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TIFF Report: 5 Things Michael Mann Taught Us About Heat

During the Toronto International Film Festival, you have roughly 20 films to choose from at any given moment. Turning your back on all those options to watch an old film that’s readily available elsewhere may seem like a wasted opportunity—unless that film is Heat and director Michael Mann is on hand to share his perspective. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of this 1995 masterpiece, TIFF screened a pristine 35mm print and gave Mann an opportunity to answer fan questions. In the brief time he had to speak, the director made it clear that his attention to detail is no less thorough than that of his obsessive protagonists. In elaborating on this, here are five things Mann taught us about Heat.

All the characters are real


While the names in the film have all been changed, Mann says most of the characters are inspired by real people. It starts with Charlie Adamson, the Chicago Police Department officer, who inspired Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna and pursued the man that inspired Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley. “He killed the real Neil McCauley in 1963 in Chicago,” said Mann. “Charlie was telling me about this guy, and there was a wonderful duality about how Charlie thought about it. This guy was such a high-class professional thief, such a great pro, He had so much discipline. ‘Look how smart he was to do this and look how smart he was to do that.’ But his regard for the guy wouldn’t make Charlie hesitate for two seconds to hunt him down.”

Mann spent time in the trenches


In order to capture the film’s remarkable sense of detail, Mann knew he had to experience the real thing. “The research was living with and knowing some of these people,” he explained. “Thomas Elfmont, who plays the desk clerk at the hotel, is a Commander at the LAPD. Plain clothes. He and I spent nine months way before we got into pre-production. Every Friday and Saturday night, I’d go hang out with him and we’d just answer radio calls from 9PM until like 2 in the morning. Just rolling through the city on whatever was happening.”

Robert De Niro cased a real bank


Known for his own obsessive research methods, Robert De Niro proved to be a perfect match for Mann. During pre-production, the duo went to unusual lengths to get a real feel for robbery. “We went in and actually cased a bank, and they didn’t know there was Bob and Val [Kilmer] and [Tom] Sizemore. They were armed with weapons that weren’t loaded. The only people in the bank who knew were the security.”

Heat was almost a TV series


In 1989, Mann made an early version of Heat known as L.A. Takedown. But when he shot this 97-minute TV movie, it was actually the pilot for an NBC TV series that failed to get picked up. “I took about 40 per cent of the screenplay, and did a pilot for a television series because I was interested in expanding all of these characters and expanding their lives. Doing a prequel and imagining what it would be across 22 hours.”

Heat needs to be seen on the big screen


As anyone who discovered Heat in theatres 20 years ago will tell you, the theatrical experience is significantly more impactful than even the best home video presentation. “The eyes of the actors—particularly when it’s projected like this—you don’t get it even on an 80 inch screen,” said Mann. “They were so good, Val and Bobby and Al and everything. You forget how good they are until you see it on a screen this large, and you can just hold on their eyes. It’s just truthful.”