Michael Mann is a world-renowned filmmaker who has been making memorable action films for more than four decades. Among his long list of film credits: “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Ali,” “Collateral,” and most recently the Johnny Depp starrer “Public Enemies.” He also has created shows for the small screen including “Miami Vice” and the HBO series “Luck,” which starred Dustin Hoffman.
Best known for examining the American urban experience, Mann has turned his sites on Asian with the new action thriller “Blackhat.” In it, he exposes the dangerous global threat of cyber crime.
At a recent press day, Mann spoke about why he was attracted to this subject matter, casting “Avengers” actor Chris Hemsworth and shooting in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Q: What was the genesis of the film?
Mann: The genesis was twofold: I was interested in doing something in Asia, but the real genesis was when I went to Washington and started to talk to folks there about cyber intrusions and cyber theft, and what was happening in the world. It was kind of an eye-opening experience the way we live our lives is not the way it is anymore. We’re porous and vulnerable to intrusions from everywhere and we just don’t know. It’s kind of like having a house without doors and windows in a dangerous neighborhood, but we don’t know it. It was a hot-button issue in Washington a couple of years ago. We came back to Los Angeles and started talking about it but nobody knew what we were talking about. Then it went to who is the main guy and we wanted to find out everything we could on “blackhat” hackers, what motivates them, what is the result of their experience. We started talking to some guys that gave us an extraordinary sense of it.
Q: Can you talk about casting Chris in the lead as an imprisoned hacker who is enlisted by the government to help track down the cyber terrorist?
Mann: There was a quality of a certain very bright, very direct, very centered person. I was sitting with Chris in Costa Rica. We were talking and talking, and he didn’t know this, but I was thinking to myself, “This is the guy. This is the guy.” It has to do with natively, who Chris is. Chris’ enthusiasm for the kind of immersive immersion into the character that took him to Statesville Prison (in Illinois), and the blast furnaces at U.S. Steel one morning, and his willingness to kind of lose himself in the moment.
Q: How were you able to marry your style of traditional crime drama with modern cyber crime drama?
Mann: First of all, it takes place in our world as it is right now. It’s cutting edge of this moment. Everything, the interconnectedness of all things, that’s the world we live in. It’s never going to go back to the way it used to be. You have a convicted “blackhat” hacker who’s got a conditional release from federal prison to pursue a cyber criminal adversary, a guy who is a high-speed dangerous, world-class ghost. He’s out there somewhere. They don’t know who he is, where he is or why he’s doing what he’s doing. In so doing, Hathaway is let out on this pass and takes control of a future he may or may not have.
Q: You have so many practical locations in this? Can you talk about the importance of using these various locations?
Mann: Film is a visual medium: it’s an interweaving of text, music, visuals, the story, dialogue, people. You want places to feel evocative of what the scene’s about. So if it’s tense, you don’t (the scene) to be in a big room. You want it to be in a room with a low ceiling. You try to convey these things that all of us, as an audience, feel. I found Asia a very exciting place to go. The location makes the scene come alive. If we can make a scene come alive, it becomes alive for all of us. For the actors walking in a room, they look out the window of a Hong Kong safe house, and they see all this life in Kowloon (out the window). It’s really there. It’s not digitally put in. We’re not looking at a green screen where a gaffer has put up a piece of tape, which is supposed to represent the rest of the street. This is the real thing. We’re really there. They’re really seeing it out the window. You walk to work up a narrow staircase. And you get all the smells. That’s really the place. Because we’re all complex organisms; we’re all perceptually way more brilliant than we know we are, we take everything in. The alleys. These great actors take all that in and they really feel like they’re walking down Woo Sung Street in Kowloon to the safe house because they really are doing it. For the end of the film, it became a question of what’s the most alien landscape that these two fugitives, who are very much underdogs being hunted, but nevertheless are hunting with improvised weapons and everything else, what’s the most alien landscape I can imagine. And that became Jakarta at the ceremony.
Q: Western audiences are so used to China being the adversary in Hollywood movies. How important was that the Americans and Chinese are working together in this?
Mann: Our relations with China is a fascinating balance where it’s adversarial with them in some areas—their naval presence, cyber intrusion, and yet we’re very close partners in trade and finance. It’s a balance between these two relationships we have that are maintained. China’s our biggest trading partner and we’re theirs. It’s very interesting. One thing that’s interesting is when the Obama administration asked China for help with North Korea on the recent (Sony) attack, it was something we thought way back when if there was a common interest or something parallel that they would work together. That was the basis for why we have the American-Chinese cooperative group.