More than two decades after the premiere of his indelible Los Angeles epic Heat, director Michael Mann has remastered it for the Director’s Definitive Edition 4K Blu-Ray. It’s a whole new way to see the same classic movie, a duel between cop-criminal pair Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro.) Here, the master filmmaker discusses what changed — and why.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The true story that inspired Heat largely took place in Chicago. What led you to set the film in Los Angeles?
MICHAEL MANN: L.A. is more balkanized than Chicago. There’s a unity to Chicago. It’s got north and south streets. It’s all in a grid. It has a downtown area. Then you have residential neighborhoods. Then it goes on to suburbs. L.A. is all these little cities put together. If you think of L.A. as the County of Los Angeles, it’s bigger than most countries. So, if you go into refining areas around Wilmington, or this unincorporated part of Terminal Island where the chop shop is and the pit bull fighting arena was, where Pacino berates his informant — played by Ricky Harris, who tragically died this last year. Or the refineries De Niro is driving through when he’s on the phone to Jon Voight, kind of locates William Fichtner. Those kind of landscapes are all available here, because this place is just so irrigated. It just felt like this is the real domain that this movie should happen within.
All of the Los Angeles locations in this film feel so iconic. How did you go about finding them?
I love moving around within the milieu of something I’m going to make a film about, and experiencing as much as I can what the real lives of my characters — the people the characters are based on — what those are about. What they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, where they’re from, what their life’s ambitions are. Because everybody’s dimensional. Who’s their mommy? Who’s their daddy? And, in doing that, I quickly realized that I’ve been living in Los Angeles for a quite a long time, but I didn’t really know urban Los Angeles. Didn’t know L.A.
So myself, and a guy who was a commander in the LAPD in plainclothes, we started touring around at least one night every weekend for about six months. We’d go out from about 9 p.m. to 2 or 3 in the morning, and just troll the city, answering radio calls. There’d be a homicide in Pacoima. We’d wind up in the middle of an armed robbery in progress. Another time, we’d just left some crazy incident where some guy had stolen two traffic lights, which are very big, and had put them in a shopping cart. Some guy who was drunk with his girlfriend in a Camry ran into the shopping cart, and this guy was very pissed off that they had ruined his traffic lights.
So you’d run into these absurd situations. Or the guy with the console TV, who’s in the beginning of the film in the armored van robbery, he’s somebody else we met on the street. I would just pop these people into the movie. And you discover things. That mountain of sulfur, the chop shop, the pit bull fighting arena, are real places we discovered in this unincorporated part of Terminal Island.
When it came to remastering the film for the Blu-ray, were there specific sequences you focused on?
Yeah, the whole film! When you go into Blu-Ray, and you go to 4K, you’re in a different color space. Meaning that what was magenta doesn’t translate exactly. There’s no logarithm you could use to make “magenta” still stay magenta, with that exact color. So you have to imagine everything, from contrast, to how black blacks are, to what the color palette is. The ambition here was: If I was shooting the film two or three years ago, what would it look like? That was really it. So we went into every shot.
Your style in your more recent films has evolved from when you made Heat. Did that affect how you looked at this film?
Let me put this rather precisely. When you see an emotion on a human’s face, how much of the face do you see? What constitutes fear? What constitutes apprehension? What constitutes suspicion?
Yes, I evolved, but also, audience perception evolves, and media evolves, year to year. If I shot this film two or three years ago, this particular film would be less chromatic. And the sense of tension would become more pronounced with greater contrast and kind of a more blue-black palette, than the film as I wanted it to be when I shot it in ’94-’95.
Are there any moments in particular that bring up what you’re talking about, that as you’re working with the 4K, any sequence in the film that you think is seen anew on this definitive edition?
The one that comes to mind is when Hanna is chasing Neil McCauley at the end of the film past the airport. All that is a lot darker. Primary reds are stripped out. The reflections in the metal – everything is substantially darker, if I showed you the before and after. They’re big steps, they’re not subtleties.
It was recently reported that you’re hired Reed Farrel Coleman to co-write a Heat prequel novel. Can you talk about that project?
I can’t really, because it’s kind of under wraps what we’re thinking of doing, and it’s in early stages.
The other thing that I’ve been working on now that’s similar, and it is very different: I acquired an extraordinary book by Mark Bowden which is coming out June 6, called Hue, 1968. It’s the entire pivotal battle during the Tet Offensive. All of the storytelling is told within the personal stories of hundreds of people caught in this compression in this war zone. It has a democracy of weight to each character, whether they’re a U.S. marine, or a high school teacher from Hanoi middle school who’s met the NVA (North Vietnamese Regular Army) military infantrymen, or LBJ in his pajamas. It’s gonna be a limited series, either 8 or 10 hours. That’s got all my attention, along with Ferrari [a biopic starring Hugh Jackman], which I plan to do in 2018.