If anyone defies the widely held belief that film is a collaborative art, it’s director Michael Mann.
In the course of making his new film “The Last of the Mohicans,” the costume designer walked off the set, the director of photography was fired, an editor quit, a number of composers were on and off the picture and Mann himself went to arbitration for sole screen adaptation credit and lost.
Mann, who made his mark in Hollywood as co-creator of the stylish TV series “Miami Vice,” is now spending his days and nights working on a final mix on the picture with a second principal editor and sound mixers.
When those who know Mann describe him as a “control freak,” they aren’t exaggerating.
“He’s fanatical about everything--down to the points on an arrow,” said an associate on the picture, a period piece based on James Fenimore Cooper’s classic, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, and having cost about $35 million. Twentieth Century Fox has pushed it back to a fall release.
All this, and still the word from those who worked with the director--including some disgruntled production members--is that the performances are “wonderful,” the picture looks “stunning” and the expectation is that the finished film “should be terrific.”
In defending his autocratic directorial work habits, Mann said: “I’m obsessed with telling the story powerfully and as such, I, the director, know what counts and doesn’t count.”
He conceded that he’s very definitely “hands on” and anyone who might have been put off by his demeanor shouldn’t have signed for the picture in the first place.
“It’s predictable that on a picture this size, some folks ain’t gonna last the distance.”
“The Last of the Mohicans” was to be released July 10, until the studio pulled it. The reason they gave: The picture was so good it was Academy Award material and, according to Executive Vice President Tom Sherak, would have become lost among all the summer blockbusters.
Sources said what’s closer to the truth is that the movie, which stars Oscar winner Day-Lewis in the title role of Hawkeye, the adopted son of the Mohican Chingachgook, really deserved more time to be reworked and Fox Film Chairman Joe Roth agreed.
“Everything is there on film; it was just a matter of putting it together,” said a Fox source familiar with the project.
Some also said the rough cut was “unevenly paced” and when Fox screened it for test audiences, received comments back that the graphically violent treatment of Cooper’s American frontier story was off-putting.
But co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe defended Mann’s approach: “It was true to the facts of the time. The French-Indian War was one of the most vicious and awful in American history. The nature of war back then was with swords, hatchets and muskets--a very bloody enterprise,” he said.
“The Last of the Mohicans” is, in fact, a curious choice for the filmmaker, who in addition to “Miami Vice” made two equally visually arresting movies: “Thief” and, most recently, “Manhunter.” Yet Mann chose to remake the 1936 filmed version of “The Last of the Mohicans” that starred Randolph Scott.
Certainly, no one would argue that he isn’t passionate about his projects and many said they admired him for his devotion to creating a look and tone that was true to the bloody pre-Revolutionary era that is the backdrop to the love story between Hawkeye (Day-Lewis) and Cora (Madeleine Stowe), the daughter of a British officer with whom he falls in love.
The complex shoot involved 250 crew members, extras hired from American Indian reservations all over the country and working more than 70 days on location in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, N.C. Sources said it wasn’t long before things got very tense on the set.
Within a week, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees successfully organized the crew, which was to be a non-union shoot for anyone other than the production team. Mann summarily fired the first director of photography, Doug Milsome, and replaced him with Dante Spinotti.
Later, the costume designer, James Acheson, who supervised the outfitting of 800 cast members and extras and oversaw a costume-making operation in Asheville, could not handle Mann’s meddling over every detail in the actors’ wardrobes, sources said. He left.
The demands of building a historically accurate re-creation of Ft. William Henry--the site of a battle scene in which hundreds of soldiers, Indians and civilians were slaughtered--in addition to a large Huron village and a 20-acre settler’s log cabin and farm tested everyone’s patience, the film’s producer, Hunt Lowry, admitted.
Mann, who would not talk about individuals, said, “What I defend is the work. What’s on the screen is what counts. Hopefully, anyone who sees this movie will see what I see and what I’ve worked since 1989 to get made: a great picture.”