By Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
I spent a few days in the summer of 2008 on the set of Michael Mann's Public Enemies, which was shooting at the time in Chicago. It was a night shoot—the death of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) in front of the Biograph Theater. These observations and ruminations, which will be posted in three parts, were written at the time. Portions of these notes have since been used in other pieces, including a few posted here at The Auteurs' Notebook.
I've seen John Dillinger shot many times. Once, it was Warren Oates who got gunned down. I've seen it happen to Lawrence Tierney, too, and then there was a soft-focus re-enactment in a television documentary, an anonymous actor in front of an anonymous movie theater. But how many times have I seen Johnny Depp get shot now? Each time, it's more or less the same (but of course, every take is subtly distinct, which is why we have multiple takes). The artificial streetcorner with the alley. He walks along the sidewalk, dressed in a summer shirt and straw hat. The streetlight falls on his back, a crease in the shirt formed a shadowy valley. I imagine it as an image—the shirt as a landscape—and I think: "I want to wear my shirts that way, a little untucked." Depp doesn’t look like Dillinger, but it doesn’t matter. That rakish face looks like how Dillinger should feel. Dashing, like a vagabond—the way we want Our Dillinger (there’s that Chicago logic, that funny way we cling to our monsters: they might not be good people, but they’re our people). A man comes up from behind and clicks the prop gun. Again and again. Depp falls forward, and the camera, handheld, follows the movement of his body, plunging as he crumbles.
The film is being photographed in HD, but this shot, in slow motion, is being filmed on an unblimped 35mm camera. It's got a furious, high-pitched clicking. On the video assist monitor, we can see the angle: the cameramana following Depp from behind. While they repeat and repeat and repeat the shot, technicians light the next scene, which will be in front of the Biograph Theater itself. The marquee has been redecorated so that it looks like it did when Dillinger was shot there. They're working diligently, separated from the current set-up by a throng of extras who stand silently, arms folded, watching Depp die, hopeful to glean some bit of "genius" to further their acting careers. A large camera sits on a dolly, covered by a transparent plastic sheet like a couch in a furniture showroom.
And of course, I’m thinking: "In life as in the dictionary, ideas come before images." Here I know the image, but I don’t know the idea. It becomes the great game of film-viewing, watching through the video assist a rough estimate of an image that hasn’t been made yet. An image that might not even make it into the movie. The thing about cinephiles is that, when you take us out of the cinema, we get hungry. We latch on to everything that might resemble a movie. The onlookers have their Depp, I have my little screen.
Some directors sit in a folding chair in headphones, watching the video assist. Some talk through their assistants. Michael Mann directs standing up. During every take, his attention darts from the monitor (there is only one and only one camera; two more monitors are set up with the little tent to shelter them from rain, but they're blank) to the action going on twenty feet in front on him and back. A director is responsible both for something real and something filmed. A director is two people at once—a director, supervising some real event, and a filmmaker, shaping some future image.
Mann paces. After every few takes (and of this shot, there'll be dozens) he darts over to the actors. He takes Depp aside, standing close to him, talking over actions and movements which the actor occasionally mimes out. On this hushed street, you can hear just about anyone’s voice, but not Mann's. He talks quietly. Or, maybe, he talks just as loudly as he needs to.
Over the years, Mann's approach has changed. At the beginning of his career, he seemed like a contemporary of Jean-Jacques Beineix. He was the Beineix who wasn't a misanthrope. Now he's the only obvious contemporary to Claire Denis and Johnnie To. His career is the story of a director who began with "the look" and discovered the image. From the "cinematic" to cinema. The Mann of Thief through Manhunter, like Beineix, seemed to care about the appearance of the image more than the image itself. They're good movies, but making good movies isn't enough. It was about staging things for the camera more than capturing an image. Closer to a photogram than a photograph. I remember a scene from The Keep like I do a scene from Beineix' The Moon in the Gutter: I remember the color, the lighting, but not whether the images were close-ups or wide shots, whether the camera moved, whether it was one shot or several. Even The Last of Mohicans seems to have been made by someone thinking: "What if we made a movie that looked this way?"
He's always worked on location. Back then, he'd start with something at least partly real and make it feel completely artificial, completely plastic. I recognize Lake Michigan in Thief, but only the way you recognize a triangle or a square. What I see first is a color and a line. Images that sort of scuttle themselves, marooning the viewer. (It's possible to also think of a roster of ferrymen, directors who use the film to row the audience out to a certain place and then bring them back in time for the end credits: Shirley Clarke, Eric Rohmer, Yueh Feng, Charles Burnett, David Mackenzie, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aleksandr Sokurov. These directors should not be confused with kidnappers like Santiago Alvarez or gallery guides like Peter Greenaway.) But something happened around Heat. Aesthetics gave way to ethics, imagery to images.
The first shot of Thief and that final tableau from Heat are obviously directed by the same man—or at least by the same tastes—but the ideas aren't the same. It's the difference between letting your tastes find something and having a feeling inside you that you use your tastes to express. The first shot of Thief and the last shot of Heat: rumbling electronic music, night time, lights forming a V shape that disappears on the horizon. In Thief, it's a man getting into a car and driving away. In Heat, it's two men perfectly still. Funny how it's only in a moving image that we can really capture stillness. In neither image are the figures "acting" in the traditional sense. James Caan just gets into a car. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino pose; they look like statues (but then I think: "Statues also die."). Similar images, but not the same. Like that conversation De Niro and Pacino have in their only other scene together in the film, the final shot of Heat is Utopian. Two people expressing themselves completely and shamelessly. I think it's that ideal that Mann has aspired to since: to let go of preferences, of standards in framing, editing, composition and to express whatever he might be thinking or feeling through the image. Instead of simply telling their stories, he will become one with the characters he admires.
Watching the death scene in Public Enemies, repeated over and over, I realize that there are really two key performers here: Depp and the cameraman. Two well-rehearsed actors. Since Collateral, Mann has been treating the camera more and more like something that can perform. No one else has shots so actorly, expressing in grand gestures but also small nuances. I think of the way the camera pulls back as Jamie Foxx scrambles out of his taxi, and how Foxx's terror is nothing without the camera's movement.