This article was originally published on Cinephilia & Beyond
A guy told me one time, “Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Now, if you're on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a... a marriage?
Back in 1979, filmmaker Michael Mann wrote a 180-page draft for a movie he very much wanted to make. After having directed the neo-noir Thief two years later, Mann re-wrote the script and went on to publicly talk about it in the hopes of finding a director who would be willing to jump on board and take the reins. Unfortunately for him, there were no buyers in sight and even his friend Walter Hill turned down the offer to direct it in the late 1980s. But Mann’s luck seemingly changed soon enough, for thanks to the success of NBC’s crime drama TV series Miami Vice (which he executive produced) and Chuck Adamson’s Crime Story, the network was hungry for more and gave the director an opportunity he gladly seized—the chance to produce another crime show for them. The draft nobody had shown any interest in thus far was therefore shortened and turned into a script for a ninety-minute pilot that was, rather uncharacteristically for Mann, shot in only nineteen days’ time. But NBC was dissatisfied with one of the leads and urged the director to recast the role. After he refused to do so, the show was canceled and the pilot was, in turn, broadcast in August 1989 as a television film under the title L.A. Takedown. But the entirety of the story Mann wanted to tell was left untold, with all of its depths, layers and themes remaining unconveyed. That is why he could not abandon it, so in 1994, he decided to co-produce and direct a feature film based on his fifteen-year-old script. Entitled Heat, the 1995 movie would mark the first joint on-screen appearance of acting titans Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (up until that point, they had both starred in The Godfather: Part II, but had never shared a scene), which was one of the many reasons Mann’s film became a critical and commercial success.
Another reason is most notably the sheer brilliance of the screenplay, which was based on the real-life story of former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson who tracked down ex-con Neil McCauley in the 1960s. Adamson would go on to not only create the aforementioned NBC show Crime Story and write many episodes of Miami Vice, but also serve as a consultant on Mann’s passion project. Many plot points of Heat were tailored after Adamson’s experiences with tracking down McCauley and his crew, the most notable one being the unlikely pair’s one-time coffee-shop meeting which was portrayed in the movie, thereby becoming one of the most legendary movie scenes in the history of cinema, a masterclass in writing and acting. The encounter in question was Adamson and McCauley’s first rendezvous, as well as Pacino and De Niro’s long-awaited first-ever scene together. It is safe to say that expectations were high, but under Mann’s direction, the two acting legends managed to exceed them quite effortlessly.
Pacino’s character is Vincent Hanna (based on Adamson and several other unnamed policemen), an officer of the law with two marriages behind him, and a third one inches away from unraveling, a direct result of him being more married to his job than his wife Justine (Diane Venora). After cleaning up the mess left in the wake of a well-executed heist, Hanna starts keeping tabs on a gang of suspects, with former Alcatraz-inmate Neil McCauley becoming his top priority and main obsession. But when Hanna realizes that McCauley is actually the one who is on to him, not the other way around, their relationship quickly becomes a case of “game recognize(s) game.” Hanna has finally met his match and by owning up to the fact that he is dealing with a professional, he is forced to step up as well. In his case, that entails casually inviting a prime suspect he had been monitoring and following for a cup of coffee, hoping that he says yes. Lucky for Hanna, the curiosity and respect are mutual and McCauley accepts. Thus, the introverted, collected and lonely McCauley sits opposite the usually extravagant, emotional, but equally lonesome Hanna and the two men, who had never met in person before, drink their coffee together like a couple of regular fellows.
Except there is nothing regular about them and their encounter. For what sets them apart from their respective packs is the fact that Hanna and McCauley are two sides of the same coin. Both are lone wolfs (although Hanna’s marriage might have fooled us for a second there) who seek to escape the feeling of loneliness by overcompensating either by fighting crime or by committing it. It is not that Hanna is emotionally distant in his marriage because of being married to his job, but the other way around—seeing as how he cannot get the type of deep understanding he so desperately craves from whoever his chosen family is at that moment, he seeks refuge in chasing criminals and the adrenaline rush that accompanies it. And of that he is well aware. He may play pretend on the surface, what with having a wife, raising a stepdaughter and coming home to watch cable TV, but Hanna knows who he is, what he wants and why he does what he does. The ultimate kicker is that he does not want it any other way: “All I am is what I’m going after,” he admits to his wife Justine. He lives for the hunt. He would be willing to die for it, too.
McCauley has also found his raison d’être in his chosen career and although the criminal’s deeply rooted sense of loneliness mirrors Hanna’s to a tee, he goes the extra mile by refusing to be tied to anything other than what he perceives to be his life purpose. Hanna is pushing away the people in his life who care for him, but at least he has someone to push away and potentially come back to—McCauley’s entire life philosophy is based on his famous line “Do not have anything in your life that you cannot walk away out on within thirty seconds if you feel the heat coming around the corner.” Adhering to this one rule enables him to be the criminal mastermind that he is. It is also the single thing that keeps him disconnected from the world around him. While Hanna is very noticeable and oftentimes over-the-top in the ways in which he presents and asserts himself, McCauley aspires to be the exact opposite—expressionless, minimalistic, ghost-like even. He could not even be bothered to buy proper furniture for the luxurious apartment he lives in, because attachments of any kind are a burden that could potentially weigh him down. One of Heat’s most prominent images is a night-time shot of De Niro’s McCauley leaning against his balcony door and staring into the ocean, after having returned home alone and placing his gun and keys on a coffee table. The now-iconic shot was inspired by the 1967 painting Pacific by Canadian painter Alex Colville, showing a man looking out to sea through a balcony door, while a pistol lies on a table in the foreground. Of course, Mann made the shot entirely his own, infusing it with the deep blue lighting characteristic for his films. Such stunning visual representation only emphasizes McCauley’s ghost-like nature, for he is but a shadow roaming the earth. Although his philosophy keeps him safe, we meet him at a point where the isolation starts eating away at him. He needs love and belonging as much as the next person. During the course of the movie, he comes closer and closer to getting it. But what if he suddenly feels the heat coming around the corner?
