'Heat' at 20: Michael Mann on Making a Crime-Drama Classic

From the film's real-life inspiration to that famous De Niro-Pacino scene, the story behind one of the greatest cop-vs-crook movies ever

Robert De Niro, left, and Val Kilmer in 'Heat.' Michael Man's classic 1995 crime thriller celebrates its 20th anniversary today. Credit: Photofest

Michael Mann has been a driving creative force behind plenty of groundbreaking cops-and-robbers tales over the past 40 years, from TV’s "MTV cops" show Miami Vice to this year's bleeding-edge cybercrime thriller Blackhat. And while the 72-year-old writer/producer/director has done his share of tense true-story recreations and tough-guy classics, it's a certain steely crime drama starring two Seventies-cinema icons for which he might be best known.

Released 20 years ago today, Heat originated from the story of an obsessive detective's quest to take down a disciplined career criminal in the early 1980s, based on a real-life encounter that Mann's friend, Chicago detective Charlie Adamson, had with an ex-Alcatraz inmate he was trailing (and eventually killed). The filmmaker started writing a script about these two men on the opposite sides of the law in the early 1980s, but claims that something was not working with the structure, and eventually put it aside. "When something's not ready, it's like not ready," he says.

After one false start as the 1989 television pilot-turned-movie L.A. Takedown, Mann eventually realized that he had the ending of the movie all wrong. Once he figured out how to solve his last-act problem, he says it took "probably three weeks for me to get the screenplay in shape." A green-light from Warner Bros. quickly followed, and the end result turned into one of the most elegant heist films ever crafted, in addition to giving stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino the single greatest alpha-male exchange in a diner ever. On the occasion of Heat's anniversary, Rolling Stone asked the director to take us back to the scene of the crime and share the experience of pairing two great screen-acting powerhouses.

Heat began really with a friend of mine named Charlie Adamson, who killed the real Neil McCauley in Chicago in 1963; he'd been telling me about how interesting this guy was. Charlie had great admiration for Neil as a thief, because he was very professional, very disciplined, and very, very smart. It's kind of like a rock climber having admiration for a very difficult rock face he's going to scale: The challenge of the course is what you admire.

Charlie was dropping off his dry-cleaning at a little shopping center in Chicago on Lincoln Avenue, and he saw McCauley, who he had already been surveilling, getting out of his car to go in for a cup of coffee. Neil knew he was being watched — and he knew who had been watching him. The two of them see each other; a gun fight might have broken out in the parking lot right then and there. But Adamson says, "Come on, I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

They went in, sat down and had coffee at the Belden Deli, which is no longer there. They had kind of a version of that same dialogue scene that I wrote and put in the movie, but it was very personal — the kind of intimacy you can only have with strangers who think in ways that are not dissimilar to the way you think. They definitely discovered a rapport for each other, and Charlie declared that, "We're sitting here like a couple of regular fellows, but if you come at me or if I come at you, I will not hesitate." And McCauley said the exact same thing.

By the way, this elite major crime unit that Charlie was in — one of the sergeants in that crew was Dennis Farina. I recruited him to be in Thief (1981), and because of that he decided he wanted a career as an actor because, as he said, he'd be known as "Dennis, the Dream to Work With." That's why people would hire him, he thought. Which was probably true … .

This was probably about 1979 or 1980 when I heard the story, and then I wrote a spec version of the screenplay. But there were things wrong with it. The ambition was to have multiple characters that are complete dimensional human beings and are not defined by being merely a protagonist or an antagonist. They don't self-identify as "I'm a villain." Everybody is somebody else's mother ... somebody else's brother, father, son.

Everybody has dimensionality to them. So whether it's Breedan, the driver [played by Dennis Haysbert], or Chris Shiherlis [played by Val Kilmer] and his marital problems, or Vincent Hanna's  step-daughter, who's depressed because her father's neglecting her — every person has a life. And yet all those life tracks in a kind of way are converging into the events that are driving the plot. So it's a complex structure and it had to be, structurally, really coherent — and it wasn't through the 1980s. So I took a small piece of it and lifted it out, thinking, "Perhaps this is a television series." So that's when I did L.A. Takedown.

