Favorite Talks of ’13: Michael Mann on Going Back to Chicago for “Thief”

On how the Windy City became a maze for James Caan to burrow through....Read More
Tuesday Weld and James Caan in "Thief"

This week, we’ll be recapping some of our favorite film events of 2013. This conversation with Michael Mann took place on December 15th at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.

“When I was 18, I had a very different view of Chicago,” Michael Mann reminisced, shortly after the premiere of a new restoration of “Thief” played the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. “For whatever reason, I was determined to get away from flat places with streets that met each other at right angles. I don’t know why. I started appreciating Chicago again when I came back in ’79.”

A scene from Michael Mann's "Thief"After Mann had crossed the Atlantic to attend London International Film School and returned back to the States to hone his chops on television crime dramas, his feature debut would lead him back to his birthplace. During a Q & A moderated by Geoff Boucher, Mann recalled how he was “turned on” by “the imagery of those kind of cage black bridges at night and the reflection on the black pavement of the lights even before I had any idea of storing things visually or even thinking about film directing.”

Yet as Mann explained, Chicago was the only place he thought of to set the taut character study of a recently paroled safecracker named Frank (James Caan) since he “wanted Frank to be seen as a rat in the machine and the city to be seen as a three-dimensional construction that he knew his ways through. The way you put a lid on the city is to shoot at night because then you’ve got a black lid on it and then this sense of tumult was why I was interested in having lights form that pattern, taking off from how Pissarro used perspective in painting.”

However, Frank’s knowledge of the city wouldn’t extend to the world he entered after leaving prison, something that had intrigued Mann when he went to do research at Folsom Prison in California for his work on the screenplay for “Straight Time” or the made-for-television “The Jericho Mile.” Mann would talk to inmates who had no more than a sixth or seventh grade education and yet were quoting Immanuel Kant to him, having used the library as their only avenue to remake themselves.

“That inventiveness, that ingenuity, that quest for understanding is more dynamic in prisons,” said Mann. “What’s so fascinating about the character [of Frank] is that he’s a wild child. He was plucked out of society when he was 18 and dropped back into it when he was about 31, so he doesn’t know how to work a payphone, how to ask a woman out, what music is current, so that made him a very interesting agent through whom to view life in 1980. Hence the kind of mechanistic approach because the human impuse – I don’t want to commit suicide, I want to continue to exist. I want my life to be together. What form should it take? I have no idea. I’m locked out of society. The only thing I have available to me are magazines so that’s what I’ll use.”

A safecracking scene in "Thief"In making the film, Mann had significantly more resources at his disposal, spending three years on the streets of the Windy City with then-cops Dennis Farina and Chuck Adamson as well as John Santucci, the thief on whom “Thief” was largely based. All three would appear as actors in the film (as they would again and again in future Mann productions) and Santucci even lent his tools he used to engineer real burglaries for Caan to use in the film.

“If there was a completely fictional way to do any of these tasks and make it more exciting, I would opt for it in a second, but usually I found out that there isn’t,” said Mann. “The real lives of real people, their experiences and their skillsets and what they do when they are skilled is edgier, more exciting and more creative than certainly anything I could make up.”

That’s why he insists that the actors in all his films have as much commitment to realism as he does, noting that for his most recent film, a cyberhacking thriller currently dubbed “Cyber” but is due for a title change according to the director, he and Chris Hemsworth “started this barely being able to work our iPhones and now we’re able to write code.”

“I want this person to be walking in their shoes, living in the skin and looking through the eyes of this character and he’s got to be able to do what that character can do,” Mann said.” “Actors have this dexterity. Their learning curve is very steep, it’s very fast, they have great hand-eye coordination and so to be able to actually open a safe, which Jimmy [Caan in “Thief”] could do, to be able to handle a gun the way we trained to handle a gun – it changes everything. It manifests itself in all the obvious things, but it also manifests itself in how you talk to a girl, how you hold a glance. It’s all different.”

But Mann didn’t come by this reasoning easily. Admitting that working with actors didn’t come naturally at first, he said, “I was laboring under the apprehension when I was doing this that you directed actors in a certain way and there was one way. What I came to learn after this film and some other films is that’s not the case.”

