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

Senior Editor
09.18.15 71 Comments
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.”

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