Like the double-wide premiere for HBO's Boardwalk Empire, the pilot for the network's new horse-racing series Luck—first broadcast December 11th, and then re-run this past Sunday—represents a meeting of two distinctive authorial voices. In the case of the Boardwalk Empire pilot—a high-water mark of style and efficiency that the frequently-frustrating series has never managed to live up to, aside from a couple of episodes neatly directed by Carpenterite horror specialist Brad Anderson—it was episode director / series executive producer Martin Scorsese and episode writer / series creator Terrence Winter; in the case of Luck, it's episode director / series executive producer Michael Mann and episode writer / series creator David Milch.
The interplay of low-lifes and big spenders in Luck's pilot is distinctly Milch's. It's clear from the episode's structure alone—a lot of jargony horse-racing intrigue spinning around a story about four track regulars who finally win it big—that Milch is drawn to the milieu as a locus of activity, where bets bind people of different classes and background together. It's where down-on-their-luck chumps come to gamble their disability checks on horses owned by millionaires. So what exactly does Mann bring to all of this?
Television tends to get presented as, talked about, and written about as a writer's medium where style functions largely as a vehicle for "narrative," and the role of directors—who usually change from episode to episode—is to interpret rather than originate. This isn't misrepresentation: most shows rarely deviate from the "house style" outlined in their respective bibles; the rare exceptions to this tend to be made under rare circumstances, like FX's mercurial Louie—a series where the creator, director, executive producer, writer, star and editor all happen to be the same person. The Boardwalk Empire and Luck pilots, however, are special cases, not just because they're both directed by well-known filmmakers with distinctive styles, but also because the filmmakers in question happen to be the shows' executive producers and are therefore responsible, in part, for establishing the look and feel of episodes to follow. Televisual style is commonly defined as an ongoing conversation between individual formal approaches (episodes, directors) and a grand design (narrative arcs, creators); Scorsese and Mann, then, are in the unique position of getting to start the tone for the conversation.
Scorsese's Boardwalk Empire pilot, the most expensive ever produced, feels like the first half of a fairly good feature. Sure, this makes for an entertaining 73 minutes, but, since the episodes that follow neither adopt nor adapt most of the pilot's distinctive features (including its playful editing and use of various Scorsesean visual gimmicks, including irises and title cards), it overshadows the rest of the series. Boardwalk Empire, the show, feels like a spin-off of Boardwalk Empire, the pilot. Unlike Scorsese, whose TV work has been limited almost exclusively to documentaries, Mann has extensive experience with episodic and serial television; as a matter of fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him a major figure in the development of the latter.
After graduating from the London Film School in 1967 and making a handful of documentaries, Mann returned to his native United States, where he landed work writing episodes of Police Story, Starksy & Hutch and the short-lived, Jack Palance-starring Bronk (this, remember, was an era in American television when all a cop show needed to get made was an actor and a last name). In 1978, Mann created the Aaron Spelling-produced, largely forgotten private eye show Vega$, which was shot, unusually for the time, on location in Las Vegas (Vega$ therefore introduces Mann's long-running insistence on location-shooting, an integral aspect of his style; Luck itself is shot on location at a real working race track, Santa Anita Park). His first major work, the made-for-TV movie The Jericho Mile (shot, of course, on location at California's famous Folsom Prison, with a few real prisoners drafted into the cast—another aspect of Mann's peculiar realism), came in 1979, followed by his first feature, Thief, in 1981.
While researching Thief, Mann met Dennis Farina, a veteran Chicago cop who as also moonlighting as an actor in local theater. In Thief, Mann's "conceptual realist" method—location shooting and in-depth research, used to inform a style that has little to do with classical "cinematic realism"—involved casting police officers as criminals and former criminals as cops; Farina was cast in a bit part as a heavy. A few years later, Farina retired from the CPD and decided to pursue acting full-time; twenty years after Thief, he's one of Luck's leads, playing Gus Demitriou, a chauffeur and front for Chester "Ace" Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman).