When the hunter and the prey finally come face to face in the coffee shop, there are multiple layers of their interaction that simultaneously unfold for us to behold. While casually conversing with “the enemy,” Hanna is unusually reflective and centered, for he does not need his usual antics in McCauley’s presence. With him, he can actually be the person underneath the showmanship. These men are equally self-aware of who they are and what drives them—and equally candid about it with one another. It is because of this shared core characteristic that implies overcompensating for loneliness (and not wanting to find a way around it) that they can look each other in the eye and feel, maybe for the first time ever, really seen and understood. The only thing that truly sets them apart is the way in which their loneliness has manifested and the route their lives have taken as a result. That is why they can honestly talk about their fears and (quite literal) dreams, about what haunts and thrills them, with an ease that usually accompanies life-long friends whose bond is based in honesty and vulnerability. In short, they simply get each other. But apart from truly understanding all the ways in which they are alike, the two men are also painstakingly aware of their differences. Despite loneliness being the driving force behind Hanna’s actions, it is also his moral compass rooted in compassion that steered him towards the job he decided would be more important than maintaining secure personal relationships. In other words, his self-serving motive is to be good and to do good. McCauley’s is not. At the end of the day, the roles they had chosen to play make them enemies because neither of them intends to back off, set aside their main objective and give up their vocation. One of them is definitely going down and the other will not hesitate. Not for a second. And both of them are okay with that. Therein lies the tragedy inherent in Heat—under different circumstances, Hanna and McCauley would have probably been friends.
All of this ingenious subtext that had been built up reaches its first boiling point in that legendary scene filmed at the Kate Mantilini diner on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills, rendering us, the viewers, speechless and unable to look away. When asked by THR’s executive features editor Stephen Galloway about the shooting process and whether he was scared to direct two Hollywood icons sharing screen-time, Mann replied: “There’s a healthy amount of apprehension, we knew it was a terribly important scene and all three of us wanted to be very careful about how we approached it. Early on, I decided I never wanted to rehearse that scene, I wanted to bring everybody’s understanding to it, and Al and Bob and I, we’d talk through what it means and kind of just kind of sketch, you know, ‘I’m going to have you sit [here].’ But we were all smart enough to not want to have it get stale. The imperative was to keep it fresh so that what occurred spontaneously could occur right there. And, along those lines, they had very simple lighting, very simple setup, both sides were shot simultaneously, there was a third camera shooting a two-shot, which I never used any of, and knew that the guys were so good, and we’re all looking forward to this scene so much that I knew that there would be an organic unity to each take, because of the character’s actions, why they’re doing what they’re doing, why they’re meeting, why they’re talking to each other, why Pacino went to get him and why Neil McCauley [De Niro] thought he could get something from this meeting, too. I knew that there would be this organic unity if Al shifted this much in the scene, you know, Bobby would be like this, because Al was watching his right hand the whole time—was his hand going to go to his gun?—and so they’re not sitting like this, you know, if there’s a holster back here, with his hands very close to the gun. So, all of that body language they were clocking, they were so intensely focused on each other, and that was the case. So, everything you’re looking at is take 11.”
According to Mann, the two actors had a very different approach to their characters and as it turned out, both styles resulted in unforgettable performances. While Pacino had the tendency to look inward and create Hanna using his own psychological and emotional resources, De Niro started from the outside, exploring McCauley’s appearance and acquired tastes, as well as developing the character’s specific skillset, which included but was not limited to shooting a gun, opening a safe and scoping out a bank. All of these skills De Niro got the chance to utilize in the famous shoot-out scene, a breathtaking display of Dante Spinotti’s exquisite cinematography and smart editing done by Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig and Tom Rolf, who were faced with the challenge of coming to terms with the non-linear editing system. These are just some of the reasons why the shoot-out scene that follows a bank-robbery performed by McCauley and his posse went down in the history books as one the greatest and most influential gunfights ever to be portrayed on film. Other reasons are attributed to Mann’s direction that favored hyper-realism over the oftentimes much overused slow-motion effect, as well as the insanely detailed preparation process the cast went through, so as to portray the shoot-out as realistically as possible. All those involved in the scene underwent weeks of training with consultants who were ex-SAS and ex-special forces, with the result being a scene so impeccable that it is often presented to Marines as a perfect example of military technique.
Yet another testament to Mann’s attention to detail is the fact that he, Pacino and actor Ted Levine (who played Detective Mike Bosko) roamed the streets of Los Angeles with the intention to photo-storyboard the scene and that the sequence was shot on four weekends, with not a single frame being filmed on a soundstage. That being said, every single scene in the entire 170-minute movie was filmed on location, with a total of 95 used locations during the 107 shooting days.
