Writer–director–producer Michael Mann is one of Hollywood's singular visionaries – an arbiter of modernist film style and a student of frenetic masculine endeavor. Mann is such a perfectionist that in fourteen years he has directed only five features: Thief (1981), The Keep (1983), Manhunter (1986), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and Heat, which opens this month. During that time, of course, he has also staged two big, important TV series, Miami Vice (1984–9) and Crime Story (1986–8). Mann alone among American auteurs has spanned both mediums and maintained a consistent, urgent voice.
Following The Last of the Mohicans, his bloody epic of the eighteenthcentury New York wilderness, Heat returns Mann to the more familiar turf of the concrete jungle. Filmed on eighty-plus locations in and around Los Angeles, the movie is a heist drama pairing robber Robert De Niro and detective Al Pacino as unstoppable force and immovable object. Knowing Mann, whose films recognize the primacy and pragmatism of violence in the American landscape, it is also likely to be a ferocious paean to city-seared humanity.
GRAHAM FULLER: You've said in the past that it was accidental that you'd mostly made films in the urban-crime genre. So why have you returned to it after stepping outside it with The Last of the Mohicans?
MICHAEL MANN: Heat is a drama, not a genre piece. What excited me about the screenplay was the way it penetrated into the lives of the characters.
We meet Neil McCauley [Robert De Niro] and his crew members, Chris Shiherlis [Val Kilmer] and Michael Cerrito [Tom Sizemore]. Then we come to know Chris's and Michael's wives, and in the case of Chris's, Charlene [Ashley Judd], we meet her lover [Hank Azaria]. The crime story/detective story is initially discrete, then it fuses with the personal stories in the fateful and sometimes doom-laden decisions each person has to make.
GF: There's something desperate about the domestic plight of most of these characters. Is their dysfunction a result of being criminals and cops?
MM: In some it is; in others it isn't. Mostly, it's based on who they are as people. In writing the story, I wanted to polarize each of these situations to make each as different from the other as possible.