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Michael Mann back in the TV saddle

With his arms folded, and showing just the slightest of smiles, Michael Mann stood in his office on a recent afternoon and watched the opening title sequence to the first episode of “Luck,” the HBO series that will air next year and give Mann his first television directing credit in 22 years. On the screen, a montage showed racehorses, gamblers, mob men and money as the Massive Attack song “Splitting the Atom” pulsed along with its languid whispers of desire.


FOR THE RECORD: Michael Mann: An article in Sunday’s Calendar section on director Michael Mann’s return to television misidentified HBO programming President Michael Lombardo as David Lombardo.


“I wanted to nail — in an abstract, free-form way — the yearning,” Mann said later. “Just that, the yearning.” At his best moments — in films such as “Heat,” “Ali” and “The Last of the Mohicans” — the 67-year-old filmmaker has shown a profound gift for connecting human emotion, music, color and light on the big screen. Before that, as executive producer of “Miami Vice” and “Crime Story” in the 1980s, he brought a new cinematic sensibility to television dramas.

His return to the small screen now is part of a broader migration of big-name talent as adult drama opportunities shrivel in film. But it was still a surprise to many in the industry when it was announced in June, because of the company Mann will be keeping with “Luck.” David Milch, the creator of " NYPD Blue” and “Deadwood,” is the screenwriter, and Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte lead the cast.

Mann and Milch, who each have an executive producer credit on “Luck,” have been described as talented tyrants when it comes to putting their visions on the screen. “They’re very respectful … but, as Michael describes it, ‘not great with committees,’” said David Lombardo, the HBO programming president who brought the pair together. Hoffman, who is not exactly meek himself, says he sits back and watches it all.

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“The sharing of the paintbrush is always a tenuous thing,” Hoffman said. “In film, the writers hand over the paintbrush, but in television the directors have less power. But with this one, Mann is more active because he’s not just a one-time director, he is the [executive] producer of the show too. It’s exciting to see Mann do some scenes there and then talk to Milch and Milch is glowing because it’s just wonderful work.”

Milch was uninterested in any projected clash-of-egos subplots: “There are challenges in every collaboration, and a challenge is an opportunity in disguise.” When asked what Mann brings to the project, Milch did have a glow in his growl. “He brings what he brings to every piece of work of his that I’ve seen. He’s an extraordinary shooter. Michael realizes the visual possibilities of the material with a compression and an intensity that is very, very gratifying. The final product is extraordinary.”

The return of Mann to television has another subplot. He is regarded by peers and critics as a signature director of his generation, but Hollywood studios aren’t banging down his door after his most recent films. The 2006 film “Miami Vice,” a remake of the television show with very little evidence of that heritage, was seen as a creative misstep, and it grossed a lukewarm $164 million worldwide (its production budget was $135 million). “Public Enemies” in 2009 pulled in $214 million around the globe but did not live up to commercial expectations or even award-season hopes for a film starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale.

Fair or not, Mann also has that industry reputation as a bulldozer personality and exhausting perfectionist. Asked if he feels misunderstood or misrepresented, he gave a shrug that was pure Humboldt Park, the tough Chicago neighborhood where he grew up. “Oh, I wouldn’t know. Do I care? We’re human beings, we care. But I don’t really dwell on that. I confess I’m pretty ambitious about what I do, so I don’t spend a lot of time looking at that.”

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Mann is by no means surrendering his big-screen directing pursuits. He has two projects — a European period-piece set after the end of serfdom and a tale set in the future that would be his first science-fiction project — so, like Martin Scorsese and “Boardwalk Empire,” the “Luck” pilot might be more creative tourism than career tilt. Mann said he went for a ride with “Luck” for one reason alone: “Milch’s script is one of the best I’ve ever read.”

The style of ‘Vice’

In the 1980s, “Miami Vice” brought a cinematic sensibility to television. Its neon glow, MTV soundtrack and pastel audacities established Mann as a true stylist. That reputation grew in film, in which, with months of preparation and then endless takes, the director could find the precise compositions he wanted visually and the street authenticity he insists on for his characters.

There’s a streak of the investigative or journalistic in Mann’s work, and it dates to the 1960s. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s subversive mainstream success with “Dr. Strangelove,” the son of Chicago grocers studied at the London School of Film and won a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1970 for a short film about Paris student riots. Back in the States, he trekked cross-country in 1971 to film “17 Days Down the Line,” a documentary about working-class life that was equal parts Studs Terkel and John Cassavetes.. That instinct to investigate is still with Mann — it defines him, in fact, according to actor Bale.

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“An extraordinary detective is what Michael is,” Bale said. “His methodical nature and desire to turn over every single stone — which may end up having no relevance to the movie and certainly may not end up in the movie — gives him all this subterranean information at his disposal. What you see in the movie is the tip of the iceberg.”

Bale said Mann’s obsessions make him feel better about his own exhaustive preparations, but not all actors sync up with the filmmaker on the set. Depp and Mann, for instance, barely spoke at some points during the “Public Enemies” filming.

