20 Years Of ‘Heat’: Michael Mann Discusses His LA Crime Classic

Michael Mann was in Toronto this week screening Heat, the nineties crime masterpiece that finally put Al Pacino in the same scenes with Robert De Niro, at a time when Pacino was still Pacino and De Niro was still De Niro (still the guys from Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon, not the guys from Jack and Jill and Last Vegas).

While Heat has existed in my mind as this high-octane, balls-to-the-wall shoot-em-up, it may exist differently in reality than it does in memory, especially watching it start to finish on 35 mm film in a big auditorium. The reality of Heat is that it’s a 170-minute movie with only about four big action pieces. It’s at least as much a meditative character study as it is an action film. The action scenes have a way of drowning out the rest in retrospect because they brought an intensity and realism that I don’t think we’d ever seen up until that point. De Niro and Pacino running through downtown LA shooting assault rifles in the middle of the day is an image that’s hard to forget. Heat‘s gun sound effects are powerful, and probably more important to the realism of the film as a whole than we give them credit for. Heat‘s sound design has a Pixies-esque loud/soft dynamic the entire way through. It mirrors Pacino’s acting.

As Mann explained it, the shootout scene was shot using the natural sound of the gunfire recorded on set. And with no visual effects. Even the beginning sequence, with the armored car, was done for real, weighting the car to make sure it’d flip over.

“Choreography has to tell a story,” Mann told the audience, in his flat-voweled, arrr-heavy Chicago accent. “Otherwise it’s just gratuitous actions.”

Heat‘s Real-Life Inspirations (And Repercussions)

When Charlie Kaufman ridicules his fake brother Donald in Adaptation, for writing a script that “explores the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person,” I have to imagine he was at least partly thinking of Heat, probably the last movie to do this really well.

Mann talked about Pacino’s character representing the idea of the manhunt as an addiction, noting specifically the line to his (third) wife: “All I am is what I’m going after.”

As it happens, both characters were inspired by real guys, De Niro’s Neil McCauley based on a guy named, you guessed it, Neil McCauley. The real McCauley was a career criminal from the Midwest who did seven years in Alcatraz, where he had a “near spotless conduct record” and worked as the prison’s chief electrician before his release in 1962. In 1963, he sat down for coffee with Chuck Adamson, the major crimes detective who was tracking him, and the two had a conversation very similar to the one in the film.

A year later, McCauley and his gang were trying to rob a supermarket, unaware that Adamson had been tracking them the whole time. As McCauley tried to flee on foot, Adamson shot and killed him on someone’s front lawn. Adamson eventually left police work to become a writer, befriending Michael Mann and eventually writing for Mann’s Miami Vice. Mann was taken with the McCauley-Adamson story, especially the idea that two guys could have such a mutual respect, but still be compartmentalized enough that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill each other.

Jon Voight’s “Nate,” McCauley’s fencer/fixer was, according to Mann, based on Edward Bunker, an ex-con and LA underworld figure who wrote memoir called No Beast So Fierce.

The way Mann tells it, McCauley preaches a “catechism of non-attachment,” and violating his own rules is what eventually brings him down. “All the events of the film have to do with the way the characters view life.”

The art-imitating-life-imitating-art infinity circle was completed in 1997, during the infamous, 44-minute “North Hollywood Shootout,” during which Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Mătăsăreanu tried to rob a Bank of America armed with modified assault rifles and heavy body armor, widely thought to have been at least partly inspired by Heat. It’s impossible to see police taking cover behind the wheel wells of cars and bank robbers laying down suppression fire from high-powered rifles through windshields without associating the two. The incident led to a debate about police needing more firepower, and was probably a major catalyst for the militarization of police departments that we’re still dealing with today.

“They made one mistake though, assaulting the police instead of fleeing the police. The whole point is to shoot your way out. You’re supposed to leave because police assets accrue rapidly, the longer you stay. You’re assaulting the police to shoot your way out but the point is to get out. They just stood around.” [Mann, in Deadline]

She got a… GREAT ASS! And you got your… head ALL THE WAY UP IT.

Al Pacino’s acting in Heat is a performance for the ages, and by that I don’t necessarily mean that it’s a good performance, though it is a mesmerizing one, an unforgettable one. It’s probably the high-water mark of Pacino at his most Pacino, a must-watch for anyone perfecting an Al Pacino impression. All the Pacino tics are there. The wide eyes, the excessive hand movements, the way he relates to people in winky, lascivious asides with a curious western drawl, only to knock them out of their chairs with UNPRECIPITATED SCAH-REAMING!

Pacino’s deafening outbursts are present throughout Heat, not just in the GREAT ASS scene, and usually (but not always) when Hanna is leaning on an informant. Part of the reason it works is that, while it’s never said, Hanna is putting on a sort of performance for the criminals, using a sort of shock and awe stagecraft to bully and intimidate them into getting what he wants. Thus Pacino playing it is this double performance, perfect for one of the all-time big acting scene chewers.

