Michael Mann, Al Pacino And Robert De Niro Reflect On 'Heat,' 20 Years Later
By now Heat needs no introduction. Michael Mann's crime saga, well received when it was first released at the end of 1995, has only grown in stature since (much like every other Mann film) and is now regarded as a classic. Adding to its mythos is the fact that it was the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were paired on the big screen (the two, of course, were both in The Godfather: Part II,
but played the same character in different timelines but did not share any screentime together).
On Wednesday night in Beverly Hills, Mann and his two lead actors were on hand for a conversation after an Academy screening of a new restoration of Heat, led by director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Interstellar). In his introduction, Nolan said he saw Heat when it opened in London twice, calling it a "new American masterpiece... quite an incredible piece of work I've drawn inspiration from," and said it was "as bleak as any Samuel Beckett play."
For those who haven't seen Heat (what are you waiting for!), the cops-and-robbers drama chronicles the pursuit of a professional thief Neil McCauley (De Niro) by the high-strung LAPD Detective Vince Hanna. Its climactic downtown shootout has been often imitated but never duplicated, and eerily foretold the 1997 North Hollywood shootout.
Among the well-worn talking points the foursome dove into was the famous scene at the now-closed Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills. Practically the only scene in the film where the two iconic actors chew scenery together, legend has it that Pacino and De Niro did not actually act opposite of each other during its filming (its editing and camera angles further fueled this myth). According to Mann, the majority of the scene is mostly taken from the eleventh take, and the two actors never rehearsed it beforehand, preferring to draw from spontaneity.
De Niro jokingly complained that the shoot for that scene started so late in the night. "We didn't start until... [about] one in the morning," said De Niro. "I was a little unhappy that we started so late, in the middle of the night. You wanted to tire us out!"
Another thing Pacino revealed was that the bombast and behavior of Hanna was because he "chips cocaine."
"I've always wanted to say it, just so you know where some of the behavior comes from," Pacino said. "I never thought I'd have that opportunity. I've been saving it for twenty years."
Mann—known to be meticulous and detail-obsessed—said most of his characters had deep backstories that he concocted to prepare his actors for their roles, but did not reveal in Heat. Instead, he waned to film to be of the moment. Perhaps they'll be in the prequel novel?
Halfway through the Q&A, the four were joined onstage by more cast and crew from the film, including Val Kilmer, Mykelti Williamson, Amy Brenneman, Diane Venora, producers Pieter Jan Brugge and Art Linson, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, editor William Goldenberg and sound mixer Andy Nelson. Danny Trejo, who also has a role in the film, was spotted in the crowd but did not join the rest of the cast and crew onstage.
Kilmer said to prepare for his role he visited the prison his character would have spent time in. (He said it was near San Francisco, likely making it San Quentin.) During the time he was preparing for the role, he was filming Batman Forever, saying, "The most fun I had doing Batman was preparing for Heat... it was fun, I miss it."
Spinotti (who also shot four other Mann films, as well as L.A. Confidential) commended the 4K restoration, saying Heat was "better because of the transition to digital," saying the adjustment of the colors and tones improved the look of the film. Celluloid purist Christopher Nolan chimed in, saying, "For the record, they also made a great film print of it." According to Variety, Fox is set to release the restoration on home video next year.
Aside from its all-star cast and taut drama, Heat is also one of the the ultimate Los Angeles movies. Criss-crossing the city, from Pacific Palisades to the Eastside, Nolan said it "captured modern Los Angeles in a way no other film had." According to Mann, shooting took place at 95 locations over 107 days.
"It began with wanting to know Los Angeles, and I realized after living here about 10 or 12 years that I didn't really know L.A. at all," said Mann. "We kind of move through a cultural self-imposed ghetto of places that we go to." In order to scout locations, Mann rode along with LAPD Commander Thomas Elfmont for about six months, incorporating several locations into the film, like the chop shop ("an unincorporated part of Wilmington") and the afterhours club ("I think it was in the basement of a Payless shoe store off La Brea"). "It was a real discovery of what Los Angeles was into."
While L.A. seems indelibly linked to Heat, the real-life inspiration of the story came from the real-life account of Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson (a friend and collaborator of Mann's) and his takedown of the criminal Neil McCauley (who De Niro's character is named after). For Mann, using the backdrop of L.A.'s great variety of locations was a "dramatic choice." He added, "For me, L.A. is more transient, more surreal, more Balkanized in a great way."
Editor's Note: This story originally stated that De Niro and Pacino played the same character in The Godfather: Part II. They did not and I can't believe I made such a boneheaded error.