Hollywood Master: Michael Mann

Kicking off the second season of The Hollywood Masters series, presented by LMU SFTV, Stephen Galloway welcomed legendary director, writer and producer Michael Mann on September 17, 2014. Mann’s credits span both film and television and his fascination with the complexities of human behavior and the criminal underworld have long been a driving force in his work. As Mann told the audience, “Film directors who come from the streets of Chicago don’t make comedies.”

Becoming a Filmmaker

Mann grew up in a working class family in Chicago and attended the University of Wisconsin where he participated in civil rights marches, leading him to discover that he wanted to be a filmmaker. He eventually received his Master’s degree from the London Film School. “I’m well-suited to the work because I’m driven to have adventure and I’m curious about how life really is for someone. I don’t like being in one place for very long and filmmaking allows for periods of both collaborating and working alone.”

The Crime World

Research for his TV movie, The Jericho Mile, and his theatrical film, Manhunter, gave Mann an up close view of the prison world and serial killers. “My expectations were challenged when I did research inside Folsom Prison. The prisoners were actually very self-possessed and expressed their individuality. In prison, all the dynamics of the outside world were compressed and on steroids.” Mann’s correspondence with imprisoned murderer Dennis Wayne Wallace had a huge influence on the Manhunter script. “As a child, Wallace was a victim of horrible abuse, but as an adult, he is 100 percent responsible for his actions. Both things are true even though they oppose one another and that’s what makes life and human beings so complex.”

One of Mann’s most successful projects is the groundbreaking and influential TV series Miami Vice known for its different look and feel from traditional cop shows and its heavy integration of music and visual effects in storytelling. “I stumbled into it. I was sent the script for a two-hour pilot called Gold Coast and I wanted to make it a movie but that didn’t work out so we kept it as a TV show that eventually became Miami Vice.”

Heat

Galloway asked Mann if it scared him to work with two of the biggest icons in acting (Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro). “I was too busy to be scared,” Mann responded, “but I knew that I never wanted to rehearse their famous ‘face to face’ scene in the diner. The three of us would talk through the scene and sketch out what it means but we were all smart enough to keep it fresh. I knew there’d be an organic unity between the two of them so we had a two-camera, over the shoulder setup on each of them with intimate lighting and tight shots; take 11 is what ended up in the film.”

The Insider

“The fact that Jeffrey Wigand wasn’t a saint is what interested me about that story. Pacino’s character, Lowell Bergman, didn’t like Wigand but he still wanted to protect him because he knew it was the right thing to do. I recorded my conversations with Mike Wallace so some of the film’s dialogue is from that but Wallace didn’t want the film made.”

Collateral

“When it came to me, I thought it was a bad script but it had beautiful bones so I rewrote it. The script was originally going to star Russell Crowe and Adam Sandler and, at one point, a woman was going to be cast in the hit man role but I realized that I was more interested in the idea than whether it was the best choice for the movie.”

His Upcoming Film, Blackhat

“Blackhat is a term for hackers who write malicious code. I started working on it two years ago and was intrigued by the Stuxnet virus that invaded Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. The scariest part about doing research was talking to people in Washington and discovering how vulnerable we are.”

While Mann wears many hats, he says his approach is always the same whether he’s writing, directing or producing. “I wish I could be a journeyman director because I love shooting but I’m not built that way. I find myself drawn to real life stories because I find what happens in reality to be more fascinating than what I can make up myself.”

The Hollywood Masters is a new series that examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers and successful executives, with The Hollywood Reporters Stephen Galloway and presented by LMU School of Film and Television.