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Christopher Nolan Talks Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ With Cast and Crew at the Academy

Al Pacino finally admitted it: Vincent Hanna, the dedicated Los Angeles police detective he plays in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime saga “Heat,” is strung out on cocaine throughout the film.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud,” Pacino revealed at a special screening of a 4K DCP of the film at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater Wednesday night. “But I’ve always wanted to say it, just so you know where some of the behavior comes from.”

The packed audience gave a knowing chuckle, as Pacino’s performance is so big and boisterous it has take on mythic proportions in his filmography.

A year after “Heat’s” 20th anniversary, the event brought together much of the film’s principals for a post-screening Q&A session moderated by filmmaker Christopher Nolan. Mann, Pacino and Robert De Niro kicked things off with an initial chat, and later — in what was quite a sight — they were joined by actors Amy Brenneman, Val Kilmer, Diane Venora and Mykelti Williamson, producers Pieter Jan Brugge and Art Linson, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, film editor William Goldenberg and sound re-recording mixer Andy Nelson.

By way of introduction, Nolan recalled reading a review of the film upon release when he was living in London at the time. The critic had pointed out that “Heat” was a new American classic, but Nolan wondered whether there was anything more to say in the cops and robbers genre. He soon found out Mann’s film transcends such labels.

“I’ve drawn inspiration from it in my own work,” the “Dark Knight” director said.

As has been recounted before, Mann took his own inspiration from the real-life saga of criminal Neil McCauley, who was finally killed by Mann’s friend, Chicago police detective Charlie Adamson, in 1963. They were two men, like Hanna and De Niro’s version of McCauley, who had a fondness for one another, despite being on opposite sides of the law. “They had the kind of intimacy only strangers can have,” Mann said.

That, and the idea of two characters the audience could invest in and pull for despite their goals being at such stark opposition to one another, was the germ of “Heat.” Mann first explored it as a movie of the week with 1989’s “L.A. Takedown,” and finally developed it to its full 172-minute glory six years later.

Talking character specifics, De Niro spoke about visual cues. “At the onset, I thought there should be that difference in the characters in terms of how they come off, what colors they’re in,” he said.

He also found it instructive that while Hanna’s life is falling apart — he and his wife (played by Venora) are “passing each other on the down-slope of a marriage, my third, because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block,” the detective confides in his foe mid-film — McCauley’s is just getting started. The career criminal has dreams of moving to Fiji, perhaps settling down with Eady, a young woman who enters his life and nearly disrupts the entire credo he lives by: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

As is always the case with a Mann film, exhaustive time was put into building backstories for the characters. “What the film is is the right now of it,” the director said. The richness of nuance built into the characters hopefully then seeps out onto the screen.

He also spent plenty of time detailing how a guy like McCauley might come to his world view, spending time in prison libraries learning the Buddhist and/or Marxist underpinnings that might inform his moral identity.

Brenneman, meanwhile, said she came to the table with a lot of ideas for Eady, which Mann was eager to hear. What she read on the page had her thinking the character was incredibly damaged, with father issues and perhaps even dark chapters of incest in her history. But Mann made it simple for her. “He said, ‘No — she just falls in love with him,'” Brenneman recalled. “It was really a beautiful moment. It was a surrender and letting go. I thought, ‘Oh, I am an aspirational hope for a person [McCauley].”

And Kilmer spoke about visiting the prison his character, Chris Shiherlis, would have done time in. He was filming Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” at the time, but was more enthused about the work he’d be doing with Mann and company. “The most fun I had doing ‘Batman’ was preparing for ‘Heat,'” he said. “I miss it.”

Fox Home Entertainment is targeting early 2017 for a release of the restoration, which looked incredible, Spinotti’s cityscape imagery as dazzling as ever. Indeed, “Heat” maintains an interesting place in Mann’s filmography, before he took the digital plunge and captured the nighttime look of the city so accurately in “Collateral.” It’s built with more classical imagery, kissed by lens flares, painting a dream-like atmosphere that is nevertheless a dark place where men break the law and others hunt them for it.

Two decades on, it remains his defining work. And it’s never looked better.

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