It has been almost 21 years since the release of Heat, and Michael Mann’s crime epic is now widely recognized as a classic of the genre. The central icon duel between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro is one of the great antagonist pairings in the history of movie stardom. And the film’s stylistic influence remains a powerful presence in cinema, television, and video games; Mann’s unique ability to blend research-heavy texture with larger-than-life melodrama has inspired many homages and imitators.
Director Christopher Nolan has always been one a vocal Michael Mann fanboy – The Dark Knight features implicit and explicit nods to Heat – which explains how Nolan wound up hosting an all-star Heat reunion panel at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, California this week. In an event shepherded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (which also puts on the Oscars), a screening of a new 4K remaster of Heat led into an hourlong panel featuring several members of the cast and crew, including Mann and stars Pacino and De Niro. Some highlights:
Vincent Hanna is secretly on cocaine. Pacino’s role as the troubled-yet-heroic-yet-troubled cop is one of his most enjoyable over-the-top performances, full of high-energy flourishes. Sounding almost embarrassed, Pacino offered some insight into his character’s inner works. “I don’t know if this has gotten out much,” said the actor. “I don’t know if I’ve ever said it! I may be breaking the law now! But I’ll say it. The character I played, he’s a guy, he’s been around, he’s done a lot of stuff, and he also chips cocaine… just so you know where some of the behavior’s coming from!” (I swear he said “chips,” although I can’t confirm that that’s a thing.) Pacino claimed that a short scene was shot demonstrating Vincent’s habit, although Mann said that including that in the movie “would attract too much attention.”
The iconic coffee scene wasn’t rehearsed. In the film’s centerpiece scene, Pacino’s Hanna asks De Niro’s master thief Neil McCauley to get some coffee. According to Pacino, De Niro suggested that the two actors approach the scene without any rehearsal. “We didn’t have to,” said De Niro, who sounded much more upset about the filming schedule. “We didn’t start until after lunch or dinner,” said De Niro, “Which is 1:00 in the morning… I was a little unhappy that we started to late, in the middle of the night, but anyway, we did.”
Laughing, De Niro pointed at Mann: “You wanted to tire us out!”
Pacino concluded, “I’d like to do it again.”
Mykelti Williamson got to be in Heat because of Forrest Gump. Fresh from his role as shrimp obsessive Bubba in the beloved Tom Hanks film, Williamson has a key supporting role as one of Vincent’s fellow officers. The actor – recently seen in the latest Purge and Underground – earned loud laughs for his casting story. “February or March, I get this call from my manager that Michael [Mann] and Al Pacino want to see you. I was going fishing, man, I just picked up – true story! – I just picked up some ghost shrimp!” He met with Mann and Pacino that day. “The story I got from Al was, ‘You got robbed! You didn’t get a nomination for Forrest Gump!’ They actually had another guy in the role, and Michael and Al got together, paid that guy off, and hired me, because I didn’t get a nomination.”
Amy Brenneman has some thoughts on her character. “I looked at the script,” said the Leftovers star, “And thought, ‘She must be pretty f—ed up!’”
Dante Spinotti has some thoughts about digital versus film. The film’s cinematographer – who also worked with Mann on Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Insider – declared his full-throated support for the remastered digital version of the film. “I have to say something provocative here,” he said. “From a technical standpoint, the movie is better because of the transition to digital 4K technology.” Nolan, an avowed celluloid zealot, replied with wry humor: “For the record, they also made a great film print of it!”
How Christopher Nolan described Heat. “As bleak as any Samuel Beckett play,” followed by comparisons to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Blade Runner, and Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed. He really likes Heat.
Michael Mann found the real Los Angeles in a police car. The film shot for 107 days in 95 locations, mostly in areas of Los Angeles that the film industry had heretofore avoided. By the mid ’90s, Mann had lived in Los Angeles for a long time, but felt that he didn’t really know the city. “We kind of move through a cultural self-imposed ghetto of places that we go to, in our industry, and I know that there’s a lot more out there,” explained the director. “So I started going out at night with Tom Elfmont, who’s a commander in the LAPD, and we would go out at 9:00 on Friday or Saturday night, answering random radio calls wherever they were, all over the city. We did this for five or six months. And we discovered the locations that are [in the film], as well as a lot of dramatic content.”
Val Kilmer came straight from Batman Forever. The actor’s speech was a little impaired – Kilmer said he had a swollen tongue – but he delighted the audience when he explained, “The most fun I had doing Batman was preparing for this.”
Working with Michael Mann is fun, Part One. “A lot of us have talked about being lovingly beaten into submission by Michael,” Brenneman laughed, before recalling one of her favorite workaholic moments on set. During the filming of the final sequence, her character is sitting in a car waiting for De Niro’s character. “I’m sitting in the car for five days,” Brenneman recalled. One day, she noticed the sun was coming up; since the scene took place at night, she figured that she was wrapped for the day, and went to her trailer to take a nap. 20 minutes later, she was called back to the set, in bright daylight. “There’s my car, wrapped in black!” she said.
Working with Michael Mann is fun, Part Two. Laughing at Brenneman’s story, Mann told a tale from another film he worked on with Spinotti. “I was operating a camera,” he explained. “I was looking through a lens, and I started complaining. I said, ‘Dante, where’d that light come from? Turn off that damn light!’ He said, ‘Michael, that’s the sun.’”