Michael Mann is one of my favorite film makers. I have yet to see every film he has made, but every time I see one he has done, I find new things to appreciate. While I am usually hesitant to use terms like “best” or “most favorite” in general, I have a passion for his work that I have a difficult time matching elsewhere.
It’s difficult to know where to start with someone who has such a long body of work and is already so recognized, appreciated, and prolific. Ultimately, I want to try to define a certain synergy that Mann gets in his films that summarizes why I feel the way I do about his work, and why I like it so much. I honestly could spend entire posts on single films of his – analyzing, appreciating, breaking down, studying. You get the idea – I like Michael Mann!
The first Michael Mann movie I ever saw in many ways could be a direct explanation for why I am so hopelessly into film today. When I was 15 years old, my Dad took me to see “The Last Of The Mohicans.” Again, the impact of this film, and my continued appreciation of it is too broad for this post – suffice it to say, I was transfixed. It is something that became sort of a joke with friends of mine, because of the undying obsession. A personal identification and personality fit with the film is no doubt a reality for me on many levels – still, even as I have aged, matured, become a jaded film watcher, and more cynical in general, it’s as if when I go back to this film, I only appreciate the things I love about it all the more.
Michael Mann storytelling contains an incredibly fluid balance of intense, emotional, powerful, sweeping romanticism, coupled with an appropriately dry, organic, minimalistic, non-presumptuous and pragmatic realism. I believe it is this coupling and this actual dichotomy which makes his films as powerful as they are.
From the perspective of direction, there is a distinctive quality to his films that I believe is worth delineating. The way he uses the mix of sound, photography, lighting, acting, and dialogue to weave an intensely romantic and yet realist texture, and somehow enables to do a large degree of this in almost every film of his, explains why I watch his films with bated breath.
For example, the story in Last of the Mohicans is as operatic, over the top, epic, and dramatic as that of any romantic film ever made – yet, what Mann accomplished in the realm of realistically recreating a historical period, has very little since been matched or surpassed. While I have my own musings and reasonings about what “romance means,” and what is true to life and not, some consider the romance in a film like Mohicans silly.
I am of the opinion that real life is most often far more emotional, intense, epic, dramatic, and romantic than any story or film – and equally often far more absurd even in its most realistic moments. I believe this is partially why I love Mohicans so much – it achieves an emotional intensity I rarely see in films, and it does so on a kinetic level that is rarely seen elsewhere.
What matters to me as a creative artist is not so much always the exclusive and individual settings of a story, as much as how far the actors and film makers go to sell the script.
This is what I enjoy about Michael Mann’s films – no matter what the script is, he chases after the emotion and contextual human believability in each piece. He has an inherent simplicity and belief in the emotion and passion inherent in life’s adventures and experiences, and he somehow manages to chase after it full hilt while avoiding the stickiness factor that so easily entraps. I believe it is simply taking the emotional elements of a story very seriously, and keeping them front and central with little pause or attempt to use established cliches to force them into our circumference for acceptance. Life is intensely passionate and emotional, oftentimes even more so than a film. There is a “Just Do It” feeling to his feelings in his films and his approach to romance that I love.
Here’s where I believe he partially is able to do this so effectively – Michael Mann loves atmosphere, and he loves realism, and he loves the mathematical chaos present, relevant, and transient in all reality, and also present in the conflict of all emotion. If one studies Michael Mann lighting, dialogue, work with extras, scene-setting, pacing, and more, he achieves an explosive and engrossing reality that oftentimes is never found in films with far bigger bandwidths and budgets.
Michael-Mann atmosphere also has a general melancholy, restraint, and mellowness that feels more in keeping with reality than many other heavily textured film environments. One of the most difficult things in film making is convincing people they are watching real life and not a film. Oftentimes the things we put the most effort into in our films, including dialogue, lighting, atmosphere, sound, and photography can actually do better than anything else in our film to signal the viewer that they are watching a production, rather than an organic entity. Sometimes our directing simply ends up as a set of organized hooks on a stage that yell “cue” and “cut” to every experienced movie goer. I suppose this is partially where the term “over-directing” comes from.
Sometimes directing must go towards making a scene feeling non-directed. In my estimation, Michael Mann is a genius at this.
One of my favorite quotes with regards to creativity is this:
“A skilled writer mixes in just enough boring, because boring is the dark matter of the reality we emulate.”
Many Michael Mann dialogue scenes have an organic reality and simplicity to them. They have a pacing and a backdrop that don’t feel like the scene began with the first frame we see (audio, cue, Action!), or will necessarily end with the last one we see. Oftentimes conversations are interrupted rhythmically as they are in real life, or are interspersed naturally with the environment they take place in.
