CHICAGO — Michael Mann, the son of Jack and Esther Mann and the director and co-writer of “Public Enemies,” grew up all around Chicago. At 66, his voice retains remnants of the flat, hard “a’s” of his old neighborhood.
His reputation as another sort of hard-a precedes him.
The director of “Thief,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat,” “Ali” and “Collateral” and the creator of “Miami Vice” has been described widely as a perfectionist, a hothead, a martinet and a writer-director not afraid to make people — movie stars, extras, everyone — wait a good long while, as he checks things such as an actor’s collar or a selection of ties or the way the light’s hitting the pavement. One detail after another, in a single shot among hundreds. Or thousands.
Mann returned last year to his native Chicago to film much of “Public Enemies,” which covers the final, blaze-of-infamy year in the life of bank robber John Dillinger. His mother, Esther, made it to the Chicago premiere last week.
“She liked it a lot,” Mann says with a quick smile. His lunch has been wheeled within striking distance outside a suite at the Peninsula Hotel, where he’s sitting for interviews.
“Metaphorically, at least, the movie takes her back to the old neighborhood; she was 17 in 1933, the year before Dillinger died.” Mann’s speech patterns are punchy, telegraphic.
“Chicago? I love Chicago. Better now than it ever was. Absolutely. L.A.? Nowhere near it.”
Its civic limitations aside, Los Angeles has brought out the best in Mann as a filmmaker, and the other way around.
A viewer can get lost, wonderfully lost, in the cool, sleek lines and inky shadows of “Heat” and “Collateral,” two of his most compelling underworld tales.
Unlike Martin Scorsese, he says, Mann didn’t grow up obsessed with the movies. He liked them, he says, just as he liked bowling. He once told an interviewer that filmmaking was “a sissy’s profession where I come from.” He studied English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where, he says, he got a “fantastic liberal arts education” and started experimenting with filmmaking. (Seeing “Dr. Strangelove” at age 21, he says, changed his life.) A couple of years later he moved to London, working briefly in advertising, outside the same circles populated by future film directors Alan Parker, Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne.
Then Mann came home, made documentaries and broke into a long, storied career in television, which began with a writing gig on “Starsky & Hutch.”
From the beginning Mann’s work has concentrated on loners with a code — honorably dishonorable men and, occasionally, women, whose professions demand huge, often murderous sacrifices. Humanizing Dillinger without glamorizing him, “that’s the challenge,” the director says. “Realism in and of itself isn’t the answer. To me, what’s important is to internalize things, getting the audience in the zone with the characters. That’s the objective. That’s the challenge. But it’s not realism.”
For years Mann has been out ahead of the high-definition digital video curve.
His decision to shoot a Depression-era gangster picture — albeit a gangster film that’s really a love story between Johnny Depp’s Dillinger and Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, played by Marion Cotillard — in high-def digital was simple, he says.
Test footage “made me feel like I was there, on a rainy night in Chicago, 1933.”
It’s about “the closeness of the experience,” the hard-edged immediacy of digital versus “the liquid surface” of film. The outstanding sequence in “Public Enemies” plays into Mann’s mastery of complicated lines of action and a tremendous amount of gunfire. Dillinger’s hiding out in a lodge in northern Wisconsin, the Little Bohemia. Federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and his men know it, and have come for their quarry.
A melee ensues. “The most exciting thing,” Mann says, “is if I can convey what it felt like to be there. I try, anyway, for some authenticity. That’s where the drama is. It lies in intense experience.”
Mann is a paradox. He works with A-list actors on A-list budgets, yet his films have a ruminative quality that can keep mass audiences at bay. Only one of his features to date, “Collateral,” cracked the $200 million mark worldwide. Clearly expectations are running high for “Public Enemies” to top that.
To Mann, Dillinger was the last of the Mohicans, an old-school bank robber with his own sense of scruples who stayed nimble, for a time, even as he was getting heat from the feds as well as the crime syndicates threatened by a lone wolf. “Extraordinary life, so short, burned so bright,” Mann says. “Sophisticated thinker, but shortsighted.”
Most people, he says, know how Dillinger died, outside the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue, on a sticky July night in 1934, after seeing Clark Gable in “Manhattan Melodrama,” co-starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. “There’s no drama in that,” he says. But there’s a key to Dillinger, Mann says, in one of Gable’s lines from that picture, spoken as his character — a gangster with scruples — heads off to the electric chair. Mann loves quoting it.
“‘Die the way you live — all of a sudden. That’s the way to go.’” Mann relishes the phrasing. “That ‘30s fatalism is fantastic.
It’s there in Hemingway, in the movies, every place you look. You have to wonder what Dillinger was thinking, watching this scene. Was it the first time in his life he ever thought about his future?”