Michael Mann chats with Capone about crime, punishment and PUBLIC ENEMIES!!!
Published at: June 29, 2009, 10:07 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey folks. Capone in Chicago here.
It's one thing to meet a filmmaker who you consider a hero, it's quite another thing to meet one whose films directly influenced major decisions in your life. Growing up on the east coast in the mid-1980s, I rented two films that were made a few years before I watched them and made a huge impact on my decision to move to Chicago. The two movies--John Landis' THE BLUES BROTHERS and Michael Mann's THIEF--came out within a year of each other, and they painted the Windy City as a comedy and music capital, as well as a place where lots of badass stuff occurs. So the decision was essentially made for me. During my freshman year at Northwestern, my friends and I became addicted to the short-lived, Chicago-based TV series "Crime Story," starring Dennis Farina and Stephen Lang, and created by Mann, a Chicago native. Watching that show about Chicago detectives in the early 1960s attempting to bust up organized crime solidified my decision to move here.
I honestly never thought I'd get a shot at interviewing Michael Mann, especially not about a film shot in and around Chicago. I could easily fill two hours or more discussing with Mann his great accomplishments, including the hard-to-find THE KEEP, MANHUNTER (better known as the first film to feature Hannibal Lecter), THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, HEAT, THE INSIDER, ALI, COLLATERAL, and 2006's MIAMI VICE, based on the TV show Mann co-created. I firmly believe PUBLIC ENEMIES is his best film since HEAT and possibly the best film he's ever made. It in no way attempts to be a Depression-era HEAT. While the gunplay is fast and dirty, it's what happens in between the shootouts and bank robberies that I found most absorbing. I'll have my review for you in a couple of days.
Mann and I were given 15 minutes to talk, and considering the unbelievable number of (mostly TV) press brought in from literally all over the world to interview Mann (as well as Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard, all in Chicago recently for the PUBLIC ENEMIES world premiere) a couple weekends ago, I thought that was pretty generous. But once we got to talking, Mann brushed off a couple of attempts to break up our conversation, and we ended up chatting to closer to 30 minutes. But the biggest compliment Mann paid me and AICN readers was stopping by our PUBLIC ENEMIES screening the day after the premiere to introduce the first public screening of the film as a surprise to the audience. He talked about the charge he got from shooting in Chicago, specifically in some of the neighborhoods where both he and his mother grew up, and about the thrill he got being about to dress up the buildings around the Biograph Theatre for the film's climactic moments.
Anyway, here's Michael Mann, who has created one of the summer's best films, and is a modern master of staging action sequences and pulling great, nomination-worthy performances from his players. I also came to realize as he was filling my ears with background and details about the people and places in PUBLIC ENEMIES that this based-in-fact period work Mann has made is really just living, breathing book report to him. The amount of research that he personally conducts for a film like this is overwhelming. My suggestion might actually be to see the film first and then read this interview. I don't think there are any spoilers contained in our talk, but some of the details Mann talks about are worthy of a great DVD commentary--and I'm sure one is forthcoming. Of course, our first discussion point has nothing to do with this or any other movie, and it's Mann who initiates the topic. Anyway, enjoy my talk with the great Michael Mann…
Michael Mann: What’s a great restaurant in town?
Capone: That’s a loaded question. Shouldn't you know this. I guess it depends on what neighborhood?
MM: I always go to Blackbird.
Capone: That’s a good one. What neighborhood? Around here?
MM: I don’t care. Yeah, around here.
Capone: Well, you’ve got about 50 different steak houses.
MM: What’s the best steak house?
Capone: I’d say Gibson’s is still the best.
MM: Is that right?
[Publicist in the room]: Some of us went there last night.
Capone: Yeah, it’s terrific.
First of all, thank you in advance for coming tonight. I can’t tell you how excited I am and how excited the audience is going be when they find out you’re there.
MM: Not a problem. I'm thrilled to do it.
