For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

Dispatches from “Public Enemies,” Part 3: The Mad Masters

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.

Above: Michael Mann (second from the right) and crew members working on Public Enemies. Photo by Rob Olewinski.

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 2 can be found here.


“Who is the director?” I think that's a question most directors ask themselves, however subconsciously. What does it mean to give direction, to point a film? Just like you can define "movie" countless ways, there are a thousand different interpretations of what directing a film means. Is the director the one with the compass, leading a party through the wilderness, like Dreyer? Or is he or she the one who has map and needs the help of others to understand it, like Cassavetes? Is the director a leader who realizes his or her weaknesses, like Eastwood? The master of a painter's studio, like Renoir? The beloved head of a corporation, like Spielberg? A romantic commentor, like Sirk?

Part of what's fascinating and infuriating about Michael Mann is that the only thing you can say about his directing is that he is a director. What he does is direct movies; his activity, his thought processes don't seem to correspond to those of any other pursuits. He isn't an artist, a writer, a critic, an entrepreneur or a dramatist. He's a movie director, and he makes it seem as if it isn't necessary for a director to think that he or she is anything else.

The set of Public Enemies is fairly ordinary. Big stars, big budget, big crew. The usual walkie noise, the disinterested police, the undermanned cafeteria a short walk from the set (in this case, a church basement: cinema, always aping Christianity). From the standpoint of planning and casting, there isn't much that distinguishes a Michael Mann film from one by Ridley Scott or Gore Verbinski. If you arrived on one of their sets and weren't told who the director was, you probably wouldn't be able to guess. Watching Mann film a scene, two things pop into your head: first, you imagine how the shot will end up looking and, second, you realize how easily the scene could be shot by someone else. Take The Insider: "true story" plot, big-name actors, large budget, Panavision. These are the basic elements of dozens of movies made around the same time. Dozens of movies I'll forget while I continue to remember, say, the fabric wrapped around Al Pacino's face, or the video monitors shown together in the interview scene. A Michael Mann image is instantly recognizable, but not a Michael Mann set-up, which makes it feel as though, regardless of what he actually makes movies about, he could make a film about anything.

Above: Crew members set up lights above the Biograph Theater. Photo by Rob Olewinski.

The consensus of the lower-level members of the crew is that Michael Mann is hard to work for. Some of them say they’re filling in for people who’ve quit. Others are hostile towards any mention of the director or the film; they’re sure it'll fail. They read the daily schedules and infer elaborate melodramas: Mann and Johnny Depp are arguing, Mann and Dante Spinotti aren’t talking, etc., etc., etc. It’s entirely possible that all of these things are true. Mann looks the part of a hardass; he's got the face of a college basketball coach.

Anyone who's spent time on the set of a large production knows that there's a certain enmity that can develop between the crew and the director: the crew, who've been hired to do their job well, know exactly what they're supposed to do. They're professionals. The thing about directing is that it isn't a job: it's work, it's an activity. A person who doesn't know anything about electricity shouldn't be handling the lights, but there are no prerequisites for directing a film. A director can be anyone. A director can come from anywhere. There is no education or knowledge required. The first directors had never even seen a film. Directors are all amateurs. Mann maybe even more so -- he has, with every film, moved further and further away from idioms. He's left behind grammar for expression.


What's spoken about so rarely is Mann's direction of performers, his mad drive to cast egoists and passionless stars and then make them express something they seemed incapable of. Jamie Foxx has never been as charismatic as in Ali and Collateral. It's like the old Jack Lemmon problem: usually intolerable, but under the direction of Billy Wilder, one of the greatest actors imaginable. Colin Ferrell was never better than in Miami Vice, Russell Crowe never better than in The Insider. Heat is nothing without Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and it's the best work either has done in the last quarter-century. It seems almost wrong for Mann to be casting someone as adventurous as Johnny Depp in the lead for Public Enemies; you almost wish he'd cast another actor you resent, just so you can be as astounded by them as you were by Tom Cruise in Collateral (but then again, Wilder could do wonders with willing actors, too—no one but James Stewart could've played the lead in Spirit of St. Louis, and he didn't look or sound one bit like Charles Lindbergh either).

