Impervious to Fear: A Special Q&A with Director Michael Mann

By  · Published on January 28th, 2014

Michael Mann’s Thief is like a ticking-clock thriller without an actual ticking clock. Frank (James Caan) is in a rush to make up for lost time, to achieve the life he wants, and is represented by his photo. A part of the film’s conflict is that Frank’s life of crime will lead to an inevitable blowup. As Mann would say, he’s a rat in a maze. That idea has sneaked its way into Mann’s later work, from Collateral to Public Enemies to Heat, as his characters are inexorably drawn towards an inevitable outcome for their actions.

But it all started with Thief, which has now been released on Blu-ray by Criterion. From the hypnotic sounds of Tangerine Dream’s score to the sumptuous beauty of Donald E. Thorin’s cinematography, this 4K restoration of this landmark crime film has made Mann’s “rat in a maze” seem even more immersive.

Despite his busy work on an untitled thriller (aka Cyber) Mann spoke with us about his classic directorial debut, offering his thoughts on its style, the virtues of editing as “the ultimate kind of writing” and the unparalleled intimacy of digital cinematography in a post-celluloid age.

How do you think Thief holds up?

It’s interesting to see what works. It’s interesting to see what stands the test of time. What is it about the Leo character and his confrontation with Frank that could be in a picture right now, for example.

You’ve spoken, before, about wanting to make Frank a rat in a maze. How did you go about achieving that effect as a filmmaker?

First of all, we were shooting it in Chicago and most cities are flat. So, the way I wanted to get three dimensionality is to set most of the scenes at night. The dark sky becomes a lid. Streets turn into tunnels via shooting them and their reflections turned into a kind of Pissarro, just perspective. He was a master of perspective. It occurred to me to wet down the streets, because I remember driving through Chicago in the rain and seeing black streets like mirrors. So it was designed to build an environment, so that, almost subconsciously, you’re moving through Frank’s world more than observing him on it, streets more tunnels than surfaces.

Do you think most audiences are aware of those techniques you use to create that effect, or is it more about feeling?

I’m about the audience experiencing it, not observing and naming it. And sometimes they experience it in deep ways. If I can sufficiently craft it, they come back to it a number of times because there is more there for them. I’m interested in the intensity of experience. When I’m powerfully taken by a film, I’m swimming in it, wide-awake dream. So, I try to induce that state.

Two films of yours, Thief and Miami Vice, seem to have garnered more acclaim as time goes on. Why do you think some films resonate more after their theatrical release?

I don’t know. I think that when you go back and look at it, there are parts of the film that are successful, or you just get more deeply involved. On the other hand, The Last of the Mohicans and Heat resonated then and do now.

In the case of Miami Vice, I think expectations played a part. Some people weren’t expecting that very grounded take.

It’s funny, audience expectations of something “known” is really tricky. I remember back at the end of the second year of the series, I thought, “This should permanently evolve. It can’t just replicate the same thing.” Then I went off to direct Manhunter and produce Crime Story as well as Vice and attempted to put in place a writing staff that could carry it forward and I failed to do that and the writing, more than anything else, let down the audience. But, also, it had such a strong impact on culture its first two seasons, that it was damned if it changed and damned if it didn’t change.

You’ve always trusted audiences to keep up, whether you’re throwing them into the club at the start of Miami Vice or a number of other examples. Do you think audiences aren’t given enough credit that you don’t always have to hold their hand?

I think that it is your obligation to deliver an experience and have an accurate estimation of where, exactly, audience is in relation to the evolution of the narrative form. It’s not static. It evolves. First of all, story comes to us from so many different places simultaneously. There’s more of it. It’s in shorter duration. Much of it, especially TV, is better. Audiences just get smarter and better at understanding, like spotting archetypal plot.

So you can use archetypal plot expectations to infer, you can imply things that you couldn’t have done 20, 30 years ago. So what needed to be statement, today, can be implication. And if you make statement, you are over-explaining. Whereas that would have been the minimum required, 20 years ago. So, it evolves. It changes. To me, that’s really exciting.

Thief was your first theatrical film. How were you as a filmmaker then? Were you confident in your abilities?

To be confident or lacking confidence didn’t enter the equation that much. Of course there was some anxiety, but I wanted to make the film for so long ‐ I had written it, researched it and had Thief all over. We were so living in that world, that it never … it may have occurred to me a little bit before the first night of shooting, you know, “Wait a minute. Should I be a little apprehensive?” [Laughs] But I was too busy worrying about it, and familiar with every aspect of the film, rehearsals, location scouting, to have the luxury of self-reflection and anxiety. You know, you are making a movie three months before you start shooting. So, it became: is that crane going to show up? Because, on our first day shooting, I have to do this crane shot down through Rat Alley. It was the first shot of the film. The rainmakers aren’t working. I want parallel rain so I’m not really worried about, “Should I have an anxiety attack or not?” [Laughs]

[Laughs] Does that apply to today as well? You just don’t have time to think about that?

