Crime in Counterpoint: Michael Mann on his Restored Masterpiece Heat
Pacino and Val Kilmer bringing the heat.
Twentieth Century Fox
Michael Mann’s 1995 masterpiece, Heat, comes out this week in a brand-new, fully loaded and beautiful Blu-ray edition. To explore further what makes this epochal crime drama so special, I recently talked to the director.
The story of Heat was based on real-life personalities. There was real thief named Neil McCauley, and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna was based on legendary Chicago cop Charlie Adamson. How close are they to the real-life models?
Hanna is fairly close to a combination of Charlie Adamson and a couple of other law enforcement people I’d known who were primarily hunters. Guys who, if you really asked them, “You have to tell me what motivates you, and you’re only allowed to say one thing,” their answer would not be, “To serve and protect.” They certainly have a moral compass, but that’s not the single motivating engine. It really has something to do with being at the tip of the spear. They’re predators, and the more difficult the target is, the more they’re attracted to it. Typically, they’re very self-aware. And that’s Hanna. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after.” He’ll leave behind the wreckage of marriages, and he’ll never say, “Well, that just didn’t work out,” as if there’s some third-party responsibility. He’s the author of everything that happens to him in his life.
As for McCauley, what we borrowed from the actual Neil McCauley was his professionalism, and the high regard that Charlie had for him. Charlie would speak of him in glowing terms. “This guy was terrific. What a professional! We were sitting in Wieboldt’s department store in Chicago, and we had cut into the crew. We knew what they were gonna take down. We were inside the store when they were doing a burglary, going after the safe, which had a lot of cash in it. And one thing was out of place, and this guy walked away from months of preparation and investment!” Charlie admired that.
The characters are also quite forthright. They talk about how their minds work. Was that also true of the real-life people?
Yes. Charlie’s partner was Dennis Farina, who was a detective in Chicago when I first met him, during Thief. They lived a very aggressive life, and Charlie was very forthcoming. When he had contact with Neil McCauley, he looked forward to having a dialogue. And he’d be very flattering because he wanted Neil to be forthcoming. They’d have personal conversations: Do you have a woman? What’s your life like? What’s your life view?
There was an overt and an ulterior motive to Charlie doing that. The overt motive was that he was fascinated with McCauley, because the guy was great at what he did. The contradiction, that McCauley would blow him out of his socks without thinking twice about it, isn’t really a contradiction. The ulterior motive was that Charlie understood himself so well that he knew that his subconscious mind was picking up aspects of McCauley that he may not even recognize at the time. He knew there might be a critical moment three months later in which he would have to make a snap decision: Do I go left or do I go right? What behavior can I predict this guy is likely to do? He knew that, in those totally intuitive decisions, what he knew about McCauley would be a deciding factor. So he always wanted to accrue more information, get more in contact with him.
This idea of predictive behavior — both the cops and the crooks in the film try to know as much as possible about everyone so that they can predict their next move — isn’t this a reflection of what actors and filmmakers do? Aren’t you essentially trying to predict how a character would act in these circumstances that you’ve created?
I’ve got a theory, which probably holds no water whatsoever, about why there’s so much genre content in media — meaning police stories, crime stories, so much of that. It’s because of the nature of the medium. Detectives detecting do what writers and directors do in the inverse: We have an idea for a character, and our character has origins that we invent. Those origins become an engine that causes him to do certain activities and express himself and have different attitudes based on who the character is. And then those activities have consequences and leave behind certain effects.
But a detective works all the way at the other end. He sees the remains of a crime — the leavings. He starts to work backwards to what happened. What was the activity? And if this was the activity, what could I discover about the motivations of the person whose identity I do not know? And how can those motivations allow me to predict his future activity, so that I can intercept him and find out who he is? So, if you’re a detective and there’s a burglary of, I don’t know, a retail fur store — this is a simplistic example — then you know that the motive of the thief is probably cash money. That means he’ll have to fence the furs. You can predict his behavior, and you start working fencers who fence furs. You work backwards. The process, even though it’s an inversion, is very similar.
You fill out the emotional lives of all these characters — not just the main two guys. Were you at all concerned at the time about how expansive the film was?