[The decision to turn it into a series was] probably as an evasion, because I couldn't figure out the overall structural issues. There were actually a couple more characters that were floating around in earlier drafts of this, and I thought: "Well, it's so wide-ranging ... it's potentially a saga. Maybe it's a television series." So I talked to [NBC Programming Head] Brandon Tartikoff and I did it as a two-hour movie pilot, but he and I disagreed about who should be the lead of the show. I said, "No, I don't want to make it as a series." But I still owned the material.

Then I figured it out: I had to take the emotional quotient to that exact moment when McCauley is dying, and he's fortunate enough to die with somebody he's that close to, the only person on the planet that has the same kind of mindset he has. But at the same time, he's also the person who shot him, and that duality is not a contradiction — they're both true. Once I had that moment, I could reverse-engineer everything else. As soon as I hit on that, then it all kind of fell into shape.

It was right after I did The Last of the Mohicans (1992), and then I went to work on what would become Heat. When I had finished the rewrite, I was talking about it with a friend of mine, Art Linson, who is a great producer. We were having breakfast and I said, "Listen, read this and if you'd like we can co-produce it, and we'll find somebody to direct it." Because at that point, after coming off of Mohicans, I didn't necessarily want to do a crime story. He read it and came back to me the next day and said, "You're out of your fucking mind. You've got to direct this." I, with a clear head, said, "You're absolutely 100 percent right. Who should be in it? Let's go after Bob and Al."

McCauley has all these layers and dimensions below the surface, as well as an internal monologue going on inside his head about, "This is how you're supposed to be," and that was clearly De Niro. Then Hanna is more explosive and volatile; his volatility is street theater, it's how to intimidate an informant and keep them completely off their guard, because they have no idea what you're going to do next. So it's all tactical — and that was clearly Al.

We went to both of them, they said yes, and we walked into Warner Bros. with the screenplay. I never went to any other studio and it had never been developed in any way, so I had total control over it. I basically asked, "Do guys want to do this?" The answer was "Yes." [Executive producer] Arnon Milchan was gracious enough to finance the movie, Warner's distributed it, and that was it.

In terms of making the film, and certainly for myself as the director, Bob and Al aren't walking around conscious of their star status at all. They're just dedicated actors confronting a difficult piece of material that's really engaging, and so the casting perspective that I had was, "I'm casting an ensemble." In Bob and Al's minds, for example, Jon Voight has absolutely as much stature as either of them, and everybody felt probably the same way about Val Kilmer. He was fascinated to be working with these guys; on days when Val was off, he would show up on set anyway to see what Al or Bob was doing in a specific scene. It was that kind of a company.

It was totally a location picture, we didn't build one set. And we shot about 160 locations. The shoot lasted about 110 days, which made me absolutely crazy. I like shooting fast.

"Parts of the footage of Val shooting [in the street shootout scene] are used in South Carolina for training special forces now. They basically say, 'If you can reload and fire as fast as this guy... You will not be able to, but if you can, you're doing very well.'"

[In terms of the look of the film], it's all character-generated. It's being expressionistic with lighting. It's not about compositions. Dante Spinotti and I always work together in kind of the European system, where the director composes shots and sometimes even operates the camera. The cameraman, he paints with light.

So if it's McCauley's apartment, we see his house in Malibu when he goes back to it, and there is nothing in it. It's empty and it's barren, so I wanted it monochromatic. And then I wanted a certain color blue that's very expressive to me of that kind of alienation. Dante and I, there's kind of the rich vein of the work we did together, which is having an expressionistic effect. It doesn't seem stylized or gratuitous.

It also manifests itself in McCauley's wardrobe. He's wearing grey and white for a reason. He has worked it out that if somebody spots him and the police interrogate a witness and ask, "What did he look like?" "Well, he was average height." "What kind of clothes was he wearing?" "Well, they were kind of grey." They're describing anybody, so he's protecting his anonymity.

We used a lot of available light, but then we'd augment it for dramatic reasons. One of the most naturalistically lit scenes — but I think one of the most perfectly lit scenes as well — is when Jon Voight is in a car with Bob and has brought a report of who Vincent Hanna is. They're sitting in a car, two men with documents, and just the way the light falls onto the pieces of paper is warning that this guy's got three marriages, what does that tell you? It tells you he doesn't stay home. It means he's out working all day and all night. With this guy around, there's too much heat. So you should pass.

