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Collateral - I like dimensional characters, and I wanted to see the human being on the inside

Feature by: Jack Foley

HAVING the opportunity to direct Tom Cruise as a villain was something that immediately appealed to Collateral director, Michael Mann, who relished the opportunity of exploring the actor’s darker side.

The thriller which results sees Cruise playing against type, as a cold-blooded contract killer, with grey hair and stubble, who kidnaps a cab driver to ferry him between hits during the course of one violent night on the mean streets of Los Angeles.

Yet, for Mann, there was never any doubt that Cruise could carry it off.

"There are a whole range of parts, emotions and dynamics that I haven’t seen Tom do that I know he could do, so it was a very exciting prospect, for me, to have him play the kind of character he hadn’t played before," he explained, at a recent London press conference for the film.

"My favourite performances of Tom’s are Magnolia, Jerry Maguire, Rain Man, and so there’s so much potential in Tom to play more diverse characters, and it’s always a good prescription, for me… I like to cast against type, and to take people onto different frontiers - meaning something that I haven’t done before, or something that Tom hasn’t done before, because, as actors and creative people, there is a bigger challenge."

Part of that challenge was to create a suitable back story for the character of Vincent, even though it is only revealed via a series of small, yet crucial details, which arrive at opportune moments throughout the film.

"He probably would have been in the Special Forces, would probably have had a very unsuccessful career in the military, because he may have been good, but probably would have been insubordinate to authority, and then popped out of that, maybe six or seven years ago, into the private sector, and be hired by Trafficking Cartels, typically out of the Three Borders area, or Cartagena, to do this kind of a job," explained Mann.

"So we built all those component parts and just went at it, piece by piece."

Another key factor in the character evolution was ensuring that the humanity in Vincent remained intact, even though there would be no tolerating many of his actions - a balancing act which Cruise was more than happy to work on, despite the fact it goes against many Hollywood conventions, or his image.

"I like dimensional characters, and I wanted to see the human being on the inside, without saying that because you’ve glimpsed a human being, that it condones the action," continued Mann.

"The actions are socio-pathic; they’re socially dysfunctional and he’s a psychopath. Yet you still see the human dimension to the man because, in our story, he starts to crack up, and the first glimpse of that is the kind of remorse that he has after he shoots Daniel; he doesn’t hesitate, and he’s right back on the job afterwards, but you glimpse something - a fracture, a moment - and that is how I wanted to come to know the human being he might have been if his life had gone on a different course."

The experience of working with Cruise was so positive for Mann that the two are currently working on a new venture together, which will, once more, see them facing new challenges.

"It’s called The Few and it takes place in The Battle of Britain. There was a very, very small number of Americans, like 17, who flew Spitfires during The Battle of Britain," he revealed.

"But when you work with people, and you have a great time doing it, and it’s a really productive experience, you want to do it again. So, likewise, Jamie Foxx and I are developing something."

Talking of Foxx, Mann went on to reveal that the same sort of meticulous character development was used when tackling the character of Max, the cab driver who unwittingly becomes Vincent’s accomplice and eventual adversary.

In order to prepare for the role, the actor was forced to ignore the characteristics which have helped him to make a name for himself, and to be ‘regular, indecisive, and boring’.

He also had to seem like a natural cab driver, for which he was sent to the Willow Springs Racetrack, in Los Angeles, to learn the dynamics of the car, and to make it appear as if such a career was second nature.

As Mann explains: "When you drive a cab, you learn how to pass people on the right, and do all kinds of rude things that get you there 20 seconds earlier.

"Max has spent 12 hours a day, driving a cab, five days a week, for 12 years, so he would know how a Ford Crown Victoria handles; you don’t try to brake and turn at the same time, you brake first, turn second.

"And these are the basic principles of race-car driving, so we gave him race-car driving instructions in a taxi cab out at Willow Springs Racetrack, and he did great."

It also meant that every sequence in the film could be shot on location, without the need to make the scenes inside the cab look as though they are fake.

"There’s no green screen process to any of this," adds Mann. "We were driving these cabs and there were a number of them; some we towed, some we drove, depending on what the shots were. But they’re real backgrounds outside those windows."

It is a ploy which works to the film’s advantage, making the ride in Collateral seem all the more real, and earning both cast and director glowing reviews, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Indeed, fans of the director, who has also been responsible for films such as Heat, Ali and The Last of the Mohicans, will probably agree that Collateral sits comfortably alongside his best work, making it easily one of the great urban thrillers of recent years.

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