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Staring into the darkness

Times Staff Writer

On screen, Michael Mann’s Los Angeles is full of helicopters careening through the hazy sky like angry buzzards, and forlorn taxicabs, little isolation tanks, hurtling up and down freeways. Feral coyotes wander into traffic, like ominous visions out of Native American legends, in the same fashion that the 61-year-old director once saw one wandering down Fairfax Avenue.

“There’s a certain romance of the city at night that I confess I’m completely vulnerable to,” says Mann, a Chicago native who’s lived here since 1971. “What happens when the marine layer comes in and all of a sudden the vapor lights bounce off the bottom of the clouds and makes a sky that looks like late afternoon in Northern Europe, and what it looks like from up there. There are so many objects flying around over L.A. If you’re up in a helicopter, you can see 15 to 20 airplanes on approach to LAX. There’s a constant stream, which is metaphor for information.”

Mann, who’s best known as the creator of the pastel-colored cops of “Miami Vice,” is pointedly not talking about the cliches of L.A., of palm trees and surfers, or what he calls “the self-imposed cultural ghettos,” like Brentwood and Malibu, where the Hollywood mob congregates. (Mann admits he lives on the Westside.) This is multiethnic, multi-class L.A., the one he discovered in ’95, riding around for months with a detective in an unmarked police car when he was researching his last L.A. film, “Heat.” “This film is about the city of Los Angeles, and that’s anything from Wilmington to City of Commerce to Pico Rivera to Koreatown,” says the director, reeling off disparate communities that make up the cacophonous whole.

Mann will show clips from “Collateral” at the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival on June 18, and the film, co-produced by DreamWorks and Paramount, debuts Aug. 6. Written by Stuart Beattie, with an uncredited rewrite by Mann, the film is the antithesis of his recent political biopics, “Ali” and “The Insider” -- ambitious, historical epics “about visionary guys who were traumatized,” as he describes them. Mann is one of those fierce talents who’s had more acclaim than lucre, and the $60-million “Collateral” finds him working in a more commercial vein. It’s a movie-movie, a story that could exist only in cinema, about a lonely cabby who inadvertently picks up a hit man, who happens to be played by the biggest movie star in the world, Tom Cruise. It’s an absurdist buddy picture, Hollywood’s gun-toting version of “No Exit,” about two men locked together for 10 hours of escalating psychological warfare.

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Given the film’s preoccupation with night in the City of Angles, it’s perhaps fitting that the only time Mann and his two costars, Cruise and Jamie Foxx, can manage to sit down and talk is at 10 p.m. recently in Mann’s Westside offices. Cruise and Foxx have the rhythms of a married couple, an easy rapport born of night after night crammed together in a small space, the fate of the movie essentially hanging on their ability to connect. They’re of similar size and shape, Cruise in the softest suede jacket, Foxx in a baseball jersey.

Cruise is friendly but focused as if all the mental fat has been carefully sheared away, the personal idiosyncrasies hidden. While the 41-year-old megastar has played vampiric (“Interview With the Vampire”) and sociopathic (“Magnolia”), and even nutso (the long-ago “Taps”), he’s never played a pure psychopath before -- a totally amoral, cold-blooded killing machine. The 36-year-old Foxx, who’s appeared in such films as “Any Given Sunday” and “Booty Call,” has never starred in such a high-profile film. While Cruise is by far the bigger star, Foxx gabs with the gregariousness of a natural entertainer. Apparently, much downtime on the set of “Collateral” was spent listening to Foxx tell amusing stories.

Mann seems harried but energized, like the adrenaline’s kicked in on the last lap of the marathon. He pops in and out of the interview, as he’s simultaneously monitoring a screening of the film going on down the hall. There’s a high level of tension permeating the edit in part because Mann shot the film using advanced high-definition digital -- “only the second film to do so, after ‘Star Wars’ ” -- and there are constant glitches.

Mann’s obsession with night led him to choose this technology, which permits viewers to see literally deep into the recesses of darkness. “We see things that the naked eye doesn’t see,” Mann explains. “You’re seeing a mile down Wilshire. You’re seeing three miles away the buildings of downtown and a flag waving in the distance.” All in the blackness. “You’ve never seen this on film.”

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Another thing never seen before on film is Tom Cruise, the long-running poster boy for American vitality, with gray hair. Mann, who designed the look for Cruise’s character, Vincent, on the computer, explains that the hit man’s hair is less an allusion to his age than the mark of anonymity.

Why did you decide to make Tom’s hair gray?

Mann: I had a vision.

Cruise: I woke up at 4 a.m. [laughing].

Mann: Boy in a rough trade. That’s the basis of the character. We should call the movie that, “Rough Trade in a Good Suit.”

That has a lot of connotations.

