Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s new crime thriller about 1930s American bank robber John Dillinger, is out this week. As part of the promotional routine, Mann and stars Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard were in London, and took part in a press conference for a motley crew of journalists.
They were interviewed separately, for 20 minutes each. Michael Mann was sandwiched in between the two actors, and delivered an engrossing semi-lecture on 1930s America, bouncing off and ignoring questions as he deemed fit. Like his films, he came across as bold, charismatic and confident – but he has a fast-talking manner, a depth of reference and a heavily intellectual streak that would give migraines even to the seasoned culture vulture.
He packed in discussion of literature, human geography, history and media – tying it all to the importance of Dillinger and the social changes of the early 1930s; he communicated his passion for the project, and his acute attention to detail. Indeed, he probably imparted more information about the real history of the period than he gave away in his relatively minimalist, evocative film. An utterly heady, barmy press conference; we’ve transcribed it for you below.
Public Enemies features a theme seen in most of your work, that clash of law versus lawlessness. Why are you exploring this, and why choose the life of John Dillinger? I became fascinated with Dillinger, because of certain mysteries in his life. First of all, he was very bright, and great at doing what he did. And he’s regarded as one of the best bank robbers of American history, to whatever extent that’s worth. He was very very current, very contemporary. Very sophisticated. He planned his robberies with great precision and forethought, and employed techniques picked up from the military by a guy called Herbert K. Lam – where the expression ‘on the lam’ came from. He mentored Walter Dietrich, Walter Dietrich – the guy who died at the beginning of the film – mentored John Dillinger. So Dillinger’s time in prison is really a post-graduate course in robbing banks. But what really interested me, is he not so much gets out of prison – he explodes onto the landscape, he is determined to have everything right now. And lives the dynamics of maybe four or five lifetimes in one, and that one life is only thirteen months long and it has the intensity and white hot brilliance to it, and an indefatigable brio, that I found stunning in view of the fact that he had no concept of future. That he could plan bank robbery with great precision, but they couldn’t plan next Thursday.
There was no sense of, as there was with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Hole in the Wall gang, of making a quarter of a million dollars, then go to Brazil for a year and a half, and chill out. There was no endgame. There was this very very intense live for today, and whatever happens tomorrow, it’s fated. It’s not that by decision making or consciousness it’s determined, it’s just fated. And it’s part of current thinking in the ’30s – it’s within three years of Hemingway writing Death in the Afternoon, about facing death straight on if you’re a matador… Writing that every story ends the same way, with death. And not something that you’ll transcend, or go to heaven, or any other fiction – but not something that’s depressing, it’s just fact. We have Red [John ‘Red’ Hamilton, Jason Clarke in the film] saying, ‘when your time’s up, your time’s up’… and people had expressions like ‘there’s a bullet with your name on it’.
The spirit of this guy – for example, even when everybody’s dead and gone… and he has the outrageous audacity to walk through that police station. Which didn’t happen the day of the Biograph, it actually happened three days before. Well, it was just stunning, so for me to explore it and to try to bring the audience into some real intimate relationship with it, became the challenge of this work. To as much as possible to locate the audience in his shoes, in his skin, looking through his eyes. Y’know – what’s he thinking? What’s he thinking in the Biograph, when [in Manhattan Melodrama] Myrna Loy – who looked like Billie Frechette – says ‘Bye, Blackie’, and he’s watching Blackie, who’s played by Clark Gable – who’s derived from Dillinger! So it’s Dillinger watching Gable being Dillinger! And Gable seems to be thinking more about the future and how should I look at mortality than Dillinger is. And how did those words fall upon him? He doesn’t know that there’s 30 FBI agents outside, who are planning to kill him. So that was the real engagement.
That’s a long answer, I’m sorry!
Reportedly, Christian Bale was your first choice for Melvin Purvis, what was it about him that made you see him in the role? It says in the production notes that, in between takes, he kept up the Southern accent – is that something you encouraged, or was that his choice?
That’s how Christian does it. Every actor’s different. Some actors will put on that – being completely in character when they show up for work. A brilliant actor – Stephen Graham, he picked up that Chicago accent [clicks fingers] in two days. And that was just amazing, and then the second I said ‘cut’, he’s back to, you know [Graham is from Kirkby, Merseyside], and I could barely understand him – I need subtitles! Christian, on the other hand, just dives into the deep end of this swimming pool and he’s there the whole time.
The character of Melvin Purvis, if you know American culture and patterns of immigration and ethnicity – he was a member of the landed gentry. They were people who settled in the United States in the 1600s, they were from the richer southern counties of England, and they got the best land – Virginia and South Carolina. For example, the people who settled in Appalachia, where [The Last of the Mohicans protagonist] Hawkeye’s ancestors would have come from, were the people from the borderlands who got kicked off the land after the union of England and Scotland. And they got what was left over, which was this brilliant piece of real estate, the only thing is, there’s a bunch of hostile American Indians who said ‘this is our land’, so it was dangerous. So that was the tenement slum of the 18th century.