In the 1980s, Mann was instrumental in the development of two seminal television shows: the stylish, episodic Miami Vice, and the meticulous, Farina-starring Crime Story, a Berlin Alexanderplatz-influenced period crime epic which is more or less the granddaddy of today's sprawling HBO and AMC serials. Mann didn't create either show, and he never directed a single episode of Miami Vice, but in his role as executive producer he helped create their respective house styles: plasticine crispness for Vice, and hyper-detailed grime for Crime (it helped that Crime Story's pilot was directed by none other than Abel Ferrara).
Miami Vice represented a sort of 70s cops show for the 1980s, Starsky & Hutch taken to its logical endpoint: hermetically-sealed, completely episodic, every installment as structurally simple as possible—but with amped-up style, a shit ton of pop music, and hip cameos (heavies-of-the-week included Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Joe Dallesandro, and Miles Davis). Crime Story—essentially one long narrative broken up into chapters—was a 2000s show from the 1980s; it probably plays better now—in an era when ambitious TV shows are made partly to be watched in DVD boxed sets—than it did as a week-to-week broadcast in the mid-to-late 80s.
Whenever Mann has returned to the television since Crime Story, he's used the medium as a sort of sketchbook. His 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown is essentially a first draft of Heat; Robbery Homicide Division, the cop show Mann executive produced for CBS in 2002, introduced the digital-video-centered aesthetic Mann would expand upon in Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies. Luck, then, is distinguished from the rest of Mann's later TV work by the fact that it never resembles a thematic / aesthetic proving ground; rather, like Miami Vice and Crime Story, it draws on the principles Mann has been using in his films to create a sturdy, distinctively televisual style.
One of the first things that stands out about Luck is how much its basic visual grammar resembles that of Texas Killing Fields, the slightly-arty police procedural produced by Mann and directed by his daughter, Ami Canaan Mann. Part of that can be ascribed to the fact that the two share a cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, who shot An Angel at My Table and The Piano for Jane Campion and also photographed Boardwalk Empire's pilot. But there's also the fact that, unlike Mann, Sr.'s own films—where what could be called "style" is the sum total of many individual abstractions and flights-of-fancy—Texas Killing Fields is essentially pragmatic, all of its scenes seemingly governed by just a handful of principles. The Luck pilot is similarly pragmatic (or is that programmatic?), relying on a few ideas developed in Miami Vice and Public Enemies—an intuitive and often intrusive handheld camera, un-geometric framings that make somewhat disorienting use of deep focus, too-close camera placements that distort space—to construct a ready-made formal approach.
Take, for example, a brief sequence where Cajun jockey Leon Micheaux (English actor Tom Payne; current FCC guidelines require every ambitious cable television show to feature at least one character with a slippery accent) gets ready for a race. The way in which the cameraman seems to be dancing around Micheaux, continually getting too close and then side-stepping away, is straight out of Mann's Miami Vice film; in fact, the sequence bears a strong resemblance to one where a bit character delivers a USB drive, passing through a crowded market along the way.
On the soundtrack is a propulsive soul drone by Dickon Hinchliffe, the former Tindersticks multi-instrumentalist who also composed the music to Texas Killing Fields. Hinchliffe's a damn good film composer with a distinctive ear for arrangements, highlighting the way individual instruments interlock in a piece of music; his score for Luck's first episode is one of the better ones on TV.
Another moment straight out of Miami Vice or Public Enemies: Bernstein, in a fit of anger, knocking over his chair. The camera is crouching behind him, and when the chair flies back, the cameraman moves with it, catching the momentum.
Speaking in a low, croaky voice and moving at times like a robot, Hoffman gives a performance that's calculatedly inert, but for these few seconds, an uncoiling energy can be glimpsed. When he rips off the buttons on his shirt, though, he looks like a doddering old man trying to play tough.