Mann: [Vincent has] a certain steeliness and also an anonymity so that when someone tried to describe him after an event, they’d say, ‘Well, average height, gray hair, gray suit.’ He could be anybody. In terms of the wardrobe and stuff, that was the concept. The picture all takes place in one night. There’s one wardrobe change, and there’s one hairstyle. So you change one thing, that really has a big effect on the totality. So like Tom’s suit -- he’s got the best tailor in Kowloon, not in London, not in New York and L.A. So the cut is a form. It says ‘not domestic’ and that’s what I wanted it to say. The idea of the character was to be very specific about whole contexts which we knew, but you only see the fraction of it, but the fraction suggests things without being expository or metaphoric.

Cruise: Michael couldn’t choose the interior of the cab until he got the color of the suit.

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Mann: There were 37 minutes inside the cab in a two-hour movie. A quarter of it was shot in the cab, so all these things were becoming very important.

Cruise: The way Michael shot the film, we were able to do takes for a long period of time without having to reload and stop. All the work we did prior -- Michael choosing the fabric of the suit, the cab -- just every time we were together it was very focused, very intense. The choices Michael made, the position of where I am in the cab ... Because it’s two of us, the way Michael did it, I could always see Jamie’s eyes through the rearview mirror. You think, ‘Well, that’s obvious,’ but sometimes you’ve got to pretend like you’re talking to someone -- but it’s about these guys and their experience and it was important for the connection between the two of us -- so Michael worked it so that we could actually work in a cab so that I could hear Jamie and he could hear me.

Is Vincent based on a real guy?

Cruise: Michael locks onto these characters. When I go to work on a character, you build research on the character. How many months did we spend where I’d come in?

Mann: Four or five months.

Cruise: We’d just sit right here and talk about the character and he had all these notes, I mean, literally pictures from Indiana and all these stories. It informs the scenes. And it resonates.

Mann: It’s the enjoyable part without any stress. You are just really digging it. One of the things we did is Tom became a FedEx man. The objective was simply to be somebody else. This character when he was working -- out and stalking -- would be able to be somebody else, and for Tom to be somebody else is difficult. He could put a beard on, have sunglasses on and a baseball hat on and someone goes, ‘There’s Tom Cruise.’

It’s hard to imagine Tom Cruise in little FedEx shorts. Did you wear a uniform?

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Cruise: Yeah, we had a wardrobe.

Mann: You go figure out the little details of what the FedEx guy does, it’s not so simple. He’s got to scan it. You’ve got to prove who you are. And he has to get your signature. He’s supposed to address people a certain way. And there’s a whole routine. Tom schooled himself in that. Someone who wasn’t in on the joke was the guy he was delivering a package to -- a clerk at a liquor store in Central Market downtown.

So did he notice Tom?

Mann: No.

Cruise: I got my mission. Go in and deliver this package to this place, then go to this area, buy a coffee and sit down and just talk.

Who did you meet?

Cruise: This guy. He was retired and just comes to this place.

Was it kind of nice not to be Tom Cruise in the world? To be anonymous?

Cruise: Yeah. I mean, it was just a great acting exercise.

Mann: We did a lot of different ones. Tom can do everything this guy does.

Cruise: We’d do dead drops. We were shaking tails.

Mann: Getting the habits of other people, knowing when they go, where they park their car, what time they go there.

Cruise: What exits and entrances and how would I get into a building.

So you can be a really good stalker now.

Cruise: I’m a very good stalker, excellent.

So why did you want Tom for this part? I mean, he’s not the most obvious choice.

Cruise: Why the hell did you want me actually? [laughing]

Mann: I don’t know.

Cruise: Did you want me for this role?

Mann: There’s dimensions to Tom that I hadn’t seen on the screen. It became an exploration to bring some of that out, some of the steel that’s in there. Some of the toughness, the certainty and the very good kind of avid, proactive vibe towards a goal, and darker resonances within that. Tom has some deep currents of volition and where does that come from?

What a terrific collision it would be to take Tom and collide [him] with this character. We wanted to work together for a long time. He’s got that same artistic drive and courage to go to those places. Pacino described it best. He said when you really are reaching for it, it’s like playing a high E on the violin. If you’re right on it’s exquisite, and if you’re this far off ... [motions with his hands, a tiny bit].

Cruise: It’s tragic [laughing].

Mann: We are all like that. You only need one good take. But 95% to 96% of the actors don’t have the courage to get out there on the end of the limb quite like that, and Tom does.

Cruise: I never felt like it was too much. It was accurate. It was for the movie. It’s the excitement of being creative for someone you really trust.

But do you ever feel like you’re being humiliated at the end of the limb? Or do you feel liberated?

Cruise: I love what I do, so I don’t care, and I trust Michael. I want to be directed. I’m not directing myself when I’m doing it. It’s really an exploration.

Foxx enters, and settles down on the couch next to Cruise. He apparently was pressured into skipping the Prince concert to be here, but he seems cheerful enough. In the dialectic of “Collateral,” Cruise provided the menace but it was Foxx’s job to provide the heart.

