Michael Mann has a modus operandi as distinctive as any master criminal's. He's a hard-boiled sensualist: half muckraker and half fabulist. If he had been born 100 years ago, he'd have followed Jack London's path, not just into bare-knuckled journalism but also into transcendent evocations of the beautiful and the wild.
Talking to Mann is as surprising as it is stimulating. His unfettered intuition and exquisite awareness compel your rapt attention. It's as if you're tuning your radio dial to a brainy, original talk show host on a faint college-town station -- you strain not to miss his special code words and hard-won observations. You feel Mann gets extraordinary commitments from actors like James Caan in "Thief" (1981) or Tom Noonan and Brian Cox in "Manhunter" (1986) or Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992) because he catches them up in his enthrallment with his material.
When I listen to tapes of the marathon interview sessions I held with him five years apart, one before the release of "Thief" and the other before the release of "Manhunter," they sound as if they're halves of an ongoing conversation, whether he's discussing his past or the projects then at hand. He grew up near "the Patch," one of the roughest areas of Chicago. ("It was very aggressive, it was very masculine and it was very heterosexual.") He still has a flat-A accent. "In my neighborhood," he once told me, "anyone who carried around a camera would be considered a 'fairy.'" By his count, only 13 of his high school graduating class of 365 went on to college, Mann included. It was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he majored in English, that movies first got their hooks into him. The film that clinched the obsession was (appropriately enough) G.W. Pabst's coruscating study of urban vice, "The Joyless Street" (1925). By the time he graduated from college, Mann knew he wanted to make movies. But he didn't like the curricula of most American film schools: "It was like vocational training. You're not supposed to do 'student' films; you're supposed to do a show reel." So, in 1965, Mann entered the London Film School, where he got an M.A. in film and did what he thought he should do -- "make two-and-a-half minute, fully symbolic statements on the nature of reality that'll shame you 10 years later." Mann stayed on in London for about six years, filming documentaries and TV commercials and working as an assistant production supervisor for Twentieth Century Fox. Having been part of the Madison campus' radical days, he began to feel the contradictions of his position: "I would make money on commercials and try to put it to use on my own projects. Some material I filmed on the Paris student riots wound up on NBC's "First Tuesday" because NBC's own people couldn't get close to the radical leaders. You never resolve these contradictions."
Read the full interview