Just one classic example of this is the scene in Last of the Mohicans where the party of survivors from the ambushed British column (Hawkeye, Uncas, Chingachgook, Heyward, Alice, and Cora) arrive in Munro’s headquarters room. The conversation within this inner chamber is still followed by the environment of a fort in chaos – and this goes beyond mere sounds and visuals of cannon, war, and fire – aides come and go and often interrupt the conversation of the main characters and protagonists, some interact with those who are maintaining stores and wares in the fort, and a couple times a person on screen responds to a character off screen who is saying nothing of much importance. Overall, we still get the official, gut-wrenching and dramatic thread of the story loud and clear, but we feel we are watching a real event unfolding in real time. Not every piece of dialogue is clear, rhythmical, or paced like a page on a script – again, this reflects real life where we don’t always get what people are saying at first glance. While this may sound like film making 101, if you watch and study Michael Mann’s films, and really pay attention, you will realize he is constantly doing things like this with what seems almost effortless.
The movie HEAT is another brilliant example of this – sometimes the dialogue of the detectives and bank robbers is so nuanced and so full of jargon from their respective fields and perspective and experience on them, again, one feels as if one is watching real events with real characters – one has to really listen to the characters and watch them to discover fully what their words mean. Michael Mann uses atmosphere and sound and restraint to make statements. There are so many moments in Mann’s films – moments that you can see an enormous amount of what is going on between characters, with such minimalistic words and speaking – you often don’t even have to hear what they are saying to know.
The same thing is true with regards to most of Michael Mann’s photography and lighting. He has a beautiful, organic approach that is heavily injected with intensely beautiful composition – if you know movie lighting, you know Michael Mann is fascinated with lighting that is hardly noticeable, almost untraceable, or simply not there at all. His films contain some of the most natural lighting I’ve ever seen – even the scenes that are carefully lit, still tiptoe the borderline between being studio lighting or, mere reflections from light down the hall, or a possible feathered diffusion from an overhead flourescent bank. His lighting is wonderful, but it’s almost not there at all.
His fascination with cutting edge digital technology and natural lighting is a study in and of itself. In Public Enemies, Collateral, and more, he took new steps in using digital technology to use silhouettes in dark buildings and the interruption of a roaring handgun spitting flame on a dark disco floor to not only first time, never seen on screen before effect, but he did it with intense dramatic effect. He harnesses the limitations of reality and finds the mind’s eye drama that is inherent within. The scene at the end of HEAT where Pacino chases De Niro across the airport landing strip and into the alternating lights is another example of using a naturally altering light setting to add tension and beauty to the story.
Not once when watching his films do I find myself guessing where and what angle the strobes are set up and aimed – this is something I do almost without thinking when watching films, but when I’m watching a Michael Mann film, it’s a trick to even imagine how they are lighting a particular scene, if at all.
Last of the Mohicans is also an amazing study in natural photographic frame placement and composition. So many points throughout Last of the Mohicans are framed in such beautiful ways as to look like paintings straight from 18th century America – yet our eyes deceive us once again and we realize we are watching “real” events with “real” characters and they just happened to stand/pause naturally in a certain way in a certain shot that felt like a moment suspended in eternity. Along with this, the staging of the principals often reflects their varied struggles and emotions – the shot of Hawkeye, Cora, and Chingachgook at the end of the film on the cliff is a wonderful example of this. Another phenomenal example is the two opposed parties in the fort, the British superiors, and the colonial militia, as they engage in final confrontation in Munro’s headquarters… if one was to freeze the frame, it looks like a painting from early Revolutionary War political meetings. This all happens without a breath of feeling forced or unnatural – it just organically unfolds in a manner that almost slips past one’s notice.
Oftentimes the intense moments of conflict in his films are so incredibly visceral. The ambush/massacre in the third act of Mohicans has yet to be paralleled in any historical epic I’ve seen – the street gunfight after the bank robbery in HEAT, the same. Intensity is a constant and undeniable character of his film making, and is present in all his work.
The list for examples in each of these things I highlight goes on, and on, and on from his prolific portfolio. As I stated at the beginning of the post, I am barely introducing one to the subject… one I expect to enjoy as long as I am alive.
Michael Mann is the kind of filmmaker and creative artist I aspire to be – epic and intense emotion restrained by lyrical beauty and organic reality, coupled with moments of roaring, visceral ferocity that make time slow down on its own in their frequency.
