Throughout his career, filmmaker Michael Mann has crafted compelling stories that examine the shifting lines between law and lawlessness. In his riveting new cybercrime thriller, Blackhat, written by Morgan Davis Foehl, he explores the evolving face of 21st-century warfare in a story that unfolds in an array of exotic Asian locations from Hong Kong to Perak, Malaysia and Jakarta. Chris Hemsworth stars 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. Viola Davis, Leehom Wang and Tang Wei co-star.
At the film’s recent press conference, Mann, Hemsworth, Davis, Wang and Wei discussed the genesis and appeal of the project, why the actors jumped at the opportunity to work with Mann, why Mann felt these were the right actors to tell his story, how the cyber experts helped them prepare for their roles, how Hemsworth trained physically and handled his character’s voice, the challenges Wei faced in her first English-language action film, why Wang compared the directing process to a jazz session, the advantages of shooting a visually authentic film, the creation of a new film genre, and Davis’s upcoming role in Suicide Squad. Check out the interview after the jump.
MICHAEL MANN: Well both. After Public Enemies, I did Luck for almost two years. And then, from Luck, I started working on three screenplays of which this is one. We were in Washington when the story really occurred to us on August 8, 2011. So I’ve been on this for 3-1/2 years.
When did this story start interesting you? What was the genesis of Blackhat?
MANN: The genesis was two-fold. One, I was interested in doing something in Asia, but the real genesis is when I went to Washington and started talking to folks there about cyber intrusions and cyber thefts and what was happening in the world. It was kind of an eye-opening experience that the way we think we live our lives is not really the way they are anymore, that we’re porous and we’re vulnerable to intrusions from everywhere, and we just don’t know it. It’s like we’re in a house without doors and windows in a dangerous neighborhood and we don’t know it. The extent of it was widespread. It was a hot button issue in Washington two or three years ago, and we came back to Los Angeles and started talking about it, and people didn’t know what we were talking about. That’s kind of where it began, and then from there it went right to, “Okay, who’s the guy? Who’s the main character?” and to try and learn everything there is to know about black hat hackers, what motivates them, and what the exalting experience is. You just got done talking to guys who are quite extraordinary (referring to an earlier press conference with the film’s Cybercrime Technical Advisor Michael Panico and Hacking Consultants Kevin Poulsen and Chris McKinlay). They gave you kind of a sense of that.
For all of you, what really appealed to you about this project that made you want to be a part of it? What excited you about this opportunity?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Michael did. Michael is one of my favorite filmmakers. I’ve grown up watching his films, and so, even before I’d read the script, I was pretty much talked into the thing. Then, I read the script and it was a subject that I certainly hadn’t been involved in on screen. In my life, it was something that was fairly new to me. I was pretty limited in my digital-cyber involvement. It fascinated me. As Michael said, it was something that a couple years ago when we were researching the film did exist. All the things are in the news now, but then it wasn’t as public. The idea that we are as vulnerable as you say and that the film talks about was something that I wanted to learn more about and I jumped at the opportunity.
VIOLA DAVIS: I can only repeat what Chris said. I wanted to work with Michael Mann. I wanted to be a part of anything that he was directing. I think that you always want to gravitate towards people who absolutely are great at what they do and go for authenticity. Cyberterrorism was a subject matter that fascinated me also. I remember playing an FBI agent many moons ago, and I sat with some FBI agents, and they said cyberterrorism was more potent than actual terrorist attacks. I thought to myself, wow, and it was something I wanted to learn more about. And exotic locations did appeal to me also and all of that.
TANG WEI: Everyone sitting here is one of the reasons. Also, I never play this kind of part. Usually I work in art movies. This is the first time I’ve played [a character] with a very independent spirit who’s also very tough and a computer engineer and computer expert. That’s very interesting, so I wanted to try. It was a very good experience.
MANN: And then, if you’re me, you get to work with this great family.
LEEHOM WANG: I just have to add to what everyone else has said about Michael Mann being one of the greatest directors ever. To be able to work with him, to get a call from a casting director saying that there is a role for an Asian male who speaks English with an American accent, I thought, “Is this for real? Is this a prank call?” He said, “No, this is a really meaty role.” And I’m like, “Okay. Tell me how do I audition? Tell me how to sign up.” And that was the beginning of an incredible, life-changing experience.
For each of you, what did you learn from the cyber experts who acted as consultants on the film in preparation for your roles?
