsky and Hutch (1975) and Vega$ (1978), which led him to produce and write the '80s phenomenon Miami Vice. His return to features came via the tense sleeper hit Manhunter (1986), the first chapter in the Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) series. Manhunter cemented Mann's reputation as a director known for bringing out incredible performances from his leading men. He's slated to direct the upcoming Arms and the Man as well as a film adaptation of Miami Vice.
Time Out Chicago: When you first made Thief, released in 1981, not many films were being shot in Chicago.
Michael Mann: I really had a sense of coming home to shoot that film. That really was a dream. I mean, I started film school [the International Film School in London] when I was 22 and got out in 1968, and I began Thief in 1980 as my first feature film. So it took 12 years to finally direct a feature film. When I started looking for locations, there were things I remembered from when I was maybe 11 or 12. There's a steel cage encased in the steel bridges over the river on the north branch of the Chicago River and the kind of industrial landscape just south of the Loop. There's a place where we wound up called Rat Alley, because they had rats that you could put a saddle on.
TOC: How do you feel about being honored at the Gene Siskel Film Center?
MM: This is of very special significance for me: (a) because it's Chicago and (b) because it's the Art Institute. One of the only two theaters in town that showed foreign films was right across from the Art Institute. I think it was called World Cinema. I remember going there to see The Cranes Are Flying [directed by Mikhail Kalatozov]—before I even had any idea I wanted to make films. And at the time, the only serious cinema happening was French new wave and some Russian cinema that was coming through and that was across from the Art Institute. Chicago had an impact on me as a young man. I formed a sense of visual architecture in Chicago.
TOC: Do you ever find yourself in everyday situations constructing different potential visuals for film scenarios?
MM: It's worse than that. I stalk them. You just kind of become an avid hunter for these things. We were at probably the largest piece of civil engineering on this continent yesterday, the Itaipu Dam, which is between Paraguay and Brazil. It's extraordinary. It's an amazing piece of engineering and it reminds you of works by industrial photographers of the '20s and '30s, which is a very romantic perspective on industrial romanticism.
TOC: Do you think that your early documentary background led you to strive for authenticity in your portrayal of characters?
MM: No, I think I had a sense of people, growing up in the streets of Chicago, that took me to documentaries. One feeds the other. I would encounter stories and encounter people and then want to make something more formal about it. One of the ones I never did was a movie on Ed Sadlowski, who ran Steel Workers for a while in the '70s. He was a local, terrific story.
TOC: Do you consider yourself an actor's director?
MM: No. I consider myself as having the ambition to do all of it. I remember there was a time when I did not know how to talk to actors, and I felt frustrated and I felt that I was not being artistically responsible to myself for not learning that language. So I really applied myself to be able to find how to talk to actors.
TOC: Did you end up in acting workshops or classes?
MM: Yeah, I studied acting. One of the things I discovered through acting was the point of view of the director. I discovered that there is no one school of acting, that every great actor—like Al Pacino, De Niro, Jamie Foxx—they all have their own language and you have to learn it. Colin Farrell is a wonderful actor that I'm working with right now.
TOC: How were you as an actor?
MM: Terrible [laughing]! But fearless. Fearless and terrible. I always try to get an understanding of the internal experience.
TOC: Architecture plays a heavy part in your work. Some of your L.A. pieces have an atmosphere that almost seems Chicago-esque. There are moments in Heat and Collateral that feel like they were filmed in Chicago. Is that something that you intended?
MM: Not really, I'm aware of structure and the similarities—the physics, the rules and the laws of structure, including rhythm in a building or through time. The way a film is a narrative that moves through time, kind of analogous to a large piece of music. So I kind of think of it that way. And it may have something to do with growing up where modern architecture developed in the form of a high-rise.
TOC: Are you a student of Kubrick's work?
MM: Very much so. This is why Dr. Strangelove endures and all those other cautionary movies in that period like, you know, Seven Days in May, don't, because he had the wit and the genius to shop for the goods all the way to ridicule.
TOC: Did you find yourself taking on his political spirit while making The Insider?
