To consider a couple of his better-known movies, Heat and The Insider -- and aside from a relentless sense of style and gesture -- Michael Mann makes movies about the modern man who's encased and encoded by his profession.
Collateral may be Mann's finest film. It's a cool, gleaming tale of professionalism, destiny and the necessity of change and transformation. Tom Cruise, silver-haired in a silver-suit, seldom smiles as Vincent, a contract killer who hires reluctant cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) for the night, with the expected complications along the way. The entire picture is exactingly measured, with a lovely scene at the start setting up Max's life and dreams, when Annie, a fare who's a federal attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith), draws him out.
The 61-year-old writer-director is as notorious for reticence in describing his process as he is for his laser-like insistence on research. But sometimes he can't help himself in his wise-guy Chicago accent. Of Cruise's silvery body armor, he notes, "It's not really a disguise, but it's anonymous. That's what he wants to achieve. If somebody actually witnesses him and the police ask for a description, what are they going to say? 'Look, [he's] a kind of middle-aged, middle-height guy in a kind of a middle-gray suit and a white shirt, it kind of describes anybody and nobody. That's what you need to meet the verisimilitude of a guy like Vincent. Part of his tradecraft would be to be anonymous, denying specificity if someone tried to describe him."
The original script (by Stuart Beattie, with uncredited rewrites by Frank Darabont) was handed to Mann, who says that after the historical characters of Ali and The Insider, he'd wanted to return to the present day. "The idea of shooting an intense film like this in L.A. at night actually precedes the Collateral screenplay. I had this appetite for doing a film exactly like this. I got two screenplays, both of which were set in New York, and both of which I moved to L.A. So there was not any question of us not shooting here."
Mann says he thinks in psychology and story, not in genre, as he's exploring Vincent as damaged goods, or "rough trade in a good suit," as the script puts it.
"Look at these things, these action films. Do we all have to decide what genre are we gonna do today? We don't see this as an action film. To me, it's a drama. It's extreme as it can be. In this one night, wherever these guys have been, whatever their expectations and dreams are for the future -- if they even have 'em -- everything is going to change. They will not be the same people after tonight that they were before tonight."
The script's conflicts are elemental and pared down. "What we intended to do was to pose a question, not come to a conclusion: Is there something after we've established Vincent as a professional and immaculate in his process, is there something wrong with this guy tonight? I didn't want to answer it, but I wanted the question posed, leading to the very end of the film."
There are similarities to the trained sociopath in Jean-Pierre Melville's steely Le Samourai. There's also a neat parallel in style to a trick director Joseph H. Lewis mastered in noir classics like The Big Combo and Gun Crazy: What happens when two characters face the audience rather than each other in an unbroken shot? "If you view [shooting in a cab] as limitation, that's the wrong way to do it," Mann observes. "You have to deal with it as an opportunity. They're both facing the camera, but whenever we elect to, the man in the back seat can have his own thoughts that can play across his face. The other guy's not necessarily seeing him. So he can have two communications, one to the driver. You can only do that when you have both people facing in the same direction, not facing each other."
Most of the film was shot with a new high-definition video system. "Motion picture film could not see the world that these characters inhabit. It can't see into the night. The environments, where there's a red desert of depopulated refineries... Film can't see that stuff. [Digital technology is] a very painterly medium. You can manipulate it a lot as well as being able to see into the night. [There's a] crime scene, you're seeing two miles away, downtown, little American flag on top of the building. It's not just the seeing, though. It lends itself to taking atmosphere and building landscapes and pushing them into a mood to affect a scene and affect the way you feel about these characters."
Mann, realizing he'd said "painterly" only a couple words before, adds, "It's all story-driven. L.A. is unique in that sense. It provides us with the landscape of dreams. But it's yesterday's dreams, somebody's idea in 1958 of what's the sci-fi apartment building of the future, and then it became a Hispanic neighborhood and now it's a Korean neighborhood and coyotes are walking through it. That's L.A."