MANN: The first thing is they were with us. We do a kind of immersive preparation to get into character, and that starts many, many months before we start shooting. So, whether it’s learning coding or Viola visiting Michele Leonhart at the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator) and learning about women in law enforcement and attitudes, you pick up how somebody thinks, what their attitudes are, how their background is, how they walk, how they talk, how they drink a cup of coffee. It’s so rich. It’s always a great idea, from my point of view, to work with actors who are turned on, as all these folks are, by that same thing with that kind of immersive research. And, from these guys specifically, it was coding from Mike Panico. It was different kinds of hacking from Chris McKinlay. He spent time with Chris so Chris could write code. Kevin Poulsen had experience as a black hat hacker and that’s how Leehom, Chris, and Tang Wei all interacted with these folks. We heard in Washington two years ago that [there was a threat]. I said, “Am I being paranoid in not wanting to take a laptop to where we’re going to look for locations?” And they said, “None of us ever takes our laptops to where we go to look for locations.” So people who have been in the know have understood the threat for a long time.
HEMSWORTH: As Michael said, by learning how to write code and understanding the brain of the computer and all that was new to me. It became evident pretty quickly that the majority of us knew nothing compared to what these guys knew. I remember asking one of the guys, I said, “Knowing what you know, and you exist behind the curtains so to speak, and you see behind the curtain, do you look at the world differently? Do you feel you have an upper hand?” He just started laughing and said, “Man, people have no idea how exposed they are, how vulnerable, and what’s possible.” And that’s it. That’s the power now. It’s the brains, not just in the criminal world but anywhere. They’re the guards, the superheroes, and that sort of highly intelligent, highly entire advancement that these guys seem to have within themselves. It’s something that every day impressed me. There were a lot of different things that I’d pick up.
DAVIS: I learned just that I’m a sitting duck. No, seriously, I mean I wish I could say more, but I’m a sitting duck because I can’t get ahead of them. They’re far ahead of me. That’s what I learned: how vulnerable we are. It’s a big, silent monster out there. That’s what it feels like.
Why were these the best actors to tell your story?
MANN: The actor becomes individual. It’s the choice of each individual. It’s a casting process. Lots of times you know when you know. I conceived of Hathaway as a guy from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago whose father was a steelworker because I knew people like that in the seventies, particularly [inaudible] who was a very progressive labor leader in Chicago. There was just a quality of a certain very bright, very direct, very centered [person]. I was sitting with Chris in Costa Rica and we were just talking and talking, and he didn’t know this, but I’m thinking, “This is the guy. This is the guy.” And it has to do with natively who Chris is plus Chris’s enthusiasm for the kind of immersive immersion in a character that then took us to Stateville Prison and blast furnaces at U.S. Steel at four in the morning and his willingness to lose himself into the moment which all good directors look at.
Leehom is brilliant, and he’s a great musician, and there’s a precision and an intellect. He just fit exactly what I had in mind for Chen (Chen Dawai, Leehom’s character). And within five minutes of meeting Tang Wei in Hong Kong, I knew that she was Lien (Chen Lien, Wei’s character). I was asking myself if I wanted to let her on that I had already just made a decision because she was very close to who Lien is as a character. There are very few women programmers in China and there are even fewer network engineers. And so, it kind of bespeaks a certain independence and a strong individuality. And that’s who Tang Wei is. Viola goes without saying. Viola is a great, great, great actress. I was very fortunate to work with her. But these are all individual casting decisions you make. You make them on every picture.
Chris, you’re part of a long term project where you have to keep your body in great physical shape. Did that inform Hathaway’s philosophy of training his body as well as his mind in prison? Also, how did you handle the voice of Hathaway?
HEMSWORTH: The training for this was [different]. Once I’m done with Thor, I get rid of that bulk and that size, because that’s just for the screen for that character. But [for this movie], instead of just running on the treadmill, I wanted to build into the training some sort of martial arts. I’ve boxed a lot in the past and I’ve done a lot of Muay Thai. Michael and I talked about the time he’d spent in prison. You go in one person and come out another. And through those experiences, he was going to physically be able to handle himself, and whether that was from his background growing up or not, but certainly what his experiences were in prison. The voice we spent a number of days in Chicago and there were endless kinds of conversations between Michael and I and with the dialect coaches. It became more an attitude I think than anything else. There was the structural sound to it and the phonetics and what have you, but the way this guy spoke and the rhythm to his speech, we picked up things from friends of Michael’s in Chicago. Also, we went to certain prisons and spoke with people the way guys in prison speak. There’s a rhythm to that and a bounce and I think we captured that. I mean, I had dialect coaches, but Michael was my guide. He was from the place and knew what he was after.
WEI: Definitely, of course, that’s not my native tongue. I speak very fluent Cantonese, but when I’m doing a movie in Cantonese, I still have a problem. I love learning languages, and actually computer code is another language as well. So that’s why I was really curious to join this movie for what I can learn and also how great to have the experience of working with Michael, Chris, Leehom and Viola. Language is secondary compared to having the experience of working with this special team which was more important. I got a lot. Also travel, I’m very used to it. It’s like flying around the Earth. Wrrr, wrrr, wrrr! I think we’re all very similar.
