I spent a few days in the summer of 2008 on the set of Michael Mann's Public Enemies, which was shooting at the time in Chicago. It was a night shoot—the death of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) in front of the Biograph Theater. These observations and ruminations, which will be posted in three parts, were written at the time. Portions of these notes have since been used in other pieces, including a few posted here at The Auteurs' Notebook. Dispatches Part 1 can be found here, and Part 3 can be found here.
History is made at night, at least around here. It gets dark, the police come and cordon off two blocks of Lincoln Avenue. Autograph seekers huddle around a McDonalds at the south end of the street. They bicker with police deep into the night. Two blocks have been redecorated according to archival photographs: there are dress shops, a Chinese restaurant, a pool hall, a grocery store with a window full of wax fruit. They've taken down the street lights and put up old-fashioned ones. They glow with a beige light instead of the usual yellow. Fake trolley tracks have been laid down in the middle of the street, with foam brick underneath them. The Biograph Theater’s marquee, repainted 1930s black, advertises Manhattan Melodrama, the last film John Dillinger saw, and the miracle of air conditioning (it's the secret reason cinephiles like the summer).
If you come here in the daytime, you’ll find a squad of security guards. Three men guard an alleyway, empty except for a box of empty Coca-Cola bottles. Three men to guard one box: the lengths we go to in the name of continuity. Another guard’s half-empty soda cup sits in the Biograph’s box office booth.
When you see this during the day, it’s like you’ve wandered into the wrong city, the wrong decade. At night, when the cars start running, noisly making their figure-eight loop around the set, when the costumed summer strollers walk slowly down the street, pretending that they’ve just left a movie or a restaurant or are coming home from work—then it’s something else. I think of the last time this city heard the spastic growl of so many Ford Model A engines. They sound like hail when it drums on a metal roof. It must bring back old memories for the bricks. You end up thinking about how someday, should movies disappear, we’ll look back and marvel at the lengths we went to for them, the way we now look back on Gothic cathedrals and wonder about how people could have spent decades on a church. We recreated the past, avoided the present, all for the sake of a few minutes on a screen.
Public Enemies is being shot from a script Mann co-wrote, based on a book on the crime wave of 1933 - 1934. At the center are a bunch of folk characters: John Dillinger, Melvin Purvis, Baby Face Nelson, J. Edgar Hoover. Around here, they're still remembered. I'm shown a shop that was once a speakeasy; the big metal door, like the one in any good gangster movie, is still there. Upstairs there's a blackjack table that they say Dillinger used to play behind. Its current owner shows me a prized possession: a chip monogrammed JHD—John Herbert Dillinger. Later I hear that one of the landlords around here had sat on Dillinger's knee when he was a little boy. 75 years later, it's still the same town. The Biograph had to be repainted, but it's still here, even if people go to see plays there instead of movies nowadays. The alley is still there, the old building. "It's all true," I think.
The "true story" has become such a staple of American cinema in the last decade, but I think Mann's "true stories" are the only ones with any truth to them. It's because he's more interested in the feelings or the ideas than the facts—it's what makes Ali stand out in crowd of Rays and Walk the Lines. It's more important that the actors express than impersonate. Will Smith only has Cassius Clay's haircut, the same way Johnny Depp will only have John Dillinger's moustache. But Smith has a charisma, and that tomcat voice, equal parts feline and masculine. Of course the set around us is all facts, illustrated: what the cars of 1934 looked like, how the people of 1934 dressed, what the color of a 1934 Chicago streetlight was. This is the work of the art director, the production designer, the costumers, their crews. It's not the facts that Mann is here to give us.
Shooting the past in HD—why not? 1934 wasn't in 35mm any more than 100 BC was all in marble statues. The key idea of Ali was that the 1960s were a time when people actually lived, not just some set of important moments that we can look back on. That public figures were people. It was history without irony or bemusement. Mann shooting a film set in 1930s on video isn't a post-modern conceit: Mann genuinely believes in video's ability to capture certain things film can't pick up (and vice-versa—hence he's shooting part of Dillinger's death on 35mm). It's a question of video's way of capturing background movement, of the way leaves fluttering in the background can overtake the image. "What's missing from movies nowadays is the beauty of the moving wind in the trees," D.W. Griffith said four years before his death. Griffith, who gave us the monumental image, wished for a day when the elements of an image could subvert its composition. For waves that could look so strong that they could overtake a figure framed against the ocean. 35mm, always forgiving to the human element, gave us a way to master the world. The figure against a landscape was a figure first and a landscape second. HD—especially Mann's beloved CineAlta camera, and especially at night—is harder to control. It's as like we've razed a forest to build a city and now find trees growing on every corner.
It requires a new thinking. The director who uses it has to be looking for something that he or she wouldn't find in 35mm. What Mann is after here is something he's attempted to get with film before and only sometimes succeeded. The image of Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) dying in Ali, for instance—photographed with such tactile focus that the image becomes less about the gun shots that Van Peebles' eyelashes. We realize that he's blinking, that he's still alive as shot after shot hits his body. It's Mann's most violent image, and that's because it acknowledges the fragility of life. The human detail overtakes the violent center. Even more than those first few minutes of Ali—where a jogging Will Smith is shot on washed-out digital video—it's the start of Mann's HD tendency.
We're sneaking around the set, observing the crew and extras. Certain mannerisms return when people are costumed. Men snap suspenders. They tug on their pantslegs as they sit down. A bar has been requisitioned for the movie, and when extras order drinks on their break, they instinctively remove their hats, setting them down next to their beers. An actor dressed like a policeman (or, knowing Michael Mann, a real policeman playing a policeman) enters, and I’m briefly worried, because we’re smoking indoors, which is illegal in the city. It takes a half-second to realize that, real policeman or not, he’s just another actor and, real interior or not, this has become a set. He pats one of the beer drinkers on the back.
In the alley behind the bar, the second unit is shooting a scene. Some policemen are stopping the G-men leaving the scene of the Biograph shooting. One of them shouts loudly, asking them who they are. A PA directs foot traffic, telling people when they can cross and when they can't. The video feed monitor is a stop light. All clear. We dash.