So he emerged as a very rigid young man, with very specific treasured traits, a very specific code. One of which was – in addition to chivalry, not saying no, and loyalty – was conflict resolution through violence is totally acceptable. A kind of a duelling ethic. But he breaches those codes when he drinks J. Edgar Hoover’s kool aid, when he embraces the notions of expediency. Which means setting aside habeas corpus, persecuting the innocent, using torture and those kind of things.
So I had to have somebody who could embrace those original values. And Christian, clearly, was the guy for me. When he got the accent down, he would [adopting Southern drawl] talk like this, in this genteel Southern accent, and it made his three year old daughter nuts! She’d say ‘daddy, stop talking like that!’, and he’d say ‘Well, dear, I have to play Melvin Purvis, and I will be doing so for the next…’ [drowned out by laughter, laughs] And that was it! He was a dream, though, a dream to work with. He’s a great guy, and a great actor
Is there a sense that, as Dillinger is such an American folk hero, that the film can’t help but glamorise him? Who glamorised him?
Just the film itself, you can’t help but sympathise with him… The media glamorised him?
Er, yeah, in a- Well, the media didn’t glamorise him. Contemporary news reports at the time glamorised him – there was something from the Daily News, a reporter who interviewed him at Crown Point, who wrote this big piece about how genteel he was, how charismatic, how well-spoken. How he didn’t conform at all to the stereotype – or archetype that they had in their minds of the criminal class, who they thought was some slothful somebody with dark skin and a low forehead and eyebrows. That was the take. And he would basically be this middle class guy, who was charming, who would be able to make you feel he was your best friend in three minutes.
And with Dillinger, this was absolutely tactical. And when they got this great press, which they did all the time, their heads didn’t get large. They planned their robberies with sobriety with great discipline, they had great operational security. And he was popular for [hitting arm of chair for emphasis] a very very good reason. There’d been forty bank failures in this recession in the United States – and the enmity towards the banks is palpable in the United States. And Chicago alone, in 1933, of 166 regional banks – meaning outside the Loop – 140 had failed. Employment wasn’t 8%, it was 25%. One out of four were hungry and cold and miserable. And most people blamed the banks.
So Dillinger is stealing from the banks, and he’s sharp enough to make sure that he treats female hostages well – because he knows that they’re all going to be interviewed. When Saager, the car mechanic who was taken hostage [as Dillinger escaped Crown Point prison] was released, there was a MovieTone newsreel – that’s where we got that scene from, it’s just a verbatim copy, it’s a xerox of the mechanic trying to sing out of tune on MovieTone news. So the attitude in the country, which was very wired. Everybody had only one medium – radio. And everybody listened to it, and the biggest radio commentator in America was Will Rogers, and the way Will Rogers reported what happened at Little Bohemia was like this – he was a very folksie guy – ‘well, the FBI had the whole place surrounded, and Dillinger was inside, and some other guys came out, some civilian conservation corps workers, so they just shot them instead. Dillinger and his whole gang got away. They probably will get Dillinger some day, when they shoot down a bunch of innocent bystanders, and they get Dillinger by accident’. That was kind of the media take, there was a begrudging admiration and ridicule heaped on the authorities.
As a person who grew up in Chicago, what part did the story and films inspired by it have in your upbringing and childhood? And, did they influence your filmmaking at all? Chicago, as a city, it’s a very tough-minded, and ironic, and humorous kind of city. It really has a Brechtian kind of wit to it. Which it why Brecht set [The Resistable Rise of] Arturo Ui in Chicago, and movies like The Front Page and His Girl Friday all come from Chicago writers, and are all about the newspaper business in Chicago. You know, hiding a wanted criminal in a roll-top desk – that’s very Chicago. I remember driving down Lincoln Avenue with my dad when I was about seven or eight or something, and he said ‘oh, there’s the Biograph, that’s where they killed John Dillinger’. ‘Well, who’s John Dillinger?’ It’s all kind of folklore that’s embedded in the brown bricks of the city. So it’s my neighbourhood physically as well as culturally. My wife and I used to go to the Biograph, because it was an arthouse by the time the early ’70s rolled around. So, it’s plays a big part.
And, becoming a filmmaker, did watching these gangster movies as a kid, did that inspire you? Not at all! First of all, I loved the literature of the period: Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and particularly someone who’s not as well read now, [John] Dos Passos and the USA Trilogy – Big Money particularly, about the Depression. And the ’30s is a fascination for me photographically, because of Roosevelt and the WPA [Works Progress Administration], and Dorothea Lange’s photography. And the first recordings of folk music, and prison chain-gang music, and blues – we used some of it in the film too, Blind Willie Johnson and the spiritual that’s there in the beginning. And it seemed like the rest of the 20th century was given birth in the ’30s, not the ’20s.