Composition, as a science of assembly, is something that is very important for all creative activity. In being such an important factor, it can be defined on many different levels. Here, I hope to examine just a bit of the wonderful and timeless techniques of Sergio Leone to inspire us to think outside the box.
You could make the case that many of the problems with film making today are that not enough care is taken when things are being composed. The more variety and nuance you use when assembling the various elements of a film, whether the characters, the music, the photography, or whichever layer, the manner in which you assemble things together determines the final outcome. Everything in a film is composed – it’s all about how you do it.
Leone is one of the masters. It isn’t until you’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands of movies and shows, that you start to see how truly original, and painstakingly passionate, he truly is. Whether or not you think his output is what you would aim for as an artist, he displays a panache and passion for storytelling and feeling in his art that simply bleeds out of his films.
I do not mean for this post to be a review of his entire film career or his technique – it would be hard to cover that in multiple books. I merely want to highlight his skill and encourage people to watch his films with these things in mind.
Leone is famous for his fascination with the human face. If you watch multiple films of his, you will see the panoramic closeup of multiple actor’s faces used many times, and not always to the same effect. It is often suggested that this technique was created for his tense gunfight stand-offs in his Spaghetti Westerns, but if you watch more of his resume, you will see he is interested in this distance from the human eye for more reasons than building tension. I have seen him use the same distance to communicate vast anger, sadness, frustration, fear, apathy, and more. He also did not restrict these shots to only major characters – minor characters who only made momentary appearance in his films also received this shot at times.
His photography was not only obsessed with the vast canyons of the American West, but the vast canyons of the human soul expressed in the infinite variety of the face, and the eyes.
When widening his lens, or shooting at mid range, Leone is equally the master of photographic composition. Each frame of his films is very carefully composed, often with golden means and rules of thirds scattered throughout – I say scattered, because even with his intense ability to compose perfectly, he somehow manages to maintain an organic texture to his photography that doesn’t feel over-directed.
His combination of still life with real life, mid, close, and long range fields, along with a knack for putting something on screen and making one think “what is that?” till it is revealed by gradual or sudden story machinations, all combine to make one of the most visually interesting directors in fillm history.
To watch a Sergio Leone film as a photographer is to experience frame after frame of rapturously glorious photographic composition. In the “making of” documentary for the DVD “Once Upon A Time In The West,” it was mentioned that Leone refused to use a boom mike in assembling his sound. Very often, this mike will limit composition by providing a constant limit to the top of the frame due to distance requirements from the subject. This added freedom is obvious when you watch his films. He goes from close, to wide, to low, to high, with a freedom and joy that feels unusual. Many, many frames in his films could be paused and studied as photographic or painterly art on their own. It’s also interesting to study time as a tool for arriving at such interesting compositions. While some feel his sequences are too long at times, I feel he is studying how interesting moments are fleeting and violent by expanding the amount of gradual drift to arrive at them. If one gives him the benefit of the doubt and follows his sequences, they arrive at the point of violence almost too soon – it can be difficult to discern how we arrived at such violence with such gradual step by step adjustment.
Leone is equally a master of using cinematic sleight of hand to write his characters and add the unexpected, the unpredictable, and the exciting to sequences that have been worn thin.
Although one could say once you’ve seen a Sergio Leone Western gunfight, and the associated tension mounting, you’ve seen them all, when I saw the opening to “Once Upon A Time In The West,” I was really impressed with how he made a very similar encounter feel fresh yet again. This sequence is, in my opinion, one of his best, where the sound of a creaking weather vane, the wind, and a passing train are really all you hear as several gunfighters methodically work their way into position. When the scene exploded into action, the fury of it caused me to rewind the DVD and watch the entire sequence three times in a row, simply because it was such a masterpiece. Not only is it an example of his skill with pacing and photographic composition, the sleight of hand with which the “stranger” appears, and the outcome, at least for someone who has seen hundreds of gunfights, is incredibly creative and exciting.
Another example of his tendency to use sleight of hand and think outside the box – in the film “Duck, You Sucker,” our two protagonists violently blow away almost an entire army of government soldiers. The bloodshed by the two of them using machine guns and explosives is manifold. Since the film is about revolutionaries, Leone was interested in portraying the thoughts and feelings of someone who is partaking in an attempted violent overthrow of a government. Immediately after the aforementioned scene, we see the two protagonists in hideout in a cave, and they seem filled with remorse. One of them slowly states sadness and regret – the viewer is led very clearly down the path of thinking the protagonists are sorry for killing so many soldiers in such a bloodbath. Slowly, slowly, the camera pans down and then around the entire cave in an uncut take that is almost 2 minutes long, and you see he is standing amidst the bodies of his best friends and family members, who were ambushed by a separate group of government soldiers while he was away fighting. The inversion of understanding and emotion is instant for the first time viewer – we suddenly are taught why the revolutionaries don’t look back, and seem ready to rush out and engage the enemy yet again with little thought or consideration, despite the bloody distance they have already come.
Leone is a master of creativity and doing new and interesting things with his films, on all levels. He is virtually solely responsible for the “spaghetti western” film score – and while this type of scoring has a very particular niche in our culture, and is used to evoke a very specific sort of feeling in films of today, I believe the unique quality of his musical scores is evidence of simply more of the same passion and attention to detail.
Leone is a master, and though his films can be long to sit through, and some of them can err slightly on the side of too quirky for their own good, he is a vast source of new thinking, creative application, and excellent storytelling, even within the technological limitations of his day. Like any of the great directors, a creative thinker can learn something almost every time the subject matter is visited. I look forward to learning more from him.
As most people who go to the movies know, there are many times where a trailer for a movie serves as a sort of standard for judging one’s reaction to the final product. Most people who watch movies have probably used the phrase, “it wasn’t as good as the trailer” more than once in their lives. This can be very subjective, of course, since an individual response to a trailer can be as varied as the person who watches it.
There are actually very few films that achieve the feverish pitch of intensity and gradual build that we so often successfully see in well done trailers. As a filmmaker myself, I am well aware of the challenges in doing this. It is not easy. A pitch is always easier than a fully fleshed out concept.
It also must be kept in mind that trailer science, while very similar to film writing and film making, tends to take on its own ground rules, sometimes due to the interference of marketing and studios with how trailers for particular films are compiled, and sometimes merely due to the simple fact that it is much easier to cut a 2-minute exciting film than a 2-hour one.
All that said, I believe there are things that film makers and writers focus on or make important when writing or cutting an exciting trailer that they do not apply when they are building or completing their films, evaluating their primary characters and their motivations, or even editing their final draft of their films. Trailers almost always have excellent pacing, exciting moments, and a gradual build to a crescendo as a general rule – well done trailers cut out the flat or the boring or the stupid and make you believe.
A trailer is to a movie like one date is to actually marrying someone. Everyone knows how to write and behave within a trailer – and everyone knows how to act on a first date – but it is in the long run that we often lose and abandon our focus, and our real weaknesses come out. I am not suggesting that writing or creativity become shallow or glib, or plastic – merely that our dedication to excellence in the bigger and more important parts of life should be as focused as they are in the small moments.
The fact that almost everyone likes to use trailers or first dates as a standard for judgment suggests that this is also an unwritten but assumed law with humanity – “deliver as you promised.”
For me, a very classic recent example is the final trailer for “Terminator: Salvation,” and the final film. Without question, the action scenes in the movie matched the intensity broadcast throughout every frame of the trailer – yet, and most Terminator fans seem to agree with me, the movie itself was a torrid, limp product that did not provide a very strong scaffolding/foundation for the action to take place.
The Terminator franchise is a franchise fraught with difficult things to piece together – there are already three major films in the franchise and a television series with another one coming out in 2015, and this movie happened to be the first official Terminator movie set after Judgment Day. One thing is clear to me when I watch the film – either the script writers, the director, the studio, or whoever else was involved, couldn’t narrow down in just a few sentences what was absolutely most important for an effective entry into the current events in the Terminator universe. All of the reasons why could be reserved for a different post – I mostly want to narrow down a few very essential items I felt were missing that could have been noticed if the writers merely applied some “movie trailer” class thinking as they looked at everything in the film.
When writing for a film, the most important thing you can do for your movie is to evaluate each and every major plot point, each and every item that impacts the viewer, and make absolutely sure that not only you know why these events are happening in your film and to your characters, and that you lend some sense of progression to your viewers – whether or not they are meant to fully grasp it, depending on your approach.
In a trailer, people set aside their long-term expectation for clearly motivated characters and character depth, and with the exciting music and pacing, are often more willing to accept a one-liner as signifying the kind of writing they expect to see when they arrive in the theater.