Much of Luck, though, sticks to the Texas Killing Fields method: a standardized shot / reverse shot pattern, jazzed up with intuitive, slightly dance-like camerawork. In lieu of the usual progression of establishing shot to medium shot to close-up, Mann sticks to his own distinctive formula: start with a close-up, and then alternate medium shots and wide shots throughout the scene.
A scene like the one above is Mann on autopilot (which is, admittedly, still damn pretty to look at). Which isn't to say that Luck is all same-old-same-old, tried-and-true.
Luck's oddest shot: Gus, seen from Bernstein's point of view, with the gambler's gray-socked feet propped up in the bottom of the frame. Mann's camera is intuitive and improvisatory, but it's rarely subjective in a narrative sense; because Mann's men-on-the-edge-of-obsolescence (and Luck seems to be setting Bernstein up as one) always exist as figures against a narrative landscape, the camera adopts a sort of removed subjectivity—always intuitively framing characters against something. The POV shots in his work—like the one through the blindfold at the beginning of The Insider—aren't really about perspective (in fact, they tend to be disorienting), which makes the simple clarity of this one (a shot that could be summed up as "Bernstein looking at Gus") all the more disarming.
Mann's big stylistic innovation in Luck involves his use of camera platforms; instead of mounting a camera on a vehicle to shoot the action, Mann has a cameraman film handheld (or, in some cases, with the camera—often a lightweight DSLR like the Canon 5D—suspended from a boom pole) from a moving platform.
The first time he uses this technique, it's during an exterior shot of the Mercedes in which Gus picks up Bernstein. The cameraman appears to be standing on a platform attached to the front of the car, which is clearly moving; beginning with the logo on the front of the vehicle, the camera moves up unsteadily while also zooming in on Farina.
Where this really comes into play is during the racing scenes. The moving platform provides immediacy, while the handheld camera gives it a jerky, kinetic energy. In these shots—seemingly undiscipled, full of negative space, often blurred with movement—the camera gets dangerously close; one shot, when slowed down, reveals the camera accidentally ramming into a jockey from behind toward the end of the take.
In a revealing (and highly recommended) interview with F.X. Feeney for the DGA Quarterly, Mann discusses the importance, in Luck's horse racing scenes, of not showing what it's like to watch a race, but what it's like to participate in one—an idea which plays very well with Luck's whole tapestry of shifting perspectives. Every scene takes a sort of firsthand approach, a kind of "empirical lyricism" that isn't even remotely psychological but instead completely sensation-driven: Bernstein's feet and his chair-flinging flip-out; the chaotic jockey's-ass view of the racetrack; Micheaux's long walk to the horses; Gus' world, seen largely from the interior of a luxury car and the little frames created by windshields and rear-view mirrors.
Mann's syncretic style blends Hollywood classicism with an avant-garde audio-visual impulse (my colleague Ben Sachs once very aptly called Mann the only director who could credibly be called an heir to both Howard Hawks and Stan Brakhage); he makes "small art"—a cinema of glances, lights, gestures, and technical glitches re-purposed as effects (no one's done more with digital video's ghosting and inconsistent frame rates)—within big Hollywood contexts. The essence of Mann's "conversation" with Milch's work (and it is very specifically Milch's work and not Milch; the relationship between the two could more aptly be called a "creative divorce" than a "creative marriage"—Mann banned Milch from the set, editing room and sound-mixing suite on the condition that he would not re-write Milch's scripts) is this: take the vast, pseudo-novelistic, grand-design-driven narrative scope of Milch's writing, find a non-narrative kernel at the core every scene and then start from there. This principle is behind even Luck's most "programmatic" moments; it's the reason why "Mann on autopilot" almost always starts a scene with a close-up—a face, a look—instead of a wide establishing shot.
In other words, at every available opportunity, Mann flips the script; he stays true to the letter of Milch's writing, but not the spirit of it. He takes Milch's narrative framework, but not at face value, resulting in a pilot with a palpable push-pull of big and small—a TV show that feels refreshingly at odds with itself.