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Michael Mann, meet John Dillinger

The 'Public Enemies' director identifies with the 'outlaw hero.'


Hollywood is full of filmmakers who are uncompromising perfectionists, but only Michael Mann could boast that he not only has a favorite room to screen his films -- the Zanuck theater on the Fox lot -- but also a favorite row in the theater where he thinks you should park your fanny for the optimal viewing experience.

"If you sit in row J at the Zanuck, you'll find yourself in the perfect mean, the center of the bell curve for every theater in America," he told me the other day, camped out in his Santa Monica offices, surrounded by memorabilia from decades of his work, which includes a host of wildly compelling films and TV shows, including "Crime Story," "Heat," "The Insider," "Ali" and "Collateral." "I know some people that want to sit farther back, but that's the worst place to sit," he says. "If you're too far back, the surrounds are too large."

Even though we got together to talk about "Public Enemies," his new film that stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, our conversation ranged far afield, since Mann often sounds more like a Marxist history professor than a filmmaker, waxing just as eloquent about the broad historical forces that shaped Depression-era gangsters like Dillinger as how the notorious criminal managed to bust out of a high-security prison armed with a wooden pistol.

At 66, Mann still has the swagger and stamina of men half his age. Our interview was pushed back a couple of hours because the filmmaker had pulled an all-nighter, staying up until 9 a.m. overseeing digital transfer work on "Public Enemies," which has its first public showing June 23 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. (It opens nationwide July 1.) Even though he was going on scant hours of sleep, Mann looked fresh, as if staying up all night were a tonic.

"Actually it's exhilarating at this stage, when it all comes together," he explains in a voice that still had the echo of his upbringing in Chicago's working-class Humboldt Park neighborhood. "The film feels like it's containable, in your hands, almost like it was when it was just an idea on three paragraphs on a piece of paper."

Mann is part of an elite Hollywood club of veteran directors -- notably Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott and David Fincher -- who are both held in high critical esteem and act as magnets for A-list movie star talent, allowing them a freedom to pursue the kind of dark, difficult material largely out of favor with today's franchise-obsessed movie studios. Mann has never enjoyed a mega-hit -- of his nine features, only one, "Collateral," made more than $72 million domestically. His last film, "Miami Vice," was a box-office dud. But he has earned the right to make a wide range of absorbing films, largely thanks to the presence of such stars as Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jamie Foxx and now Depp in the leading roles.

It's easy to see what attracts such star power. Mann has a great ear for dialogue, a brilliant eye for action and the beguiling charm of a guy who's comfortable hanging out with all sorts of ex-cops and hoods. His technical advisor on "Public Enemies" was a convicted armed robber who once, as Mann explains with a twinkle in his eye, "stole a diamond as big as a grapefruit."

Being in the Michael Mann business isn't for the faint of heart. After butting heads with Mann, any number of studio heads have sworn to never work with him again, exhausted by what they view as his budget-busting intransigence. ("Public Enemies" cost roughly $100 million and came in on time, in part because the production had to be finished before last summer's presumptive SAG strike date.)

But after a few years pass, the stance often softens, since the artistry of the film remains long after memories of the clashes with Mann fade. When Mann made "Ali," he battled with Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal, who was especially infuriated by the director's insistence on retaining a couple of obscenities in the picture, which prevented the film from earning a PG-13 rating that would have helped it reach a far broader audience.

But now all is forgiven. "No matter what I said at the time, I think Michael is one of our most gifted filmmakers -- we're always trying to develop new directing projects for him," says Pascal. "You put all the disagreements behind you because you remember the great work, not the pain of the moment." She laughs. "You forget about the pain of childbirth too. I mean, whatever you go through, you still want another baby. It's like that with Michael too."

'Obsolete' robber

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