So I went to one of those screenings last night: Directors Guild Theatre, good imported beers, wine, some fishy stuff on crackers, girls dressed to impress.

The film was Michael Mann’s latest, Collateral, with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, both cast against type. The director was there for questions after, along with a goodly number of his crew including Dion Beebe, one of two directors of photography on the show, and a small army of production and post production technicians. It was very much an occasion for film geeks, because the major topic of discussion was what we’ll call for the moment digital cinema.

Collateral’s action occurs almost completely at night in Los Angeles, and more than 80% of the movie was shot on High Definition videotape. I guess you could call Collateral the first big-budget Hollywood film to be shot on video by a major director. In fact, the director told us, that was the whole point of the project.

“I love Los Angeles,” said Mann, “especially at night. I’ve long wanted to do a movie completely at night in L.A., and I looked for the right script for a long time. It came down to two stories, and screenwriter Stuart Beattie’s is the one we went with.”

I’ll leave it for others to discuss the dramatic notions of this “buddy picture” about a hit man (Cruise) and a cabbie thrown together one night for the wildest ride of their lives. Mann’s a consummate filmmaker (Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider) so last night’s audience was definitely not disappointed. His grasp of character, always so well-displayed, is very much in evidence here.

But Collateral is really a love letter to L.A. and I must say—watching big budget fireworks go off in front of places I see all the time, as well as places I wouldn’t go to if dannye bet me a million dollars and his daughter, is thrilling.

“One of the things that attracted me to the project was the compression of time—it all happens in one night,” says Mann. “The whole story takes place between six P.M. and about four A.M. in this PacRim-diverse and most contemporary of American cities, where coyotes roam the streets as if the layer of civilization is new and temporary. That’s the world I wanted Max and Vincent moving through as the story unfolds. Tonight, everything in their lives is changing. Totally. Forever. Finality has shown up on the horizon, heading this way. This is the collision of two lives in very extreme circumstances. It is a compression of all they have been and who they think they might be, all collapsed into the events of one night. I liked the intensity, the immediacy of that.”

In addition to his absolutely gorgeous drop-dead sense of composition (he may be the most painterly of all American directors), Michael Mann also approaches his art in an engagingly intellectual fashion. He’s a really smart guy, and he makes most of his movies on paper and in his head, long before the cameras turn and the money starts burning. On the subject of Cruise’s character, for example:

I think people are very complex, and there are many things at work within them that can be fascinating. Vincent is a character unlike any Tom has played before, and there was an element of risk for him to do this role. There is a power and an authority within Tom that I wanted to see come out in this character. You can see it, even through Vincent’s elegant appearance. You realize, soon, he is rough trade in a good suit.

I’m a big believer that whatever the central activity is that a character does in life, an actor—and sometimes I as a director—should also be able to do, to really understand the character. It provides all kinds of access into the depths of the person.

In directing Tom, I was working with someone who has the most complete focus and dedication to being there and making himself available to everything. You believe that Tom can do what his character does in the picture for the simple reason that Tom can do everything his character does in the picture. All those skills were acquired in pre-production.
Mann is no less complimentary, and thorough, in discussing the preparation and performances of Foxx, an adroit comedian and character actor, and Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays a U.S. attorney preparing for the biggest case of her life and about to enjoy a very tough night on the town.

After demurring that he’s “just a layman,” Mann entranced two thousand seasoned Hollywood technicians with a glimpse of the nuts and bolts of his latest labor of love.

65 days (nights) of shooting. Locations from downtown to Commerce, from Wilmington and South Central to the beach. “There’s a unique mood to the skies above L.A. at two or three A.M.,” says Mann. “Streetlights reflect off the bottom of clouds. Even in darkness, you can see into the distance: silhouetted palms against the sky. I had to figure out how we were going to evoke that three-dimensional night—how to see into the L.A. night.”

Now it is true that George Lucas filmed the last two episodes of his Star Wars saga with digital cameras. Of the major directors, I suppose, he was the first to do so. But we must consider that virtually ALL of those films occur inside a computer, ultimately. The settings are for the most part computer-generated imagery, and the eye forgives—enormously—something that is so fantastical that it has never been imagined before.

Mann’s set is the city. Beyond the windows of a completely dark high-rise office containing a beautiful lawyer and an assassin with a need lays the entire metropolis of Los Angeles. That’s what we used to call available light, ladies and gentlemen. You can’t throw a battalion of searchlights at 20 miles of cityscape. Not if you want to make it look real.

“Film doesn’t record what our eyes can see at night,” says Mann, an accomplished still photographer. “That’s why I moved into shooting digital video in high definition—to see into the night, to see everything the naked eye can see and more. You see this moody landscape with hills and trees and strange light patterns. I wanted that to be the world that Vincent and Max are moving through.”

Mann is the first to use a modified Thomson Grass Vally Viper FilmStream camera to realize his vision in a major feature film. In addition, he used the Sony CineAlta high def camera for some shots. One long scene, a shootout in a club, was filmed in traditional 35mm film-style “because we could control the light the old-fashioned way, and there were so many setups.” Oddly enough, that scene has so much action, so many pieces of film, you’d think they would shoot it digitally, just for speed, to get through the pages and pages of action. That it originates on film points to the fact that Mann, a good director, uses the right tool for the job. Cutting edge technology be damned.

What makes him “a good director?” Well, simply this: In spite of a year’s-worth of techtalk and experimentation; in spite of seventeen different taxi cabs, new light sources, flat as a piece of paper, invented in Japan and never used before; in spite of being living proof of Orson Welles’s old adage that “a movie studio is the greatest toy train set a boy ever had”; in spite of totally immersing himself in the arcane world of luminance and chroma and “crushed blacks” and whites gone wild in chromatic aberration, Michael Mann talks about Collateral like this:

To me it’s about emotion; it’s how those environments surrounding these characters make us feel, so the atmosphere around them was quite critical. I find Los Angeles at night to be very emotional. I wanted to tell a story that evokes some of the wildness that lurks just one layer below the surface.

The truth of this statement is revealed, for me, in a scene where Cruise and Fox are stopped at an intersection and three coyotes cross the street in front of their cab. This happened to me one night as well. I was coming home late from the studio on my motorcycle, heading up the twisty turns of Outpost Drive towards Mulholland, stopped at a stop sign like an idiot at three in the morning, and a brace of young coyotes, like juvenile delinquents looking for somebody to buy them beer, sauntered across my path.

Mann tells a similar story:

I was driving home late one night and stopped at a red light, and three coyotes walked diagonally across the intersection like they absolutely owned it. It was something I never forgot. It wasn’t just the presence of wild animals in the middle of the city, it was their attitude that this was still their domain, and this layer of civilization was merely temporary.
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
Charles Durning
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries