Blackhat and the Return of Michael Mann

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Michael Mann, 71 years old, is one of a dying Hollywood breed: an old-school commercial writer-director. At his best (Collateral, The Insider, Heat), he makes smart, stylish movies about men wrestling with honor, firing guns, and doing other manly things. (At his worst, they’re just stylish.) Mann broke into the business by writing episodes of the Seventies cop show Starsky & Hutch, and even after his career took off, he played key roles in the TV series Miami Vice and Luck. Now he’s directed Blackhat, about a hacker who becomes part of a Chinese-American task force chasing a malicious cyber criminal. Because that hacker is played by Chris Hemsworth, better known as the mighty Thor, he finds a level of drama that eludes most computer programmers and the movie careens thrillingly around the world. “People who do things very well usually end up in extreme situations,” Mann says. “I’m fascinated by that.”

What was the hardest part of making Blackhat ?
It’s all hard, but hard is good, because the more challenging it gets, the more exciting it gets. If you’re a rock climber, you’re more excited about a 5.6 climb than a 5.2 climb. We shot in about 75 locations in four foreign countries in 66 days right through the hottest part of the summer. One of the hard things was how to make hacking visual. Because I’m not interested in watching somebody type on a keyboard, and I don’t think anybody else is.

Is there an aspect of computer culture that you find enticing?
Not really. But I love talking to the guys who design this stuff, because usually the most sophisticated electronics engineers can explain very complex structures with total clarity. Chris McKinlay [who consulted on the film] was an interesting dude. While he was working with us, he got his Ph.D. from UCLA in mathematics, worked his way through grad school as a card counter in Vegas, and met his present girlfriend by hacking a dating site.

You like your actors to do intense preparation to pick up the skills their characters use onscreen. Can Chris Hemsworth write Unix code now?
Yes. I learned a long time ago that actors have a learning curve that’s extraordinary. When they really can do that thing that their character does, it infuses them with terrific self-confidence — they find it easier to be facile with improvisation, and they start picking up details of language and posture.

How do you handle difficult actors?
I don’t work with them. Difficult actors are actors who are lacking in confidence. An actor who is terrific at what he does, who is ambitious and has a strong artistic ego, is a dream to work with.

Have you lacked for confidence yourself?
To me, preparation is really important. Other guys may be at their best when they are filled with anxiety and suddenly they find some vein of spontaneity. But I do my best work when I know what I’m doing.

Do you have any Starsky & Hutch memories?
I remember writing that there was a robbery, and a car jumped the curb and went through the window of a car dealership. And then they shot it. I said, “Wow, this is crazy. I write this stuff, and they go and do it.” So then, of course, the ambition increased.

Do you think about what happens to your characters after the movie is over?
I’ve never projected what they might do, but they’re so alive and tangible to me that when I bump into the actor, I sometimes have difficulty separating the actor from the character. And they do, too. Al [Pacino] will say something to me, and I’ll say, “Hey, that’s my line. I wrote it.” You become veterans with the people you work with. That’s the way it is with Will Smith, James Lassiter, and Jamie Foxx — they were there when we re-created the Rumble in the Jungle in a stadium in Mozambique that hadn’t had running water or power since 1974. There was no contemplation of failure.

What’s the secret to staying married for 40 years?
The right woman. One of the key things is that we had that understanding: Don’t find yourself compelled to do work that you don’t want to do. When I started writing television, we made sure that we were living well below our means, so I wasn’t compelled to write something I didn’t want to. That was one of my wife’s original insights.

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