Perhaps no actors embraced the Mann method more than Will Smith, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as boxer Muhammad Ali in “Ali,” and Daniel Day-Lewis, who played the rangy frontiersman Hawkeye in “The Last of the Mohicans” (a film that last week hit store shelves in a lavish new Blu-ray package with an expanded director’s edition).

Both Smith and Day-Lewis spent close to a year bending their bodies into shape for their intense roles; Smith sparred five days a week at a gym not far from Mann’s Olympic Boulevard offices, and Day-Lewis went off into the wilderness, and his stomach grew hard from the diet of berries and nuts. Mann said that that labor paid off on the screen because moviegoers knew the real deal when they saw it, even if that determination was made by the emotional part of their brain.

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“As very, very smart animals, we have great perceptions — particularly when some of that stuff is routing through the amygdala and we’re intuiting more than we’re cognitively labeling, knowing and inferring — and we will see a hand movement, the way somebody picks something up, and we’ll sense an ownership,” Mann said. “There’s attitude, there’s a readiness, and we sense it. That’s Will in ‘Ali’ or Daniel in ‘Mohicans.’ Daniel could walk up behind you, and you wouldn’t know he was there because he matched your footsteps and your breathing, and he’s stalking you.”

The Mann approach has made him a role model for younger directors. Christopher Nolan, the director of “Inception” and “The Dark Knight,” says one of the key moments in his own cinematic life was when, as a teenager, he saw a television commercial for Mann’s 1986 film, “Manhunter.” Nolan had no knowledge of the film, just of the image of a glowering serial killer, played by Brian Cox, peering out from a prison cell with white bars.

“That image was forever burned into my mind,” Nolan said, adding that Mann’s singular affinity for the use of color, architecture, music and light makes him a stylist of highest order but also one who uses those approaches only in service of story. Later, watching “Heat,” Nolan was struck by how the film resisted the ironic shadings and referencing that came into vogue after Quentin Tarantino’s " Pulp Fiction.” “He reclaimed the stylized approach to filmmaking,” Nolan said, “and made it respectable again.”

Behind the scenes

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Mann, a compact man with a square jaw, is reluctant to revisit his films in detail. Asked about specific visual decisions — the use of an equestrian wall mural to show the slippery hold on reality by Russell Crowe’s character in “The Insider,” for instance, or the wandering coyote in “Collateral” — he shifts the talk to the actors on the screen. He also records the interview himself and requests permission to review his direct quotations, a bid for some control, since, in this case, he can’t have a say in the edit.

Over the course of a two-hour, far-ranging interview at his office, he was at a loss for words only once. The man who expounds on European adventurism of the 18th century, the narco-politics of Latin America or the cultural effect of the video game Halo stammered only when he was asked how he is a different man today than he was a decade ago.

“I think I’m drawn to … I think I’ve always been drawn towards being impactful — cinematically, emotionally, dramatically impactful,” he said after searching the ceiling for some kind of answer. The director doesn’t like close-ups, so he changed the point of view back to the world and away from him. “People are less dependent of the kind of setup that we all thought was mandatory. We’re freer, because of where audiences are, to insert you, to parachute you right into a fast-moving stream if the story is carefully architected.”

He looked down at his desk, where he had handwritten notes to himself. “I don’t know,” Mann said, “if that answers the question …"

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Mann is most interested in discussing “Luck” and the changing perceptions of audiences. He pointed to “Inception” and David Fincher’s “The Social Network” as films that drop the viewer into a world and benefit from a Digital Age audience that is accustomed to taking in information with a different frequency and form.

“It’s liberating to jump into the stream of a story and jump into the stream of a character and convey by attitude, ambience and the tone of that person — and their surroundings and how they’re reacting to those surroundings — the magic of what’s happening. When you can bring the audience into understanding and they have leapt over that little gap, and they’re getting it on their own, it’s a much more intense involvement.”

Mann said the Milch script for “Luck” was one of the richest and most compelling that had ever crossed his desk. Milch certainly is no tourist when it comes to the subject matter — he owned Val Royal, the French-bred colt that won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Mile — and Milch said it only increases the pressure to get the voice, vocabulary and vibe just right.

The pilot opens with a career bookmaker named Chester “Ace” Bernstein (Hoffman) leaving prison and wearing a shirt that still has the department store packaging creases. Waiting for him in a Mercedes is Gus Economou ( Dennis Farina), an old crony who’s ready to help the parolee with his mysterious revenge plans. At the track, the show introduces a conniving trainer ( John Ortiz), jockeys and the betting regulars who seek their fortune at a venue that is sinking into bankruptcy. Underpinning all of it is the juxtaposition between the majestic horses and the desperate people who exploit them and one another.

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Mann is especially pleased by the shadows in the plot. Who is the target of Bernstein’s vendetta? What is the past of Nolte’s secretive loner, a trainer who confides only in the horses when he speaks of a dark past on the East Coast? All of it is a puzzle to be solved, and Mann, the detective, seemed giddy to be on the case.

“To make these characters be alive, you have a sense of them intuitively and viscerally,” Mann said. “The challenge of it is obvious, but the economy of it is wonderful — if you can make it work.”

geoff.boucher@latimes.com


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