MM: No. Not Kubrick, not on The Insider. That was its own thing, but I probably was on the road to deciding I wanted to make films when I saw Dr. Strangelove when it came out in '63. By that point, I was up in Madison, Wisconsin. That was a very seminal period. There were a lot of people moving into film. A lot of people moving into music from '61 to '63 in Minneapolis and in Madison. I'm thinking of Dylan and the Blues Project. There's were a lot of folks who were just suddenly there all at the same time—a lot of people were just moving into that. And it's probably—if you could put history in an X-ray machine or an MRI or under a microscope and see the micro cause and effect—it'd probably have something to do with the French new wave in the middle '50s, followed by Russian cinema, and all of sudden the whole world of making serious film. Then Kubrick comes along and within mainstream Hollywood and mainstream American motion-picture–making, makes a serious film which tells you: You can do this, this can be done. If you want to be a filmmaker, I have no desire whatsoever make Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and that was the kind of stuff that was around in the '50s, which wasn't worth watching.
TOC: When I said Kubrick in relation to The Insider, I just meant more because The Insider does have a lot of subtleties that other directors, I think, might have tried to telegraph more.
MM: I asked myself, "How do I evoke what I know Jeffrey Wigand went through, or what I know Lowell Bergman went through, and how do I get that kind of intensity? That human beings in an audience—that we know what they're experiencing? How do I deconstruct classical or conventional text to have multiple layers of meaning—a space between words or what's not said or a look on Russell Crowe's face. You know that this guy is being seared on the inside and my cue was knowing Jeffrey Wigand, and that is what happened: He was brought close to suicide. That wasn't accidental. And it was absolutely part of the psychological pressures that are brought upon somebody when you want to destroy them through litigation.
TOC: Did you find it hard to get a green light for The Insider because of the subject matter?
MM: You know, it really wasn't. Joe Roth had taken over at Disney. Mike Ovitz and Joe Roth took over, and Ovitz had been my agent. They had a very ambitious idea about what they wanted to do, and the film was not that expensive. There was no expectation that the movie was going to burn up ticket sales and do $150 million to $200 million, you know, we all knew it'd be lucky if it broke $70 [million]. Joe and I had ended up talking and Joe said, "Well great, let's go do it." We had hostile attacks by Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt on the one side, and possible threats from the tobacco company on the other. Don't forget we were taking out British American Tobacco, and their annual sales are larger than the entire book value of Disney.
TOC: As far as police procedures go in general, have you spent a lot of time in police rooms and going through experiences with criminals?
MM: No—unless there's something that kind of hooks me, and the story of Thief hooked me. I usually go into the kind of research I do because it's mandated, it's directed by the task, it's directed by the screenplay. If the screenplay is about tobacco or that Jeffrey Wigand studied judo, and he had a real thing for Japanese calligraphy, and his sense of order was very Japanese. And that hooked up with him having kind of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, like trying to quickly organize the foreground because he saw schizophrenia on the horizon coming his way. So, you have reasons for these things, I'm not going to get into them. I was also attracted to the subject matter and attracted to doing the research. So it's both. The text provokes it or sometimes the research is so attractive to do.
TOC: Can you give me an example of research that you did on Heat?
MM: Yeah. How you react in an ambush and talking to people who'd been in ambushes. Guys in the first SAS [Special Air Service] who'd been ambushed by provost and how they were able to solve that ambush. I knew a lot about prison life and prison experience, but I'm kind of fascinated by autodidactics and prison guys who became—which actually kind of evolves from Thief—guys who figure out very complex questions about life and consciousness. Who have no more than a seventh-grade education, and they do it through reading programs that were in prisons—and how unique that human intelligence and perspective is in a 40-year-old man who's effective on the street.
TOC: So then do you get together with all these different people at one time?
MM: No, I met people like this when I was shooting The Jericho Mile, so that's what I'm just saying...you can't really predict where these ideas get provoked from. I was casting it in Folsom Prison, and the people I met in Folsom...[I found that] whatever preconceptions I had about what life was like in a maximum-security prison were nonsense.
TOC: You've worked with people such as Tangerine Dream, Henry Rollins, Einsturzende Neubauten and Iggy Pop. How important is music to you? When you use music, are you writing the music into the script, or are you writing the scripts and putting the music in later?
MM: You know, sometimes the piece of music evokes a whole movie, or sometimes you have the movie, you're searching for it and you can't find it, it's making you crazy, then you hear something on the radio and that's just it.—Russell Sean
Read the full interview at www.timeoutchicago.com. The Gene Siskel Film Center hosts its annual Gala on Saturday 2 from 6:30 to 10:30pm at the Art Institute of Chicago, 210 South Columbus Drive at Monroe Drive. Tickets—which include dinner, a live auction and a discussion between Mann and Richard Roeper—start at $300. For details, call 312-846-2072.