This Man’s Got a ‘Vice’ He Can Live With : ‘Style Is a Dirty Word,’ Producer Michael Mann Says
Three years after being hailed as the seminal force behind a revolution in the way television looks and sounds, Michael Mann dismisses the acclaim with an impatient wave of his bagel.
The executive producer of “Miami Vice” and another NBC police series, “Crime Story,” is happily breakfasting in the Formica splendor of Canter’s Fairfax deli (“I’ve been in these booths writing episodes sometimes through three shifts of waitresses--14, 16 hours,” he says fondly).
He doesn’t want to talk about how the fresh look and sound of “Miami Vice” changed television when it debuted in 1984. He doesn’t want to talk about pastels anymore. He doesn’t want to talk about “Vice’s” landmark introduction of current pop songs as TV background music, about Don Johnson’s lack of socks or about high-tech interiors or sun-drenched exteriors or slow-motion homicide or anything that has to do with style .
“ Style is a dirty word,” announces the producer who has been linked with the term so many times it’s beginning to sound like part of his name.
“Miami Vice” was created by Anthony Yerkovich, who left the series only weeks after its debut. “Crime Story” was also created by others: Los Angeles-based producer Gus Reininger and Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago undercover cop.
Yet--without using the dreaded S word--there is something arresting about the look, sound and subject matter of both series that brands them uniquely Michael Mann.
Mann--who began his career in advertising and documentary film making in Europe, then wrote for television police dramas such as “Police Story"--admits that he leaves a personal stamp on his work. But he resents being crowned the king of style by the press.
“I have an intense desire to do ugly, even double-ugly stuff so people will stop asking me about style,” he says, only half-jokingly.
Mann, 44, contends that although he has become most famous for his television successes, he does not consider them to be part of his true artistic career because they are collaborative efforts.
His career , he says, consists of his movies, which he wrote, directed and edited: 1979’s “Jericho Mile,” a made-for-TV movie released theatrically in Europe, the brooding story of a Folsom State Prison lifer obsessed with running the fastest mile; “Thief” (1981), featuring James Caan as a police officer caught between corrupt cops and the mob; “The Keep” (1983), a critically panned effort about a group of Nazi officers who allow evil incarnate in the form of a 7-foot humanoid to escape from a medieval fortress, and “Manhunter” (1986), the study of a detective trying to predict the behavior of a psychopathic killer through interviewing another killer now behind bars in a hospital for the criminally insane.
“I’ve written, directed and edited four movies, and that’s it--that’s what I do,” Mann insists. “The other stuff, like ‘Vice’ and ‘Crime Story,’ may have more notoriety with the public, but that’s not what I do. I don’t author those. My name is not on them, and I wouldn’t take credit away from the people who do.
“And frankly,” Mann adds, “I wouldn’t put my name on some of them, as a director. I am, I think, appropriately vain about that. It has to conform to my standards.”
Mann says his TV success has had an unwelcome effect on his film career.
“There were reviews of ‘Manhunter’ that were basically reviews of the second season of ‘Miami Vice,’ ” he says. “But you can’t go around worrying about that kind of stuff or you ought to go off and be an anonymous podiatrist someplace. You don’t belong in this business.”
Mann does worry about that kind of stuff, though. He worries that critics who have lavished praise on “Miami Vice” or “Crime Story” have never really understood the artistry behind the look (he winces at one reviewer’s evaluation of “Vice” as “dressy violence and sensuous mayhem”).
“To me, there’s film form and there’s film content, and one complements the other,” he says. “If it (the style) is not doing something about telling stories, then it’s gratuitous. Form degenerates into style when there is nothing for it to interact with.”
That inevitably happens now and then in the grind of series television, Mann adds. “With ‘Miami Vice,’ we’re going out there every week trying to make a little movie in seven days,” he says. “It’s extremely dumb, but we keep trying to pull it off. You can’t hit one out of the ballpark every week.”
Mann’s trademark subject matter--vice in Miami, desperation behind prison bars, assorted corruption in Vegas--often involves enough graphic violence to make even the hardiest network program-practices executive cringe. Mann explains that he likes to do stories set in the lunatic fringe of society, and it’s a violent place.
"(Normal) people aren’t very interesting,” he says. “When I was in sophomore lit, I much preferred reading Hemingway to some boring 19th-Century nationalist novel. I was not a fan of Henry James’ thicker books, and I’m not now.”
As with other stylistic elements, Mann believes violence should not be gratuitous. “It has to be part of the story or else it’s like pornography,” he says. “And it’s--I don’t know--it’s boring.”
Mann says the original multicolored pastels of “Miami Vice” were inspired by two things: one, a view of Miami’s Art Deco South Beach area under the hot white sun on a vacation some 10 years ago, and two, playing with the color chips at a paint store one long-ago day when his wife was buying some paint.
“I was playing around with them and I realized: three colors become thematic, two colors don’t,” he relates. “Three colors, you can actually start telling a chromatic story. You can create a mood with three colors.”
That said, Mann grudgingly admits there has been a change in the colors of “Miami Vice” this season; it has lightened up again from the dark, mysterious nighttime dream-world of “big money and white cars” of last year. But, he insists, the look has always reflected the story.
“Last year was very topical stories; it (the dark colors) made sense,” Mann says. “This year, we sort of feel like doing a more outrageous mix of stories, wilder wild stories and heavier heavy stories and more outrageous outrageous stories. Wilder, funnier--that’s ‘Vice.’ ”
In the case of “Crime Story,” which moved from Chicago to Las Vegas for the last six episodes of last season and has a new set of staff writers this season, Mann admits that he and his team played freely with stylistic elements of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s to create a “heightened reality” somewhere between history and fantasy--again, he says, to serve the story.
“History is a very messy thing--we fixed it up,” Mann says. “History is out of sync, so we adjusted it. It (‘Crime Story’) is a twilight zone where people believe that their dreams can come true. It’s not nostalgia; nostalgia would be trying to re-create what it was like back then. I was living then, and it was boring.”
Although Mann is eager to devote himself exclusively to directing feature films someday, and despite his protest that TV can sometimes allow style to overwhelm substance, he still can’t quite break his addiction to it. His position as executive producer of the two NBC series could easily permit him to remain detached from the production details, yet something keeps pulling him onto the set.
“I’ve turned down important movies to keep on working with ‘Crime Story,’ ” Mann acknowledges. “I’m addicted to the speed of it; I’m a speed freak when it comes to telling these stories, jamming it all into seven days.
“It’s the excitement, the speed, and telling lots of stories. It’s ‘Why don’t we do a story about. . .?’ Then, ‘Yeah--let’s do it.’ Boom.”