Now playing in theaters is Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ cybercrime thriller Blackhat. Directed by Michael Mann and written by Morgan Davis Foehl, the film stars Chris Hemsworth as convicted hacker Nick Hathaway who is given a conditional release from federal prison to join American and Chinese partners in trying to identify and track down a dangerous global cybercrime network. Shot in some beautiful locations around the world, Mann has crafted a timely film about the real dangers of cybercriminals. The movie also stars Viola Davis, Tang Wei and Wang Leehom. For more on Blackhat watch the trailer or this featurette.
At the recent Los Angeles press day I landed an exclusive interview with Michael Mann. As a huge fan of his work (Heat is one of my all-time favorite films), it was beyond cool to be able to sit down with the gifted filmmaker. During our wide ranging conversation he talked about working with Atticus Ross on the music, what he’s currently reading, why it took so long after Public Enemies to make another film, his first cut of Blackhat and the big change he made, if he has a lot of deleted scenes from previous films that have never been released, how his recent cut of The Last of the Mohicans is his favorite, the re-edit of Ali that he wants to put on Blu-ray, Heat, if he’s seen Drive, how American critics missed the point of Thief, the status of Agincourt and what it’s about, technology in filmmaking, and so much more.
MICHAEL MANN: I think it was ’09. We did Luck for two years, and when I was doing Luck, I produced my daughter’s film, Texas Killing Fields, and I started writing, developing three screenplays. This is one, Agincourt is another, Big Tuna is a third. Then I went full time on this with the first major trip into Washington on August 8, 2011, where I came up with the story, uncredited. So, I’ve been on this for three and a half years.
Everyone knows about your research and how deep you go. What are you currently reading and what books are sitting on your dresser?
MANN: I’m reading a memoir written by a friend of mine who’s is federal prison, who is a great, great writer. There’s something else I’ve been reading but I don’t want to talk about it because I might do it (laughs).
You got to connect with Atticus Ross on this. How did you come about with this collaboration and what contemporary artists are you listening to right now?
MANN: Musically? There are three composers who contributed a lot of music, probably in this order: Atticus Ross, Harry Gregson-Williams, and then Ryan Amon, who got an additional music credit. But he has 25 minutes of music in the movie and he’s quite terrific. He’s done some really great work. He did Elysium, scored Elysium, and he’s a young guy from Janesville, Wisconsin originally. He’s very good. I started listening to jazz again, so I listen to a lot of jazz.
MANN: Early Dizzy Gillespie, always Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon…
I have a new appreciation for jazz and New Orleans after watching Treme. Now, when I go to the city it’s a whole new world to me.
MANN: Did you see Whiplash?
Whiplash is unbelievable.
MANN: It’s great, so good.
The movie is about 2 hours. How long was your first cut?
MANN: My first cut… 2:45.
When you do a first cut, is it like an assembly or it’s an actual first cut?
MANN: At this point, I know that’s gonna go, that’s gonna go. Let’s take them out now. So, it’s actually a first cut. It’s more selective than an assembly. I’ll see an assembly of a scene and start right away cutting down things that I know I’m not gonna want. But that first cut is about events, moments, if in doubt, leave them in. what’s tricky is that the storytelling rhythms sometimes are good when it’s long like that. Then you get to a denouement, the whole third act is really driven because the first act and second act were too long.
There’s a re-authoring, for me in editing. Editing is like writing. It’s like a re-authoring of the picture. You have to imagine you’re rewriting it again. And you’re determining the storytelling, what stories you’re going to tell and the rhythms of it, to a certain pace and a build. That’s, personally, the way I see it. There’s no such thing as mechanically trimming things down to see how the movie is. I have to be imagining the movie from the end to the front and how all the parts are working together, and understand how each component is affecting the other components. I made one major shift in the movie, it’s a huge shift. The nuclear explosion used to occur after the storm drain, way late in the movie.
MANN: That’s huge. It’s like putting a hand in a socket, pulling it out the other side. I decided, “No, I have to have these events occur in the front.”
When you made that change, was it in the editing room?
MANN: Editing room. I had to reconstruct a lot of dialogue all along the way. Halfway in his interview he says, “The nuclear reactor I heard about,” but he didn’t hear about it. He hadn’t heard about the nuclear reactor because the nuclear reactor never happened that early. It was kind of tricky. It became much better.
I had no idea you made that change, that totally works. I’m curious about deleted scenes in general with your films. Miami Vice, you did a director’s cut that was released on Blu-ray. With deleted scenes for this or your previous films, are you a fan of certain deleted scenes never seeing the light of day?
MANN: No. There are films I’ve done where I never changed a frame—Heat, Insider. Other films, it’s been serial and I don’t care about when.. If I see something that could be better and there’s a new digital format and a reason to fix it, I’ll fix it. The best version of The Last of the Mohicans is the one that came out a year and a half ago. Hands down, it is the best version of the picture, ever. I’m more mature about stuff, whatever it is.
