AMAL director Richie Mehta instructs veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah.
By Christine Kwon
Welcome to Filmmaker on Filmmaker – a new series all about filmmakers talking about other filmmakers.
I’ve asked past SFIAAFF directors to discuss another filmmaker who has been particularly important to his / her development as a director and understanding of film. The result: a revealing trail of how some of our favorite directors came to be.
The first installment of Filmmaker on Filmmaker features Toronto-born filmmaker Richie Mehta. A prominent up-and-coming director, Mehta has received critical acclaim for his feature, AMAL, which snagged last year’s Best Narrative Award. The film has recently hit theatres in Canada.
I spoke to Mehta long distance while he took a break from promoting AMAL. His filmmaker of choice: Michael Mann. We previously agreed to discuss four of Mann’s films – HEAT, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, MIAMI VICE, and THE INSIDER. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
CK: One of the interesting things about Michael Mann is that he makes big budget, mainstream movies that are also acclaimed by serious critics. Does this relate to your own goals as a filmmaker? Is it possible to make a big film that still has quality and substance?
RM: Absolutely … (Mann) has the resources to do these big epic things, and yet they’re always so intimate. And the best things about them are the details he puts into them. He creates a new world – every film is a distinct world that is only applicable to itself. He doesn’t need to go that far, but he does. He does genre films, but within that he offers so many things – he goes so much further.
I’ve heard that Mann does do a lot of hands-on research in order to make his films more authentic and real. How does this effect his filmmaking, and is this something you also do for your own work?
For AMAL, I did tons of research, but we were also trying to capture this world. A lot of it was searching in this world. His world is very detailed, very authentic, but absolutely constructed. It’s an absolutely authentic world through his eyes…. It depends on the project. AMAL was a real place in the world, and we had to be in that place. Not pretend. In other cases, it takes place in the desert and it’s a completely different world.… It’s actually creating a bible for their world, creating something that is very consistent in their world. People just do things, but they never talk about them.
One of the most striking elements in Mann’s work is his use of color. It seems to be a trademark – using very specific color palettes, working with blues and night colors. How does his use of these emotive colors contribute to the feel of the film?
It has to do with the mood, what he’s trying to create in these scenes. He doesn’t cut corners. He’ll say, we have a night scene, ok, let’s shoot it at night, but let’s create a very subtle tone that will influence your emotion toward the character. ALI was all oranges. Same with COLLATERAL – it was shot almost all at night.
With AMAL, the city itself was a character in the film … the film itself was so much of a fable, and the point of the location was to ground it in reality. It wasn’t necessarily creating a mood specific to a character, but it was grounded in reality.
Mann is not only a director, but he often produces and writes his own work. In your opinion, is this beneficial for a filmmaker?
It depends on if it’s something that comes from your heart. The director’s job is to translate … if you’re writing and directing, then you’re creating and then translating. I’d rather do that. I’m more interested in spending the rest of my life communicating ideas within me.
On HEAT, 1995
In HEAT, we see this constant theme of men obsessed with their work, whether they be cops or criminals. They’re so obsessed that they’re unable to function as good husbands and fathers or normal people outside of work. Why do you think Mann is so interested in this topic?
I think that this stuff, it’s very personal. It’s one of the things as a filmmaker – if you really want to do it right – you have to be obsessed with things. It requires so much energy, so much thought…. I can very much relate to that. You become an expert in that (field). The feat’s you can accomplish are pretty remarkable – the stuff we look at and tend to idolize. HEAT is really about sociopaths and psychopaths and what they do.
So you feel like you can really empathize with these characters?
Absolutely. I remember watching HEAT in high school, and thinking of Vincent Hanna’s character (Al Pacino), “I can’t wait to be like that.” It’s a similar character in THE INSIDER that Al Pacino plays …
How is that working out for you?
Well I can see the downside to it now. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The rules that those guys play with are different. Money doesn’t apply to them. The 9 to 5 doesn’t apply to them. They’re on this 24-hour schedule – it’s a different world.
There’s also this theme of fraternity and male bonding that is constant throughout Mann’s works. The final scene of HEAT, Robert De Niro’s character basically abandons his girlfriend to have a final bout with Al Pacino’s character. And, in fact, the men are closer to each other and understand each other better than anyone else, including their girlfriends and wives. What do you make of this?
I think, again, it’s a very strange phenomenon. There’s a certain code of ethics that guys live by and that these professionals live by. The women in their lives are generally more occupied by more real things. But I think that there’s this code of ethics that women don’t understand. It’s like you’re willing to kill each other and yet turn around and give each other a high-five.
It seems that the characters who have a very strong commitment to a code of ethics are also these lone rangers who must bear this “male burden.”
