Michael Mann’s project with HBO

You can take the boy out of Chicago but you cannot take Chicago out of the boy; 40 years since he left the Windy City, Michael Mann still speaks with the hard-edged accent of his youth.

The director of films that include Heat and The Insider has lived in Los Angeles for most of that time. The windows of his airy office face the sun-kissed Santa Monica mountains, and the complex he works in is home to other notable directors – including Oliver Stone, whose production offices are in the building. Despite the Hollywood trappings, though, Mann has not forgotten his roots. Much of his work in a career spanning more than 30 years has been shaped by his experiences as a boy in the urban Midwest.

Chicago in the 1950s still bore the scars of the Depression, he tells me when I am shown into his office. The city was in thrall to the Mafia and gangsters such as Tony Accardo and Sam Giancana were powerful national figures. “There wasn’t anyone who didn’t know their names,” he says, leaning back in his chair, clad in black shirt and trousers, hair snowy white and cropped short.

The relationship between criminals and the police who tried to thwart them fascinated him then and has, over the years, been a recurring theme in many of his films, such as last year’s Public Enemies. Yet while Mann is known for his crime films, he is not defined by them. His latest project, Luck, is a 10-hour series for the cable channel HBO, set in the murky world of Los Angeles horseracing and due to air in late 2011 or early 2012.

Over the years, Mann has, jumped from film to television and back again. He produced the epoch-defining TV series Miami Vice, for example, but says the medium is less important than the quality of the writing. Luck was written by David Milch, the creator of HBO’s Deadwood. “It’s one of the best pieces of writing anyone has ever passed to me,” says Mann matter of factly, when I ask what drew him to the project. It has a motley crew of characters, including a quartet of degenerate gamblers who could have walked straight off the pages of a Charles Bukowski novel.

Luck is the latest example of talent from the big screen crossing over to TV and boasts a cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, playing a seasoned gambler, Nick Nolte and Dennis Farina, a former cop Mann first worked with 22 years ago on his TV series Crime Story.

HBO, Mann says, “isn’t really like any place else. It’s not really analogous to television, which is why they’ve attracted the people they’ve attracted in the last couple of years to do this work. It’s why Marty [Scorsese] would do Boardwalk Empire, why Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have worked there [producing The Pacific]. You have a total free hand.”

Mann has directed the pilot episode of Luck; other directors will take over for the run of the series. It’s a similar arrangement to that of Boardwalk Empire, which led off with an episode directed by Scorsese, who remains as executive producer.

Mann wants to show me part of the pilot episode of Luck so we walk down a hall to an editing room, passing paintings of Muhammad Ali by children in Mozambique that he used in his 2001 biopic of the boxer, which starred Will Smith, and a large picture of Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, gripping a machine gun and looking menacing, from 2009’s Public Enemies. We open a door to say hello to his daughter, Ami, who is editing her film The Fields, which stars Avatar’s Sam Worthington, and enter another editing suite.

In the pilot episode of Luck, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ace Bernstein, is freshly released from prison and revered by his friends who greet him on his return to the outside world. But he is stiff, rigid and so tightly wound he looks ready to explode. On the other hand, Nolte’s character Walter Smith is alone, sad and fixated on a racehorse that looks like it has champion potential. “Nolte exudes a sense of isolation, shame, some scandal in his past without you knowing anything about it,” says Mann afterwards.

Mann’s ability to crank up the tension is evident even in the few minutes of the Luck episode that I see. The viewer is thrown into the middle of a horserace at the Santa Anita track, horses panting, hooves pounding the dirt. Tension has always been one of this director’s strong suits, whether it is the inner turmoil that grips Russell Crowe’s tobacco whistleblower in Mann’s The Insider, or the FBI’s relentless pursuit of Dillinger in Public Enemies.

But there is arguably no scene that better illustrates his deft touch than several heart-pounding minutes from his 1995 heist movie Heat. The film made headlines because it was the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino had shared a scene together, part of a delicately drawn-out game of cat and mouse between Pacino’s cop and De Niro’s bank-robber. The more gut-wrenching scene happens a few minutes later when a meticulously planned bank job in downtown Los Angeles goes horribly wrong.

There is no background music, just the deafening sound of machine gun fire, cars being ripped to shreds and glass shattering as De Niro’s gang tries to shoot its way out. Every character in the film has been propelled towards the sequence, Mann explains. “It is a hand grenade that’s going to go off in the life stories of all of these people.”

Heat has become a classic of the genre and Mann recounts how the movie was assembled. Often a studio will acquire a script and cast around for a star or a director but with Heat it was the director who packaged the project. “My model is usually to make my own development. When I did Heat I wrote the screenplay and I bought Art Linson, my producing partner, into it. Then I got Al [Pacino], I got Bob [De Niro]. At that moment, with a project that was ready, I decided that Warner Brothers was the place to go.” The studio had a long tradition of gangster films. “I was able to go in and say, ‘We would love to have you do this.’”