What is it about that interaction, the interplay between the criminal and the law enforcement agent that you like so much, because, really, a lot of your movies are about that interplay. It’s not so much about the good guy or the bad guy. It’s about the way that they maneuver around each other.
MM: Sometimes. I may dispute you on that a little bit. This one, I was really interested in what was going on in the internal world of John Dillinger. That’s where this began. This began, like, What is this man thinking? What’s his experience of life? What has he emerged or exploded on the landscape after 10 years in that hell hole in Indiana, which we finally unearthed in preproduction in a Bureau of Prison’s report…There was a big scandal, how harsh that environment was.
And, what’s he thinking, experiencing, starting at the end at the Biograph, looking at MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, watching Clark Gable, who’s character in that was partially influenced by John Dillinger, because John Dillinger is the second-most recognized man in the United States after FDR, at the time…Gets more headlines--we were counting them--than Obama was getting during the primaries.
Capone: [Laughs] That’s something!
MM: And, there’s only two channels, of all media, so you get the whole country, if you’re dominating the radio and dominating the Movietone News, you’ve got everybody. It’s like if we had one network in the United States, and you’re on CNN, it’s CNN you’re on.
And, Gable is saying things to him like, “Don’t rot in the prison. Die the way you live, all of a sudden. Living any other way doesn’t mean a thing.” And, everybody else he knows is already dead, and he’s the last of his kind, in a way. And, what is he thinking? What’s he feeling about [Dillinger's girlfriend] Billie [Frechette]? What’s his life been? This invincible spirit, this tough, tough, tough-minded guy…How do you get tough-minded and positive in a way that he seemed to have been?
To try and locate an audience within that experience, that’s really what drove me and informed everything. So, it was less about Dillinger versus [FBI agent Melvin] Purvis, in a way, than it was about, you know, Dillinger knowing Dillinger, understanding Dillinger. And, beginning with something that mystified me at the very beginning of the process, which was that he had no concept…not the rejection of a future, no idea to even think about the future. I mean, here this guy could plan his robberies with precise detail, I mean, classical military textbook small-unit combat…
Capone: Smart guy.
MM: Smart guy, yeah. Tremendous op-sec, operational security. When Russell Clark starts getting drunk and shooting his mouth off, they kick him out of the gang and tell him he has 24 hours, or they’ll shoot him dead. He’s got 24 hours to leave Chicago, or they'll kill him. And, even when they got headlines, their heads don’t get big. They still plan with discipline. And yet, they can’t plan next Thursday.
Capone: And, Billie mentions that, too. She says that to him, doesn’t she? She says to him, “You can’t think past next week.”
MM: It’s seeded in there. He says, [Alvin] Karpis [played by Giovanni Ribisi] says in the very beginning, he says, "This is the kind of score you go away after?” And, Dillinger says, “Where are you going to go?” And, Karpis says, “I don’t know. I like Varadero Beach [in Cuba], what about you?” And, he says, “No plans.” And, Karpis says, “Well, you oughta, ’cause what we’re doing it today ain’t gonna to last forever.” And, Dillinger says, “We’re having too good a time today to worry about tomorrow.” And, that’s it.
And then, Billie says, “So, all you ever think about is…You don’t give yourself thought for tomorrow.” And, he says, “We’re invincible, we’re invincible.” And, he is, except when the accidents befall you, like a fire in a hotel in Tucson.
The movie is more about, to me, I mean, sure on a plot level Purvis is pursuing Dillinger. On a story level, it has to be about Dillinger pursuing the answers to your life. And, Purvis is a man who’s put himself in a state of contradiction internally, because he’s doing stuff that goes against his native values.
The reason it has to be that is because…This is a very conscious decision. I figured out early how the story had to tell itself. The reason it had to be that was because there’s no possible ending to this drama, if you just deal with the fact, ’cause everybody knows, Will he or won’t he escape The Biograph? No! [laughs]
Capone: That’s pretty well documented, yeah.