“The easiest guys to direct [were the real people] – here, there’s a number of thieves, a number of very tough cops in Chicago from the major crime unit,” Mann said. “So I was determined to get what my vision was from each scene, but it was some clumsy effort on my part, depending on who the actor was at the time. Jimmy [Caan] and I had a rapport probably on most everything that we did, but it was a struggle to get it communicated. Willie Nelson [who plays Frank’s incarcerated mentor] is not an actor, he’s a musician, so he certainly has no self-consciousness and he’ll never do the same thing twice, but there’s certainly a lot of poetry.”

James Caan and Robert Prosky in "Thief"Mann recalls casting Nelson because “he had a real sense of the isolation and the alternate reality that constitutes life and perspective in prison. It’s the whole society compressed into a microcosm, so it’s a very brutal place and a very dynamic place. What he got from that, I don’t really know, but he really had it.”

Mann also spoke of how difficult it was to cast the equally critical role of Leo, the father-like crime lord who enlists Caan’s ex-con for a job and credited his producer Jerry Bruckheimer on giving him one of the best pieces of advice for his career. Based on real-life hoods “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio and Leo Rugendorf, Mann estimates seeing at least 70 different actors for the part with no luck, leading him to lament to Bruckheimer, “Is something wrong with my criteria for Leo? I’m not finding anyone I want to put in the picture.” [Bruckheimer] says, ‘The guy just hasn’t walked through the door yet.’”

That patience led to the counterintuitive casting of Robert Prosky, the veteran stage actor who hadn’t done a film before, but yet brought to the role what Mann described as “avuncular, a paternalism with intellect and a sinister quality of exploitation underneath.” He also talked about his decision not to go with the obvious choice for the music, opting for the lush soundscaping of Tangerine Dream over the gritty locality of Chicago blues, noting that the former offered “a transparency that [illustrated] the themes of the picture, so the metaphor of it had a better chance of moving through with that kind of music rather than the cultural specificity of blues.”

As the evening wound down, audience members began to ask Mann about some of his other films, with one wondering what was his most satisfying to which the director responded that while he couldn’t answer directly, if he goes back and watches them for remastering, “The Insider” and “Collateral” were the two he wouldn’t change a frame of while “The Last of the Mohicans” was the only one of his films he’d consider making a sequel to because of how much fun the entire crew had. That led someone else to ask whether he’s ever consider revisiting his 1983 supernatural thriller “The Keep,” which other than a brief run on Netflix Instant has long been unavailable on home video since its initial release on VHS.

“I doubt it,” Mann said flatly. “Wally Veevers, who was the visual effects supervisor on “The Keep” and played a big role in “2001” and “The Things to Come,” tragically died right during the making of the film. A lot of his methods were very esoteric and how he was actually going to put these things together he kept to himself, so we actually had a lot of volunteers from the [special effects] community in London at the time to help out and they did, but we never really got able to pull it back together.”

Still, Mann was clearly pleased to take the time away from editing his latest film to present the new transfer for “Thief,” which will available to all when the Criterion Collection releases a new Blu-ray in January, with the filmmaker noting the throughline of authenticity between the two when discussing what can be achieved with digital effects now.

“We had some very big scenes in Jakarta, it was 4500 extras four nights in a row,” said Mann of “Cyber.” “Myself and one of the editors were talking about this today – you really sense there’s a difference. There’s so much magic you can do with digital and there’s so much good work that’s been done, but it’s become so ubiquitous that it’s been taken for granted in fantasy films and sequels, so there is a special quality when your brain processes what you’re seeing and you just know that these are not digital replicants. These are real people out there.”

When Boucher asked whether his style of storytelling had evolved as a result of changing times, Mann said that it had.

“A narrative evolves along with visual form,” Mann began. “The idea is the idea. And then what I ask myself is how does this story tell itself and that gets exciting for me when I started thinking about narrative form and what’s exciting now. If something is an event-driven narrative, how rapidly it turns, the story pivots. The duration is different, our ability to take in a multiplexity of content is different. I always believe that audiences are way more visually sophisticated than a lot of people think, including the audiences themselves. We take things in, we process things that we don’t know we take in and that’s always fascinated me as a director because that’s exactly the medium I work in. It’s a visual medium and it’s flowing through time.”

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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