The View From Here

Michael Mann -- the full interview

Michael Bonner

I interviewed Michael Mann for the current issue of UNCUT, ahead of the release of Public Enemies. Call it reader service, but I thought those of you who're interested in such things might like a chance to read the full transcript (it's about 3,200 words, of which we only ran 1,000 in the issue). Anyway, here it is. Hope you enjoy.

UNCUT: What did you think of Warren Oates in John Milius’ film?
MICHAEL MANN: I love it. It’s a different track of Dillinger’s life, but I think Warren Oates is terrific. That part of the film is really good, the Purvis part is all wrong. John and I know each other really well. I know Larry Gordon really well, too. They also had about a million dollars with to make the movie; I had a few more assets. It’s one of those AIP pictures. Purvis, that Christian Bale plays, he wasn’t the cigar smoking crude guy, and he didn’t shoot Dillinger. Charles Winstead did, pretty much as we portray.

This is the 3rd Dillinger film. We’ve had Lawrence Tierney, Warren Oates, and Johnny Depp
The only one I’ve seen is the Warren Oates/John Milius one.

Tierney’s Dillinger is very violent for the time (1945); Warren’s is quite folksy…
Warren’s Dillinger really hits that kind of ex-con sociopathy that does a really responsible job on that track. I was more interested in what did Dillinger want? What’s life, if you’re Dillinger, what do you want? What does Dillinger think Dillinger is doing? Not a judgment upon Dillinger or a portrayal of him, but what does Dillinger think Dillinger’s doing? Because I was really taken with the mystery that I encountered in figuring Dillinger out. Which is, as attracted to this voracious appetite he had, this rage for life, to have everything happen right now. Billie Frechette [Marion Cotillard] says to him “What do you want?”, “Everything, right now.” This almost immediate gratification, live for today, no thought for tomorrow, at all. Now this is a crew that plans with immaculate precision robberies, they’re the most skilled crew of bank robbers ever in US history. Their scores are legendary, and masterpieces of precision planning and rehearsals. But they can’t plan next Thursday. There’s no thought of let’s score X amount of money and go to Brazil, go to Manilla, go to Hong Kong. Nothing, there’s no thought of it. It’s almost as if they accept fate, whatever’s going to happen, it’s a bullet with your name on it, when your time’s up your time’s up, that kind of thought process. And if you’d asked them in 1933, How long are you going to live? They’d say, I don’t know, next month, a couple of years, that’s it, but I’m going to burn as bright as I can the whole way through. They’re taking in as much life – strings of women, best cars, clothes, movies, songs, everything – as fast as they possibly could. So the whole history is terribly short. For Pete Pierpont and that first crew, it’s only eight weeks, then it’s over, that’s it. And for Dillinger it’s a whole 13 months, that’s it. To burn as bright as you can. When he meets Billie and he loses Billie, he has some thought about tomorrow, about future, but it’s not like he thinks of the future and rejects it, there’s no conceptualisation of it as even a possibility. And that really struck me. So what does Dillinger think Dillinger is doing? And that became my track. And the movie’s about these people. In the early 30s, 32, 33, they were the folk heroes. So Edward G Robinson was doing Public Enemy, whatever the movies were, and for good reason. Because they were stealing from the institutions – ie the banks – that had hurt everybody. And they were outsmarting the government that was incapable of helping anybody. So they were the natural folk heroes. By the time you hit 1935, Hoover’s reversed it, and the same actors are now James Cagney, they’re now all G-Men, they’ve flipped it around, so Hoover’s managed to manipulate the media, so by 1945 you’d have a very different Dillinger. But the first serious study of Dillinger is not until the 1960s, the John Toland book [Dillinger Days], and he’d interviewed people who were alive and knew Dillinger. And then the next serious book is the Bryan Burrough book, that our film is based on, and the advantage that he had was that he had millions of pages of FBI documents that suddenly became available, that were open to him, as well as an unseen manuscript. And so the '45 movie may have had a more violent Dillinger but it didn’t really know very much about Dillinger.

