Michael Mann sat down with Guillermo del Toro and Thierry Frémaux at the Festival Lumière to share insights and his 4K restoration of 'Heat'.
Michael Mann's decades long career began in television, where he played a key role in designing the cinematic aesthetic of the crime drama Miami Vice. After that, he directed countless classics, many of them criminally underseen, including Thief, Manhunter (the first Hannibal Lecter movie, despite what you might have been told), The Last of the Mohicans, and his 1995 Robert De Niro-Al Pacino epic heist film, Heat. Guillermo del Toro and Institut Lumiére director Thierry Frémaux led Mann through an expansive conversation, in which the director discussed his long career. Here are three highlights from their talk (which you can watch below, or listen to on SoundCloud.)
"It's my responsibility."
Asked about whether or not he considered himself an auteur, Mann said that he did, but he had his own specific criteria for what makes an auteur: “It’s not about self reflection," said the director, "it’s about responsibility. Everything, good or bad, the creative choices, whether it’s an actor, the folds in the curtains, the fashion, the music, the cut, it’s all my fault, my responsibility. And that’s what’s always so exciting to me about cinema.” And indeed, according to this 1995 New York Times article on the director, Ashley Judd, who co-starred in Heat, recalled how "[Mann] specially designed hangers in the hotel room....He wanted the hangers to have this certain look—a sort of wire-brushed, stainless steel sheen—and he wanted them to make a certain noise when Mr. De Niro knocked them out of the way."
"44 hours of impact"
Though he never directed the show which became so synonymous with his style, Mann was the executive producder on a great deal of the early shows from Miami Vice, one of the most stylistically influential shows of the 1980s. Mann has been credited with helping to bring a cinematic aesthetic to TV, including his order to the costume and set departments for there to be no "earth tones" present on the show. The show also helped to introduce the world to designer stubble on Don Johnson, sport coats and t-shirts, the magic that is Philip Michael Thomas, and the acting talents of Leonard Cohen, who played a French drug kingpin on one episode, because why would I lie to you?
"I was executive producer, which is like being the director of twenty-two hours.... you impact socially and culturally in a very effective way."
Asked about the differences between working in film and TV, Mann remarked, "[On Miami Vice] I was executive producer, which is like being the director of twenty-two hours. Because of the nature of storytelling, you impact socially and culturally in a very effective way. It’s twenty-two hours that are seen twice, so forty-four hours of impact on an audience.”
"Contradiction is always interesting."
Asked about his theory of character, Mann explained that, “Drama to me is conflict. Someone in a state of contradiction is always interesting. Someone who is having to fight against a social value system is always attractive....these kinds of conflicts are what interest me," and these conflicts are on abundant display in films like Thief, Last of the Mohicans, and Heat, where De Niro, as a master thief, and Pacino, as the lawman sworn to bring him in, share screen time in one of the tensest and well-played scenes in either actor's career. Both men live by a code, a code that allows them the professional courtesy of sitting down together for a moment, but that won't permit either of them to make it out unscathed.
Mann tells stories of harsh worlds ruled by unfair and capricious codes, and does so with an interior decorator's eye for detail and understatement, something that has made him unique among directors. Check out the master class in full, and while you're at it, read about Mann's 4K Blu-Ray restoration of Heat.