Not at all. That was my central ambition. I didn’t set out to do a genre piece that would conform to a set type. It’s not a cops-and-robbers film. To me, it’s human drama, period. And it’s a very ambitious film, but in its ambition it was to be two things. One was kind of a counterpoint: Could I pull off a very contrapuntal film in which there are really only two protagonists? The second was that I wanted to dimensionalize everybody — that everybody should have a life. Whether it’s Hanna and Justine, Neil and Eady, Chris and Charlene Shiherlis, Waingro and his psychosis, Breeden, the Dennis Haysbert character, Lilli … everybody had a life. That’s how I got emotionally engaged in them, and more invested in the outcome of what happened.
In the case of the two protagonists, Hanna and Neil McCauley, I separated them out because each is an engine that drives the thesis and the antithesis into the ending. I decided that only those two would be totally self-aware. That’s why they have a unique rapport. And the ambition behind this was: Can I have a drama in which, at the same time, we’re 100 percent invested in Neil McCauley getting away, and we’re also 100 percent invested in Hanna’s intercepting him? We don’t want the interception to occur, and yet we’re thrilled about the potential of it occurring, all at the same time.
But they really are two different people. McCauley was state-raised, angry and aggressive. And an autodidact in prison where — working on his body and his mind — he developed real discipline. And that’s his doctrine now: distance, no associations that can increase the risk of apprehension, with the plan to delay the emotional life he so desires — the Technicolor-Fiji ideal — till after he’s scored and splits.
There’s also another counterpoint in the film, between home life and work. Pacino’s scenes with Diane Venora are shot in these almost Antonioniesque angles, with a lot of flat surfaces and carefully composed shots. But when he’s out on the street, it’s a lot of handheld — we’re very close to him, in his head, as he’s surveying the terrain.
He is truly alive on the street. As he says to Justine, “All I am is who I’m going after,” after she says, “You think it could work out between us?” in the waiting room of the hospital. He’s not successful at home — that’s part of his prioritization. He’s most alive in that cool groove of deep concentration. That’s his inspiration: When he sees a piece of physical evidence and then he overhears a conversation, he puts two plus two plus two and it equals 11, 12 or 13, because he suddenly has an epiphany or he sees a pattern nobody else saw. That is his drug of choice, if you like.
There’s this scene when Hanna is out with the other cops and their families. He’s dancing with Justine, and he gets called away, to go check out the girl that Waingro has killed. At the crime scene, the girl’s mom shows up, and it’s an incredibly sad moment: Hanna goes to embrace her, and they suddenly start turning around, and it’s almost a dance — it’s basically the same dance he did with Justine. You see the kind of sacrifice that work involves — even dancing with his wife is taken over by the job.
Yes, and in the scene that follows, he gives Justine this sense that, when a tragedy occurs, he doesn’t close himself off to it and abstract it, the way a good homicide detective would. He absorbs it, because it feeds him information — even if it’s traumatic as hell. So he doesn’t stay distant to that mother’s anguish. He feels that pain, and he uses that. He’s a very unusual character.
You were working on the script for a long time — through the 1970s. How did it change over the years?
The big change was discovering what the ending should be. The contrapuntal ending: Hanna has just killed Neil McCauley, who is fortunate enough to pass away in the company of the man with whom he’s closest in a way, who’s the most like him and understands him the best. Once I realized that that’s how the movie should end, that meant I could build everything off of that. I never had that ending quite right that way, until whatever rewrite it was that led me to sit down with producer Art Linson in the Broadway Deli — which is no longer there, but it's where Neil picks up Eady — and I asked him if he wanted to go produce this thing with me. He read it, came back and said, “You’re out of your fucking mind. You have to direct this.”
De Niro and Pacino give career-best performances here, but how were they different as actors to work with? Do they approach their characters differently?
Yes, but the differences are simply individualistic. We all come from the same basic place about building a character inside you, and being able to do what that character does — which then allows you to push even further. To say that an actor has one method of acting versus another method of acting is false with the guys I’ve worked with — who are the best. Pacino’s method of acting is the Pacino method, that’s it. For Al, it’s very much about internalizing the way somebody feels. He memorizes scenes two weeks before he’s gonna shoot them. He wants them to roll around in his consciousness. He’ll dream about them. And Bobby is terribly smart — brilliantly analytical. “Why does this guy do that?” and the specifics are all very important. You know, what he’s wearing — all that detail is very expressive of character and feeds something to him. Pacino’s less concerned about what he’s wearing.