It doesn’t always work like that, though, and only rarely is a brilliant script placed in his hands. “It’s taken me time in the past to find that thing I want to do.” This has been frustrating at times, because while he has an impressive body of work he says he would have liked to have made more films. “The only one that worked out fast was Collateral [starring Tom Cruise], which I loved doing, and was exactly what I wanted to do after Ali. The gestation of something like Heat takes a long time.”

Luck was like Collateral in that it was the right project that landed at the right time. But while Mann fine-tunes the first episode he has other films in development. He has bought the rights to the story of Robert Capa, the war photographer who, together with Henri Cartier-Bresson, founded Magnum Photos. Jez Butterworth, the author of plays including Jerusalem and Mojo, has been enlisted to write the script. “It’s about a tumultuous love affair Capa has with Gerda Taro,” Mann explains. Born Endre Friedmann, Capa was a Hungarian who came to Paris. “He and Gerda invented a different persona, that he was a romantic American photojournalist. They meet in Paris as refugees – despised and alone in a period of European history which is a cascade of conflicts.”

Mann also has his eye on an epic tale set in medieval Europe, about the build-up to the 15th-century battle of Agincourt between England and France. The inspiration for the film came in Paris when Mann went to visit La Sainte-Chapelle, a gothic chapel, on the advice of his friend Richard Rogers, the architect.

“We went to see it and it blew me away. From that, it becomes: ‘Can I locate myself, an audience, in a medieval perspective?’”

He is also developing a mafia tale that will return him to his Chicago roots. Big Tuna is the story of Tony Accardo and the younger man who succeeded him, Sam Giancana. “Here’s an older man who was the undisputed boss at a time when the Chicago outfit was the most powerful crime element in America. It becomes a classic tragedy of megalomania and hubris,” Mann says.

It is an eclectic mix of projects and he also has Luck to keep him busy. The production will keep him in Los Angeles, the backdrop for so much of his work. “I love Los Angeles,” he says when I ask him about his relationship with the city. “Eighty per cent of it is unexplored. People who make films [here] don’t go out into the city ... they think they do but they don’t.

“You just drive down the right streets and you’ll see images of alienation. But they are beautiful images of alienation. They become paradoxical but they present themselves to you.”

Dustin Hoffman on TV: ‘I had to rethink the way I’ve been working for the last 40 years’

In a career that has brought two Oscars and global critical acclaim for his performances in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Tootsie and The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman has never given much thought to appearing in a television series. After all, why would he? Television has, for most of the past 40 years, been cinema’s poor relation.

But in recent years the pendulum has swung towards television, Hoffman told me, as we discussed his involvement in Luck, the new series from Michael Mann and David Milch that is likely to air at the end of next year on HBO.

More writers and directors are flocking to television in search of greater independence and creative freedom – freedom that they are often denied when making big films for Hollywood studios.

“The word ‘drama’ is anathema to the studios,” Hoffman says. “When I started acting ... if the studio got its money back, they were satisfied.” That changed when budgets began to spiral, fuelled in part by higher marketing and advertising costs. “Once movie budgets went into lunacy, the studios had to hit home-runs [with each film] because they double the cost [of the movie] with advertising.”

This has made the studios less willing to take risks, he adds: “Suddenly, the writers are going to television because they have power there – and not only creative power. They can write scripts that the studios won’t go near any more ... some of the most exciting writing now is being done for television.”

Luck is Hoffman’s first foray into television drama. He plays the central character, Ace Bernstein, a seasoned gambler fresh out of prison. He explains that the role necessitated a change in the way he approaches character development.

“I had to rethink the way I’ve been working for the last 40 years. A play is a play, a film is a film – that’s all I have done. But the preparation is different [in television].

“When you’re doing a play or a film, you have to declare who you are as a character. If it’s a play, you can grow from performance to performance. You grow into the part, even though the lines are the same.

“In film, you can’t do that. But with television, you can continue to develop and alter the character. Nothing is set in stone ... where you would not make a left turn with a film character, suddenly you can make a right turn.”

The Bernstein character will change and grow with the writing as the story progresses week to week and as new obstacles and challenges are placed in his way. Michael Mann wanted Hoffman for the role because he thought it would test a side of the actor he hadn’t seen before. “When I had the first meeting with Michael Mann and David Milch, Mann said, ‘I looked at your work and you tend to be a counter-puncher.’” Hoffman’s characters, the director told the actor, “tend to react to something that’s taken place”.

But Mann envisaged a different character in Ace Bernstein. “He told me, ‘Here, you instigate things ... you are the aggressor.’ And I thought that was interesting.”

Risks can be taken and characters explored in Luck because the series is on HBO, the home to such quality drama as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. “HBO welcomes creative people and you don’t have to have a committee making decisions, as you do at other television networks, or worry about satisfying all the viewers,” says Hoffman. “It means you can be organic with the story that you’re telling: they’re happy with that.”

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