Michael Mann Interview: Miami Vice

Los Angeles is so hot right now. Not like Paris Hilton’s twittered catchphrase (although I suppose it is that too) but more in the sense of sweating through your fingernails. The TV weatherman has run out of superlatives to describe the 112 degree inferno blazing outside and has resorted to fanning himself theatrically and hooting at a crimson map of the Californian peninsula, dotted with swollen yellow suns. In an anonymous room in the Four Seasons, I’m in a puddle, even with the air-conditioning on full blast and a shelf full of condensation-dripping water bottles standing by. I’m checking the capillary creep under my armpits and wondering if there’s time to dash upstairs and change my shirt when the door opens and Michael Mann scurries into the room, looking like he just stepped out of the fridge where they keep the talent chilled. He’s around the table in a trice to take my soggy hand in a firm grip and carefully place a discreet Dictaphone down beside mine. In any other circumstances this would be unusual, but Mann’s attention to detail is legendary and this recorded insurance is part of that cautious data-mining. Squat and intense, with swept-back hair matching his silver glasses and a confident grin, he sits himself down and motions his bored-looking assistant into a discreet chair in the furthest corner. All set, he takes a final check on everything around him, rolls his shoulders and cocks his head to one side, exposing a thin, transparent hearing aid that follows the contour of his inner ear, waiting for my first question.

I start off our conversation by casually remarking that the director has come full circle with his new film, Miami Vice. It’s a kind-of remake of the seminal 1980s TV series that Mann originally brought to television screens worldwide as executive producer, the pop-culture defining success of which allowed him to write his own ticket in Hollywood, after his Hannibal Lecter story Manhunter and the Nazi horror of The Keep. He takes the observation with a nod, and shrugs his shoulders. “The time was right to make this one”, he says quickly and finally and we move on. The night before, the combined European press watched this new incarnation (which stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs) in a preposterously comfortable screening-room in West Hollywood. The reaction to the frenetic, astonishingly violent cop drama, even from the hard-bitten chaws of the continental press, was decidedly muted. As Mann himself was sitting three seats down from me throughout the screening, I wondered what his reaction to our reaction was. “Ah, the foreign press. I’ve learned with you guys that you just cannot judge by the room. We had the American press in the same theatre, watching the same movie, and they were applauding and laughing and cheering. They were much more expressive. Personally I love this movie, so the short answer is, I don’t know yet exactly what the foreign journalists think, but it is the movie I wanted to make and that’s that”. I tell him I’m only going on the silence as the credits rolled, and the hurried exit of most of the audience. He fixes me in a look and asks me what I thought of it. Trying to be diplomatic and mindful that we’ve only just sat down, I tell him that with the cars and the guns and the violence, it’s a guy’s movie, typically Mannish in its high-octane delivery and brutal exposition. The director stops me with a raised hand and quotes some focus group statistics. “Well, that’s not the case”, he says in his Midwestern drawl, dredging up the facts from some recess of his encyclopaedic mind. “Women under twenty-five love this movie and what they love most about it is the violence. This goes against everything that the studio marketing department would tell you, but they’ve done their tests and that’s what the figures say”.

Ok, but to get back to the original question, why did he make the movie in the first place? “The idea came up first at a party I was at with Jamie Foxx and he gave me the hard sell on playing a new kind of Tubbs. He had everything worked out, even down to specific shots for the trailer. My initial reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me, why would I want to go back to Miami Vice? Then I looked again at the pilot and some of the early episodes and I got kind of captured afresh by the deep currents and the emotional power of those stories, and I’m talking here about the first two seasons. The way the issues were brought in from the outside world into the lives of Crockett and Tubbs and the way the stories impacted on them. To me, these stories summed up Miami Vice as it originally was. Secondly, Miami has always had a real allure for me, in the same way maybe as Las Vegas had in the 1970s (Mann wrote and directed the Robert Urich starring TV series Vega$ back then), it was really sexy and beautiful and really dangerous and deadly and tragic at the same time. I love those kinds of places, those Twilight Zones, you know. Today, Miami still has all of those elements, even more so, but the physical look of the place, especially at night, has completely changed, even though I don’t have as much of the city on screen as I might have liked”.

