The last time we saw a Michael Mann movie on the big screen it was 2009’s Public Enemies. He’s back, as teased in the Blackhat trailer, with a film that could not be timelier with its spotlight on international hacking.
It may have been a few years since his last film, but that’s just because he’s been so focused on bringing the reality of the hacking world to life in the purest of ways.
“After I did Public Enemies I did Luck for almost two years and then from Luck I started working on three screenplays in which this is one. We were in Washington when the story really occurred to us on August 8th, 2011. So we’ve been on this for three and a half years,” Mann told Movie Fanatic.
Mann has helmed some of the greatest crime dramas in the last three decades, from Collateral and Heat to Miami Vice and one of his first, Manhunter. But what he does with the cyber crime thriller Blackhat has the legendary and veteran filmmaker entering new territory cinematically. He was ready for a crime movie that couldn’t be more current if it tried.
“First of all it takes place in our world as it is right now -- right at the cutting edge of this moment. Everything interconnected with everything else, that’s the world we live in now. It’s never going to go back to being the way it used to be,” Mann said.
The plot follows a convicted Blackhat hacker (Chris Hemsworth) who’s under a conditional release from federal prison to pursue, in Mann’s words, “a cyber-criminal adversary who’s high speed, dangerous, world class. He’s a ghost, he’s out there somewhere. They don’t know who he is, where he is [or] why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Mann found the challenge in this modern tale truly welcome. It involved altering how he tells a crime story to reflect the changing landscape of crime itself.
“The mechanics of storytelling was an opportunity to also pull them out of the very current world we live in right now -- rather than something you might have done 20 years ago when they’re trying to find out the location of where a guy might be. You might interrogate an informant,” Mann said.
“Instead of that, Hathaway (Hemsworth’s character) cons a guy in the NSA to download a password and by downloading that PDF, Hathaway’s able to get in and get some software to restore some code from the reactor. And what does he get? He gets the location. Still don’t know who the guy is, where he is, what he’s doing. But they know that this guy’s command and control, his server, is in Jakarta, Indonesia. That’s a clue. The storytelling itself, I found it very exciting to be able to pull that together.”
Although the storytelling means may have changed in this cyber-driven story world, one thing in a Mann film hasn’t – it has to feel real. And that means going on location. In fact, for Blackhat, Mann shot in over 70 locations across the globe.
“First of all, this is a visual medium -- it’s an interweaving of text, visuals, music, the story, dialogue and you want places to feel evocative of what the scene is about. That’s where it begins,” Mann said.
“I found Asia a very exciting place to go. The ultimate thing is that a location makes the scene come to life. If the scene comes alive for us, it comes alive for all of us. The actors are walking in the room, they look out the window of the Hong Kong safe house and they see all this life that’s really there. It’s not digitally put in. It’s not a green screen where a gaffer has put in a piece of tape and says, ‘You see that piece of tape? That’s the rest of the street.’ That’s the real thing. We’re really there. You’re seeing that out the window. You walk to work and walk up the narrow staircase with all the smells and everything else and that’s really the place. We’re all complex organisms. We’re perceptually way more brilliant than we even know we are. We take everything in.”
One thing we appreciated in Blackhat is how Mann has weaved a web where the Chinese and American governments are working together. Too often, they are painted as our adversaries. Mann told Movie Fanatic that was on purpose. “Our relations with China are a fascinating balance where we’re adversarial with them in some areas, like naval presence. But, we’re very close partners with cyber intrusion and trade and finance. It’s a balance between these two relationships,” Mann said.
“We’re China’s biggest trading partner. They’re ours. It’s interesting. And one thing that’s interesting is when the Obama administration asks China for help with North Korea on the recent attack, it was something we thought way back when, if there was a common threat, they would work together.”
Check out one of Mann's best works and watch Heat online starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and go see Blackhat in theaters January 16.