Monday, 26 June 2017

Michael Mann: On the Edge – An Interview

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Thieves, assassins, mad men, whistle-blowers, and gamblers have all populated the extreme adventures of Michael Mann’s films. For more than 30 years, with style and precision, he has examined the richness of human experience. The following extract is from an interview with the DGA from 2012.

Q: Your earliest films were documentaries. Is that what formed your commitment to authenticity?

A: My ambition was always to make dramatic films. I had a strong sense of the value of drama growing up in Chicago, which has long had a thriving theater scene. I’d also found, working a lot of odd jobs as a kid—as a short-order cook, on construction, or as a cab driver—that there was tremendous richness in real-life experience, and contact with people and circumstances that were sometimes extreme. I was drawn to this instinctively. You find out things when you’re with a real-life thief, things you could never make up just sitting in a room. The converse is also true: Just because you discover something interesting, you don’t have to use it; there’s no obligation. Yet life itself is the proper resource. I’ve never really changed that habit of wanting to bring preparation into the real world of the picture, with a character that actors are going to portray.

Q: Is that why you develop biographies for every character, not just for your use but for your actors as well?

A: I like to know everything about a character. Major characters, minor characters, even if a picture’s got nothing to do with what their childhood is, I want to know what their childhood was like. What were their parents like? Where did they grow up? What do they like, what do they not like? What kinds of women are attracted to them? Why are these women attracted to them? If the character is a woman, who is she? How is she relating to the situation of her life?

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Do you like to rehearse your actors before and during shooting?

A: Yes, but never for too long. There’s an art to rehearsal. Never rehearse to the point where you wish you’d shot it. I always want to stop just before the moment becomes so actual that I wish I had a camera. I don’t want that to happen until take 3 or 4 of the day we’re shooting it. You always want to back off, you always want to leave potential. There’s a tremendous thrill for me in finding the spontaneous moment. Sometimes that happens when you’re smart enough not to rehearse too much—when you know where to stop, because otherwise you’ll get too programmed. Other times, that spontaneity comes with a liberation you get at the end of tremendous preparation—where everybody is confident and the players know exactly what they’re going to do.

Q: How did you apply that to the famous coffee shop scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in ‘Heat’ (1995) when the two adversaries meet head-to-head for the first and only time?

A: We did two things: We discussed the scene. Then we did some rehearsals, but I was wary because the entire movie is a dialectic that works backward from its last moment, which is the death of the thief Neil McCauley [De Niro], while the detective Vincent Hanna [Pacino], who’s just taken McCauley’s life, stands with him as he passes. The ‘marriage’ of the two of them in this contrapuntal story is the coffee shop scene.

Now Pacino and De Niro are two of the greatest actors on the planet, so I knew they would be completely alive to each other—each one reacting off the other’s slightest gesture, the slightest shift of weight. If De Niro’s right foot sitting in that chair slid backward by so much as an inch, or his right shoulder dropped by just a little bit, I knew Al would be reading that. They’d be scanning each other, like an MRI. Both men recognize that their next encounter will mean certain death for one of them. Gaining an edge is why they’ve chosen to meet. So we read the scene a number of times before shooting—not a lot—just looking at it on the page. I didn’t want it memorized. My goal was to get them past the unfamiliarity of it. But of course these two already knew it impeccably.

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: You made an interesting choice directorially in the finished film. The whole scene takes place in over-the-shoulder close-ups—each man’s point of view on the other.

A: We shot that scene with three cameras, two over-the-shoulders and one profile shot, but I found when editing that every time we cut to the profile, the scene lost its one-on-one intensity. I’ll often work with multiple cameras, if they’re needed. In this case, I knew ahead of time that Pacino and De Niro were so highly attuned to each other that each take would have its own organic unity. Whatever one said, and the specific way he’d say it, would spark a specific reaction in the other. I needed to shoot in such a way that I could use the same take from both angles. What’s in the finished film is almost all of take 11—because that has an entirely different integrity and tonality from takes 10, or 9, or 8. All of this begins and ends with scene analysis. It doesn’t matter if it’s two people in a room or two opposing forces taking over a street. Action comes from drama, and drama is conflict: What’s the conflict?