Listen, there’s something James Joyce wrote that I’ve never forgotten. “Impervious to fear is Rory’s son: he of the prudent soul.” I take prudence to mean preparation. It is prudent to be prepared. When you are really well prepared, you don’t have anxiety. Anxiety is fear of failure. There’s usually a reason. There’s got to be a reason. If, I’ve never done something before and I’m not prepared for it. I would have, should have fear and anxiety. I see it in some actors. The more prepared an actor is, when he’s prepared, two things happen: he’s great to deal with; second, he’s free because he’s confident. When an actor is totally prepared like, Al Pacino learns his dialogue cold two weeks before he shoots it, he never looks at the script the day he’s shooting, so winging it, taking chances, being on a high-wire without a net, he’s right there. I think no fear comes from knowing.

For me, I have no anxiety if I have a solid foundation in preparation ‐ knowing why I’m shooting in a place or why the camera is here, where the furniture is, how characters walk in, why she’s oblivious to a threat, what’s on her mind distracting her and why. Different ways I may talk to an actor to set him up.

Knowing all that, I imagine you don’t have to worry about finding the movie in editing.

You have to find it again, make it be there in editing. Editing is writing with shot film. The mix is the ultimate writing the movie. At the last stage of the sound mix, your grasp of it can be the closest to the way it was when the whole story first occurred to you. It’s now become that, totally. The screenplay is, of course, the genome, but it’s also blueprint, theory about what’s going to work. Shooting is concrete, but it’s also theoretical about what’s going to work in editing. So, did it work? Yeah, this worked. This other day’s shooting that I thought was going to work, guess what? It doesn’t work. How else can I deliver this story point? Or, another story point I felt was critical to the act two curtain? I don’t need it. I don’t like it even if I did need it. I didn’t have to shoot it. So I make annoying discoveries like that.

When do you know if a film or scene works? Is it based on your own instinct or is it when you put the film in front of an audience?

It’s analytical and totally emotional at the same time. Analytically, I may know that a certain scene is leading to a shock, a surprise that’s going to end act one. Yes, that scene is delivering. So, you trust the story structure. At the same time, you have a visceral experience of the movie. If I’m tracking with the movie with the story, am I getting turned on the way I’m supposed to be? And, then, you see it with an audience ‐ which, by the way, could be one person, could be 500. Doesn’t matter. You immediately get a different perspective. All of a sudden, you are very fresh to it again, for some reason. Every director will tell you that.

It’s kind of like, you project yourself as if you, too, are audience watching it for the first time. All of a sudden you instantly intuit answers to issues you struggled with. With comedy, it’s probably easier. They laugh or they don’t laugh. By the way, sometimes I’ve had films in which there may be a scene that an urban audience gets and an ex-urban audience won’t get at all. There’s a scene in Thief where Frank’s lawyer ‐ in mime ‐ bribes a judge. New York, Chicago; they got it. Los Angeles? It went right by. As a kid growing up in 50’s Chicago, if you got stopped by a cop, Let me see your driver’s license,” you had a $5 bill under the license. “Have a nice day.” So if you grew up in the suburbs you wouldn’t get what the guy is doing at the bench.

You’ve been a major pioneer of the digital movement. If you were making Thief today, would you shoot it digitally?

Absolutely. And I’d be much better off doing it today than when we did Collateral. Collateral was beautiful in digital projection if you were in a theater that had digital projection. The problem was that it had photochemical release prints, which the labs knocked out with tolerances” that were a joke. A print any director would reject was fine as far as the lab was concerned. So, getting what I made digitally, to photochemical release printing was a nightmare. Now, with digital cinema being ubiquitous, it’s great. Thief would have the same look, by the way.

There’s an intimacy to Collateral and Public Enemies, where you get a sense of those characters’ internal lives. Do you think you could achieve that same effect with film?

Intimacy? Yes. Digital offers a different quality. I used digital in Ali a little bit. That’s when I first was aware of how intensely I might be able to make certain scenes supra real because they were captured digitally as opposed to being on film.

It was important in Collateral, for obvious reasons, because the whole movie takes place at night. The night in LA is quite beautiful ‐ the whole sky has a soft luminescence. It’s kind of magenta, magenta-orange, or red depending…and you can see forever. It’s like very late afternoon in Northern Europe. I wanted to see that. You could never realize any of that in film. Having said that, I love analogue, particularly analogue sound. But it became impossible to have a mass release of a film with qualities intact, given the decline of lab standard over the last 20 years.

Thief is now available on Blu-Ray.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.