MM: So, not only is that less interesting to me, because then I’m just doing a portrait of a man or a story. And, you or the audience is a mere observer. That doesn’t excite me. What’s challenging to me is if I can…The challenge is to bring the audience into…locate them internally, as much as I can, as much as I’m able to, in the experience of being Dillinger, what he’s thinking, what he’s feeling, how he thought, and being him, and being Purvis, being Billie, inside that relationship. And having a “You Are There,” experience, you know, that old show, where this is as complex and detailed as I could make it, so that you feel, hopefully, that you’re in it. That’s what I try to do in this piece of work, to feel that you’re there. And, this has the same kind of detail that makes it feel current, present [points to a nearby desk] like the mess on that desktop there, or what that looks like. It has that kind of detail.
Capone: At the same time, though, I can’t recall a film that has shown us the very technical, procedural ways that the G-men operated in those days. It’s hard to make guys hanging out a phone switchboard exciting.
MM: If you do the work, do the research, you find it was revolutionary. In its time, it was revolutionary. I mean, think about it: Commercial air travel is only four years old in 1933. And, [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover’s flying people every place. He’s chartering airplanes. And, they’re using long-distance telephones.
And, in an America the center of which is like the Wild West, I hold up a bank in Wisconsin, I get across the state line, I’m home free. No guy with a badge is going to have authority to chase me over the state line. And, local police are either ill-equipped, incompetent, or corrupt, for the most part. And, I could decide that I’m just going to drive out of Illinois and go spend Christmas in…"Where do you guys want to spend Christmas?" "Out by Reno." And, just kick back in Reno like we’re on another planet.
So, it was that ex-urban, that decentralized, and Hoover…as much as he is for me somewhat of a loathsome figure for his politics and megalomania, you know, it’s false history to deny, to not acknowledge that what he innovated was stunning, a stunning accomplishment, for the wrong ends to me, but a stunning accomplishment. The data gathering in a central place, the creation of a network, and then the disseminating of it for triangulation, to have an agent to find out, use a long-distance telephone to call a manufacturer in St. Louis, and find out every single store in America that sold coat, and have an agent show up at every single store in America with a picture of Billie Frechette. Every guy’s got that same picture and says, ”Did this woman come in your store?” And, if someone in Hot Springs, Arkansas, says, “Yeah, she did come in the store, and she bought that hat.” And, that means that they’re being harbored there, and then you’ll have an agent there. You’ll put an agent there to keep an eye on that place for the next four months. That was unheard of.
It’s one thing to pull that off in England, because he modeled a lot of stuff on Scotland Yard, with that small land mass. It’s a whole other thing to do it in the United States.
Capone: Hoover’s declaration of a "war on crime" and the use of torture to get information from certain people certainly has some interesting modern parallels on the "war on terror."
MM: Or, it’s a trope. And when, either for good reasons or bad reasons, I mean, the asymmetric warfare, which didn’t exist then at all, has made conventional methods…I don’t care how good you are with asymmetric warfare. Somebody with a couple RPGs and AK47s could do what you used to have to have tank battalions do, in terms of affecting outcome. That’s why the nuclear threat from North Korea is such a potent tool, because before, if you didn’t have a nuclear threat, you could never afford to have all the tank columns.
But, when Hoover conventionally…First of all, he thought, I’ll generate the notion of Public Enemy #1, I’ll invent this. My first Public Enemy #1 will be John Dillinger, big headlines, and that’s going to leap me right over any of the obstacles I have to becoming the federal law enforcement agency, because if you’re Hoover, his big rival is Treasury, ’cause Treasury was going to be that, because they just put away Capone. So, that’s where this thought had come from.