That is often the problem with modern film making and writing – the motivations and reasonings and personalities of the characters hardly ever go any deeper than the one-liners in the trailers, or someone’s distant memory of some other character in some other film. When we watch trailers, we are willing to suspend disbelief with fewer caveats than when sitting in a two hour film – we are more willing to believe the writing on the packaging, or at least notice it. Without question, the trailer for Terminator Salvation suggests they had some amazing actors, some amazing concepts (that of Salvation as the core concept), and some amazing looking scenery and effects, all in a well-loved, exciting universe – it left very few people doubting whether the film itself would be powerful. It almost suggested that the new Terminator movie not only had effects that surpassed the old ones, but a new seriousness and “believability” factor that had never been seen.
Unfortunately, there were major things written into Terminator Salvation that not only made the most important architectural meeting points of the characters and the places feel weak and hastily written, but the very reason that all the characters did what they were doing, to “save John Connor” didn’t get any mileage within the film. As a Terminator fan, I perfectly understand why this is important – but I also wanted to see more. I wanted to see the actual events and steps John Connor takes that make him absolutely essential to the War against the Machines – which is the most basic plot point in the mix.
Ultimately, this should have been set up with politics and technology and the associated conflicts, but they didn’t do anything more than make him a shallowly written rebel against a horribly trite “nuke ’em all” general, and they did this without showing why it was necessarily important or effective. Yes, they threw in the fact that humans were being harvested at Sky-Net, and “Kyle Reese” was there/ John Connor’s Dad, who of course, went back in time in the first film to father John Connor, so he HAD to be saved, in order to save John Connor’s life – but don’t make everything you tell me about a film merely a minimal summation of what we already know.
Again – this is why the script’s scaffolding was so weak – it is based on circular reasoning that is entirely dependent on things other people have written in other films set in other time periods.
Throughout the Terminator franchise, we have been constantly exposed, almost to the point of silliness, to the importance of John Connor’s life, and protecting him. Unfortunately, the film did almost nothing to make any sort of why behind this absolutely clear, and the framework upon which John Connor was acting, the Resistance, was vague, and thinly written at best. When all we see the Resistance doing within the movie is a few badly-dressed extras sitting around wave radios looking all starry-eyed at John Connor’s voice, unfortunately, it does little to finally show us, now that we have arrived in “the future,” why John Connor is so important. The importance of John Connor was a central plot point that seemed to get little thought or treatment.
Thus, the primary crux of the movie was merely stolen from the other films, and it almost feels like someone said “this is a Terminator movie so we have to save John Connor” without really thinking about connecting each and every thing they showed in the film to “why.” It is certainly possible that this film didn’t HAVE to focus on why Connor is important – the core issue is that the primary events in the movie didn’t hold my interest, because they didn’t establish enough of the most important world in the writing universe: “Why.” I am not one to suggest film making or writing should be overly explanatory or not as sometimes grey and vague as our own world is – I’m merely referring to assembling enough rational elements that people can actually connect with something on screen in a tangible way.
I understand and believe in keeping character motivations simple and not overly complicated – but when you do this to the degree where it actually strips the fat off of why almost all the other elements in your movie are acting the way they are, or even why they are there (like Kyle Reese) you risk a very unfounded and ultimately silly feeling outing into a familiar universe, that, four films in, has already gone a long way towards stretching our daily willingness to “suspend disbelief” for just another two hours.
If only they had sat through the script and the film and written a 2-4 minute summary of each major character and the plot decisions, thought of things rhythmically and sequentially and structurally, and then thought of all the questions and lack of clarity that would come up at each step of the way, and how trite certain characters were, and how much development of motivation was actually lacking in the film – then, perhaps, the movie would have come close to the amazing tension and explosion of energy displayed in its trailers. The plot points I mention are merely very high level – there were plenty of other similar moments and questions in the film. The filmmakers, by following previous films, and setting it in a new time frame, took on a lot in the fourth film, and some of the <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrvMTv_r8sA”>problems on the set</a> suggest that there was more going on than we realize.
I actually encourage film makers to sit down and try to summarize your whole film while listening to music – then use that summary as a somewhat rigid <em>pacing</em> guide as you continue to work your films towards the finish line. It will help you to feel where your characters are headed, where they come from, why they are doing what they are doing, and give you more ideas about nuances and brush strokes to add to the worlds you create, so that when people sit down for your film, they are held breathless as they are swept into it all.
As this Terminator Salvation trailer shows, at least someone knew what makes a great movie – themes of life, death, survival, hope, loss, all presented with a build towards amazing intensity… unfortunately, the film is really hardly more than a confusing puzzle that seems like it couldn’t figure out where/how/why to assemble these elements in an order and manner that would make it truly powerful. I give the movie kudos for recognizing these things – something simply went wrong in the process from A to Z.