Ultimately, the Heat shoot-out deserves to be regarded as one of the best-executed gunfight scenes ever captured on film not just due to its undoubtedly flawless style, but also because its substance is of infinite depth and value. Even though it appears to be “only” a stylistically supreme action sequence at first glance, a high-stakes drama is, in fact, being played out at the very heart of it. The lives of all the characters that participate in it are deeply affected by its progression and outcome. The ramifications of the event are indeed dire for most of those involved and we get to feel that every step of the way, for the intricate web of supporting characters and their life trajectories has been meticulously spun, enabling us to delve deep into all the nuances that make up the human condition. This applies to both the above-described scene and Heat as a whole. What Michael Mann strived to do was create “a highly structured, realistic, symphonic drama,” but what he managed to achieve was craft a masterpiece that defies and transcends genre. And for that, we shall be forever in his debt.
Screenwriter must-read: Michael Mann’s screenplay for Heat. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. How to watch: rent from various outlets. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Michael Mann’s densely annotated screenplay from the famous coffee shop scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro of Heat, courtesy of Deadline. On De Niro’s suggestion they didn’t rehearse the scene together so that the unfamiliarity between the two characters would seem more genuine. Mann ran three cameras simultaneously in order to generate a greater level of fluidity between both rivals. Since there were no rehearsals for the scene, this approach afforded both men a more generous margin for improvisational experimentation. Mann allowed Deadline to see the actual marked up shooting script that he, Pacino and De Niro worked off during the classic mano a mano scene between Pacino’s Hanna and De Niro [PDF].
“Michael Mann’s attention to detail is clearly visible in his annotated script that stresses the importance of this pivotal scene. I have merged the written page with the film footage so you can analyze and learn what made the final cut, what was improvised and what was left out. I’ve also added some trivia nuggets into the video from the production of the scene.” —Heat Script to Screen by Vashi Nedomansky
Michael Mann analyses the creation of his crime classic: “I never thought of it as doing a genre piece...”, by Tom Ambrose, Empire, November 2007.
Michael Mann has done his homework. Nothing new there—after all, the visionary 64 year-old director hasn’t carved himself a reputation as the new Kubrick just because of his meticulous framing and fastidious filmmaking, but his attitude to research. This is the guy who went smuggling at night with Colin Farrell for Miami Vice; the guy who virtually became an inmate at Folsom Prison for his very first movie, The Jericho Mile. For Mann, preparation is everything.
Yet it still takes Empire somewhat by surprise to learn that the night before our interview with Mann concerning his 1995 classic, Heat, even though he’s busy producing Will Smith superhero comedy Hancock, or directing a couple of commercials, or prepping his next movie, he sat down and watched the movie to prepare. “I got land of trapped in it,” he laughs. “I fell victim to it the way some other people have told me. I thought I’d look at a scene or two and I wound up looking at the movie!”
And what a movie it is, too. Ostensibly the very simple cops-and-robbers tale of a master criminal (Neil McCauley, played by Robert De Niro) doggedly pursued by a cop on the edge (Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino), Heat is actually so much more. It’s an epic and tragic tale of obsession, of ego, of driven professionalism, of failed romance, spreading its net beyond the two main characters to shine a light on the relationships and working practices of supporting characters from cops to criminals, fences to embittered wives, serial killers to short-order cooks. It’s a stunning achievement, technically flawless, psychologically insightful, profound, starkly beautiful, and demarcated by its astonishing cast, from its two iconic A-listers to a supporting roster of the great, the good and Jeremy Piven. And it fully rewards Mann’s determination to stick with the project from the time he first got the idea in the mid-’70s, when a friend of his, ex-Chicago cop Chuck Adamson (a technical consultant on Thief) told him of the time he took a criminal he had under surveillance for a cup of coffee. That criminal’s name was Neil McCauley.
Mann wrote the script and sat on it for a while, waiting for a chance to take it to the big screen. “It took me a long time to get it right,” he says. “It was a writing issue more than anything else.”"
But the wait was worth it. When Team Empire went into a huddle and started bandying around ideas for a modern crime classic to give the retrospective treatment, there was really only one contender: Heat. Mann’s masterpiece, the film his entire career had been building towards, and damn near the best crime movie of all time.
There’s only one small problem, though.
“It isn’t a crime film to me,” says Mann, sitting back in the Santa Monica office of his production company, Forward Pass. “I don’t concern myself that much with genre categorisation. To me, Heat was always a highly structured, realistic, symphonic drama. I never thought of it as doing a genre piece.”
In our defence, Heat walks and talks like a crime film—there are cops and there are robbers, and the robbers try to commit crimes, and the cops try to stop them, and both sides have guns and those guns go off quite a bit. But in Mann’s defence, Heat is so much more. It may even be a work of frickin’ art. Here’s why.
In a strange way, Heat began with the ending. Not in a flashy Tarantino way, but with the literal ending, in particular the image of Hanna holding the hand of a mortally wounded McCauley following their showdown amid the harsh floodlights and tall grass adjoining a runway in Los Angeles International Airport, which flashed into Mann’s head when he could have been forgiven for thinking that Heat had well and truly gone cold. With no big-screen version forthcoming, in 1989 Mann, a veteran of TV shows such as Miami Vice and the wonderful Crime Story (which was, at one point, the working title for Heat), agreed to turn Heat into a pilot with a view to a series. The pilot was L.A. Takedown, a rough and ready, cheap and cheerful and not particularly good 89-minute movie that Mann shot in 17 days, with actors who were, to put it mildly, no De Niro and Pacino. And it tanked. No TV series was forthcoming, and that was apparently that.
