The Michael Mann Interview, part 2: His work in TV: 'Crime Story,' 'Robbery Homicide Division,' 'Luck,' and Mann's favorite current TV shows
Michael Mann is the rare director-writer-producer who has maintained simultaneous careers in feature films and television, and he’s done this since the 1970s. Leading up to the Sunday premiere of the new series Luck, for which Mann directed the pilot and works as an executive producer, he took us through his television career. This is the second part of the conversation. Crime Story (1986-88)
Picking up from where we left off in the Mann chronology, I suggested to Mann that if he did Crime Story today, it would probably play on HBO or Showtime or FX, and that it’s really the precursor to the idea of a televisions show as a big novel.
Michael Mann: “Well, yes. I remember I was sitting on my porch, and suddenly two things occurred to me at the same time. One was, I know this fantastic saga, this true life saga of organized crime in Chicago and its move to Vegas [in the 1960s]. I’m talking about [the career of mobster] Tony Spilotro, whom the Ray Luca character [played by Anthony Denison] was based on, as was the Pesci character in [Martin Scorsese’s] Casino. And then it occurred to me to do a serial, just like a daytime soap, except do it in prime time. I’m not sure but I think we were the first serialized show on network television. There was a lot of discussion between [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff and myself about how do you hook viewers in in so strong a way that they’re following you — because this is all brand new, this is virgin territory — so that they would follow you from episode to episode, or do you try to be serialized, but then also have a beginning, middle and an end so that [each episode is] self-contained and also serial. And that’s what we tried to work out. Also to start the show in Chicago for about 12 episodes, and then on episode 13 take it all to Las Vegas — that was exciting to me.”
Dennis Farina, a Chicago law enforcement officer for 18 years, was cast as Crime Story‘s lead, the ferocious Det. Lt. Mike Torello. Farina was not a conventional-looking leading man, and I asked Mann if he met with any resistance from the network in this casting.
Mann: “By that point, after Miami Vice, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. We shot the pilot of Crime Story during the third year of Vice, and it had altered culture — it was the most interesting thing on television. I had just directed Manhunter, I hadn’t started postproduction on it yet, and I went to Chicago to look over the production of the Crime Story pilot. So I was doing three things at the same time. No, there wasn’t any push-back on Farina. I had used him as a guest star in two Miami Vices by that point. And he had also had [been a technical adviser] and had a small role in Thief in 1980. And I introduced him to Brandon and [his wife] Lily Tartikoff and Dennis charmed the hell out of them, and that was it.”
Farina wasn’t a trained actor at that point, was he? Did you have to direct him in a different way than you would a professional actor?
Mann: “You did, but no, by that point, he had been at the Goodman Theater studying theater and he had worked at Steppenwolf a little bit, and at Remains, which was Billy Petersen’s theater company in Chicago. So he had a lot more experience. I was totally convinced he could do it. But you still wouldn’t direct him exactly the same way. He hadn’t, for example, done 14 years on stage like Nick Nolte. But I believe it’s the director’s responsibility to modify my approach to the language and orientation of the actor. And so somebody who has a lot of natural charisma but doesn’t have the tradecraft, you approach them in a very different way. Every take is going to be somewhat different. They’re not going to hit their marks the same way; there isn’t the shorthand there. You have to present the situation as if it’s impacting them for the first time, and then orientate them so that when the stimuli arrive, they have reactions. Because what I’m after is their reactions, expressed in both body language and dialogue. So it would be a little bit more like that.”
I looked at, in particular, a Crime Story episode your directed, called “Top of the World.” Debbie Harry [from Blondie] is terrific in that as a mobster’s girlfriend. Paul Anka was excellent in that as a mob courier. And Andrew Dice Clay does a really good job in that, as a casino executive who has this odd little local Vegas TV talk show.