It’s not all that has changed. Forget the pastel shades, the flamingos, the flashy jackets with rolled-up sleeves, the pounding Jan Hammer theme tune and the neon graphics. This is a far tougher, more practical Miami Vice, one that takes the business of fighting crime by working undercover very seriously and hasn’t time for goofing around with girls in bikinis. What we forget though, in the time since the show ended in 1989, is how ground-breaking and gritty the original series was, in its depiction of unorthodox police procedure and its commitment to prime-time moderated violence and gunplay. This time, Farrell & Foxx play the charismatic, unorthodox duo, working undercover infiltrating a South American drug trafficking network. The deeper into the business they go, the more the line between reality and fabrication becomes blurred. This is an altogether darker, more grounded take on the work of undercover cops, fighting a better equipped, infinitely richer enemy in Luis Tosar’s cold-eyed drug lord, Arcángel de Jesús Montoya, a typically isolated, ruthless Mann villain. Where he does show his hand, and gives the nod to the film’s origins, is in the shiny machinery; the growling Ferraris, the bouncing speedboats and the swanky private jets that ferry the new model Crockett & Tubbs from palm-sprayed Miami to their far flung investigations around the Caribbean. Most surprising of all though, in Mann’s macho, testosterone-fuelled world, this is his most tender film, featuring synchronous relationships that are given plenty of time to develop, between Farrell and Chinese superstar Gong Li and Foxx and the rising British talent Naomie Harris. These women get both undercover cops into trouble in different ways, adding heart and emotion to the grandly staged, percussively violent set-pieces that mark Mann’s films out from his legion of pretenders. This version of Miami Vice is a far more dangerous proposition than a meekly told re-hash of an old TV show, cravenly baiting retro-nostalgia and crippled by homage. Casting the film posed few problems for the director. “Jamie Foxx was a no-brainer for Tubbs, this is our third movie together. With Colin, it was a question of asking who out there would be Crockett. I saw his work on Minority Report, which was great, and I watched all of his other movies, but there was the prisoner of war movie with Bruce Willis, Hart’s War, that’s the one that got me. Everyone was telling me, ‘oh, Colin’s the real deal’, but he has these couple of moments in that film that really got me and that made up my mind. It’s not about glamour or celebrity; he is a great actor.”

Was there any pressure on him to make more of the film’s small screen origins? “The studio really wanted to make this film, they were pushing me to get it started, but what I wanted to do was going against the conventional industry wisdom, which says that your summer tent-pole movie is a PG-13, disposable popcorn movie. My idea was that you do Miami Vice for real, make it a hard R-rated movie with real violence, real sexuality and using the language of the streets. That took them aback more than a little and there was a series of meetings where I had to make my point. But they knew what I wanted from the outset, and in sitting around the table it’s my job, in part, to convince them that this is the right way to go. We all have to feel that we are making the same movie, and that we want to make that movie. And to their credit, I brought my perspective on Miami Vice to them and they endorsed it completely”. Mann sees the studios willingness to listen to him as part of a sea-change in the way summer films are made and marketed. “There were two R-rated movies last summer, comedies, that both did really well. After that, Hollywood started to believe that maybe everyone is getting tired of the same old bubblegum summer movies. I felt strongly that nobody wanted to see some nostalgic version of Miami Vice, like the other movie versions of TV shows that have been made, with the same elements and cameos from the original cast and all that stuff. Not putting those kinds of movies down, you know, but why would you bother? If you want to see the Miami Vice from 1984, we’ve got a whole rack of really beautiful DVDs you can buy, so you can get your nostalgia trip that way.”