Except Heat wouldn’t get out of Mann’s head, and then one day, unbidden, that image popped into his head, and Heat was back on.
“I had most of it there. But you know when you know. And I knew when I figured out exactly what happened in the end and I took that dialectical conclusion and worked it backwards into the structure and modified everything that was going on to serve that, that’s when it all clicked into place for me,” he explains. “But the notion that both characters are the only two characters in the film who are completely conscious wasn’t there yet. There’s not an iota of self-deception in Vincent Hanna, nor is there in Neil McCauley. They know exactly what’s happening inside of them, they know exactly what’s going on in their world.”
Which really makes this haunting final shot, as Moby’s intensely melodramatic God Moving Over The Face Of The Water washes over cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s meticulously framed image—transforming a death that’s small in the grand scheme of things into mythic tragedy. In a way, though, because McCauley and Hanna are so self-aware, and given their earlier conversation in the movie’s seminal coffee shop scene, this fatal collision is inevitable. Intriguingly, you sense that McCauley wouldn’t have it any other way; if he’s going to check out, at least it’s at the hand of someone who gets him.
Mann’s skill in the final sequence is that he genuinely keeps you guessing about the outcome—we know one of these men must die, but we’re not sure who, and for a while we’re not sure whom we want to survive either. Heat is not a moral judgment, yet ultimately Mann comes down—as he has in each of his quote-unquote crime films, be it Jamie Foxx in Collateral or William Petersen in Manhunter—on the side of the angels. For, likeable and human though De Niro makes Neil McCauley, he’s still a stone- cold sociopath, the kind of guy who would open fire on a crowd of innocent shoppers in order to make good his escape.
Pacino’s Hanna, on the other hand, is charismatic and unpredictable, but he’s also single-minded and brusque, even callous at times. Note, for example, that he never says “goodbye” to anyone after a phone conversation. A second spent saying goodbye could be spent catching bad guys. “He is that aggressive meat-eater cop who is not there ‘to serve and protect’,” says Mann. “He is not there to do good. He’s there because he’s a hunter. That doesn’t mean that he’s devoid of morality, though.”
Indeed, Hanna has a moral impulse that McCauley simply does not have, and which surfaces throughout the movie—when he comforts the mother of a dead hooker (slain by Waingro, a rogue member of McCauley’s crew, whose rash actions brings McCauley into Hanna’s sights in the first place), for example, or when he races to save the life of his suicidal stepdaughter (Natalie Portman). This compassionate streak is partially why he takes McCauley’s hand at the end, but there’s also a feeling of true regret here, as Hanna sees so much of himself in his vanquished opponent. In another time and place, they might have been friends. In this, they were fated to be enemies.
Intriguingly, and typical of the director’s reach, each of the three examples above recall Michelangelo’s famous Pieta—a statue showing the Virgin Mary cradling Christ’s body—and in each it’s Hanna, blessed and cursed with empathy, who is doing the comforting.
HANNA AND McCAULEY
Throughout Mann’s career, he’s been drawn time and time again towards making movies and television shows about extraordinary men, driven by their passions into a heightened state of emotion and consciousness, from cops to boxers to passionate frontiersmen. “It’s anybody who has ambition, and who is excited by trying to do something beyond the circumscribed self,” he says, although he’s keen to deflate comparisons between himself and his subjects. “I guess I could say I’m driven to make the films I want to make—I wouldn’t be good as a journeyman director. But a lot of this comes from life—the edginess of Vincent Hanna, a man who’s completely conscious… I’ve met people who are like that.”
Although it’s near-impossible to think of Mann’s movie without lobbing in De Niro/McCauley and Pacino/Hanna as a job lot, and while there are fundamental similarities and overlapping characteristics between the two men that could be interpreted as a soulful connection or a homoerotic attraction or brotherhood, the two are also very, very different.
There’s no lead role, per se, in Heat but, even though Hanna doesn’t appear until the film is ten minutes old, Pacino is billed first. And it’s Hanna—based in part on Chuck Adamson, but also at least three different policemen whom Mann won’t name, who is by far the flashier role—an exuberant and confident showman, pinballing through over-exaggerated emotions, always on the edge of exploding either at his men, or his (soon-to-be-ex) third wife, Justine Hanna (Diane Venora), and yet extraordinarily gifted and professional. “All I am is what I’m going after,” he tells Justine, a line which shows how self-aware Hanna is. He tries to keep up the pretence of normal life—wife, stepkid, cable TV, cold chicken—but ultimately the appeal just isn’t there. You can picture him after retirement, lost and lonely, the buzz of the hunt forever gone. Just as Hanna and McCauley are, superficially at least, flipsides of the same coin, so are the principal performances. De Niro’s turn is introspective, while Pacino has often been accused of over-acting. But while there are sequences where he seemingly goes over-the-top—howling the infamous line, “She’s got a GREAT ASS!!” at a bewildered Hank Azaria— it’s a carefully modulated performance, with the bluster actually encouraged by Mann.
“Every big city police department’s major crime unit has that kind of guy there, who does that kind of work. That’s a highly accurate, highly authentic character that Al’s doing, and I think Al’s performance was exactly where I asked him to go,” says Mann, who cites one scene in particular—the chop-shop scene where Hanna unsettles his informant, Albert (Ricky Harris), by bursting into song before yelling at him with category five fury—as an insight into Hanna’s working practice.
