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THE BIG PICTURE

'Public Enemies' director Michael Mann knows the score

July 06, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

When I spent an afternoon talking with Michael Mann about "Public Enemies" last month, I asked him, half-jokingly, if he had a technical advisor that helped him with the details of John Dillinger's bank robberies.

Mann is a famously intense stickler for detail. When he shot "Ali," for example, he filmed the scenes of the young champion at home at the boxer's actual house in Miami. In "Public Enemies," which has earned $41 million at the box office since it opened in theaters Wednesday, Mann shot as many scenes as possible in the spots where they occurred, including his portrayal of the legendary shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in southern Wisconsin, which the filmmaker says looks virtually unchanged, the walls still plastered with yellowing Chicago American newspaper headlines from the Dillinger era.

"I couldn't believe it," Mann told me. "It's exactly the way it was back then. We had Johnny Depp in John Dillinger's real bedroom, lying on the same bed, walking past the same toilet, escaping in exactly the same way Dillinger had. It wasn't just out of some slavish commitment to authenticity. It was just that -- you couldn't dream up anything better than that."

Having grown up in Chicago, Mann knows the city's history of criminal behavior backward and forward. But Mann wanted to imagine what it was like inside a bank robber's psyche. As it turned out, Mann knew a guy who knew a guy named Jerry Scalise, who was a member of the Chicago Crew, a loosely affiliated crime syndicate that has been involved in illegal activity in the Second City since the days of Al Capone.

"Jerry is an armed robber -- he once stole the Marlborough Diamond, which was as big as a grapefruit," Mann explains. "He's a real Chicago guy. . . . We met through mutual friends and you won't find a more articulate, well-read guy, especially when it comes to what Dillinger was thinking about when he was pulling all these heists."

So what did Mann learn from him about the criminal mind-set? "I asked him all kinds of questions. What's the high point of setting up a score? How do you go in strong? I'd say to Jerry, 'If you're planning a score, what's the most tense time? The most anxious moment? How do you feel if you're out in the street and see trouble? Or if something goes wrong and you're the lobby man? What does it feel like when you're going inside, knowing the money is there waiting for you?' "

To hear Mann tell it, the adrenaline high is pretty serious. "After you make a big score, you feel like a king. There's no high like it, walking out, feeling all that money, like it's already in your pocket. People who do it successfully never find anything to replace it. I guess that fits their behavior pattern, since they want to score, and then score again, yet they're never self-aware enough to recognize the pathology of it all. But that's what Jerry was able to help me understand, that the whole thing is such a thrill that you just want to have that feeling, right here, right now. You certainly don't ever think about tomorrow."

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patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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