Leehom, will you do more films in Hollywood in the future or will you continue to focus on your music career?
WANG: Music and movies are both so important to me. I started off as a musician and I’m doing more movies now, but I haven’t given up the music either. I also should add that Michael is an amazing musical [director]. I feel like every day that we were on set and we were improvising, it was like a jazz session. We’re moving the camera around and changing lines and doing things differently. It’s like he’s getting these really real reactions out of it and you just have that faith in the whole process as we go. I was telling Michael the other day that Act Three felt like Ravel’s Bolero. It was this magnum opus. It was like a symphony and we listened to the music of Blackhat, and how the music drives the movie, especially when it’s really epic. It’s really something special. Coming from my background, it really stood out to me.
MANN: Then, when we were recording ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) that you do in post, Leehom put something down and we said, “This will be great, but we’ll just have to split the word.” And while the dialogue editor was struggling with the Pro Tools, Leehom kind of took over the Pro Tools and he did all the editing himself.
Mr. Mann, in my opinion, you’ve directed some of the greatest crime dramas of the last 30 years. Entering the world of cybercrime with this film, can you talk about how you were able to marry your style of storytelling and shooting with the world of cybercrime and create a new genre: the cybercrime genre film?
MANN: Thank you very much. If we’re all successful in doing that, that would be great. You asked me at the beginning what motivated me to do this. First of all, it takes place in our world as it is right now, right on the cutting edge of this moment. The interconnectedness of all things, everything interconnected with everything else, that’s the world we live in now. It’s never going to go back to being the way it used to be. You have a convicted black hat hacker who’s on a conditional release from federal prison to pursue a sniper criminal adversary, a guy who’s high speed dangerous, world class. He’s a ghost. He’s out there somewhere. They don’t know who he is, where he is, or why he’s doing what he’s doing. In so doing, Hathaway is trying to outrun his past and is going to take control of a future that he may have or may not have. He’s agented by his pal Chen, whom he went to MIT with who could not have come from a more different world, and Chen’s sister who’s a network engineer, candid and spontaneous, and in a unit with Barrett (Viola Davis’ character) who engineered this and then feels like she’s being played. It sets up a conflict among this group which then resolves itself into them being very unified, and they move forward in what’s really kind of a detective story. But the thrill in making it was that the tropes, the parts, the mechanics of the storytelling were an opportunity to also pull them out of the very current world we live in right now. So, rather than something you might have done 20 years ago, when they’re trying to find out the location of where a guy may be and they might interrogate an informant, instead of that, Barrett and Hathaway con a guy in the NSA to download a password. As he’s downloading a pdf, Hathaway is able to get in and download some software and restore some code from the Chai Wan reactor. And what does he get? He gets a location. They still don’t know who the guy is, where he is, what he’s doing, but they know that this guy’s command and control server is in Jakarta, Indonesia. That’s a clue. So, I found it very excited to be able to pull that together where you can tell the story and the story itself is taken from that same world of the immediate right now that we’re in.
The cybercrime experts we spoke with earlier talked about how authentic the film was and how important it was to you that it be authentic. But the film is also visually authentic. You actually went to these countries and shot in over 70 locations. Can you talk about that experience as a filmmaker and as actors?
MANN: First of all, it’s a visual medium. It’s an interweaving of text, music, visuals, the story, dialogue, and people. You want places to feel evocative of what the scene is about. That’s where it begins. So if it’s tense, you don’t want to be in a room like this. If there’s tension, you want to be in a room that has a very low ceiling. You try to convey these things that allow an audience to feel. I found Asia a very exciting place to go. The ultimate thing is that a location makes the scene come to life. If we can make a scene come to life, then it comes alive for all of us. For the actors walking in the room, they look out the window of a Hong Kong safe house and they see all this life. Kowloon is really there. It’s not digitally put in. We’re not looking at a green screen where some of the gaffers put up a piece of tape and say, “You see that piece of tape? That’s not really a piece of tape. That’s the rest of the street.” This is the real thing. We’re really there. You’re really seeing that out the window. And you walk to work. You walk up the narrow staircase with all the smells and everything else. And that’s really the place. We’re all real complex organisms. We’re all perceptually way more brilliant than we even know we are. We take everything in. All these great actors take all of that in and they really feel like they’re walking on Woosung Street in Kowloon to the safe house because they’re walking on Woosung Street in Kowloon to the safe house. So those are the kind of decisions. For the end of the film, it became what’s the most alien landscape I can imagine to put these two fugitives in who are very much underdogs that are being hunted but nevertheless are hunting with improvised weapons and everything else. And that became in Jakarta at the ceremony.