Mann: “Yes, he is. He’s playing [a character modeled on] Lefty Rosenthal [a mob-associated Vegas casino executive], who DeNiro also played in Casino. And that television show he had, as inane as it is in Crime Story, it’s The Tonight Show compared to how inane the real guy was. [Laughs] I mean, we shot those [episodes] in seven days, and I think we spent like 13 or 14 days on [an episode of] Luck. I think back to shooting one of those things in 7 days…boy… “
And that episode was a particularly good showcase for John Santucci, who played Pauli Taglia, one of Ray Luca’s henchmen. He had a kind of comic exaggeration that worked in the context of the drama.
Mann: “He had some of that in life. You know, he’s the thief I based Thief on.”
He was an adviser on that film, right?
Mann: “He was an adviser on it. All the props [James Caan, as the thief] used were all Santucci’s burglary tools. And he never stopped being a thief and an informant. He’s passed away now [Santucci died in 2004], and there were times subsequent to Crime Story where you would not want to go get a cup of coffee with this guy and sit in the window.”
I guess you would have gone much further in the tale of Crime Story if you could have. I mean, by the end, Torello and his guys are kind of renegades down in Mexico.
Mann: “Well, what happened there was that we were being financed by New Line. And their book value plummeted. And Tartikoff said, ‘I have difficulty renewing a third season, I don’t know if New Line is even going to be around.’ And I think their share price went down to something like $1.18 a share or something. So it was a financial crisis that kind of did us in more than anything.” By the way, one thing I’d mention is that, the episode I directed at the end of the first season was the second-to-last. The last one had one of the best endings I’ve ever seen on television, when that atomic bomb goes off.” (Mann is referring to the mind-blowing season-ender in which Ray and Pauli escape to the Nevada desert, only to be blown up by a Yucca Flat A-bomb test explosion, set to the tune of the Jive Bombers’ “Bad Boy.”)
Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990)
After that, Mann’s next TV project you did was the Emmy-winning miniseries about real-life undercover DEA agent Enrique Camarena, played by Scarface‘s Steven Bauer.
How was that, working with Bauer?
Mann: “It was good. I took him into a couple of undercover situations, and he acquitted himself admirably, including one in which some undercover DEA agents were meeting a couple of emissaries from a trafficker in Mexico in a motel out by Arcadia. It was a totally benign meeting; they were there to discuss where a second meeting was going to take place, where they would flash the money, and the other guys would flash the dope. So this was the meeting to decide where the next meeting was going to happen. In other words, there weren’t supposed to be any guns or anything. And the DEA controlled the whole floor of this three-story motel, and we had surveillance into the room where this was happening. Bauer was in there with sunglasses and a hat and an undercover DEA agent, meeting these two 300-pound guys who come up from [the city of] Chihuahua with cowboy boots and big hats. And one turned out to have a shoulder holster with a big revolver in it. Bauer really got the sense of that world and captured it.
“That was a project that, when you got involved in that material, it just took you over. And you couldn’t help but be emotionally so engaged — beyond the content of making the miniseries — with the issues, with the tragedy of it, with the social ramifications [of the human toll of the drug trade]. And the martyrdom of Camarena fit into, I believe, a preconceived story structure in many of the agents’ heads, because a lot of them had gone to Jesuit high schools or were Hispanic. So they really took off their gloves and turned the whole of the DEA into a homicide bureau with one case. They were going to get everybody and anybody involved in this [huge marijuana-growing operation, and corruption in the Mexican government], and they didn’t care where the chips fell. And when other agencies, or the White House, or the State Department objected, they paid them lip service and they didn’t stop, they just went right ahead. It was quite extraordinary to be with all of these very motivated guys who were very good and very bright and well-read and operations-oriented, who were DEA agents then, and feel their commitment to clean this up. And I say regardless of where the chips fell not just because when the trafficker who Benicio del Toro played, Caro Quintero, when he kidnapped Camarena and they started to torture him, they realized he was probably going to die, they then hired a doctor to keep him alive for 48 hours. And since he was definitely gonna die anyway, it became a kind of open season for many people in the government of Mexico to find out, how much did the DEA know about operations and where their assets were. And that’s because of two things. One is, they believed something that was not true, which is that the DEA were omniscient, that they knew everything. And so you had [Mexican] generals showing up wondering what the DEA knew about their $10 million villa in Marbella [Spain] that they had. That’s the nature of the passion that became part of [the production], all the actors, and an excellent director, Brian Gibson. That imbued everybody on that show. And it won the Emmy for Best Miniseries that year.”