He got lucky in that the first Attorney General under FDR, whose name I’m blanking on, marries…A guy in his 60s, he marries some 27-year-old Cuban girl. They have their wedding in Miami. He takes the train, his honeymoon is a train ride back to Washington. Whatever athletic sex he wanted, I guess he got. He dies of a heart attack. He couldn’t stand Hoover. He’s replaced by Cunningham, who liked Hoover, so Hoover had a shot. So, he invented it, the Public Enemy thing, to generate headlines. The only problem is that John Dillinger had something to say about it.
Capone: But this whole idea of a war…it seems like the way you shot some of the gun play is very much like a war film, and maybe, even the way wars were being fought at the time, with these small skirmishes, very loud, very quick in and out, and then, you grab up your wounded and your dead, and you retreat for a little while to come back however many weeks or months later. Those exchanges did feel like war, I mean, they felt like quick battles.
MM: I tried to do, I tried to generate what…First of all, we were standing in…I was preproduction location scouting, in the real Little Bohemia. All the bullet holes are still in the wall. They kept them there for tourist reasons. Bullet holes in the glass, and you start to realize the intensity of it. And, how long did it last, you know?
And, if you’re with Dillinger’s group, Baby Face Nelson…These are real gun fighters. These guys are real trigger time. There’s nothing goofy about it. I mean, they know they have to get out as fast as you can. To assault, push the other guys, lay down rounds, put the other guys down, get them to go to cover, and suppress their fire so that you can get out. The idea isn’t--like in that bank robbery in Northridge--to just stand there, because the assets are just going to continue to come in.
Capone: Even the terms you’re using now-assault, laying down fire--are war terminology.
MM: Well, for good reason, because Dillinger was mentored…Dillinger went to "graduate school" in the Indiana State Penitentiary, rehearsing and mentally planning and being mentored by Walter Dietrich. Walter Dietrich was mentored by a man named Herbert K. Lamb, from whence the expression ‘on the lamb’ came to us. Herbert K. Lamb had been in the Prussian military, came back to the United States, and designed bank robbery as a small-unit military combat. He did research. He did tactics. He had logistics. You had cache, three escape routes--not one--but two or three. He had caches of gasoline and medical kits with quarter- and half-grain vials of morphine in it. And, everything was planned. You knew who had the key. You did a surveillance, you did all this stuff. Everybody had to have their job. So, it was totally militarized.
Capone: Wow. I noticed, maybe just because I was sitting closer to the screen than I usually do…
MM: That’s bad in this move. [laughs]
Capone:…You have reinvented the close-up with this movie. I mean, it is really close up sometimes.
MM: You have to take Dramamine to see it that close.
Capone: It took me a while to get used to it, but I’m going to see it again tonight at a safer distance, I think. But, I mean, you can see pores in the skin. That’s incredible. What were you thinking by doing that with this? Was that another way of getting inside the characters?
MM: Well, is that what you felt? ’Cause that would be nice.
Capone: Certainly with Dillinger, yes.
MM: Well, even if you look at…to roll both your questions in the same answer. If you watch every scene…and, by the way, there’s a pretty good “Making of…” documentary that just came on HBO last night.
Capone: I’ll look for it. Okay.
MM: It’s called “The Making of John Dillinger,” and there’s some nice stuff in it about exactly this point. But, if you watch the first bank robbery. I mean, I’m setting it up to show "this is how he was supposed to do it," okay? The Sioux Falls robbery at the very end with Baby-Face Nelson. This is NOT how it’s supposed to be, but he’s desperate, as he says. So, the beginning was supposed to be how he was supposed to do it.
So, you’ve got the get-away driver Red, who is fearless. He’s not going to skip. You’ve got the outside man controlling everything on the street, Homer Van Meter. You’ve got the lobby man, Pete Pierpont, who’s going to take over and dominate the space and protect one guy, [Charles] Makley, who’s stripping the cash from the tellers, while Dillinger is taking the manager, who we know has the key, and taking him to the vault. So, Dillinger is the vault man.
