LYRICAL GANGSTER


Empire
July, 2009




Public Enemies isn't just another crime movie. It's not even Heat in the 1930's. According to director Michael Mann, this Johnny Depp-starring John Dillinger biopic is about vivid truth-telling. And it's also, EMPIRE has to add, about some of the most visually astounding gun battles you've ever seen...

By Ian Nathan

More than anything, John Dillinger loved the movies. In a very real sense, they would be the death of him. On the fateful night the notorious bank robber met his demise aged only 31, he was taking in W.S. Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama at The Biograph in downtown Chicago. How he must have smirked to himself at the sight of Clark Gable, a fair fit for Dillinger (and an uncanny likeness for Johnny Depp as Dillinger), repeating the swaggering poses the gangster had struck for newspaper shutterbugs. How too he must have wiped away a tear at the vision of Myrna Loy as a moll so like his true love, Billie Frechette, currently incarcerated as an accessory (and every inch Marion Cotillard as Dillinger's girlfriend). What, it seems, he didn't take on board was the film's cruelly ironic plot-twist: "Gable's Blackie was betrayed by those closest to him," explains Michael Mann, lapping up the symbolism. "Something similar was about to happen to Dillinger..."

Outside The Biograph, the FBI, led by gentleman G-man Melvin Purvis (not far off Gable himself, as you could argue is Christian Bale) awaited their quarry. The tip-off was the orange skirt of Dillinger's turncoat companion, Anna Sage. As he strolled into the warm evening air, they pounced, and a bullet from the pistol of Agent Charles Winstead cracked through the back of his skull and out beneath his right eye, instantly snuffing out the magnesium flare of Dillinger's brief, frenetic life. Depending on your viewpoint, this marked the dramatic end of either a Robin Hood of the Depression era or its Public Enemy No. 1, whose eight-week crime spree had become the bane of FBI supremo J. Edgar Hoover's quest for a new kind of American law enforcement.

"He became this big folk hero, so Hollywood began incorporating aspects of Dillinger's character into their characterisations," enthuses Mann. "Manhattan Melodrama was Dillinger-esque! It's this strange loop: he copies movies, they copied him copying them..."

Here, perhaps, lies the true American Dream: to perpetuate your own myth as ice-cool gangster, folk hero and Hollywood muse; to live fast and die young; and to end up the subject of a Michael Mann biopic, embodied by the sleek, hip, cheek boned features of Johnny Depp. Only in America do outlaws dream of being movie stars who dream of playing outlaws. Dillinger would be first in the queue for Public Enemies.

It's a cloudy Los Angeles morning as Empire arrives at Mann's Santa Monica offices, located in a self-contained business park names Tribeca West. This is a creative neighbourhood: Oliver Stone has his offices here; until recently Peter Berg was next door while he edited Hancock - a Mann production; while less pertinently, Rob Zombie also lurks nearby. Inside Forward Pass Productions, the walls smartly decorated with stills from Ali, Heat and Crime Story (Mann's '60s-set cop-versus-mob TV series), there is a monastic hush. The director is not yet in the house, and Empire is politely ushered into a screening room to see the film.

While not quite the picture halls Dillinger might have attended in the early '30s, the old-time palaces Mann describes as "Versailles for ten cents", there is something strangely intimate about seeing a film in the heart of its creator's domain.

Michael Mann, Hollywood's capo di tutti capi of the crime genre, has long been fascinated by the idea of making a film about Dillinger's exploits. After all, he grew up on Dillinger's stomping ground in Chicago's backstreets and frequented the famous Biograph cinema as a kid because "they ran old movies there". His mother worked at the World's Fair in 1933; she might have brushed coats with the handsome villain.

"It's not personal in the sense you mean - personal to my life," contends the 66 year-old director, a stoic to the last, "but it is my most personal in how close we have got into the character and the psychology of his subculture."

Mann had written a Dillinger script in the '70s, focussing solely on the hunt for the bank robber. It was called Public Enemy. Without quite the clout he now wields, that version came to nothing, but the sly devil hasn't let up needling the director. You could argue Dillinger stalks the moves of James Caan's safe-cracking Frank in Thief, and Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley in Heat: as swaggering as he was in his personal life, Dillinger was meticulous when pulling off heists. He had bank raids down to one minute 40 flat, announced by an elegant vault over the front counter. "There's never been a crew as impeccable as these guys," marvel Mann.

After the exhausting, troubled process of getting Miami Vice to the screen, the director had been leaning towards adapting the work of another great American rapscallion: Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls. But it didn't click. Mann likes films to ferment. Numerous projects simmer away in these quiet offices until they strike him as ready and the place bursts into the frenzy of production. Among them was this planned adaptation of Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies, a factual account of the antiheroes of Depression America: Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Ma Barker and Dillinger. "It's hard to say exactly why you choose a project. You just get the vibe of it," laughs Mann. "It was in the back of my brain for years and I got the vibe of Dillinger." A budget of $80 million from Universal surely helped.

