Michael Mann began “Collateral” with a directorial challenge. He wanted to know if it was possible to collapse an entire human life into a 10-hour narrative frame and them collapse that frame into a two-hour film.
The difficulty lay in content. Those 10 hours — the long evening a contract killer named Vincent (Tom Cruise) spends with a cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx) — had to present a microcosm of Vincent’s life, since Mann also started the film with a philosophical challenge. He was trying to answer a question; he wanted to know if one life matters.
“It’s the last line of the film,” says Mann. “Tom says ‘There was, once upon a time, a guy named Vincent — and did he matter?’ That was the core, from there I worked backwards.”
To work backwards, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, ” ‘Collateral’ is essentially a long conversation between a killer and a man fearing for his life.” That conversation is punctuated by five set pieces, basically short films that impart an enormous amount of information without the miasma of flashbacks slowing down the ride.
While the conversation and the set pieces were present in Stuart Beattie’s original script, Mann made two critical switches.
“The original was set in New York, with the leads written for New Yorkers like Ruth Gordon and Woody Allen, but I’ve always been fascinated with L.A. at night, and those characters didn’t work there, so I made them African-American.”
His vision of L.A. at night was neo-noir, an effect he achieved by blending a number of different formats into one gritty look. “Eighty-five percent of it was shot on video,” says Mann. “I wanted the audience to believe they were really in every scene, but the scenes were all very dark. I shot it so the audience would feel like they could see in the dark.”
While this night vision holds the film together, it was the characters that allowed him to range into a wider variety of genres than typically turns up in hit-man thrillers. From his signature stylish action sequences to the new territory of broad-stroke comedy, Mann plunges Cruise and Foxx into a bevy of situations designed to evoke as much intensity as possible.
In every scene, “I needed the audience to be able to imagine the entirety of Vincent’s life,” Mann notes. To make that happen he worked with his actors extensively on backstory, until they knew every detail of their characters’ lives — in Vincent’s case, from his childhood in Pennsylvania to his decision to become a killer. And while none of this material makes it into the film as content, he tried to reveal all of it through implication. Because such details demand time, Mann chose to stretch scenes that normally would have been clipped.
“The ride to the disco takes 10 minutes,” Mann says. “In most thrillers it would have been much shorter, but I couldn’t evoke all that psychology if the narrative was driven by a tyranny of action.”