The world becomes streamlined, not just in the shapes that changed from neo-classical, square stuff. But in systems, all systems, centralisation. The commercial airplane is four years old. And Hoover innovatively takes that over, sends agents everywhere – networking, triangulation, none of this stuff had happened. America was very much, outside of the big cities, was absolutely in the middle of the 19th century. If you committed in a robbery in Wisconsin, and crossed the border into Illinois, you were home free. And there was nobody with a badge or any authority to go after you. It was almost like primitive territories. The use of data collecting, and disseminating information, it was all brand new. The highways were brand new – they had been built in the 1920s, they were only four or five years old… So these guys, armed with modern weapons, being innovative, using cars, travelling the highway system, going anywhere they wanted, were just about invincible.
So, that part of it. But it’s really the magic of trying to be intimate to Dillinger, trying to live in the ’30s, to place the audience – as much as I’m able to do that – in 1933, rather than look at 1933, and be inside the frame of reference of Dillinger with his period psychology. And that was the real traction for me. One other thing, the movies of the ’30s that I relate to aren’t those movies. It’s more Zero de Conduite [Jean Vigo film], and some French movies, than it is those pictures. Or if I went to those pictures, it would be to see [actor, star of original Scarface] Paul Muni do acting that’s directly from Stanislavsky, not filtered through the Actors Studio, so I wasn’t really a huge fan of the gangster pictures from the period.
How easy was it for you to get access to the locations you wanted in Chicago? And, how difficult was it to dress them up to fit the period? It was very difficult. Well, there were obvious things, where you’d have a building from the 1920s, and then you’d have three others that weren’t. And when we did the Biograph… they took down the authentic marquee about a year before we got there, which was a great tragedy. So we had to put that back. And then we had to change the ground level of all those buildings and put facades on all the buildings, and put cobblestones down, and put trolley tracks in the middle.
But there exists in the south-western quarter of Wisconsin a very unusual area. Wisconsin had a boom economy at the turn of the century, from around the 1860s, after the Civil war, all the way to about 1910 – it was lumbering, and iron ore. And so it was fabulously wealthy, so leading families in town, like Black Falls, Wisconsin, always went to Europe in the summer. It was like Silicon Valley in the ’90s.
But when lumbering was over, the south west quarter of Wisconsin doesn’t have rich agricultural land like the rest of the state did. So their economy just trickled along. Consequently, there were these fabulous towns and small cities that were built up, they were very well maintained, but they never got their Walmarts, or their Burger Kings, or their McDonalds. So the silhouette of these towns is perfect – exactly the way they would have been in the ’30s. They’ve got this beautiful county court house, county square, and at the end of the main street, the forests and the hills begin. So we did a lot of shooting up there, and also in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The small town, where they escape the Crown Point jail, that whole town is a town called Columbus, Wisconsin – it’s gorgeous – but we still had to change the ground for it.
The film has been praised for its fidelity to the truth, but how important is that for you? And when do you decide to take dramatic licence? I hope I don’t have a slavish adherence to actuality. It’s only when it’s magical, or when it means something, do you go there. So the magic of being able to shoot in the real Little Bohemia, in Manitowish, Wisconsin, for example, was superb. For Johnny Depp to be in the same bed John Dillinger really was in, for him to be shocked awake by gunfire, and see the ceiling that Dillinger saw, and to look out the window to see where this attack was coming from, was phenomenal. Same too with the Crown Point jail, it had been abandoned in ’74, was falling in on itself.
There’s some stuff on the Internet now, that has some footage of what that looked like when we first went there. We restored it, because you couldn’t invent a place that was like that. He didn’t take six or seven people hostage, he took seventeen guards hostage with that little wooden gun he’d carved. It wouldn’t have been credible if we’d put that in the movie, so we had to tune it down. The Biograph, for him to die on the same piece of real estate that the real Dillinger did. I’m most interested in how you think and how you feel if you’re an actor. So if it’s those things that provoke that belief, or the suspension of disbelief in the moment for the actor. And so too with the text.
The periodicity of the courtroom, just to take a lighter scene, the feeling of zeal in Purvis. I think that audiences are quite brilliant perceptually, we’re smarter than we even know. And we spot things that are wrong, we feel wrongly about them, and sometimes the intellectual conclusion doesn’t even land. We perceive the patterns, and things in the far distance, we recognise truth-telling style in the visual, even though we don’t know it.
Where licence comes in, like I said, he didn’t go into the Detective Bureau the day of the Biograph, he went into it three days ahead. Baby Face Nelson didn’t die at Little Bohemia, he died exactly that way, with exactly those people in exactly the same shootout, but it happened about a month later I believe. Or I might conflate characters, Makley is really two characters who did the same job, Charles Makley and Russell Clarke. The key thing for me is authenticity – how they thought, why they thought the way they did. And with that, we do a lot of work with period psychology. How to come onto a woman. How did Dillinger know how to come onto a woman? We imagine he went to movies to try and find out.
Public Enemies is out this week.