"America has a long tradition of what's called 'social outlaws'," says author Bryan Burrough of the 'Public Enemy' era. "That is, Robin Hood-style outlaws, going back to Jesse James and before. But never before had the US been in such economic straits that so many criminals, especially Dillinger, really connected with the people. The people were angry at banks and large corporations and a guy like Dillinger seemed to be fighting back."

Ring any bells? Public Enemiesmight be set 75 years ago, but it could be the most topical film of the year. During the making of the movie the world economy nosedived, and it suddenly took on sinister relevance. Mann's smile remains noncommittal: "We obviously never planned it that way, but it might communicate on that level. We are going through this economic shift, the rules are changing and it has made people angry. Dillinger represents a similar kind of anger." Johnny Depp in a swish suit sticking it to the fat-cat banks with the aid of a Thompson submachine gun: who can't relate to that?

Before it became a book, HBO had flirted with the idea of turning Burrough's research into a TV series - imagine The Wire rewired to the desolate '30s. De Niro, McCauley himself, hopped on as executive producer. But after years of development it stalled, lost in a muddle of good intentions. HBO couldn't find a structure that worked; a way to contain all the different 'legends', this rouges' gallery of outlaws spread across thousands of miles of dustbowl geography. "I was like, 'Screw this, I'm going to write a book.'" Laughs Burrough.

When the book hit the shelves, Mann saw another shot at a Dillinger story and went after the rights. "He expressed his love for the book through my agent," says Burrough delightedly. "I was like, 'It's not like people are clambering for this; let's get it in the hands of one of the top directors out there...'"

He'd seen Heat, he'd seen The Insider, Ali, Thief, and Manhunter. Burrough, a reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal between books, was no fool. Three years were to pass before he heard anything.

"I wake up and there's an e-mail from my agent," he giggles, the dream scenario in his inbox. "'Mann's got the movie green-lit, he's doing it with Johnny Depp.' You could have picked me up off the floor!"

Unsurprisingly, Johnny Depp has long had his eye on playing Dillinger. The 45 year-old star's grandfather ran moonshine in Kentucky during prohibition, and he grew up to tales of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and especially Dillinger. Outwardly, he's a perfect fit - Depp channels an outlaw spirit into his characters - and came well versed in Dillinger lore. "There was a basic rapport between Depp as a human being and John Dillinger," says Mann admiringly. Not that Depp is any kind of criminal, or condones holding up banks; just that he is in touch with that reckless-yet-controlled energy that danced within Dillinger. "The currents in Johnny run very deep," boasts his director.

Depp portrays Dillinger less with Jack Sparrow's joie de vivre or the Gothic ferocity of Sweeney Todd than a quiet, unquenchable confidence. "Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood," expounded Depp recently. "He knew that the clock was ticking." Both star and director were enthralled by the enigma Dillinger presented - why did he never simply run for the border? "He believed in a form of destiny," says Mann. "History happens to you."

The script, written by Mann and novelist Ronan Bennett, plays as biopic on fast-forward - the eight glorious weeks of robbery, love and infamy ("He's got more newsprint than Obama!") between prison and death finally catching him. He loses friends and mentors, finds love (with luminous coat-check girl Billie Frechette), raids banks and basically pinwheels through life as if nothing could touch him.

"He was a recent prison parolee who wanted to live big," explains Burrough. "He wanted to live the life he had been denied for those years in prison. To his surprise he became a public figure. Then it all went to his head." Or, as Mann puts it, "The severe causality of being in a penitentiary."

Depp may seem the perfect fit - and the studio was certainly not arguing - but the project was initially set up with Leonardo DiCaprio in mind. Mann declines to comment on why DiCaprio left. Burrough, tight to the rumour mill, thinks it was just a matter of timing; "Mann wanted to move forward with the project and DiCaprio was doing a Scorsese (Shutter Island)."

Christian Bale was first choice to play Melvin Purvis, the Southern-born "aristocratic" FBI agent tasked with stopping Dillinger. "He's from a specific cultural niche," says Mann. "At the same time, he could be a killer." Purvis had earned his laurels in the recent killing of Pretty Boy Floyd, and Hoover, bent on media attention, knew a poster boy when he saw one. This guy was driven to work by a chauffeur every day.

"He was known as the Clark Gable of the Bureau," Bale commented on his character. "Although he was on the other side of the law from Dillinger, he was similar in some ways."

It's hard to shake the similarities with Heat: cop and criminal as two sides of the same coin, while beyond shoot-outs they share only one major scene. Mann's having none of that, though, happier to bang the drum on behalf of Bale's professionalism: "He was one of the most dedicated and decent actors I have worked with," he says, answering his own question. Moreover, Public Enemies is as much a triple-header as a two-hander. Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette has a huge impact on Dillinger, and the film is part love story as she desperately tries to apply the brakes to Dillinger's momentum.