Robbery Homicide Division (2002-2003)
I was looking at a couple of the Robbery Homicide Division episodes again to prepare for this interview, on lousy VHS tapes, ruing the fact that there’s no good DVD version of this, and was struck again by how everything is shot outside, everyone’s always in motion, the way it was shot in these little Los Angeles mini-malls and very tight areas. It continues to be really impressive, that use of high-definition video at that point in TV production.
Mann: “Yeah, that was very early days of Hi-Def. We shot the whole show on what’s really a newsreel camera. I mean, I think for $300 today you could buy a camera that’s better than those cameras were back then. That was the Sony F-900. And some of that, then of course, showed up in [Mann’s 2004 feature] Collateral, the use of Hi-Def. That’s the first time we were experimenting with it; we did the whole thing on Hi-Def. It was exciting. The show was about the spirit of people in the Robbery Homicide Division, who have the power in L.A. to pick up any case that rises to a certain level of importance, either because the crime’s heinous or noteworthy or complex or something, and they’ll automatically take it. So they operate throughout the city. And again, these were interesting guys to be around.”
It was shot very distinctively; there are a lot of high angles from roofs, on top of motels, or low angles, where you’re kind of shooting [star] Tom Sizemore and his crew sort of from the cement up when they’re at a crime scene. And the dialogue is striking, the way Sizemore and the rest of his team, they don’t use any contractions. Everything sounds very flatly stated, for clarity in everything they say. It’s the little things like that that jump out at you.
Mann: “Well, Tom’s a hell of an actor. He’s original and powerful and has tremendous gifts.”
You’re one of the very few major film directors who, if you look at their body of work, moves back and forth between TV and movies throughout your career. And now you have Luck.
Mann: “Well, none of this was planned. Even now, Luck was not my plan. I was thinking about making my next movie and that was hijacked by David Milch’s great script. It happened to be exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do. It was very challenging to see if you could convey character and what’s happening in people’s lives without prelude, without context, just by instant immersion. And then have audience track with about six or seven stories within 50 minutes, going on simultaneously. And you’re not at the beginning of the stories, you’re in the middle. You’re inserted into the middle of each one of these stories, except for Ace [Dustin Hoffman’s character], who’s the only one with a beginning: i.e., he gets out of prison at the start of the series. And the only traditional story construction in all of it is that the degenerates [Mann’s affectionate term for the quartet of inveterate bettors played by Jason Gedrick, Kevin Dunn, Ritchie Coster, and Ian Hart] wager a bet: Will or won’t they win it, and then what they do? That’s the only beginning, middle, and end in [Luck]. And even that’s not made to be the narrative arc of the whole show. That occurs right in the beginning. They do win, and then there’s the problem of, now what are they going to do with the money? And [they agree] let’s not collect it until tomorrow. So that’s got a ‘to be continued’ kind of feel to it. It’s always a challenge to leave context behind.
“Everything we do on Luck is absolutely no different than if we’d had been doing it in a feature film. There’s no short cuts. The specificity of what every single line might mean. Everything Dustin Hoffman does. Kevin Dunn is as authentic in the last scene of the last episode as he is in the first scene of the first episode. He hasn’t said to himself, ‘Oh wow, this works, I’m wonderful.’ There’s none of that vanity. It’s just great, authentic work. And John Ortiz [who plays trainer Turo Escalante], he’s world-class.
“And that’s what’s made Luck so exciting. That, plus the poetry of David’s creation of language and character.”
Are there things you watch on television now that you admire?
Mann: “We just happened to watch the last episode of Homeland last night, and wow. Michael Cuesta directed it, it’s wonderful. What a powerful 90 minutes of drama, period. Better than most things in theaters. And Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin certainly are the equal of anything in terms of actor ability. I also like The Killing a lot. It’s really great work.”
(Luck premieres on Sunday night on HBO.)