Part of that new realism is updating the technology that goes into both creating and fighting crime. Even something as rudimentary as a mobile phone was the fevered dream of a madman at the time the original series was made, but the new Crockett and Tubbs are equipped with the latest in high-tech crime-fighting gizmos, with the villains likewise equally well equipped. “Well”, says Mann, “it’s not really a balance. The bad guys have bigger budgets and more money, simple as that. That’s why they’re tricked out with the latest in technology”. He gives me a run down on the speculative finances. “Imagine you spend $500 dollars to produce a product that you can then wholesale for $15,000. That’s just a single kilo of cocaine, and tons of this stuff is moved every week. Only two or three percent is intercepted. So the business has unbelievable profitability and a tremendous amount of cash flow, meaning these guys can go out and buy the best. If you’re a drug producer and you want to find out what moves the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) are making on you, you go out and buy the best people on the planet to do your counter-intelligence, your signal intercepts, to be on the DEA phone lines listening on your behalf. Like we show in the movie, if you want a private meeting, and you want to keep it private, you can buy a private army and close down a neighbourhood – jam the phones, block the roads – whatever. The scene as we show it is very real and the technology is a major aspect of that. It’s like the whole world is a globalised ‘Crazy Eddie’s’ and you can buy anything you want within it – drugs, software, weaponry, information. I have to hew to what’s real and that is the reality.”

Mann himself isn’t afraid to spend money on the new cinema technologies that he used in making this movie, although he points out that my assumption - digital cameras make filmmaking more economical - is incorrect. “Not so”, he says, “and that’s a common misunderstanding. Digital on a major movie has little or no effect on the budget. You could use the technology to make cheaper movies, for like $100,000 or whatever, but why would I want to do that? Short answer, I don’t. If I go to Cuba, for example, and I see a location, beautifully crumbling buildings, Art Moderne architecture, astonishing scenery, even down to the old cars they have there and I want to use it in my movie. But I can’t shoot in Cuba, so I go to Uruguay and I build that house or recreate that scene or whatever. Uruguay is far away and it costs a lot of money to go there and do these things. I’m not ever going to be able to do that with $100,000”.

Getting to the point of spending any money at all wasn’t easy. First off, his star Colin Farrell had a much-publicised battle with drink and ‘prescription’ drugs that landed him a stint in rehab, from which he is now fully recovered. So much so that a visiting Finnish journalist’s well-intentioned gift of a bottle of expensive vodka is diplomatically returned by the Dubliner’s minders unopened, something unthinkable a year ago when the party animal was in his pomp. Temptations aside, filming was then delayed by a series of hurricanes (Dennis, Rita and the all-destroying Katrina) with Mann fighting to keep up with his hefty schedule throughout the shoot as Mother Nature battered the south-east coast of the US. These troubles were compounded by other, hotly-denied, rumours of script problems, well-publicised on-set incidents with firearms and gangs and, worst of all for the perfectionist director, a budget that eventually ballooned to a figure somewhere bordering $200 million, a quarter more than was originally envisaged.

He is unwilling to discuss his stars recent difficulties, saying only that he is delighted that Farrell has put his experiences behind him and was a charm to work with. Otherwise, he says, there was a lot of nonsense rumour and there wasn’t much he wasn’t prepared to deal with. “You know this is a big movie and things will happen while you’re making it. If you’re going to go to Miami to shoot and you’re there for June and July and the whole summer and you have to ask ‘what’s the weather going to be like’, you’re going wrong from the start. We knew what was coming in terms of hurricanes, and we had to know exactly what we were doing and prepare for it in advance. From the moment the meteorologists gave us a hurricane warning, we were in a studio approved overage situation (meaning the cost of down-time is factored separate to the shooting budget). Everybody agreed to this beforehand.” Still, it must have been frustrating? “If you’re going to let something like that frustrate you, you’re going to have a lot of trouble in this business. You reach down into yourself and you make sure everything and everyone is safe and secure and you use that time to prepare, maybe for a scene that will shoot a month and a half from now. You get the job done.” With a nod of finality, he shakes my hand again, thanks me for making the trip, picks up his recorder, gives a thumbs-up to his assistant and struts out the door, on to the next thing. What about a sequel, I shout after him. “We’ll have to see what happens”, comes the reply, the gently closing door pushing warm, twice-breathed air across the room as outside Hollywood burns.


Reel Fanatic said...

I'm insanely jealous that you got to interview this very wise man(n) .. I'm still a little skeptical about "Miami Vice," but from the clips I've seen it looks like he's thoroughly worked it to fit his vision, so it should be a kick

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see Miami Vice on big screen.