"So, what did you think?" enquires the director something over two hours later as Empire slips back into the 21st Century. He looks less nervous than simply curious.

The first thing that will strike you when watching Public Enemies is that it looks nothing like a movie. It looks like life. Shot entirely in digital, that celluloid veil between watcher and subject, a subconscious nudge that this is really a movie world, has been stripped away. Look upon the 1930's as surely they must have looked.

"It's like a different language," delights Mann. "French to German. I had planned to use celluloid, but Dante (Spinotti, cinematographer) and I went out to the parking lot and did these tests, just textures. There was no turning back."

Imagine a new version of Blu-ray - let's call it Michael Mann-Blue Blu-ray - where flock wallpaper becomes a map of the world and tree-bark the surface of the moon. There seems to be colours, sounds, textures, a whole level of focus unavailable to other filmmakers.

Then, Mann has this Kubrick/Malick aura about him, his films vast personal undertakings where compromise is as likely as a Transformer. There is nothing exactly reclusive about him - he proves easygoing and available - but his immersion into his subjects shares their all-consuming intensity. Every answer can trail off into encyclopaedic levels of knowledge and thought. Ask him about the nascent FBI (a major theme), and he'll explain how the Russian NKVD and the Gestapo were prototypes for the sinister J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). He is unashamedly intellectual, talking up the "post-Freudian", "Marxist-Hegelian" and "secular Calvinist" aspects of his script. "He wanted to know this era entirely," thrills Burrough.

Instead of having designers replicate locations from old black-and-whites, Mann went direct to the real thing. The genuine Biograph on Lincoln Avenue, now a tatty theatre, had lost its twinkling marquee, so the director had it refitted exactly. He terms his process as making films "vivid". "If you're alive on April 22nd, 10.17 in the morning in 1933, here's how vivid, detailed and real the world is."

At one point Dillinger forces his way out of jail - he was a hard man to keep penned - and they shot the sequence in Crown Point Jail, having already shot in Crown Point Courtroom. "That jail break didn't make sense, that he could carve a wooden gun and bluff his way out, until you saw the place. The configuration was unique... There's something that the actors and I got from the real places. Places that talked to us."

Echoing the 11-minute street fracas from Heat is a shoot-out filmed on location at the real Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. Here Purvis cornered Dillinger and his gang, and what ensued was carnage. Yet Mann and his soldiers summon up a brutal beauty - a 14-minute fever dream of roaring Tommy guns and flying metal propelled headlong through a moonlit forest, silver smoke from the heated barrels co-mingling with the mist as if in a weird fairy tale, but grounded by Mann's inevitable preoccupation with the dynamics of firing while clinging to the roof of a 1934 Pierce-Arrow Coupe. "It has to do with visualisation," sighs the director, as if this should be obvious to everyone.

Later that day, we're on the Warner Bros backlot - the Eastwood post-production facility, to be exact - where Mann is putting the finishing touches to the sound mix. Despite it being a Universal project, he has hired out the dubbing stage from the studio that made the gangster genre famous - Public Enemy, White Heat, Little Caesar et al: flamboyant throwbacks a million miles from the cool precision of Public Enemies - although he is oblivious of, or maybe uncaring about, the association. "I like working here," he shrugs. Surrounded by winking diodes, computer screens and Byzantine controls, a team of young men hang on his every word. The image of Kirk at the bridge of the Enterprise comes to mind. "Let's go back to Johnny in the cell..." he instructs, tweaking microscopic levels of dialogue to alter mood and emphasis. Filmmaking on a quantum level.

It may have furious gunfights, bank raids, heavyweight stars (arguably the two biggest draws working today), but Public Enemies also has the ambition and sophistication of an awards-season movie. Will it get a fair hearing in a field of robots and Vulcans?

Mann's enigmatic smile returns: "I respect the boldness of putting it out now," he replies. "This is a big film. Do I see it as a summer film? What's a summer film?"

Of course, Mann despises classifying his work: these aren't crime films so much as psychological studies of ambiguous men; they aren't epics or action movies so much as intimate worlds - visualisations. "I don't like seeing things in moral terms," he says, pressed on whether he felt justice was finally meted out to Dillinger. "It's not about deserving something. I'm interested in the psychology."

Mann admits he's enjoyed the discipline of working to the summer deadlines. The shoot, which spanned hundreds of locations across Chicago and the Midwest, through all manner of weather ("We shot through a blizzard in April!" was further hampered by the spectre of an actors' strike. "We had go be finished by June 24 or they were gone," he laughs ruefully. "But it can help. It makes you more disciplined." Memories of Miami Vice's costly overruns obviously still raw.

Does he enjoy what he does? "I'm like anybody else," he says, way off-the-mark. "Faced with something challenging it's exciting. When you feel you've done a fairly decent job with it, that's a good feeling...."

With his iPhone buzzing and assistants silently imploring him from the door, evidently our time is up. "We okay?" he asks, rising, his brain back among the infinitesimal detail of his work. We're okay.