“If I had one thing I would do over differently, I would probably hang on Al more in the chop-shop scene,” says Mann. “That scene comes from some place—it’s about the relationship between a really high-line pro like Hanna and the informant. You’ve got to motivate him and shake him. It’s not that he will tell you the truth all the time. That only happens in movies. In real-life it doesn’t. If you need to know something, your management of him is highly manipulative, and that is what’s being characterised here, particularly that Hanna has one modality and one objective: make my informant be ill-at-ease, let’s rattle his cage. That’s why that scene is that way. It’s not laughing at Al being large.”
Hanna’s pumped-up personality was initially cosmetically generated—during the scene where he visits an illegal after-hours club, Hanna was going to chip cocaine to keep him sharp, on the edge, where he’s gotta be. So much for a moral compass. “I thought it sent the wrong signal,” admits Mann of the excision.
In contrast with Hanna, De Niro’s McCauley is calm, collected and—when we meet him—utterly cold and incomplete. A shell of a man, McCauley is bound by a strict edict, an idea of how to live his life: famously, “Do not have anything in your life that you cannot walk out on within 30 seconds if you feel the heat coming around the corner.” To this end, McCauley is a man of few words and fewer possessions. His clothes are monochrome, his movements deliberate—he aspires to anonymity, even invisibility. McCauley is a man defined entirely by what he does, not by what he owns, and yet he’s extremely lonely, an idea perhaps best encapsulated in arguably the movie’s defining image, the blue-drenched night-time shot where he returns to his apartment alone, drops his keys and his gun on a coffee table and stares out at the restless ocean. It’s based on an Alex Colville painting from 1967, entitled Pacific, yet Mann gives it his own stamp, with the blue lighting—a motif in Mann’s films—here seeming to hint at McCauley’s ghostly nature. He is a man content within himself on the surface, yet utterly lost beneath. He needs the love of a good woman. He needs Amy Brenneman’s Eady.
One of the criticisms, incidentally, of Heat is that good women are few and far between. In Heat, there are three principal female characters, all of whom are ultimately left alone by their connection to their husbands and lovers. Yet, whereas Hanna’s wife Justine is an unstable pill-popper, and Charlene, the wife of McCauley’s right-hand man, Chris Shiherlis, is an emotionally battered adulteress, Eady is an innocent who falls for McCauley without knowing what he does. Heat was Mann’s first film after the achingly romantic The Last of the Mohicans, yet only Neil and Eady’s relationship is allowed a chance to breathe, with some of the most romantic and sensual compositions in the movie reserved for them, including a stunning night-time scene high above the Hollywood hills, the only sequence to use a stage on this location-bound movie. “I wanted the impulse to see the city at night, because LA’s gorgeous at night when you’re up high and you’re looking down on it,” explains Mann. “If I had had hi-def then, I would have just shot it. As it was, to get the same effect we had to go the really elaborate technical way to do that with greenscreen shooting.”
Once Neil meets Eady, though, and opens up to her, he is effectively undone. “I wouldn’t say it’s Eady,” considers Mann. “I would say that Neil is the cause of Neil’s downfall. Neil McCauley is a rigid ideologue. It’s there in his choice of shirt, suit, everything. There cannot be attachments, there cannot be an emotional life, and you don’t allow yourself spontaneity because that will make you make a mistake. It’s such a rigid structure of how to live your life that when he gets spontaneous and when he deviates from that, he is in trouble. He’s a boat out on the high seas with no rudder.”
This is perhaps illustrated best in the tunnel sequence. Here McCauley, content and at peace, with a reconciled Eady by his side, on the way to LAX to get the hell out of Dodge and begin a new life, gets a call from his fence, Nate (Jon Voight), telling him that Waingro, the skuzzy killer whose last-minute recruitment to Neil’s gang at the film’s beginning sets events spiralling out of control, is at a hotel under police supervision. This is a trap set up by Hanna, who knows instinctively that McCauley is too smart to fall for it. But he hasn’t reckoned on McCauley’s late deconstruction.
As they drive through a tunnel, the change in lighting conditions temporarily overwhelms the lens, creating a beatific glow that Mann claims was serendipitous, but which remains possibly the finest cinematic depiction of an epiphany as McCauley makes the fatal decision to go after Waingro. The sequence is memorable not just for the lighting, but for De Niro’s extraordinarily nuanced performance as Neil wrestles with himself, with his commitment to Eady and his commitment to his own motto. Ultimately, disclosed to us by a wry smile, he gives in and decides to go after Waingro, setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to him breathing his last in an airfield, with Hanna holding his hand in solidarity. It’s a stunning piece of acting in a performance that both Mann and Empire feel is De Niro’s best of the last 15 years. “Val Kilmer would come around on days when he wasn’t working, just to see how Bobby was doing a certain scene,” says Mann. “When I’m looking at it, I’m seeing in microscopic detail subtleties that are there, that are very, very small: the way something motivated him to tilt his head a certain way, the look across his face, a gesture with his hand, how rapidly he’ll say a certain line, and that choice he made. It’s a truth-telling style which is a phrase I gave Waingro, but that’s literally what it is: a truth-telling style.”