Dillinger is a man out of time. Robbing banks is a noble tradition of crime going back to Billy the Kid
He’s a 19th century bandit. It’s like the most advanced steam engine, even when internal combustion comes in, the most advanced steam engine is more efficient and faster. And as Dillinger, he could still outrun everything, but eventually it’s like Darwinian forces…

It’s a very modern film: the war on crime, J Edgar Hoover’s media manipulation, interrogation techniques.
It was not my intent to draw a parallel. I asked myself very consciously how do I want the story to tell itself? And one way, what I elected was to try and bring audience to the detail, complex detail of life on 10.17pm, Tuesday night, November 16, 1933. To have it be as detailed and specific as it would have been if you were alive right then and there. You’d have been in that present, that present would have been your present, and you’d have been looking towards tomorrow and that would be your future, that would be Wednesday. So the tropes of political organisations and what they do and use, that’s a common. To do something else, to create an analogy, is a very passive kind of cinema, I think. It becomes a kind of observation, and I don’t want audiences observing, I want them engaged. So I wasn’t really trying to draw parallels, although I was very aware that parallels would be drawn and would be drawn for very good reasons because when people like Hoover are megalomaniacs decide that they want to use certain methods like torture, they will justify it by creating emergencies. They didn’t have to create the emergency of 9/11, 9/11 happened, it wasn’t made up. Hoover made up the war on crime, he invented the phrase war on crime, he made up the notion of public enemy no 1. The only problem he had was public enemy no 1 had something to say about, and he was a hell of a lot better at what he did than any of the neophytes that Hoover employed to try and take him down, even though the methods Hoover initiated were fantastically progressive. Is Cheney a latter day Hoover? In parts, yeah.

Tell me about the shoot out in Little Bohemia…
That was the real place. Johnny Depp was in the bed that Dillinger was in, and that was Dillinger’s bedroom. They never patched up the bullet holes in the place, they kept them for tourists. So that was exactly how he got out. They went out of their room, he and Red, Red came in and went out of their room, out Red’s room, broke out that window, the balcony, down the backside and ran north along the lake shore. And Baby Face Nelson bust out the barroom and he went south. And Purvis had managed to shoot up these three civilian conservation corps workers who had nothing to do with him. One died, one was wounded terribly and then died a number of years later, and one guy was so drunk he just walked away unscathed.

That gunfight is a proper gunfight. It’s interesting, how Hoover and Purvis feel like the bad guys.
They are who they are. I left behind a long time ago notions of bad guy, even evil incarnate. When it’s in the form of say Manhunter, there’s Will Graham’s line to Jack Crawford, when he says, “As a perpetrator of these crimes, I blow this guy out of his socks in a heartbeat? Absolutely. And at the same time, I understand that he’s a victim, of some heinous shit that happened to him as a child or a baby whatever. Both are true, and both are true, 100%, one doesn’t in my understanding of him, my sympathy for him, my heart bleeds for him and I blow him out of his socks like that. Do you have any difficulty understanding that?” And he starts to taunt Crawford with it. That’s true to me. I believe that, I believe it isn’t most interesting things in life aren’t monolithic, and contradictions? The world is filled with contradictions and anomalies. And when they confront you, what I think is the proper reaction sometimes is to break them down into their component parts because you can’t take it holistically. So there is no… sure, the Bush administration, people were being interrogated brutally, and that’s a hell of a moral question. I don’t like Cheney, I don’t like the Bush administration one iota. There really were 3,3600 people got wiped out in the World Trade Center. These are people’s mothers and sons and nephews and wives, and there are cleaners and secretaries, everybody you know. It’s hard to not… everybody in the United States knows somebody who knows somebody who lost somebody in the World Trade Center. One of my kids’ friends’ mothers went down in one of those planes. So it’s all real.