Michael Mann calls Pacino’s outbursts “street theater.”

When Torena says my brother’s not here, and Hanna breaks into song and says, ‘don’t waste my motherfu*king time,’ that’s all street theater. That’s all to convince your informant that he cannot predict your behavior, and because you are not predictable, you are dangerous and he’d better come across. It is meant to disrupt and disorient the informant. It’s all to a purpose. So it’s Hanna, acting.

I’ve written about the Great Ass Scene before, something of an obsession of mine, not just for Pacino’s shouting, but for Hank Azaria’s incredible reaction face.

Pacino completely unhinged, Azaria almost falling out of his chair in fear.

As I was watching Heat, I think I figured out Pacino’s Vincent Hanna performance (insomuch as any performance can be “figured out,” of course). He’s Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive – that gruff but self-consciously performative drawl (“I want a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse…”) with more than a little Foghorn Leghorn in it – but addicted to cocaine. This would explain Hanna’s sweatiness, his bug-eyed outbursts, his constant waffling between self-pity and freak confidence. I’m not usually one for “fan theories,” but Heat is even better if you imagine Vincent Hanna doing lines between the scenes we see.

Hey, Remember The 1990s?

Heat is, naturally, full of little emblematic nineties moments and anachronisms. One element I hadn’t remembered was Natalie Portman as Hanna’s stepdaughter. What was it about Natalie Portman that got her typecast as “girl with sh*tty father?” If there’s one element of Heat that it maybe doesn’t need, it’s Natalie Portman’s attempted suicide scene. In fact, we never actually even find out whether she lives or dies. Hanna drives her unconscious to the emergency room, where the trauma nurse says her pulse is faint. Then she’s gurney’d off, never to be seen again. So feel free to use “What happened to Natalie Portman?” as your basis for Heat Fan Theory #2.

For what it’s worth, when asked if he’d do anything differently, Mann cited the scene with Ralph. That’s the scene where Pacino comes home to find a guy named Ralph in his house, who has presumably just banged Pacino’s wife (played by Diane Venora in a black bob with bangs that’s a dead ringer for Uma Thurman’s in Pulp Fiction). “Oh boy,” says Ralph, when he sees the gun on Pacino’s hip.

Hanna makes Ralph sit there while he has it out with his wife. He tells Ralph that he’s free to come over to the house, because it’s Justine’s anyway. “But the TV? That’s mine,” at which point Pacino rips the 13-inch (or thereabouts) TV sitting on the kitchen counter out of the wall and takes it with him to the car, where he’ll drive around with it on the passenger seat for the rest of the day. “It just feels very burlesque to me,” Mann says of the scene.

Personally, I love the Ralph scene. Especially Justine’s line, “I may be stoned on grass and Prozac, but… you’ve been walking through our life dead. And now I have to demean myself with Ralph just to get closure with you.” All with Ralph just sitting right there.

Even if it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, the scene is worth it just for the look on Ralph’s face (played by Xander Berkeley). I think every guy has been Ralph at some point.

Other castmembers you might not remember: Tone Loc, as an informant. Henry Rollins, as sleazy William Fichtner’s bodyguard. Tom Noonan (the voice of “everyone else” in Anomalisa) as the paralyzed computer whiz who masterminds McCauley’s last score. Jeremy Piven as the doctor who patches up Val Kilmer. I think there was a rule that Jeremy Piven had to be in every movie in the nineties. Danny Trejo plays Danny Trejo, and Tom Sizemore has that same uniform and tight Caesar cut that George Clooney rocks in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Man that was a cool haircut. Reminds me of dancing to ska.

Final Thoughts

When I think of Michael Mann, I think of meat-and-potatoes pop action filmmaking. It makes sense that he’s a Chicago guy. In some ways, Mann is the thinking man’s Tony Scott. Heat has its flourishes, its gleeful touches (mostly in the way of Pacino), its period elements and Michael Mann tics (those synth pop love scenes, oh lord), but more than anything, it seems meant to be a story unto itself, shot in such a way that you’re thinking always about what’s happening in the scene, not outside of it. As Mann says, “it’s not derived from other cinema, it’s based on research.”

When an audience member asked if the final scene set at the airport had been in anyway inspired by North By Northwest, Mann’s answer was a simple “no.”

An action movie so spare and un-referencey was as much a rarity in the mid nineties as it is now. That, to me, is the legacy of Heat. A movie that was made by thinking hard about who the characters were and what they should do, shot in as straightforward a manner as possible. Like the downtown shootout, the airport sequence was actually shot near the airport, with planes screaming by overhead, and it ended up using mostly the audio recorded on set. Those sounds stick with you. As Michael Mann said of the sequence, “there’s something to be said for doing it for real.”

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.