The Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater was rocked with the sounds of applause and high-octane action on September 7, 2016 when the cast and crew of the epic crime film Heat reunited for a look at the making of this Los Angeles movie milestone. After an introduction by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, filmmaker Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar) greeted the sold-out crowd and brought to the stage writer-producer-director Michael Mann and Oscar-winning actors Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman) and Robert De Niro (Raging Bull), followed by a larger panel with more participants.
By the time it opened in theaters, Heat had been on Mann’s artistic to-do list for many years with screenplay drafts going back to 1984. The painstaking production was as detailed as any of Mann’s prior films, which range from the colonial American adventure of The Last of the Mohicans to the stylish crime procedurals Thief and Manhunter. “It transcends genre,” Nolan noted as he delved with Mann into the real-life inspiration for the story of Chicago cop Chuck Adamson and a thief named Neil McCauley, who were fictionalized in the film as with Pacino (whose named became Lt. Vincent Hanna) and De Niro. The two men in real life did meet once over coffee, almost resorting to gunfire exchanges in the parking lot afterwards, which inspired Mann to tell the story of “intimacy only strangers could have.”
Pacino revealed an illuminating secret detail about his character involving cocaine that was excised from the final film and explained that he was fascinated by the fact that, for his character, “my life was falling apart and his was just starting.” De Niro recalled that Mann’s perfectionism and attention to detail meant that “every moment is important” on film, creating a realistic atmosphere that “creates a tension.” Among the research involved was sending De Niro and actors Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore on real-life bank scoping in Century City, which most likely turned a few heads. Meanwhile Pacino and his fellow actors playing police officers were involved with staged interrogations with a professional thief, and learning how to really pull the truth out of an informant. Determined to see the sides of Los Angeles outside his normal experience, Mann went with an L.A. police officer for five months of random radio calls to discover aspects of the city normally never captured in the movies.
Mann further explored how he created full backstories for all of the principal characters, which allowed the film itself to reveal a moment in time for people with fuller lives outside their scenes. Of course, he also had to discuss the famous coffee scene shot at the famous Kate Mantilini restaurant in Beverly Hills, which was located just a short distance away from the Academy itself until it closed in 2014. “Let’s not rehearse it,” De Niro told Pacino before they shot the scene, which was captured with two over-the-shoulder cameras (a third filming in profile wasn’t ultimately used) and a single take (“Take 11,” Mann revealed) ultimately accounting for what made it into the final cut.
The second half of the panel discussion brought to the stage actor Amy Brenneman, executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, Oscar-winning editor William Goldenberg (for Argo), actor Val Kilmer, producer Art Linson, re-recording mixer Andy Nelson, director of photography Dante Spinotti (who also shot Mann’s Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, and Public Enemies), and actors Diane Venora and Mykelti Williamson.
The actors all had different but fond memories of their work on the film, with Brenneman sharing a funny anecdote about assuming she’d wrapped for the day when the sun came up only to be called back at dawn to join De Niro in their car, with him having coffee and a bear claw to prepare for the next take. She also noted that she found the key to her character when Mann told her to just fall for De Niro’s character, playing someone she saw as “a surrender” and an “aspirational hope” for the thief. “I had so much energy on the set,” Kilmer shared about the experience of shooting with his compatriots all around Los Angeles locales, “so much fun… I miss it!”
As for Venora’s emotionally volatile work, she had one lesson to share: “I just played it!” That included reacting to Pacino’s provoking entrances into their scenes, which couldn’t even be seen in the film itself. Mykelti, who has a very memorable scene advising Judd about betraying Kilmer near the end, also found the entire experience rewarding (he was brought in for the part just as he’d stocked up on ghost shrimp to go fishing) and found Mann to be “the master of backstory.”
The technicians and producers triggered more memories from Mann and the two stars, with Spinotti in particular recalling the cutting-edge techniques used for the balcony scene between De Niro and Brenneman (involving green screening shooting and different frame rates to capture background detail) and, on a note he himself called “provocative,” praising the new 4K digital restoration of the film for bringing out detail and artistic lighting choices that had been previously impossible. (Needless to say, avid film devotee Nolan is happy the film exists in a new print, too!) Other topics include the film script’s previous, very different incarnation as a made-for-TV production, L.A. Takedown, which Mann was reluctant to take on a major feature film until he could crack the ending.
“He has a way of holding the screen with his images,” Goldenberg said of the collaborative process of editing the film, which marked the last phase to get it out to theaters by Christmas of 1995. Of course, that was just the latest in a string of challenges considering it was shot in 95 locations in 107 days! Fortunately the film’s current classic status and its enduring popularity and influence on future generations of filmmakers prove that it was worth all of that effort and far more.
THE ACADEMY SCREENS “HEAT” – All Right Reserved
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