Michael Mann: Press Conference
1. You’ve brought us some terrific stories over the last decade, and in Public Enemies you have returned to that classic law verses lawlessness. Why did you explore this and in particular the life of John Dillinger?
I became fascinated with Dillinger because of the certain mysteries in his life, he was very bright and great at what he did. He was regarded as one of the best bank robbers in American history, he was very, very current and very contemporary in his time. He was very sophisticated and planned his robberies with great precision and fore thought, they employed techniques that they picked up from the military by a man called Herbert K. Lamb, he met Walter Dietrich, who mentored Dillinger, so Dillingers time in prison was really a post gradute course in robbing banks.
But what really interested me was that he wasn’t released from prision, he explodes onto the landscape and he was determined to have everything right now, and live four lifetimes in one and that one is only thirteen months long and it has an intensity of white hot brilliance to it. He had no concept of future, he planned bank robberies with great precision but he didn’t plan next Thursday, there was no sense of taking time out like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who would make a quarter of a million dollars and go to Brazil for a year and a half and chill out, there was no end game. It was just this very intense ‘live for today and whatever happens tomorrow is fated’ mentality. The spirit of this guy, especially when everyone’s dead and he has the outrageous audacity to walk through the police station, which didn’t happen the day of the Biograph, it happened three days before was just stunning.
2. You said that Christian Bale was your first choice to play Melvin Purvis, what was it about him that made you see him in that role? and also he kept up with the southern accent between takes and during production, is that something you encourage or is it a decision the actors have to make for themselves to totally immerse themselves into the role?
That’s how Christian does it, every actors different, some actors will be completely in character when they show up for work. Other actors, brilliant actors like Stephen Graham picked up that Chicago accent in two days and the second I said cut he was back to his normal accent that I could bearly understand. Christian on the other hand, just dives straight into the deep end of the swimming pool and is there all the time.
The character of Melvin Purvis, if you are familiar with American culture and patterns of immigration and ethnicities, he was from the people who were from the richer southern counties of England and they got the best land – Virginia and South Carolina. So he emerged as a very rigid young man with very specific traits and a very specific code, one of which being chivalry and not saying no, he was very loyal.
The violence of the 1930’s was accepted, kind of a dueling ethic, and he breaks those codes when he drinks the cool-aide, J. Edgar Hoovers cool-aide and embraces the notions of expediency, which means setting aside habeas corpus, and persecuting the innocent and using torture, those kinds of things.
I needed someone who could embrace those original values, and Christian was clearly the guy for me, he got the accent down, he would talk with a gentile southern accent, which would drive his three year old daughter nuts, she would say ‘Daddy stop talking like that’ and he’d say ‘Well dear, I have to play Melvin Purvis and I’ll be doing so for the next three months’ and that was that.
He was a dream to work with, a great guy and a great actor.
3. Obviously Dillinger is a massive American folk hero, and the film cannot help but to glamorise him, regardless of the fact that he was a criminal, was there a sense of that when making the film?
The media didn’t glamorise him, for me the contemporary news reports at the time glamorised him there was something from the Daily News, a reported had interviewed him at Crown Point and wrote about how gentile he was, and how charismatic and well spoken and he didn’t conform to the stereotype or archetype of the criminal class, who they thought was some slothful, someone with dark skin and a low forehead, he was the guy that could make you feel like his best friend in two minutes. With Dillinger this was tactical, it was absolutely tactical and when he got all this great press, their heads didn’t get large they planned the robberies with great sobriety and great discipline they had really great offset security and he was popular for a very, very good reason, Dillinger was smart enough to treat the hostages well, especially the women, because he knew that they would be interviewed.
4. As someone who grew up in Chicago, how did these stories influence you?
Chicago is a very tough minded and humorous city, it has a Latvian wit to it. And hiding a wanted criminal in the top of a roll desk was very Chicago. I remember driving down when I was seven or eight with my Dad and we drove down Lincoln Avenue to the Biograph Theatre and he said ‘there’s where they shot and killed John Dillinger’ and I said ‘who was John Dillinger?’ It’s folklore that’s embedded into the city. It’s my neighborhood both physically and culturally.
My wife and I used to go to the Biograph, it was an arthouse by the time the 70’s rolled around, so it plays a big part.
The 30’s were a big fascination for me photographically.
5. How easy was it to get all the locations you wanted to film at in Chicago, and how easy was it to make the city look as it did seventy years ago?
It was very difficult, because you had one building that was there at the turn of the century and three others that weren’t, and when we got to the Biograph we used the real Biograph but a year or so before we got there they took down the authenic marquee; that was a great tragedy so we had to put that back and change the ground level on all of those buildings and put cobble stones down.
In southern Wisconsin they never got Walmarts or Burger Kings, so it was a perfect place to shoot, it looked like it did in the 30’s, we had to put cobbles down, there was alot of work to do.