You have to carry the whole heart of the movie.

Foxx: Working with Michael Mann’s a process. That’s the thing. That’s the most grueling once we started shooting.

Mann: Tom didn’t say it was grueling.

Foxx: Oh, he didn’t say it was grueling? Oh, OK. Michael Mann could make you think for just a minute, ‘Maybe I can’t act like I thought I could.’

But that’s a good thing because I come in with a little bit of ego too. I’m Jamie Foxx. I’m doing my thing. But when he says, ‘How are you going to play a cab driver?’ I said, ‘Well I’m just going to play it.’ He said, ‘No you’re not.’ And then this starts this process. You want to be so good, you want to be so prepared, because this is the all-star game.

There’s a story of Miles Davis in the movie. This bass player from England gets a call from Miles Davis. ‘Meet me at 8 on Thursday.’ He doesn’t know the song, he doesn’t know what’s going on. He gets there, the band is already there. It’s like 7:45 at this place, and he has to jump in. He said he knew that he had listened to everything that Miles had done. He studied all of his nuances and everything so when he got there he was ready. It’s the same with this. I had to make sure that I was prepared, because they were already playing. Next thing you know, we started having fun.

What were you looking for in the cab driver?

Mann: You know, cab drivers are not what you think. My grandfather had a small cab company, Sand Man Cab Co., on Hartford Avenue in Chicago. I drove a cab when I was a kid. My brother drove a cab. And I knew that cab drivers had a real independent streak. So we just went to a cab depot and at random got 15 [cabbies]. One was a software engineer who was out of work for a while. Another guy’s last name was Sherpa, he’s from Nepal. Another guy was Dominique, who owned laundromats in Rwanda, who is West African. Basically it’s people who don’t want to be told what to do.

Foxx: I got into one cab, and he was dead serious. I came in with jokes and he said, ‘That’s all funny, but you’re driving a cab in L.A., you know.’ And then it came, ‘Oh, OK, this is really serious.’ And the one guy that had the yellow-leather cab, he was a relative lifer. You feel for him, my God. But he really dug it. He said, ‘Oh, Jamie, when I get in this cab I take alcohol and I rub it on my neck.’ I said, ‘Well, why there?’ ‘Because there may be some dirt on my neck and if somebody is standing behind me or sitting behind me and they see that dirt, they know that I’m not about my business.’ He opened up about this whole different world. He was the king in his world, which you draw from that. Maybe in a weird way I, as Max [his character], am the king of my domain. I’ve tricked myself into believing I’m the king of my castle.

Mann: Jamie has great poetry inside of him. He has methods unique to himself, that he acquires character via the tools that he has. A chameleon that has to do with mimicry, but that’s just a means to access depth, which was profound. A lot of his technique has elevated to the point where he can access that zone. We are all trying to get into that zone. And sometimes it’s difficult to get there. Lawrence Olivier believed it came from makeup and wardrobe. If he looked in a mirror and he felt like he looked like the guy, then he was the guy, and it was just all mechanical. And it wasn’t all mechanical. Whether it’s that or whether it’s Pacino kind of learning scenes three weeks before he’s going to shoot them, committing them to memory so that he dreams them, because it all comes out of his unconsciousness, or Tom’s method.

Tom’s method is very different. Tom applies himself in a way that has to do with a very rigid process of repetition. Almost like a mantra where he will learn something. He’s very studious, but there’s nothing mechanical about the output. I confess that I am completely prejudiced about it, that the chemistry between Tom and Jamie is very, very special, you know. I may have made some casting mistakes in my life. This is not one of them.

(To Foxx) You really have to capture the audience’s sympathy. If people don’t feel for you, the movie doesn’t work.

Cruise: He does it easy.

Foxx: I’ve seen some of those things that he does in his character. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen somebody shot. It is crazy. Dec. 23 a few years back, I was having a great time at a party. I go downstairs and there was an argument. We were in Oakland, a different kind of crowd, and I’m walking down the stairs and the dude said, ‘Yeah, how about this?’ Shoots the guy. And immediately I’m dizzy. I remember running up the stairs and I remember one of the guys, it was like the bouncers, who was kind of used to it because it was one of those kind of places, says, ‘Look at Jamie Foxx, running like a little girl.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out, man.’ And I never stopped running. And then, like, my breath shortened. I took that, see. If I could bring that to this character then everybody is going to feel it.

(To Cruise) You’ve never seen anyone get shot?

Cruise: No. I once saw a guy die dragging on a motorcycle. Crazy.

That is something that’s hard to forget.

Foxx: It’s not just that you can’t get it out of your head. I just remember the feeling. I remember being so macho before that. For some of my friends who have been in that element [they say], ‘Oh man, you’re crazy, man. You know, it ain’t no big thing, do you know what I’m saying?’ I don’t want to ever get used to that, because that was crazy.


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