TASTE MAKERS : People Who Shape and Define Matters of Taste : MICHAEL MANN : FILMING WITH A 'FULL PALETTE'

The walls of Michael Mann's Universal Studios office were just painted black. The Mies van der Rohe chairs are black leather and stainless steel, and coming soon is a black credenza. "I love it," says the 42-year-old producer, dressed nearly all in black himself. "This place is visually quiet."

Not exactly. Mann's black-jacketed elbows rest on a huge aqua desk with red trim and a yellow base, courtesy of Milan's Memphis design group. The man who produced the highly-stylized movie "Thief," then the hit TV series "Miami Vice," knows a nice color scheme when he sees one.

Consider the blacks and blues of "Thief," which starred James Caan as a Chicago hood with big dreams, big expenses and bad judgment. Mann was in London for the theatrical release of his Emmy-winning TV show "The Jericho Mile" when he spotted a cobalt blue, pink and violet tie in a Covent Garden men's shop. "Take the tie and stick it against a wet black street and you have 'Thief,' " says Mann. "I made an $11 million movie off a $6 tie."

Inspiration for "Miami Vice's" fabled pinks, aquas and other colors wasn't particularly "brilliant" either, Mann says. He visited Miami, looked around and threw into his mental Osterizer the tones, colors, rhythm and feel of the city. The show's high-fashion undercover cops drive their black Ferrari through photogenic Miami neighborhoods, and Mann credits the city's Streamline Moderne architects with setting the stage as well as choosing its colors.

Chicago-born Mann came out of the London Film School determined to make movies with "a full palette." The film maker sent water trucks with film crews to water down Chicago's streets for "Thief" (to enhance their look), and says that movie had 18 sound-effect sequences that were harmonized to be in the same musical key as Tangerine Dream's music cues. When the waves crashed, says Mann, they actually crashed in A Minor.

Music is at the heart of MTV-inspired "Miami Vice," whose sound-track album just passed 3 million in sales. Music ranging from Gregorian chants to reggae, Kate Bush to the Doors, is cued to the plot. Glenn Frey's hit "Smuggler's Blues," for instance, was prominently featured on one episode.

"I'm musically uneducated but I have very good recall," says "Vice" executive producer Mann. "And I know what it ought to feel like." Currently featured on the tape deck in his black Ferrari: '40s swing bands, Baroque music, X and the Stones.

The man who Time Magazine called Vice's "stylistic guru" portrays himself as an ambulatory sponge, absorbing experiences and stories everywhere he can. Chicago gave him his accent, a taste for Polish sausage, an uncle whose love of architecture rubbed off, and memories of the Pissarro collection at the Chicago Art Institute which influenced the way he created perspective in "Thief."

"Miami Vice" heroes Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) often reconnoiter with dope-dealers, killers and other low-life types in exotic locales--on a budget of more than $1.3 million per show--and Mann is asked where all those story plots come from? His answer: "The garbage that's banging around inside your head from some experience you had somewhere. If you're a storyteller or a writer, that's your bank account."

Mann took three trips to Thailand while working on a screenplay for Paramount (which was never produced) in the early '80s, and he figures he still has 10 years worth of stories to draw on. "Anything I get into, I research very deeply," he explains. "If I'd been this assiduous in college, I'd have been Phi Beta Kappa."

The producer also clearly enjoys the good life. Mann, his wife Summer and their four children recently got back from a vacation in Jamaica and visit England three times a year. He had a series of "hot motorcycles" in the 60s--he still has one in the garage--and likes fast cars.

Mann is just back in town after writing and directing "Red Dragon," a feature film for Dino De Laurentiis and MGM, based on Thomas Harris' novel about a former FBI forensic specialist brought back to track a "savage, homicidal psychopath." He's working on a new series for NBC called "Crime Story" whose plot, characters and everything else are "a state secret."

Two TV shows modeled on "Vice" have already come and gone, but Mann sees a larger legacy. "If there's any trend that's been started by 'Miami Vice,' it's simply that radical is safe, that to take chances with broadcast television is a much safer way to go, in terms of holding onto audience, than putting out the tired formula stuff which they could do when they had a monopoly."

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