A COUPLE OF REGULAR FELLAS
Given that Heat first ran through Mann’s mind in the mid-’70s—before he started filming on his first movie, The Jericho Mile, in fact—the roles of Hanna and McCauley weren’t written for De Niro and Pacino. (Nor were they written for Alex McArthur, who played the McCauley figure ‘Patrick McLaren’, and the aptly-named Scott Plank, who played Hanna in L. A. Takedown.)
But when the new and improved Heat script was ready to go into production in the autumn of 1994, it was clear that the roles of Hanna and McCauley would need two heavy-hitters to justify the $60 million budget and epic scope. Mann didn’t just plump for movie stars—he plumped for legends. And suddenly the central coffee shop scene—where Hanna flags McCauley down while he’s under surveillance and invites him to chinwag over a cup of Joe—took on a new significance: the two greatest actors of the late 20th century, who had been in The Godfather Part II but never shared screentime, would now be united in a single frame. An epochal event.
Movie history was made at a diner called Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Blvd. for the scene where, in between the tough-guy posturing dialogue exchanges about failed marriages and discipline, the two men begin to probe each other gently, looking for an advantage over the other. “The movie is really a quest of Hanna for Neil, and then a quest of Neil for Hanna,” says Mann, referring to the role reversal when McCauley ‘makes’ the LAPD down at the dockyards. From here on, a mutual appreciation society forms, with each man recognising something of himself—the motivation, the self-awareness, the hunger—in the other, which allows both men to be disarmingly frank with each other in the coffee shop. It’s virtually the only time in the movie that Hanna is quiet and reflective, the bombast jettisoned. With McCauley he doesn’t need it.
“They’ve gotten pretty intimate. You’ve got Neil giving Vincent, the man who’s hunting him, marriage advice. Hanna is meeting the only other person in the universe of the film as tuned in as he is, and that’s McCauley. They’re smart, reflective, insightful about each other. They come together in the stalemate of the coffee shop, then everything cuts loose into a state of chaos for both guys until the resolution happens.”
During shooting the takes ran into the teens (Mann used most of Take 11 ultimately). De Niro on the right, Pacino on the left, two grandmasters embarking on a game of actorly chess; each gesture, change in inflection or intonation, each glance and adjustment of posture met and reciprocated. And it all stemmed from Mann, who relished the challenge of directing the two men who are, arguably, the greatest American actors of all time. And he tailored his approach for both.
The wonderful Taschen published book about Mann’s career includes script notes to Pacino from the preceding scene, where Hanna flags down McCauley, which go as follows: “BACK STORY—you left the dysfunctional marital arena for the engaging dynamic complex one, as if simmering in the subconscious was dilemma: a surveillance of a man cognizant of it: go meet, go get him, go talk to him.” De Niro’s notes were much cleaner, much simpler: “Is this guy nuts? What is this about? What’s going on? No other units… Yeah, I’ll talk to him. He wants to find out about me? I’ll find out about him.”
“I do not walk in and say ‘a little more, a little less’,” laughs Mann, who openly acknowledges that he never directs any two actors, much less De Niro and Pacino, in the same way. “Directing actors, I want to really understand their language, how they think, how they work with themselves, to bring themselves to understanding character and beyond that into making a situation and scene feel spontaneous again and again.
“Al tends to internalise and find the character within, from sources within himself,” he continues, warming to the subject. “Bobby tends to move out from himself and look for the character. He’ll be concerned with having the right haircut, the right taste in clothes that the guy would have, about acquiring the skillsets that the guy has, to be able to shoot as well as McCauley, to open safes, to scope out a bank. It’s spectacular working with these guys.”
By the way, Kate Mantilini is still there on Wilshire Blvd., and yes, they still get bookings from people who want to sit at that table.
One of the most noteworthy things about the coffee shop scene is that it was shot in a real coffee shop, when it could quite easily have been shot on a soundstage. But Mann’s quest for authenticity can be translated into three simple words: location, location, location. As such, every single one of Heat’s 107 shooting days was spread across 95 locations across the city. Incidentally, it would be virtually impossible to shoot Heat nowadays with the same degree of freedom afforded Mann and his crew. LAX airport’s shooting policy is far more strict post- 9/11, for one thing. Many of the locations have disappeared, for another. And it’s much more expensive, to give a third and perhaps most important reason.
Although the real-life meeting between Chuck Adamson and the real Neil McCauley (which ended with McCauley’s death in 1963, following a shoot-out) took place in Chicago, Mann chose not to set the film in his home city, instead opting to set the movie in Los Angeles, his adopted home, which he had fallen in love with, spiritually and architecturally. “I had done Thief in Chicago and didn’t want to repeat myself,” he says. “You get, with these kinds of stories, some really fascinating cityscapes, and nightscapes. You’re in the industrial core of a place.”
Heat is a film defined by LA, with Mann finding beauty and romance and a restless spirit in the cold concrete of subways and flyovers, freeways and drive-in cinemas—the result of a meticulous months-long research process that found him on patrol with friends in the LAPD in polyglot communities that saw white supremacist gangs rub shoulders with disenfranchised blacks. Yet Mann soaked it all up, and would often adjust his script and, indeed, cast, incorporating characters he met along the way—a homeless guy with a TV in a shopping cart, an African-American albino—as extras.
“Very few people really know Los Angeles.
I thought I knew LA, and I realised that I was just scratching the surface,” he recalls. There’s this real ambience here to what is under-culture, to what is sub-culture. We had a number of locations around Pico-Union that visually evoke a certain sensuality and a certain mentality of urban Los Angeles life that’s real. Everything’s shot on location. I think the picture has a lot of authenticity in it, in every part of it.”