They are romantic notions – very romantic notions – I’m going to be obsessed with this and I’m going to be alone for it. All of us are faced with those decisions. I think movies should and can romanticize those notions.
HEAT was a film that starred Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the same film after some 20 odd years – Mann seems to be able to get these big names to star in his films. How do you think he is able to attract these actors and how are you able to attract and surround yourself with people who are essential to your film?
I think it’s the value of the source material. He’s creating it, and he can say, this is mine… I don’t think anyone would say (they’re not interested), because the value of the content is so rich… there’s so much in that film for actors to hold onto.
I don’t know much about Mann’s methodology when working with actors, but he is able to get these very powerful performances from his actors. How do you think he accomplishes this and do you take cues from his methods?
Well, I’m not sure. I know that he shoots a hell of a lot. A lot of takes. He’s very meticulous, very methodical. For example, THE INSIDER – I think that movie is perfect in terms of pacing. I can’t imagine doing that. I never do more than 2 or 3 takes. I know exactly what I’m doing before. Although, the last film I did shoot in the desert, it’s 45 minutes, and we shot hours and hours of footage. I wanted to experiment and see what came of it. And it gives you a hell of a lot of freedom, but it’s a bigger challenge.
Because you have to pick and choose?
Yes. Essentially, you have to do the movie twice.
Was there any improvisation involved with your film?
Oh yeah. I co-directed it, and we would literally make stuff up. It was the most liberating film experience I’ve had…. But I can’t imagine doing it with multi-million dollar budgets. This situation was an experiment. The actors didn’t really know what was going on. In Mann’s case, they do know … they’re aware. I can’t imagine having that option.
So you had a kind of loose script and improvised off of that?
Yes, we had a loose script, spent 10 days in the desert, and I’d see a location and stop and say, ok, let’s do these scenes.
Was it challenging for the actors?
Yes, the actors were challenged, but they knew what they were getting into. Afterward, though, they had no idea what the movie was about.
Are you editing right now?
We’re done editing, we’re just doing sound now.
Anything else about HEAT?
HEAT was the first film I ever saw – and on the poster there’s the famous tagline “Los Angeles Crime Saga” – where location was crucial to the mood of the film. Every time I’m in L.A. I can’t help but think about it – it’s a genre film, but it dissects the sociology of that city so thoroughly.
On LAST OF THE MOHICANS, 1992
Let’s talk about the music and sound of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. In many of Mann’s works, there’s beautiful scores, but it seems that LAST OF THE MOHICANS is especially memorable.
Well, LAST OF THE MOHICANS has a traditional score, but as with all of his films, it’s compilation scores …. One thing that he does that I also do, is he gets his music and edits to that. With my films, I’ll make a rough cut of the film, get the composers, and then adjust the film to the composition. It’s so integrated, music and film. Especially the last 10 minutes of MOHICANS, where there’s no dialogue, it’s so dependent on rhythm and movement and music.
What do you think is the role of music and sound in a film?
It makes more of a complete experience for the audience. My use of music is very much inspired by Mann. All throughout all of his films, especially with THE INSIDER, it’s so crucial. Music is such a visceral way to pull you into something.
MOHICANS seems to be historically accurate on some level, but I don’t think anyone would use it as an example of a historically accurate film. I mean, I don’t think I would have sixth-graders watch that movie for a history lesson. I remember as a child watching MOHICANS and at the end, thinking, “That guy’s the last of the Mohicans? I thought it was Daniel Day-Lewis.” How do you feel about these white men playing lead, principle roles against a backdrop of “indigenous” characters?
I don’t have much of an opinion on that. I’ve watched the same movies you did when I was I kid. I think they’re wonderful for their own motives. For example, DANCES WITH WOLVES, we actually did watch that in grade 7. And in MOHICANS, a lot of the details are absolutely accurate. I do think the romance in the story is melodramatic. But it never claims to be more. I never fault a movie like that for being like that at all. And I think it’s participating in a tradition of films.
Let’s talk about the action in the movie, because a lot of those action sequences are very powerful and make you feel excited to watch. What goes into making an action sequence like that?
The action is a very basic series of rhythm, movement and editing that are so closely connected to the way we feel, think and move. We know exactly what everyone is doing.… For example, when Heyward is getting burned at the stake, and, watching this, Daniel Day-Lewis shoots him to put him out of his misery – so much stuff is happening – and yet it’s so simple. Never at any moment are we questioning ourselves … there’s another scene at the end when Alice is about to throw herself off the cliff and the most vicious character extends his hand to her and gestures, don’t kill yourself. He (Mann) constantly throws these things in there that are just about people. And yet, the rest of the scene is purely movement – it’s always about thrust and movement. It makes you feel like you’re running and charging. He’s so good at making you feel the way the character’s feel.
How are you able to make the audience feel what the characters feel?