Q: At the opposite end of the scale from that intimate two-man scene in the coffee shop is the huge street-battle in ‘Heat’. How did you prepare a sequence that massive?

A: That scene arose out of choreography, and was absolutely no different than staging a dance. We rehearsed in detail by taking over three target ranges belonging to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. We built a true-scale mock-up of the actual location we were using along 5th Street in downtown L.A., with flats and barriers standing in for where every parked car was going to be, every mailbox, every spot where De Niro, Tom Sizemore, and Val Kilmer were going to seek cover as they moved from station to station. Every player was trained with weapons the way somebody in the military would be brought up, across many days, with very rigid rules of safety, to the point where the safe and prodigious handling of those weapons became reflexive. Then, as a culmination, we blocked out the action with the actors shooting live rounds at fixed targets as they moved along in these rehearsals. The confidence that grew out of such intensive preparations—all proceeding from a very basic dramatic point—meant that when we were finally filming on 5th Street, firing blanks, each man was as fully and as exactly skilled as the character he represented.

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: What was the ‘conflict’ your choreography was proceeding from?

A: McCauley’s unit wants to get out, while the police want something else, and are sending in their assets. Judged strictly in terms of scene analysis and character motivation, the police are used to entering a situation with overwhelming power on their side. When they’re assaulted by people who know what they’re doing, they don’t do well. McCauley’s guys are simply more motivated, and have skills that easily overwhelm the police. Choreography has to tell a story; there’s no such thing as a stand-alone shootout. Who your characters are as characters determines your outcome.

Q: ‘Collateral’ (2004) is largely a two-character drama, which must have created its own demands. How did you prep your players for that film?

A: Prepping Jamie Foxx for his role in Collateral was a matter of getting him to understand the neighborhood this man came from, and the death-by-repetition involved in being a cab driver. Having been a cab driver myself, I knew what a grind that is. For Tom Cruise, who plays a hit man, the preparation involved all kinds of crazy stuff in preproduction—acquiring the skill sets he would need to be this man. We had him stalking various members of the crew for weeks, in secret, learning their habits, and then picking the moment. This person would be coming out of a gym at 7 a.m. and feel somebody slap something on his back—and it would be Tom, who had just put a Post-it on their back. In our virtual world, that was a confirmed kill.

Collateral (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Each of your films seems to set out in a different direction from the one that preceded it. What attracts you to a project?

A: Usually I think I know what I’m going to look for next, and usually that turns out to be wrong. How I chose to do Collateral is a prime example. I had just come off of doing Ali (2001), a picture about a huge real-life figure. I had developed The Aviator, about Howard Hughes. But as brilliant as John Logan’s screenplay was, and as much as I wanted to work with Leonardo [DiCaprio], I felt I would be doing a rerun of what I’d just done. What attracted me to Collateral was the opportunity to do the exact opposite: a microcosm; 12 hours; one night; no wardrobe changes; two people; small lives; inside a cab; a small time frame viewed large. I very much admired the hard, gem-like construction of Stuart Beattie’s screenplay. There were a lot of modifications as we prepared to shoot, but the structure was there from the start—and it was tremendously appealing. That made my decision. I asked Marty [Scorsese] if he wanted to do The Aviator.

The idea for The Last of the Mohicans came to me because I’d seen the film written by Philip Dunne when I was 3. I realized 40 years later that it had been rattling around in my brain ever since, that it was a part of me, a very important part. I just hadn’t been consciously aware of it up to that point. I also thought: There hasn’t really been an exciting epic, period film in a long, long time. Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum were running 20th Century Fox at the time. They got the excitement of it immediately.

The Last of the Mohicans (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Even though you’re always trying to do something new, there seems to be continuity in your work.

A: As far as the continuities you’re noticing in my work, those are arrived at film by film, and are not planned as such. The film directors I admire most don’t consciously have a form that is their form. Marty Scorsese doesn’t say to himself: ‘I will make a certain decision this way because it either does or doesn’t conform to my form.’ No, what he chooses to do flows from him organically. I think that’s the case for every filmmaker. The more diverse one film is from the other, the more exciting it is. What you want is to find yourself on a frontier. For the working director, there is no conscious form from film to film. We all know what our ambitions are, but in a very healthy way we are all unconscious of ‘signature.’

– For the full interview go here 

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