Follow Us on Twitter

Public Enemies - Michael Mann interview

Michael Mann directs Public Enemies

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Mann talks about the enduring fascination of gangsters such as John Dillinger and the appeal of working with Christian Bale on Public Enemies.

He also discusses why he was so keen to use as many of the actual locations of Dillinger’s exploits as possible for the film and why authenticity is something he always strives for even when taking dramatic licence…

Q. What is it about these films dealing in lawmen and lawbreakers that draws you to them?
Michael Mann: I became fascinated with [John] Dillinger because of certain mysteries in his life. He was very bright, and he was great at doing what he did. He was regarded as one of the best bank robbers in American history, whatever that’s worth, but he was very current and very contemporary in his time, he was very sophisticated. He planned his robberies with great precision and forethought. They employed techniques picked up from the military by a man named Herbert K. Lam – where there expression ‘on the lam’ came from. He [Lam] mentored Walter Dietrich, the man who died at the beginning of the movie, who mentored Dillinger. So Dillinger’s time in prison was really a post graduate course in robbing banks, but what really interested me was he doesn’t so much get out of prison when he’s released but he explodes out on the last day and he was determined to have everything right now.

Q. He lived in the moment…
Michael Mann: He lives the dynamics of maybe four or five lifetimes in one and that one life was only 13 months long. And it has an intensity, a white-hot brilliance to it, and an indefatigable brio that I found stunning in view of the fact that he had no concept of future. He could plan bank robberies with great precision, but they didn’t plan next Thursday. There was no sense of, as there was with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Hole in the Wall Gang, of making a quarter of a million dollars and going to Brazil [he means Bolivia] for a year and a half, chill out. There was no end game, there was this very, very intense live for today and whatever happens tomorrow is fated. It’s not determined by decision-making or consciousness, it’s just fated.

Q. What was it about Christian Bale that made you cast him as Purvis, and is it true he kept up his character’s accent throughout?
Michael Mann: That’s how Christian does it – but every actor’s different. Some actors will be completely in character when they show up for work, and other actors – brilliant actors, like Stephen Graham… he picked up that Chicago accent in two days and was just amazing. And the second I said “cut!” he’s back to [laughs]…I could barely understand him, I needed subtitles. Christian, on the other hand, just dives into the deep end of the swimming pool and he’s there the whole time.

Q. Christian’s character, Melvin Purvis, is every bit as fascinating as Dillinger though, isn’t he?
Michael Mann: If you know American culture and the patterns of immigration and ethnicity, Melvin Purvis was really a member of the landed gentry. They were people who settled in the United States in the 1600s, they were from the richest southern counties of England, and they got the best land; Virginia and South Carolina. He emerged as a very rigid young man with very specific treasure traits, a very specific code, notions of chivalry, not saying no and loyalty. Conflict resolution through violence was totally acceptable, it was kind of a duelling ethic. But he breaches those codes when he basically drinks the Kool-Aid, J. Edgar Hoover’s Kool-Aid, and embraces the notions of expediency, which means setting aside Habeas Corpus, persecuting the innocent, using torture and those kinds of things.

So I had to have somebody who really could embrace those original values, and that became Christian. He clearly was the guy for me. He got the accent down, he changed it while we were talking, and he would talk in this genteel southern accent. It made his three-year-old daughter nuts. She’d say: “Daddy, stop talking like that.” And he’d say [mimics accent]: “Well my dear, I have to play Melvin Purvis and I will be doing so for the next few months.” That was it. He was a dream though, he was a dream to work with.

Q. Is there any sense of Dillinger being glamorised?
Michael Mann: The media didn’t glamorise him, contemporary news reports at the time glamorised him. There was something from the Daily News, a reporter interviewed him at Crown Point who wrote this big piece about how genteel he was, how charismatic, how well spoken, that he didn’t conform at all to the stereotype that they had in their minds. The archetype that they had in their minds of the criminal class, who they thought was somebody with dark skin and a low forehead. He was basically a middle class guy who was trying to make you feel you’re his best friend in about two minutes. With Dillinger this was tactical, absolutely tactical. When they got all this great press, which they did all the time, their heads didn’t get large. They planned their robberies in sobriety with great discipline, they had really great operational security, and he was popular for very, very good reason.