Well, you start with a blank screen, with no image and no sound. How do you make it meaningful? You use patterns and sounds and hope it creates meaning … you throw a couple of images on there, and see what it does …. For example, with the desert movie, I’m testing stuff out and see how people react.
If you weren’t to test it out on an audience, and had rather a grand unveiling, do you think you’d face mental fatigue – how would you know if what you’re doing is too subtle or too obvious?
I find that when I show other people, even if they don’t say anything, I’m more aware of what I’m feeling. When you’re watching it yourself, you’re able to forgive yourself on certain things. But when you watch it with an audience, you think, I’m so embarrassed, or wow, I really like that.
On MIAMI VICE, 2006
MIAMI VICE the movie is a lot different from the TV series. It’s almost not an action movie, but more of a slow, quiet drama.
MIAMI VICE is an anomaly of a film – there’s not much of a story in MIAMI VICE. I think the more movies he does, the characters and plot become less and less important to him. Maybe it’s because he’s done that – in THE INSIDER, everything came together. I really think that was the pinnacle of his career. MIAMI VICE, I almost can’t stop watching it, and I don’t even like it. There’s a visceral quality of the location – and most of the time you’re just watching people doing stuff.
So what makes watching people do stuff interesting in his films?
It’s a glimpse into a different world. Otherwise, I couldn’t care less what happens to them. It’s a fascination for professionalism and work. What drives us.
During the production of MIAMI VICE, some people criticized Mann for putting his cast and crew in the line of danger. Is this necessary? I almost feel that it’s cheating, and that you should be able to recreate a world without having to actually do this. Do you think this is an effective method and would you use this method yourself?
I can’t imagine doing it. You can recreate things and for the purposes of drama, it’s ok. The stuff he’s dealing with, those villains, those crazy thugs – he’s drawing from a reality, the gangs he’s pulling off – it’s something very real. You got to know that world…. I don’t think I can take anyone down with me, but I do understand the obsession. If it kills me, it’s ok, but not if it kills anyone else.
Any other thoughts about MIAMI VICE?
One thing I love about those films is framing – his sense of framing. Very technical and subtle things … the framing of a scene in THE INSIDER when they’re eating in a Japanese restaurant, and if you watch that, it’s so complex, the way the frame starts to move itself, it breaks a lot of formal rules. So it takes you from a comfortable, very symmetrical shot to a very unsettled and uncomfortable one…. There’s another scene in HEAT when De Niro meets the girl in the coffeeshop. You start from behind their backs, and when De Niro starts to open up, the camera moves in front of them…. Nothing is random … he’s earned my respect that he’s not doing anything haphazardly.
On THE INSIDER, 1999
Briefly, let’s talk about THE INSIDER. What particularly struck you about the film?
Everything we just talked about – the music in his work, the formal, technical side. Everything …. The story is about a system of corporate culture designed to self-destruct.
What do you mean by that?
Well, the law protects the cigarette companies. And the job of the cigarette companies is to kill us. So if you were to fight against the cigarette companies, the law protects them, and the law is supposed to be a form of justice…. The thing is, his formal qualities, the crafting of stories, even if you don’t understand, you start to get drawn in.
There’s a scene in THE INSIDER where there’s a bunch of guys sitting around having lunch … it’s like a 5-minute sequence, and they’re just talking. If you were to walk by them, you’d think, oh this is a boring conversation.
But it’s interesting because the audience gets to work through the problem with them?
Yes, it’s like a math problem. You’re working through it, you’re given all the tools to solve it. Let’s solve it together…
It’s very location specific – it jumps across the country. You’re in Lebanon, then you’re in New York, then California, it’s hard to tell where people actually are … especially in Al Pacino’s case, he’s moving around so much, he commutes on a plane. In the morning, he’ll have lunch there. It’s about a lifestyle. There’s a pivotal scene where Al Pacino has a real victory in the film trying to get a real specific version of Russell Crowe’s testimony, and finally airs it. And you see where Al Pacino is when it airs, he’s sitting in the lounge of the airport with this guy on the floor beside him watching it. Why would you put him there? … The point is, it’s the pivotal moments that happen just walking down the street. And he makes the intimate moments very climactic.
As a filmmaker, what have you learned from Michael Mann and what do you take from his aesthetic and work style?
No matter what, not to cut corners. Every frame, every second, everything can count or contribute to what you want to say. Just don’t be haphazard about anything … be respectful to the audience – you’re giving me this time, so I’m going to be respectful.
Richie’s next film, 678910, is a 45-minute experimental war film that takes place in the desert. The film is about three soldiers walking to the end of the world to exchange themselves with people they’ve lost in their lives. Featuring AMAL lead actor Rupinder Nagra.
For more information about Richie, visit http://www.poormansproductions.com/amalfeature/