How do you see Dillinger in relation to Purvis? There was Heat thing in the back of my head...
There was a Heat thing in the back of head, too! I didn’t want to do Heat 2. I’d made that movie. I don’t like repeating myself. There’s no dialectic going on, there’s no thesis and antithesis, they’re not antithetical to each other, in which they have some components that are diametrically opposed and other components which are identical. That’s a dialectic. They’re not that at all. They’re two very different people. Dillinger is this immediate gratification using tactically everything he can get his hands on technologically that makes sense. Innovating all kinds of weapons, systems of holding up bank robberies, anticipating the small machine gun by ten, 12 years, the assault rifle, they would take this 351 Winchester and put a 4 stock on it, and all this kind of stuff, but not really questioning the bigger issues. Purvis always thought of the bigger issues. He came from a terribly inflexible traditional culture of upper middle class, ruling class, southern aristocracy – to the extent that there is one in the United States – and with treasured traits, ways you are supposed to be, your ancestors will look down upon you if you deviated from this code of behaviour. And he defined that as being worthy and wonderful but antique. And we’re now in the 1930s, the modern age, the 20th century is upon us, and we’re to be progressive, and the guy who illuminated the path is J Edgar Hoover, and he drank the Kool Aid completely, and J Edgar Hoover mentored him, and in that putting aside things that went against the natural man, the native southern gentlemen. And for a southern gentleman like that, if you read a book called Albion’s Way, which is a fascinating book, part of that culture, part of the treasured traits was absolutely conflict resolution through violence, I mean that was as time honoured as chivalry. You were supposed to. So he was no stranger to violence. But as he embraced expediency, Hoover’s speech, “We’re in the modern age, as they say in Italy these days, take off the white gloves,” as the new methods involving expediency and torture and everything else, I think Purvis compelled himself to embrace that and it created a contradictory side of himself and a disharmony. There was no disharmony in Dillinger. So they’re very different guys, but they’re not symmetrical opposites at all. And Al Pacino and De Niro is Heat, they are unique. They are the only two guys in the entire film who have total consciousness, they are completely conscious of everything going on. So Purvis isn’t, McCauley is. I know this only because my friend Chuck Anderson, who died sadly about a year ago, he killed the real Neil McCauley in Chicago in ‘63 and had that conversation with him and told me all about McCauley, and I came to know a lot about him, and why he admired him. So the model of those two characters… it’s a very different equation. I see Purvis as a man who forced himself into a mode in which he betrays himself, he’s in contradiction, it sets up disharmony within him, the guy who was so skilled at the beginning of the film is now screwing up, and he’s struggling desperately to catch up. So the idea of Little Bohemia was after Winstead cautions him, Don’t got in yet, but he does, but then he’s faced with this horrible choice. Do I let these guys drive away? And they may be Baby Faced Nelson and John Dillinger in that car, or do I try and stop them? If I stop them, I’m going to alert everyone on the inside. He does, this is a debacle, a total debacle. And trying to constantly catch up. He does get Baby Face Nelson and vengeance is vented on the wrong guy. The guy who’s the right guy to be in a shoot out with, the wrong guy dead. So that’s… but his life ends poorly. He got a lot of credit for Dillinger. They based Dick Tracy on Melvin Purvis. And so he got all the credit, because Hoover had a thing about anonymity, that Winstead was the man who fired the first shot. Now Purvis wasn’t really know, because it was all kept anonymous, for a spree and everything else. They didn’t want individual heroes. But the media anointed Purvis as the guy who got Dillinger, and Dillinger was unbelievably big news. And so, he became quite famous and Hoover invented the war on crime and public enemy no 1 for Hoover to become famous, not for Purvis to become famous. So there was this envy, so Hoover sidelined Purvis to the head of the fingerprint section and basically hounded him and finally, in 35, Purvis resigned. And when he resigned Hoover stripped his records out of the FBI files, totally, and then no matter what Purvis did, Hoover hounded him for the rest of his life, viciously. If he heard that Purvis was going to go for a job in the Treasury, Hoover sent memos. If he heard that Purvis as a lt col in the military, Hoover sent memos. When I went to the FBI in Quantico, and they opened up anything we wanted, I said, Great, let me have Melvin Purvis’ employment file, they went to get it, there was one piece of paper in there. One piece of paper. They were astounded, the guys at the FBI, that there was nothing in there. One piece of paper. Hoover did what Stalin did to Trotsky, he tried to erase him historically.