There's that phrase: the art of directing. But it isn't an art—it's an act. Henceforth I'll write it that way: the act of directing. Every participant of a film's production is an actor in the sense that their actions affect the film (and what's acting if not action, inseparable from inaction?). The cameraman is an actor, the focus puller acts with his or her hand, the sound recordist acts with the microphone. The cinematographer plays the character actor to the director's lead, like how Chris Doyle used to be the Walter Brennan to Wong Kar-Wai's romantic Bogart. It's this indestinguishability between work and expression that forms the center of Mann's current approach. "It's not art, it's action." Maybe that's why many of the classic Hollywood directors hated being called “artists.” They could freely admit that a movie could be art, but they would never say they were artists. That's the classical studio model: not a single artist on set, yet what they end up producing together are some of the greatest works of 20th century art (remember: Rembrandt wasn’t an artist, he was a painter). But you can’t make something from nothing; there must’ve been art somewhere—and there was, hidden inside the filmmakers and the audience . That’s what made the movies so primal: it was like being shown a secret talent you didn’t know you had. A sympathy you didn’t know you could muster, an emotion or an intelligence you’d always denied yourself. The art of the movies belonged to those who watched them.

“he has, with every film, moved further and further away from idioms. He’s left behind grammar for expression.” I like this notion, but to my mind, Mann has not so much “left behind” idioms but has gradually come to straddle several of them. I don’t want to throw down the gauntlet with a simplistic “you either get it, or you don’t” equation – nothing breaks down communication with a filmmaker’s detractors quicker than implying that you are smarter than them – but I do think that Mann’s growth from macho genre devotee to macho genre devotee/poet has confused the way in which his films are conceived/marketed/viewed. There is no denying the fact that Mann functions as Hollywood insider/power broker, although it is an increasingly ironic position, since his films, financially speaking, seem to be released with increasingly diminishing returns. Us fans would claim that a certain strain has taken root in his work that more than compensates for any lack of mainstream viability. But here we go again, with review after review claiming that they don’t “identify” with the characters, that it is not “factual enough”, or that supporting characters “don’t register”. Is it me, or are some people just not simply watching the film in front of them? On that note, I did very much appreciate Glenn Kenny’s thoughts – highly lucid, and a unique perspective from someone who doesn’t worship at the altar, but who also appreciated the unique pleasures of “The Limits of Control”. There’s a hell of a double bill with Miami Vice.
Yes, you’re right. Mann is a complex guy — in a way he’s the most “avant-garde” (if that term even means anything anymore) American director, but he also works within a completely “commercial” setting. But, then again, Hollywood is usually more avant-garde than the underground.
I’ve always preffered “experimental” to “avant-garde” – it seems a looser, more inclusive term. Yeah, I agree that no one is doing what Mann is. I enjoy Tony Scott’s over-the-topness as much as the next guy, but his aesthetic doesn’t ultimately really add up to anything, the same with Bay (I forget where it was mentioned, but some commenter somewhere was complaining about a Cinemascope article on Scott, which is why I bring it up in this context). The only director approaching Mann in America is probably James Gray. And not to pick hairs, but that’s a broad statement to end with, my friend. Certainly we can agree that the “underground” is just as capable of putting out complete shit as Hollywood is.
Very true. And I’m defining underground and Hollywood very loosely here, too — though I’m sure Hollywood still exists, I’m not so sure the underground does (in terms of so-called “narrative filmmaking” — whatever that means — that is). Anyway, all of this language fails at describing most phenomenon within contemporary cinema, even American cinema. New words are needed. The forces aren’t so opposed any more. And I’ll second you on Gray.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features