One of the biggest scenes was the shoot-out at the end, and one of the big challenges about it is that we couldn't do it consecutively. We could only get downtown on Saturday and Sunday. So it was six days of shooting, but we had to do it on a Saturday and Sunday, then do something else and then come back the following Saturday and Sunday to do the next section. It had to be very, very well planned, and very modular. We knew exactly where in the shootout I was going to progress to by the end of Sunday, then we'd have Monday and Tuesday off. Our work week would begin again on Wednesday; we'd shoot something else Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Saturday and Sunday we were right back there, picking up on the robbery again.

So the continuity has got to be perfect, which it was anyway because I'd planned it out in pre-production. And we built every piece of kind of street furniture — this mailbox here, this lamp post there, this car parked over here, that was all blueprinted out. We produced that on the shooting range — that's where we built our replica of that street, and that's how we trained for the bank robbery shootout months before we started filming it.

The actors went through extremely rigidly supervised training, starting with live ammunition on the range with the L.A. County Sheriff's range masters and then some people I brought in from British SAS. Some of that training footage is in the documentary on the Blu-ray box set. There is some footage in that of Al, Bobby and Val shooting on the shooting range; they're shooting with live ammunition, but they're not standing. They're moving, they're running. Actors have a very rapid learning curve, particularly in eye-hand coordination. Parts of the footage of Val shooting are used in South Carolina for training special forces now. They basically say, "If you can reload and fire as fast as this guy... You will not be able to, but if you can, you're doing very well."

For the restaurant scene, there wasn't a rehearsal of the actual text, but we spent a lot of time in rehearsals dealing with the scene — analyzing it, talking about it. We would paraphrase certain things, but we were all experienced enough to know this is not a scene that you rehearse again and again. You'll ruin it. It's going to be absolutely at its ultimate only once. The next time you do it, it may be 99 percent as good, but it will not be 100 percent as good. So you want the energy of spontaneity when you're shooting. And for spontaneity to be there, there has to be some discovery going on.

We talked about the scene and how intensely each man would focus on the other, because they're engaged intellectually but at the same time — almost on a reflexive level — they're defensive and offensive. So when Al moves slightly in his chair as his hand is getting closer to where his gun might be holstered, then that causes a kind of automatic shift in body language for De Niro, who's not even doing it consciously ... that's just what happened when we were shooting the scene.

What I would discuss with them was: Why are you here? Why did you agree to have coffee with the guy? Why is Hanna stopping McCauley and saying, "Let's have a cup of coffee?" Because he knows that McCauley knows all about who's surveilling him; the only new data he can have is to know the man. Because if he knows the man, consciously — and then also subconsciously, because detectives understand the value of what you intake subconsciously — then he may at some later date have an intuitive flash when he's trying to figure out what the criminal is likely to do. That, "Wait a minute, this guy McCauley, he's probably going to turn left at this fork in the road," and that's based on human contact. McCauley hesitates at first, but he comes to the same conclusion: I have an opportunity to learn more about the guy who's chasing me and perhaps it will aid me in intuiting what his next move will be if I'm in a jam.

Then, of course, what McCauley reveals is that he has a girl and he tells her that he's a metal salesman. And Hanna says, "If I'm around the corner, are you going to leave?" and he says, "That's the discipline." Maybe Hanna believes him and maybe he doesn't, but when the attack happens on Waingro and Hanna's running up that street in a crowd full of people, he's scanning to see where amongst these hundreds and hundreds of people McCauley might be. He sees a girl sitting alone in a car with anxiety, he just goes right for Amy Brenneman — and that's based on something that he picked up in that coffee shop scene.

Obviously, we all cared about the film a lot. I cared about it a lot, and it has a lot of layers of meaning; it has a coherence to the stories and some of the confrontations that are prone in our lives. Sometimes when you're very intentionally and strongly specific, that specificity achieves a certain universality. But there are contradictions that work on you in a film, where both things are true even though they're oppositional to each other.

For example, if you track the movie from a storytelling point of view, who are you supposed to empathize with at the end of the film?

You want Bob to get away, and you want Al to get Bob. Both are true simultaneously, and the two fuse. There's a fusion in the end of the two men in this perfect counterpoint. It's not complicated, but it has complexity. It's ordered in symmetry, and so the way that these stories are told and how these lives are opposed against each other is maybe why we're still talking about Heat. I don't know. I don't look at it from the outside. I only look at it from the inside, and that's what I suspect.