Each guy has his job. Dillinger will not let his attention drift from that bank manager for one iota, because he has total confidence that Pete Pierpont will kill anything in that lobby that’s a threat. And, Makley will strip the cash from these tellers, ’cause he knows that Dillinger is getting all the money in the vault. And, Pete Pierpont will keep the lobby secure, and Homer is going to keep the outside secure. So, these guys--talk about cold-blooded--you know, they hear that BAR [alarm] go off and “Come on, come on. Come here, kid, let’s go for a ride.” They’re just that certain of what they’re doing.
And, that is that Herbert K. Lamb method of bank robbery. He rode with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And, he got killed by accident after a 20-year career as a bank robber. Read the Bryan Burrough book ["Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34"]. It’s all in there.
So, with Homer, outside the bank, and he sees that police car drive up. There’s a close-up--it's something you can only do in hi-def--I've got the lens right here, and you’ll just see the focus shift to right to the stubble, and then I’m heightening that and color timing by raising the contrast just when we get there. So, you really feel you’ve gone right into Homer, and you can feel his awareness just climb up. There’s no nervousness, there’s nothing. But, you see he has totally taken in the arrival of the cops outside.
And so, I look for those moments. I look for where or how to bring the audience into the moment, to reveal what somebody’s thinking and what they’re feeling, and where it feels like you’re inside the experience. Not looking at it, with an actor performing it, but have an actor live it, and you as audience, if I could bring the audience inside to experience. It became critical in THE INSIDER, because the ambition was to make a film that was as suspenseful as I knew, and dramatic as I knew those lives really were. And, it’s all talking heads, but the devastation, the potential devastation to [Jeffrey] Wigand and Lowell Bergman was total annihilation, personal annihilation, suicide--all that was in the cards for these guys. And, yet, it’s all just people talking. So, that kind of began an exploration into how I could bring you into experience in as internal a way as I could.
Capone: Yeah, you can’t get much more internal than feeling like you’re on their skin.
MM: [laughs] That's what happens when you sit in row three.
Capone: It was row two actually, but that’s alright.
MM: That’s worse. Sit in the middle of the theater tonight.
Capone. It was good to Stephen Lang back on the big screen. I don’t feel like I’ve seen him in a while. I love him. I used to see him in plays all the time, but I remember him going back to MANHUNTER. It was like a little MANHUNTER reunion last night with William Petersen and Dennis Farina in the audience last night.
MM: I didn’t think about it that way, ’cause those guys are my pals, but you're right. There was another interesting reunion going on there last night.
MM: When you see the HBO thing, there’s a guy there named Jerry Scalise, who was a technical adviser. And, Scalise had been a Chicago thief, stole the Marlborough Diamond out of London, and he was my technical consultant, a very, very sensitive, smart, intelligent guy. I could ask what--“Talk about romance in your life. What’s the most anxiety-ridden stage of a score? Where is the high? Where’s the camaraderie? What are you feeling about your guys?” And, he’d have a very intelligent, sensitive, personal kind of answer to your questions. And, you look him up in Wikipedia---and he’s in the credits—and, he’s also interviewed in this HBO thing.
And so, he was there, and his partner Artie Rachel was there. And, Dennis Farina was there, and Nick Nickeas [featured in THIEF and "Crime Story"] was there, and all these guys. Nick Nickeas and Dennis Farina, when I first met them--you know, this goes back to the early 80s--they were these tough, tough, tough Chicago cops in the old CIU. Yeah, funny, funny guys, but hard as nails, you know? So, to wind up together about 20 years later…
Capone: That must have been pretty cool for Farina last night to see those guys.
MM: Especially Dennis.
Capone: I stumbled upon the Lincoln Avenue [where the Biograph Theater is located] shooting while you were here last year. What was it like for you, just seeing it like that?
