Michael Mann Talks Holding Warner Bros. "for Ransom," Why 'Heat' Couldn't Be Made Today

Courtesy of Lumiere Film Festival
Michael Mann at the Lumiere Film Festival

“Audiences are infinitely smarter than they know — they can feel something before they can mentally process it," the director also tells Guillermo del Toro and Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux at Lyon's Lumiere festival.

Cannes Film Festival boss Thierry Fremaux’s ninth annual Lumiere Film Festival, which is dedicated to showcasing classic films, film restorations and documentaries on cinema, has been running since this weekend in his native city of Lyon, France.

An early highlight was the 4K restoration screening of Michael Mann’s modern crime classic Heat, which was preceded by a three-way conversation between Mann, Fremaux and Guillermo del Toro — who presented himself as an avid admirer of the American director, reading aloud at one point from Mann’s original annotated shooting script. (Del Toro is currently planning a series of interview books about the craft of the film director, with Mann and George Miller already on board.)

The Mexican filmmaker tried to evoke various elements linking together Mann’s movies, which range from the historical epic The Last of the Mohicans to the James Caan thriller Thief, but Mann himself had a hard time finding any underlying theme in his work. “I don’t see myself as an auteur,” he said. “It’s not about self-reflection — it’s about responsibility. The challenge is to be able to shape and impress what’s going to impact an audience.”

Heat was shot and released in 1995, but Mann said the script was 12 years in the making, drawing inspiration from real-life Chicago detective Chuck Adamson and robber Neil McCauley, who played cat and mouse throughout the early 1960s. (Mann actually directed a 1989 TV movie-version of the story entitled L.A. Takedown.)

The conflict between the cop and criminal, with the audience rooting for both Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley at the same time, is the “heart of the movie, because we want something to happen, but we also want something not to happen,” Mann explained. “The film tries to dimensionalize each of the characters as real people” by showing them in action but also at home, with the 170-minute narrative structured around a handful of heist sequences (del Toro considers the film’s daytime bank robbery to be the best of its kind) and domestic scenes where each character tries to balance the personal and the professional.

Mann spent years talking with prisoners, ex-cons and officers of the law, such as Adamson, to research the project, with many of the movie’s key scenes inspired by real events. That includes the famous meet-up between the Pacino and De Niro characters for a late-night coffee, with Mann dispelling any rumors that the scene wasn’t filmed with the two stars at the same time. 

“Both angles were shot simultaneously, and if you moved either camera a few centimeters over you would’ve seen the other one," he said. "We also did a two-shot master where you see both actors together, but we never used it because it took away from the immersion of the scene.”

Del Toro praised the formal elements and minute details of Heat, such as the very particular suits worn by the two leads, and Mann honed in on that as a major part of his craft. “Audiences are infinitely smarter than they know — they can feel something before they can mentally process it," he said. "From the set design to the wardrobe to the choice of a car driven by one of the characters, everything speaks to them. If I take so long just to figure out exactly how a curtain should fold in the background of a sequence in The Insider, it’s because that’s a major part of the storytelling for me.”

Mann admitted that making a film like Heat — which was shot on a purported budget of $60 million and grossed close to $190 million worldwide — would be difficult in today’s studio system, especially with such a long running time. He recounted how he and producer Art Linson initially walked into Warner Bros. with the shooting script and the two leads attached, giving the studio 48 hours to pre-empt the competition.

“I basically held them for ransom,” Mann recalled with a smile, “and they were furious.” But it was hard for anyone to refuse the Pacino-De Niro pairing, which the director called “two perfect actors for these parts,” for whom you can really “feel an empathetic connection.”

Along with the costumes, production design and cinematography, the cast is another element in Mann’s ultimate method of showing over telling. “Before something is explicitly said, the audience already understands the character," he said.

The Lumiere festival opened Saturday night with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest at the massive Tony Garnier concert hall.

The opening night event was attended by directors del Toro, Mann, Alfonso Cuaron and Jerry Schatzberg, as well as actress Tilda Swinton and composer Alexandre Desplat, who will be on hand this week to present movies or offer master classes to hordes of local cinephiles.

They are joined at the festival by Nicolas Winding Refn, who unveiled his new digital platform project, and Chinese auteur Wong Kar-Wai, who will receive this year’s Prix Lumiere award. Past recipients of the prize include Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood.

Centered around the Institut Lumiere film center, which Fremaux runs alongside the Cannes Film Festival, the ninth edition of the Lumiere fest features hundreds of classic and restored movies from France and elsewhere, including a retrospective of French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, a selection of westerns programmed by Bertrand Tavernier and a “Permanent History of Female Filmmakers.”