Tell me about the scene in cinema, where Dillinger’s watching Manhattan Melodrama. It’s so inscrutable what’s going on in Depp’s head…
You know, I wanted to start by imagining Dillinger sitting in a movie theatre. And he doesn’t know the FBI’s outside. It’s like Hemingway writing Death In The Afternoon, matadors living with this intimate perspective of death, that it could happen any moment. And so he’s sitting there, and he’s hearing these words from a character who’s drawn in a couple of places from Dillinger. Dillinger’s the most prominent figure in America, second only to President Roosevelt at the time. He gets more headlines than Obama was getting in the primaries. When we were shooting the movie, we were looking at newspapers from 33 and Dillinger is a headline more frequently than Obama is in 2008. So this guy is the biggest news that there is. So, of course, Blackie’s attitudes, his audacity, is this sense that I’ve still got my pals, my pals stick with me, Dillinger busts these guys out of jail, when he needs weapons he drives into some little town and gets a cup of coffee and saunters across the street to the police station and says, “How you doin’ boys? Nice town you got here, what you gonna do if the Dillinger gang shows up?”, and they said, “We’re all set to take care of them.”, “What do you mean?”, “We’re armed to the teeth.” They said, “Can we take a look?”, “Sure, c’mon, c’mon.” They show them the arsenal, Dillinger and Red stick them up and steal all the guns. Did that shit all the time. The time he gets away in this Ford V8, sheriff Harley’s car, he wrote Henry Ford a letter, said “Dear Henry Ford, you make the best goddam getaway car in America, yours truly, John Dillinger.” Sends him the letter. So it’s filled with this kind of stuff. So this brio is part of the Blackie character. So Dillinger is sitting there and he’s seeing this. What do those words mean, how do those words impact upon him? “Die the way you live: all of a sudden. Living any other way doesn’t mean a thing.” I know why I put it in there, I know why I want that to impact upon him, because I want to pre-empt the physical act of his being killed. So I want to make it both tense and also that you know it’s irrelevant at the same time, because I wanted the message to Billie to be the thing where all the feeling can come together. Because it’s about Dillinger’s consciousness of Dillinger is what I wanted impacting on the audience, not the physical event of will he or won’t he be killed? You know the answer to that – he’s going to get killed. So then it became what does Dillinger think about the notion of his fate, and that’s what I wanted the interior of the movie theatre to be about, hence emphasising Blackie’s message: Die the way you live. So there’s a foregone conclusion. He knows… it’s like, if you look at Eliot, The Hollow Men, or Maynard Keynes writing at that time, he’s saying that we are all of us already dead. When’s the realisation going to be there? And that doesn’t mean you don’t live your life as fully as you can every single minute. And that’s the tenor of the times. It was very much in those guys’ minds. I think if you asked any of them, How long do you think you’re going to live? What’s your life expectancy? Two years? A year? A year and a half?

Yeah, that line to Billie: “Have you lived here long?”, “Yeah, since yesterday.”
I’ve got these suitcases full of good stuff, they’ve got their weapons, they’ve got money belts, they’ve got these hot cars, any or all of it’s replaceable, and they hit a place, never unpack, the very first thing they figure is: how am I getting out?

That’s the Heat thing: “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.”
It’s the same method. And one guy invented all this methodology. You’ve heard of the phrase, On the lam. Herbert K Lam. On the lam.


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