There was a speech by Chingachgook at the end, I may have felt, “I really have to make these themes land, so I’ll speechify them.” They don’t need to be speechified, it’s implicit, so I took that out. It was never in, it used to be out in the first theatrical version of the movie, it should’ve stayed out. That’s a film that’s a successful film and I like a lot, and I’ve changed it a number of times. I don’t think there’s many, maybe one or two things I’ve taken out Collateral but that all worked. Losing the first scene in Miami Vice in the theatrical version was a mistake (laughs).
MANN: The Blu-ray of Ali?
Yeah. Someone said it on Twitter to me. I could be wrong though.
MANN: I’m not sure either. I did a re-edit of Ali for television that I really liked and I’d like to put out a Blu-ray of that edit. That was a significant re-edit.
Is it a lot longer?
MANN: It happens to move better and it’s longer.
Do you remember what the running time is versus the original?
MANN: I don’t but it’s a little bit longer. It’s more complete and moves better. Much more dramatic
Heat is one of my favorite films.
It’s a masterpiece. Were there a lot of deleted scenes, was the movie a lot different or was it always what you envisioned and crafted? What was it like in the editing room?
MANN: Yes, it was. I think there may have been some small, one or two scenes that aren’t significant, that were means to get to an important scene, that I realized I didn’t really need, and that the movie was more dynamic without them. In Thief, I put back the scene after his first score, when he’s sitting on the rocks on Lake Michigan with famous blues bassist and a famous producer for Chess Records, Willie Dixon. He comes sits on the rocks next to Jimmy. That is back in the current version. I think that was it. I don’t think there is anything much out of Thief.
Someone else must have asked you about this by now. There seems to be a loving homage.
MANN: I didn’t feel that when I saw Drive. I did read a piece about it, how he—I don’t know the director—but how he referenced one or two of my movies. There is a similarity but it has to do with internalization. It doesn’t have to do with form necessarily.
I was thinking of the use of music cues and the color pink. There were a few things. I was just wondering if you had ever seen it.
MANN: Thief has a different purpose. If somebody asked me, “What’s Thief to you?” To me, it’s a left-extensionalist critique of corporate capitalism. That’s what Thief is. What is interesting is that no critics in the U.S. got that, no critics in the U.K. got it. Every critic in France got it when the film came it. It was like this crazy kind of cultural litmus test or something.
The French do have a love of cinema. I have been fortunate to be there and they truly do love cinema, so perhaps they are knowledgeable in that instance. I think the American critics have gotten more advanced since the 70s.
MANN: It received a lot of critical attention but people seeing it as, “Wait a minute, this is an analogy. It’s a very political and very thematic film.”
Over the last few years, prior to making this, there were talks about you doing Agincourt, Go Like Hell, The Big Stone Grid, Gold. I think there even other things you were linked to. What ever happened to those projects?
MANN: Agincourt is alive and well and been written. It’s a very, very difficult story to tell. You can’t just pop this gigantic piece of history up there with all the people that are going to be in it. It’s a very tricky thing to try to tell a story from the point of view of an archer, somebody who probably in real life didn’t really have much of an ideation of the first person pronoun, I. He was owed, he’s not even a villain. Everybody owns everything. He toils, procreates, produces dies. It’s his rise into self-identification and, “I want something and I’m gonna go get it.” Because he becomes experienced in the world. Partially through the innovation of Henry V, who is a genius. And then it’s also a story about Henry V, it’s a very difficult story to tell. That’s something I’d love to do.
You’re always pushing forward with digital technology and use of cameras. Is there a camera or bit of digital technology for filmmaking that’s right on the cusp of coming that maybe you’ve seen or are excited to use? Or was there something you used on this that you couldn’t have done in any of your previous films?
MANN: I’m not that into technology, except when I’m about to shoot a film. Then I want to know everything about everything, and what’s innovative and what can we grab that’s in some R&D stage and make work that nobody has. We’ve done that in the past in various different stages. When I was shooting Insider, we were trying to find small cameras because of how I wanted to shoot it. When we were shooting Ali, we had to invent a camera that was too silly for words, which we did and it worked great. Because I wanted to be in there with something about the size of this usiness card and be in amongst Will and Michael Bentt who played Liston, for example, shooting right in the middle of these punches being thrown.
What we did was take two little $900 surveillance cameras, nicknamed lipstick cameras, which have lenses that are like ground down coke bottles or something, and stuck them like a card. One shot the left side of the frame, this one shot the right side of the frame, and we stitched the two together. We ran wires to my back where I had a transmitter that sent a signal to a Sony recorder that was above us. I could get in there with something this big and go like that. They were lipstick cameras, remember those?
Blackhat is now playing in theaters.