There's a streak of the investigative or journalistic in Mann's work, and it dates to the 1960s. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's subversive mainstream success with "Dr. Strangelove," the son of Chicago grocers studied at the London School of Film and won a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970 for a short film about Paris student riots. Back in the States, he trekked cross-country in 1971 to film "17 Days Down the Line," a documentary about working-class life that was equal parts Studs Terkel and John Cassavetes.. That instinct to investigate is still with Mann — it defines him, in fact, according to actor Bale.
"An extraordinary detective is what Michael is," Bale said. "His methodical nature and desire to turn over every single stone — which may end up having no relevance to the movie and certainly may not end up in the movie — gives him all this subterranean information at his disposal. What you see in the movie is the tip of the iceberg."
Bale said Mann's obsessions make him feel better about his own exhaustive preparations, but not all actors sync up with the filmmaker on the set. Depp and Mann, for instance, barely spoke at some points during the "Public Enemies" filming.
Perhaps no actors embraced the Mann method more than Will Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as boxer Muhammad Ali in "Ali," and Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the rangy frontiersman Hawkeye in "The Last of the Mohicans" (a film that last week hit store shelves in a lavish new Blu-ray package with an expanded director's edition).
Both Smith and Day-Lewis spent close to a year bending their bodies into shape for their intense roles; Smith sparred five days a week at a gym not far from Mann's Olympic Boulevard offices, and Day-Lewis went off into the wilderness, and his stomach grew hard from the diet of berries and nuts. Mann said that that labor paid off on the screen because moviegoers knew the real deal when they saw it, even if that determination was made by the emotional part of their brain.
"As very, very smart animals, we have great perceptions — particularly when some of that stuff is routing through the amygdala and we're intuiting more than we're cognitively labeling, knowing and inferring — and we will see a hand movement, the way somebody picks something up, and we'll sense an ownership," Mann said. "There's attitude, there's a readiness, and we sense it. That's Will in 'Ali' or Daniel in 'Mohicans.' Daniel could walk up behind you, and you wouldn't know he was there because he matched your footsteps and your breathing, and he's stalking you."
The Mann approach has made him a role model for younger directors. Christopher Nolan, the director of "Inception" and "The Dark Knight," says one of the key moments in his own cinematic life was when, as a teenager, he saw a television commercial for Mann's 1986 film, "Manhunter." Nolan had no knowledge of the film, just of the image of a glowering serial killer, played by Brian Cox, peering out from a prison cell with white bars.
"That image was forever burned into my mind," Nolan said, adding that Mann's singular affinity for the use of color, architecture, music and light makes him a stylist of highest order but also one who uses those approaches only in service of story. Later, watching "Heat," Nolan was struck by how the film resisted the ironic shadings and referencing that came into vogue after Quentin Tarantino's " Pulp Fiction." "He reclaimed the stylized approach to filmmaking," Nolan said, "and made it respectable again."
Behind the scenes
Mann, a compact man with a square jaw, is reluctant to revisit his films in detail. Asked about specific visual decisions — the use of an equestrian wall mural to show the slippery hold on reality by Russell Crowe's character in "The Insider," for instance, or the wandering coyote in "Collateral" — he shifts the talk to the actors on the screen. He also records the interview himself and requests permission to review his direct quotations, a bid for some control, since, in this case, he can't have a say in the edit.
Over the course of a two-hour, far-ranging interview at his office, he was at a loss for words only once. The man who expounds on European adventurism of the 18th century, the narco-politics of Latin America or the cultural effect of the video game Halo stammered only when he was asked how he is a different man today than he was a decade ago.
"I think I'm drawn to … I think I've always been drawn towards being impactful — cinematically, emotionally, dramatically impactful," he said after searching the ceiling for some kind of answer. The director doesn't like close-ups, so he changed the point of view back to the world and away from him. "People are less dependent of the kind of setup that we all thought was mandatory. We're freer, because of where audiences are, to insert you, to parachute you right into a fast-moving stream if the story is carefully architected."