WANG: One of the great things I learned from Michael Mann about location scouting was that the best way to do it is in a helicopter. That’s something he told me. He said, “You’ve got to know, if you ever want to do location scouting, go up in a helicopter.” He spent so many days up in a helicopter in every single city, and then when he’d see something that struck his fancy, he’d go check it out. That’s why there are so many really cool locations. I’ve been to Malaysia so many times over the last 20 years and Hong Kong, but the places he found, I was like, “How did you find this place?”
HEMSWORTH: Michael’s right. You can shoot in the backlot of L.A. or somewhere in a parking lot and mark it up and throw a green screen, and there’s been plenty of that over the years. But you have a visceral, physical response to being in those places, and the sights and sounds and the smells just bring something else out in you. You’re not having to fake that or imagine that. It’s there. It becomes as much an act of something you bounce off as the other people you’re working with. It was such a treat to work in those places which were loud and noisy. I remember a lot of the time the sound guys were worrying about, “We can’t shoot this because there’s too much noise,” and Michael said, “No, no. Just keep going. This is great.” So, it sounds unlike anything else. It looks unlike anything else. I wish you could always shoot like that. It was great.
DAVIS: I’d never been to that part of the world. I absolutely loved it. The location is another character. It really is. It can’t be recreated on a soundstage. Yeah, you can imagine it, but I’d rather not. The heat, Kowloon, the noise, everything was just different. It just was a different world. I know for myself, as imaginative as I feel I am I would not have been able to go there. I have to be there. And that safe house was just this closed in space and being with all these people and the sounds and the light going on outside. It was pretty extraordinary. Like I said, it’s a character in and of itself.
WEI: I remember when I was in Singapore I was having a cocktail. I was sitting in a room with a waiter. And then I see a helicopter and I remembered Michael was going to do some background sessions on location. And then, it would just pass and after a little while pass again, and I was like, “How many circles is he going to turn in the sky?” I wanted to ask. And then, there was the little plane in Hong Kong. I was like, “Wow!” When we were in the sky for one and a half hours, I was asking, “Where’s Michael?”
MANN: They were in a King Air flying out of Hong Kong and we were in a helicopter shooting them.
MANN: We shot it lots and lots and all of our families [were watching].
HEMSWORTH: We didn’t shoot that on the ground or a set. We were in the plane up there with him flying by.
WEI: We almost got sick.
HEMSWORTH: Yeah. We were doing laps in this thing.
WEI: I remember it because I passed several times over my company office. And then, I finally started sending text messages saying, “Can you see the plane?” and they said, “No.” “Okay. Wait. We will pass again.” Then finally, “Yeah, I see you!” This is the first movie I’ve worked on where there are all real sets. All the other movies I worked on were on sound stages in the studio. That was really nice and it’s really important for me to be there as an actress. It was so nice. I wish every movie I could do like this.
Were the uniforms the Chinese wore authentic?
WANG: They were. They were authentic. Everything you see in the movie was authentic, even the code that you see on screen for the programming.
We’re so used to China being an adversary. What I loved so much about this movie is we work with China as much as we can. How important was that to you?
MANN: Our relations with China are a fascinating balance. We’re adversarial with them in some areas such as our naval presence and cyber intrusion. We’re very close partners in freight and finance. It’s a balance between these two kind of special relationships that we have that are maintained. We’re China’s biggest trading partner and they’re ours. So it’s very interesting. One thing that’s interesting is when the Obama administration asked China for help with North Korea on the recent attack (referring to Sony Studio). It was something that we thought way back when, if there was a common interest or something parallel, that they would work together. That was the basis of why we had this kind of American-Chinese informalizing group.
WANG: Yes, it was extremely refreshing to be able to play a white hat hacker. In the world of cyber, there are the black hats who are like the cowboys back in the Wild West. The black hats are the bad guys and the white hats are the good guys. Chris and I are white hat hackers and we’re trying to find the black hat. It was great. Most people were assuming, “Oh you’re a Chinese guy in a Michael Mann film playing with Chris Hemsworth. Are you the villain?”
Viola, are you reading a lot of comic books for Amanda Waller?
DAVIS: I have not started reading it yet. I’ve read up about her but I’m working out my schedule for Suicide Squad.
Is that something you look forward to doing?
DAVIS: Absolutely! I’m fascinated by her. I’m fascinated by her in this world of superheroe-ness because she is not a woman that you would expect. I think that she is a mass of contradictions. She is this big, powerful black woman, hard, ready to pick up a gun and shoot anyone at will. I’m fascinated at exploring her psychology, just put it that way. And I’m excited to pick up a gun.
Blackhat opens in theaters on January 16th.