Q. How easy was it getting access to all the locations you wanted to film at, and how straightforward was it to make those locations look of that period?
Michael Mann: It was very difficult, because of obvious things, you’d have a building from the 1920s, the turn of the century, and then you have three others that weren’t. When we did the Biograph we had the real Biograph. They took down the authentic marquee about a year before we got there, which was a great tragedy. So, we put that back and then we had to change the ground level of all those buildings, and put facades on all those buildings, and put cobblestones down and trolley tracks through the middle.

But there exists, in the south western corner of Wisconsin, a very unusual area. Wisconsin had a boom economy from about the 1860s after the Civil War all the way to about 1910, based on lumbering. It was fabulously wealthy, leading families in towns like Black Falls, Wisconsin always went to Europe in the summers. It was the Silicone Valley of the 1890s. But when the lumbering was over, the south western corner of Wisconsin doesn’t have rich agricultural land like the rest of the state did, so their economy just dribbled along. Consequently there were these fabulous towns and small cities that were built. They were very well maintained, but they never got their Wal-Marts, their Burger Kings and their McDonalds.

So, the silhouette of these towns was perfect, exactly the way it would have been in the 1930s. They’ve got this beautiful County Courthouse and County Square, and at the end of the main street the forests and the hills begin. So we did a lot of shooting up there, as well as Oshkosh, Wisconsin but the small town, where they escape the Crown Point jail, that whole town was a town called Columbus, Wisconsin, it was gorgeous. So we did a lot of shooting in there, we were able to find that, but we still had to change the ground, there was still a lot of work to do.

Q. How important is fidelity to the truth of the story, and where does artistic licence come into it?
Michael Mann: I hope I don’t have a slavish adherence to actuality. It’s only when it’s magical, or when it means something, that you go there. So, the magic of being able to shoot in the real Little Bohemia in Manitowish, Wisconsin for example, was superb. Johnny got to be in the same bed as John Dillinger was, and to be shocked awake by gunfire and to see the ceiling that Dillinger saw and to look out the window and try and find where this attack is coming from was phenomenal. The same too with Crown Point jail, it had been abandoned in ’74, it was falling in on itself. There’s some stuff on the internet right now, they have some footage of what that looked like when we first went there. We restored it, because you couldn’t invent a place that was like that. He didn’t take six or seven people hostage, he took 17 guards hostage with that wooden gun he had carved. It wouldn’t be credible if you put it in a movie, so we had to tone it down. In the Biograph, for him [Johnny] to die on the same square foot of real estate that the real Dillinger did… Ultimately, I’m most interested in behaviour, and how you think and how you feel if you’re an actor. So it’s those things that provoke that belief, the suspension of disbelief in a moment for an actor – that’s what I’m really interested in.

Q. Do you think audiences have become smarter, too, in the sense that they can find out when dramatic licence has been taken?
Michael Mann: I think audiences are perceptually smarter than we even know, and we spot things that are wrong, we feel wrongly about them and sometimes the intellectual conclusion doesn’t even land. So we perceive the patterns and things in the far distance, we kind of recognise truth-telling style in the visual even though we don’t know. Those are the things that are important. Where licence comes in is, for example, that he didn’t go into the detective bureau the day of the Biograph, he went into it three days ahead. Baby Face Nelson didn’t die at Little Bohemia, he died exactly that way with exactly those people and exactly that shootout but it occurred about a month later I believe. I might conflate characters – Makley is really two characters who did the same job, Charles Makley and Russell Clark became Makley. That’s where conflation happens. The key thing for me is authenticity, how they thought, why they thought the way they did. On that we do a lot of work in period psychology – how they’d have thought of themselves, how to come on to a woman. How did Dillinger know how to approach a woman? He went to movies to try to find out.

Read our review of Public Enemies

Read our interview with Johnny Depp