I think my favorite moment with De Niro is this tiny little bit when he’s busted Ashley Judd for having an affair with Hank Azaria. They’re in the hotel room, and De Niro’s looking at her and says, sternly, “Clean up, go home.” And then he repeats it, “Clean up, go home.” It’s such an odd repetition, but it feels completely right for that moment.
It might be my favorite part of his performance. There’s something in that moment — he is 200 percent Neil McCauley. He is the boss of that crew. He’s taking responsibility. He’s being protective. “Clean up, go home”: I’ll keep the lie. I’ll keep the marital betrayal that I’ve just discovered, which potentially is dangerous to our security. And it turns out it is — because Pacino discovers Hank Azaria, and they use him to get to Ashley Judd.
The other little moment that always jumps out at me is the little grin De Niro gives right when he’s decided he’ll break with his pattern and go after Waingro. The thought process that passes through his face when he’s in the car, and then right at the end there’s just a little hint of a smile.
We shot that one night, I didn’t get it. We went back another night, I thought I had it. I didn’t have it, and we went back a third night. While we were out there at the airport, I’d say, “Let’s take an hour and go shoot that moment again.” And then we got it. [Laughs] It’s one of those really intangible things, but when you get it, it really pays off. Responding that way is a deviation from his discipline of distance and separation. It’s an error, but it’s thrilling to him — he’s responding viscerally, intuitively, spontaneously.
You very subtly underline the fact that it is an error by having Pacino say, right before that, “He’s gone, he’s left. I know how his mind works, and he’ll be gone by now.” That highlights the fact that McCauley has broken with the discipline that has kept him alive all these years.
Yeah, and then when Al goes to the hotel, what does he see? He sees a girl [Amy Brenneman], alone in a car. If he and De Niro hadn’t had the coffee-shop scene — if he hadn’t stopped to say, “I want to know more about you,” and had that face-to-face [during which De Niro tells him he has a girlfriend] — he wouldn’t have known about the girl in the car. And it may not be her. She may be somebody else. But the way she’s sitting there, alone in a car, it just clicks with something he learned during that coffee-shop scene.
In many scenes, the background feels vital to what’s happening emotionally. In Neil’s house, we see the waves in the background or the city lights stretching out into the distance. I know it’s often hard to keep the background in the shot while you’re trying to focus on actors, especially in night scenes. And I think this is one of the reasons why you turned to video in Collateral. Was it a challenge here?
The challenge wasn’t so much to keep the background in the shot as it was [figuring out] what is the physical environment in which to have a scene, so that it’ll impact how the audience is feeling and amplify what’s going on. It all starts with scene analysis: the dramatic content of the scene, what the scene is telling us, how should it make the audience feel. I want you to feel the alienation of somebody who has the absolute minimum in that place. He lives in a world of abstraction. That’s why I picked that location, with the ocean out the window. And the windows are kind of dirty, you know — he doesn’t pay much attention to maintenance. He’d probably have a fork and a knife and a spoon, a coffee maker, and that’s about it.
“Never do anything you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds flat if you see the heat coming around the corner.” Where did that line come from? Is it your line, or is it something you heard in your interactions with cops and ex-cons?
I’m trying to remember … I think it’s my line, from Charlie Adamson’s description about how Neil McCauley lived his life. Or how you’d have to live your life if you were gonna be as effective as you can possibly be as a professional thief. The more attachments you make, the more vulnerable you are. Get in a big romance, you run away to Brazil, after six months you have a bad night, you’re really lonely, you pick up the phone and call her — and they have you.
I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Were you ever a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films?
You know, actually I’m not. [Laughs]
People compare your work to his all the time.
I haven’t seen all of his films. I think he’s a very good director. I think it’s historically very interesting because they derive from American film noir cinema, so it’s kind of the French version of that. It’s like when I first heard English bands, in 1965. I’d been a big devotee of Chicago blues and spent a lot of time in 1961, ’62, and ’63 listening to Muddy Waters in his local bar — and these were not white blues joints. And to hear these British bands, like the Animals, trying to do this music … it always felt very derivative at best.
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