MM: There were some moments when I’d drive to the set, and the sun was going down, and I’d get out of the car, right at Lincoln by Fullerton, past the police barricade. And, I’d walk on the set, and you’d kind of…you’d raise your head up, and as you look on both sides of the street--the National Tea sign. It was like some memory of when I was four years old on the street car with my grandmother going some place down…’cause we used to live on North Avenue and Kedzie, going some place downtown.
Capone: I never saw it at night. I only saw it during the day.
MM: Oh, at night, it looked beautiful. It was designed for night, because it only takes place at night. It wasn’t designed for daylight. Yeah, I just remembered these things. I remember being a kid, and I must have been not more than four years old and staying at my grandparents--they lived on Oakley and Potomac, east of Humboldt Park--and I remember being in bed, and they had high ceilings, you know? And, I remember seeing, every time a car went by, the shadow of the tree in front of this apartment would move across the ceiling.
And, that’s because the street lighting was so dim, and it was specific. It was for a certain area. If the street light wasn’t there, there was no light. There was none of this sodium vapor to diffuse in the air. And so, the world looked quite different. And, we duplicated that in the lighting. So, you got these disconnected, disassociated memories that come kind of flooding back.
Capone: I’ll look for that tonight, because I think I did sort of notice it last night in that sequence: the street is either lit up, or it’s pitch black.
MM: Exactly. It falls off, yeah. And, we couldn’t figure out…We saw the picture. We kept looking at the period photography of the front of the Biograph. And, we saw this intense light source hitting us, and we couldn’t figure out what that was. And, it was within 20 minutes of Dillinger being shot, and it couldn’t have been a carbon arc. It took a long time to get a carbon arc with a generator and everything else out there. Now, how did “Movietone” newsreel shoot their news? And, that’s when we discovered, from another angle, we found, because it was much more obscure, we saw a guy with a flare. And, that’s when we realized that’s what they were using.
Capone: Oh, there are a couple of scenes where we see a guy with a flare lighting a night shoot.
MM: They had magnesium flares that lasted for about two minutes, and that’s how they would shoot, that’s how they would light…you know, because the ASA back then on that stuff had to be, like, six or seven. I mean, that’s nothing. So, that’s how we figured out that’s how they shot newsreels--those guys holding up flares. That’s why we did that, you know, at the landing.
Capone: Yeah. I forgot to ask: What did your Mom think of the film [Mann had announced that his very elderly mother was at the theater at the world premiere]? You said she was there.
MM: She, likes the movie; she likes it a lot. I mean, it takes place in my metaphoric neighborhood. It takes place in her literal neighborhood. She lived right around that whole area for her whole life on the near North side, near Northwest side, off of Wells Street, when she was a kid. She was 17 in 1933.
And also, my father passed away a long time ago. My father, parents both--they were part of a tough generation that lived through the heart of the Depression, they lived through the Second World War.
Capone: In college, my friends and I were obsessed with “Crime Story.” We loved that show. The first season was the Chicago year. When it moved to Vegas, we still watched it, but I had just moved here when that started up, and it just made me feel like I was in the coolest city I was ever going to live in.
MM: Yeah, I love that show.
Capone: And, honestly, THIEF was maybe the first or second film I ever saw shot in Chicago.
MM: That’s because Mayor Daley’s father was not film friendly.
Capone: Wow. I didn’t know that. How interesting.
MM: Oh, yeah. No, no, no, he didn’t like sex, bad language. You couldn’t get a film permit, so people stayed away from here. But as soon as Daley died, my friend John Landis was here like a shot.
Capone: I was just going to say: BLUES BROTHERS and THIEF were the two…
MM: And then, we were on the tail of BLUES BROTHERS.
Capone: Yeah, one after the other. That’s right.
MM: John Belushi was roaming around our sets thinking he was still shooting BLUES BROTHERS. [laughs]
Capone: That's a story I have not heard about him. Well, someone is probably going to kill me if I go much longer with you. We'll see you tonight. Thanks for taking so much time to talk.
MM: You're very welcome. Thanks.