Which brings us neatly to the shoot-out.
For a movie that’s not a genre picture, Heat contains arguably the finest shoot-out you’ll ever see, as Neil and his crew, having successfully pulled off a bank job, find themselves ambushed by Hanna and his men (who were tipped off, anonymously, by Waingro). Instead of meekly surrendering, the McCauley crew decides to blast their way out with automatic weapons, a precursor to shock and awe as they shred civilians, cops, cars and anything in their path to escape. Casualties are great: the cops lose Ted Levine’s Bosko, and Neil loses his driver, Breedan (Dennis Haysbert), and Tom Sizemore’s Cheritto, killed by Pacino after taking a little girl hostage. “He’s Mr. Family Values, loves his kids, but he doesn’t love your kids,” says Mann. “He’s a complete stone-cold sociopath.”
On a stylistic level, the sequence is astonishing: a sustained ten-minute assault of urban combat, with Mann eschewing the slo-mo overload favoured by so many directors in favour of a hyper-real, virtually real-time and realistic depiction of what would happen if three sharp, cold-blooded criminals, very much in the zone and armed with M-16 assault rifles, were ambushed by the police in downtown LA and decided to shoot their way out before the odds became overwhelming.
Much has been made of ex-SAS tough nut Andy McNabb and ex-special forces Mick Gould’s contributions to the military precision with which De Niro, Kilmer, Sizemore, Pacino, Levine, Mykelti Williamson and Wes Studi wielded guns big enough to scare Rambo to death; that the sequence is often shown to Marines as the epitome of military technique (with special mention going to Kilmer’s reloading technique); that the actors spent weeks training and learning how to shoot; that Mann, Pacino and Levine went onto the streets of LA to photo-storyboard the sequence in detail; that De Niro and his gang staked out a bank and got so good at it that they weren’t picked up on security cameras; that it was filmed on four separate weekends on the streets of LA; that the dozens of cars reduced to string vests by the gunfire had holes punched in them with real rounds before filming began, to best show the sickening impact of bullets; how Mann used the deep thudding echo of production sound to convey the terrifying sonic assault of gunfire hemmed in by tall buildings.
All these factors—and more—have led to the Heat gunfight being hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in movie history, and certainly one of the most influential, with its tendrils stretching to the likes of the Bourne series and The Kingdom (directed by Mann protege Peter Berg, and featuring a shoot-out which nearly matches Heat in terms of visceral impact), while Brit director Nick Love recently announced plans for a shoot-out in his big-screen version of The Sweeney that is, rather transparently, going to be a British version of Heat’s dust-up.
Yet, as concerned with style as Mann is, it’s substance that, for him, is the real juice. The beauty of Heat’s shoot-out is how it distils several of his thematic concerns, notably cause and effect, as characters—not just McCauley, whose team is blown apart as a direct result of his failure to execute Waingro earlier in the movie—see choices they made rebound upon their lives in the most shocking, dramatic and final manner. The affecting fate of Breedan, the parolee short-order cook who is tempted into becoming Neil’s replacement driver, illustrates the success of Mann’s decision to turn Heat into an overlapping epic, to delve into the home lives of even the most seemingly superfluous character. “That was the real interest I had in the film,” he admits. “Not to see who could shoot a sexier shoot-out. An event isn’t just an event, it’s an event that impacts into the beating heart of real human lives and real circumstances and each person in their human condition. That’s the real interest in that and the passion I had for making the film, because it told the story of all these people and their lives. And you don’t make these things up sitting in an office, or sitting by the pool in Los Angeles. They actually come from the street.”
Told you he was good at homework…
THE STUDY OF MANN
Thieves, assassins, mad men, whistle-blowers, and gamblers have all populated the extreme adventures of Michael Mann's films. For more than 30 years, with style and precision, he has examined the richness of human experience. Courtesy of Directors Guild of America’s F.X. Feeney.
How did you apply that to the famous coffee shop scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat (1995) when the two adversaries meet head-to-head for the first and only time?
We did two things: We discussed the scene. Then we did some rehearsals, but I was wary because the entire movie is a dialectic that works backward from its last moment, which is the death of the thief Neil McCauley [De Niro], while the detective Vincent Hanna [Pacino], who's just taken McCauley's life, stands with him as he passes. The 'marriage' of the two of them in this contrapuntal story is the coffee shop scene. Now Pacino and De Niro are two of the greatest actors on the planet, so I knew they would be completely alive to each other—each one reacting off the other's slightest gesture, the slightest shift of weight. If De Niro's right foot sitting in that chair slid backward by so much as an inch, or his right shoulder dropped by just a little bit, I knew Al would be reading that. They'd be scanning each other, like an MRI. Both men recognize that their next encounter will mean certain death for one of them. Gaining an edge is why they've chosen to meet. So we read the scene a number of times before shooting—not a lot—just looking at it on the page. I didn't want it memorized. My goal was to get them past the unfamiliarity of it. But of course these two already knew it impeccably.
You made an interesting choice directorially in the finished film. The whole scene takes place in over-the-shoulder close-ups—each man's point of view on the other.
