Director Michael Mann's 1995 crime thriller Heat is a modern classic. The film brought together stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the first film for them to share the same screen, along with a huge ensemble cast, to produce one of the best and most meticulously thought out heist films of our time. Heat has rightfully become a favorite for many (including a number of notable filmmakers) and has now received a new 4K transfer restored by Mann himself.
Set in modern Los Angeles, Pacino and De Niro played professionals on the opposite sides of the law. De Niro's calm and calculating Neil McCauley is a professional thief, while Pacino's high-energy Lt. Vincent Hanna is a veteran LAPD robbery-homicide detective going after McCauley and his crew. The large cast also includes Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Mykelti Williamson, Amy Brenneman, Danny Trejo, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, Diane Venora and a young Natalie Portman.
Mann based the story on the experiences of a friend and former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson and his pursuit a criminal named McCauley. Much like one of the key scenes in the film, these two actually did sit-down to have coffee together. During its initial release, the film became a box office hit, but sadly received no Oscar recognition. Regardless, this week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put on a screening of the film with its new transfer at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, CA. Following the screening, director Christopher Nolan was on hand to discuss the film with Mann, Pacino and De Niro.
“I’ve drawn inspiration from it in my own work,” Nolan stated during his introduction of the film he considers to be one of his favorites. It is no mystery how The Dark Knight draws a lot from the 1995 film and Nolan was happy to share the story of how he watched the film twice in the first two days of its release. Clearly the filmmaker was honored to discuss the film with these Hollywood legends.
Getting into the discussion of the film, there was plenty of acknowledgment regarding Mann's commitment to establishing incredibly detailed backstories for almost every member of his cast. De Niro, a method actor himself, would study with real criminals, while Pacino and the other actors playing detectives would conduct interrogations with informants. None of this material would be filmed, but it was all a part of the process. "What the film is is the right now of it," Mann stated, as far as detailing what it means to have so much research and preparation already done.
Much like his character in the film, Pacino proved to be the more boisterous of the two stars and was happy to share some insight on his character that has largely been a rumor up until now. The original script was said to contain a character detail that established why Vincent Hanna acted the way he did. Pacino had this to say:
"Sometimes I wanted to say where some of the behavior is coming from...I don't know if this has gotten out much. I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud. I might be breaking the law now, but I'll say it. The character I played is a guy who's been around, seen a lot of stuff and he also chips cocaine. That was a choice we made, but we didn't show it."
While it would be one thing to acknowledge Pacino's performance as an interesting look at seeing a great detective in action, knowing that a cocaine habit was definitely a part of who Hanna was makes some of Pacino's more erratic moments understandable. Given how cool De Niro plays his role, it is actually quite fitting to see his opponent go off the rails to an extent. With that in mind, one of the film's best scenes features these two cinematic legends together, which also prompted plenty of discussion.
Mann, Pacino and De Niro were happy to discuss the famous diner scene, in which Hanna and McCauley drop all pretenses and sit down to have coffee together and have a brief discussion, before going back down their respective paths. The scenes is incredibly important to the film, yet some feel it is so mythic that they can't even believe Pacino and De Niro were actually filmed together, as there's never a two-shot in the sequence. Mann spoke to how he set up that scene:
"What I wanted to do was shoot with two cameras; two over-the-shoulders. And I also had a third camera that we'd shoot in profile that we never edited into the film. I knew there'd be an organic unity in one take and a different organic unity in another...Most of what you see is all take 11."
After jokingly asking Mann, "Take 11?", De Niro would continue by adding his memory of the experience. He noted how they filmed much of the diner sequence in the middle of the night, starting around 1 am. De Niro also noted the plan to shoot the scene without rehearsals. As it was just a sequence involving two men sitting, it was better to play off of some of the improvisational moments that would occur for the first time, rather than have everything beyond the dialogue planned out. Pacino added, "Bob [De Niro] said there is no sense in rehearsing if the people around you don't know how to rehearse. That is a key, important fact."
Still, despite merely featuring these two men talking, Mann pointed out how purposeful some of the characters' movements were. Were Pacino to move his body in a certain position, for example, it would lead to a cut to a shot of De Niro slightly positioning himself differently, were he to have to be ready to go for a weapon. It all speaks to Mann's commitment to constantly being aware of what his specific shots and cutaways are trying to communicate.
In addition to Mann, Pacino and De Niro, other members of the cast and crew were eventually invited to the stage. Co-stars Kilmer, Brenneman, Williamson and Venora all took a seat. Also on hand was producer Art Linson, executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge, editor William Goldenberg, rerecording mixer Andy Nelson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti. Several members of the cast could also be spotted in the audience as well, including Voight, Trejo, William Fitchner and Xander Berkeley.
The various cast members were all given a chance to tell a story from their memories of the production. Val Kilmer noted, "The most fun I had doing ‘Batman' [Forever] was preparing for Heat." Williamson explained how he met with Mann and Pacino, only to learn that they paid off a previously cast actor to have Williamson in the film, as the two felt he was robbed of a nomination for Forrest Gump. Brennemen told one of the final stories of the night, which focused on how Mann would have long days of production, joking about how a night shoot featuring her in a car would turn into day and still require her presence on set, now sitting in a car wrapped in black.
To speak a bit about the newly restored transfer of the film, Heat looks better than ever. Watching it again on a huge screen speaks to just how enthralling this LA crime epic truly is. Between the famous downtown shootout and the climatic showdown in an airfield, there is so much to admire in these grand sequences that show just how skilled Mann is as a director and the truly amazing work done by the four different editors to put the work captured by Spinotti's cinematic eye together.
It should also be noted that while Spinotti shot Heat on film, he seems to have fully embraced digital filmmaking. He told Nolan to "come out of his cave" in regards to the filmmaker's continued commitment to shooting on film. Nolan chose to "respectfully ignore" Spinotti's remark, which highlights just how focused these filmmakers are on making the films they envision. It certainly paid off for Mann, who has continued to make fantastic features (The Insider is not talked about nearly enough) and has a true classic in Heat that remains a landmark in many ways to this day.
Heat is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD. Expect a new edition of the film with the restored transfer to arrive sometime in early 2017.