We shot that scene with three cameras, two over-the-shoulders and one profile shot, but I found when editing that every time we cut to the profile, the scene lost its one-on-one intensity. I'll often work with multiple cameras, if they're needed. In this case, I knew ahead of time that Pacino and De Niro were so highly attuned to each other that each take would have its own organic unity. Whatever one said, and the specific way he'd say it, would spark a specific reaction in the other. I needed to shoot in such a way that I could use the same take from both angles. What's in the finished film is almost all of take 11—because that has an entirely different integrity and tonality from takes 10, or 9, or 8. All of this begins and ends with scene analysis. It doesn't matter if it's two people in a room or two opposing forces taking over a street. Action comes from drama, and drama is conflict: What's the conflict?
At the opposite end of the scale from that intimate two-man scene in the coffee shop is the huge street-battle in Heat. How did you prepare a sequence that massive?
That scene arose out of choreography, and was absolutely no different than staging a dance. We rehearsed in detail by taking over three target ranges belonging to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. We built a true-scale mock-up of the actual location we were using along 5th Street in downtown L.A., with flats and barriers standing in for where every parked car was going to be, every mailbox, every spot where De Niro, Tom Sizemore, and Val Kilmer were going to seek cover as they moved from station to station. Every player was trained with weapons the way somebody in the military would be brought up, across many days, with very rigid rules of safety, to the point where the safe and prodigious handling of those weapons became reflexive. Then, as a culmination, we blocked out the action with the actors shooting live rounds at fixed targets as they moved along in these rehearsals. The confidence that grew out of such intensive preparations—all proceeding from a very basic dramatic point—meant that when we were finally filming on 5th Street, firing blanks, each man was as fully and as exactly skilled as the character he represented.
What was the 'conflict' your choreography was proceeding from?
McCauley's unit wants to get out, while the police want something else, and are sending in their assets. Judged strictly in terms of scene analysis and character motivation, the police are used to entering a situation with overwhelming power on their side. When they're assaulted by people who know what they're doing, they don't do well. McCauley's guys are simply more motivated, and have skills that easily overwhelm the police. Choreography has to tell a story; there's no such thing as a stand-alone shootout. Who your characters are as characters determines your outcome. —The Study of Mann
Mann was a guest in the second season of The Hollywood Masters, the interview series moderated by THR’s executive features editor Stephen Galloway.
Let's take a quick look at Heat, which is many people's favorite film of yours. Two American icons of the screen. Were you scared?
Uh, no. We were too busy anticipating this scene to be scared. There's a healthy amount of apprehension, we knew it was a terribly important scene and all three of us wanted to be very careful about how we approached it. Early on, I decided I never wanted to rehearse that scene, I wanted to bring everybody's understanding to it, and Al and Bob and I, we'd talk through what it means and kind of just kind of sketch, you know, "I'm going to have you sit [here]." But we were all smart enough to not want to have it get stale. The imperative was to keep it fresh so that what occurred spontaneously could occur right there. And, along those lines, they had very simple lighting, very simple setup, both sides were shot simultaneously, there was a third camera shooting a two-shot, which I never used any of, and knew that the guys were so good, and we're all looking forward to this scene so much that I knew that there would be an organic unity to each take, because of the character's actions, why they're doing what they're doing, why they're meeting, why they're talking to each other, why Pacino went to get him and why Neil McCauley [De Niro] thought he could get something from this meeting, too. I knew that there would be this organic unity if Al shifted this much in the scene, you know, Bobby would be like this, because Al was watching his right hand the whole time—was his hand going to go to his gun?—and so they're not sitting like this, you know, if there's a holster back here, with his hands very close to the gun. So, all of that body language they were clocking, they were so intensely focused on each other, and that was the case. So, everything you're looking at is take 11.
Two cameras or just one?
Yeah, I had two cameras, and there were two guys facing, you and I, there's two over-the-shoulders and this camera is barely keeping that camera that's shooting me out of the frame. I mean, if it moved over half an inch, it would pick up that crew shooting that camera.
Did they know each other before this?
Yeah, yeah. They had talked about working together and they knew each other, you know, casually. They weren't best friends, but they knew about each other and then this opportunity arose and they meant different things in each character's life at that moment in time. Al's [character, the detective] Vincent Hanna's marriage was falling apart and in the depths of a depression about his screwed-up marriage number three, a big idea occurs to him, "Go get this guy. Go talk to him." I've had really great cops, these really great detectives tell me this—Hanna is feeding into his conscious mind and his subconscious mind details about this guy. He's learning things, he's soaking things up. He will pick up something and, down the road, there'll be a move that Neil McCauley's making and Vincent Hanna won't know whether to go A to A or B, you know, and there'll be some intuition that he'll have because of this meeting. He'll guess that Neil McCauley was going through the B door, and that's what he got out of this.
What's interesting about this is that it was hard for you to get off the ground and you did get off the ground as a TV pilot. LA Takedown, which you can see online is fascinating because you can see the same scene and dialogue from different actors. What happened and was it then difficult to make the film?
No, because nobody had paid much attention to the pilot. I'd written the screenplay years prior and it never had the ending. And I had everything leading up to the ending. The screenplay was about 160 pages long. I took part of it and then did it as this movie. I owned the pilot. I raised the financing, because I wanted to control it, because if I wanted to make it a film, I didn't want to have to then go to somebody for the rights. And then I got the ending, which is basically that De Niro's character is fortunate enough to die in the presence of the only other guy on the planet who he's actually quite similar to in certain respects. Very different in other respects, but the premise of the film, the conceit of the film, is that they are the only two people in the universe of this movie who are totally self-aware. They're completely conscious. —Michael Mann