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Michael Mann’s new film Collateral is in his trademark style, featuring a mythic coming together of two lives - those of Jamie Foxx’s cab driver and Tom Cruise’s hitman - at a moment of crisis for both of them. And using digital HD cameras, he could “see into the night,” as Hal Hayes reports.

For director Michael Mann, cities are mythical places. In Heat (1995), Los Angeles was as much a part of the story - and of the action - as were stars Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. In the trend-setting TV series Miami Vice, which Mann launched and executive produced, the showcase city of the Sunshine State became a place of mauves and dusty pinks where epic battles were waged which were only distantly related to the investigation of crime. Now, in his latest film, Collateral, Mann returns to Los Angeles and, using new digital technology, shows it in a way that it has rarely, if ever, been seen before.

Or rather, in Collateral, the City of Angels is the way it actually looks in real life, especially during the hours between dusk and dawn, rather than the way we see it in the movies. That, above all, was Mann’s reason for going with the Viper FilmStream and Sony CineAlta digital high-definition cameras rather than using standard 35mm.
“Film doesn’t record what our eyes can see at night,” he explains. “That’s why I moved into shooting digital video in high - to see into the night, to see everything the naked eye can see and more. You see this moody landscape with hills and trees and strange light patterns. I wanted that to be the world that Vincent and Max are moving through.”

"thrown together by circumstance"

Vincent (Tom Cruise) and Max (Jamie Foxx) are the two central characters in Mann’s new film: a hitman and a cab-driver thrown together by circumstance between 6 o’clock in the evening and 4 o’clock in the morning, taking a trip which, more than in any other of Mann’s films, fuses character and action. It’s a world that admirers of the director will be familiar with from Thief, in which James Caan lived through another eerily lit and dangerous night in Long Beach, just south of LA; and from Heat, whose climax at the end of a runway at LAX gets a nodding reference in the new film. Max has been driving a cab for 12 years, but still sustains himself with the belief that he is only doing this to make money while he builds his real business: a limo-hire company. This, though, is as much of a dream as the postcard of a tropical island which he carries behind his sun-visor.

Like many in his profession, Max is happy to talk to people and about himself. And indeed, that tendency (which used to be characteristic of taxi-drivers but which is a little rarer these days) was one of the starting points for writer Stuart Beattie. “It came from my own experience of taking a cab back from the airport one day,” he says. “I started talking with the cabby and, by the time I got home, we were chatting like old friends. Suddenly it occurred to me that I could be anybody and the driver would have no idea. I could be some homicidal maniac and he has his back to me the whole time. It struck me as being a potentially interesting setting for a drama, where you have two complete strangers sitting, one with his back to the other, in an enclosed space, totally alone. It just grew from there.”

After giving a ride downtown to beautiful young Federal Attorney Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith), with whom he establishes a surprising bond, Max picks up a confident, elegantly dressed man with a briefcase. Played by Tom Cruise with grey hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, Vincent turns out to be a character as far from the star’s heroic mode as any he has played, with the possible exception of the manic, manipulative self-actualisation guru in Magnolia, for which he won a Golden Globe and picked up an Oscar nomination.

“I think people are very complex, and there are many things at work within them that can be fascinating,” comments Mann. “Vincent is a character unlike any Tom has played before, and there was an element of risk for him to do this role. There is a power and an authority within Tom that I wanted to see come out in this character. You can see it, even through Vincent’s elegant appearance. You realise soon he is rough trade in a good suit.

"to rough up the surface appearance"

“I wanted the character to look very different from Tom Cruise, to rough up the surface appearance and give him a certain anonymity,” he continues. “It was also in the wardrobe, which was very important because Vincent is in the same suit throughout the movie. It looks like very expensive custom tailoring, but not done in the United States or even Europe… like it’s the best custom tailoring money can buy in a place like Kowloon: it has a certain foreign element to it.”

Getting in the cab just after Max has dropped off Annie (who will return for the film’s nerve-wracking climax, in which LA’s Metro trams replace the cab), Vincent pays Max well above the odds to retain his services for a whole night in which, he says, he has to make some calls, seal a few deals… What gradually dawns on us and on Max is that Vincent’s ‘deals’ are contracts in the hitman sense. Once Max has witnessed the first one, Vincent cannot let him go; and Max knows that, if he refuses to drive Vincent to any of the other addresses on his list, he will be shot as quickly and as unthinkingly as are the three small-time crooks who briefly steal his briefcase. Nothing personal. “I do this for a living,” he explains.

Although Collateral is a script that was brought to rather than commissioned by the director, it is hard to think of any other film-maker who could do it the kind of justice Mann does it here. It is a game played out to unusual but clearly established rules and punctuated with moments of violent action. These are choreographed in Mann’s inimitable style, with no sense of glorying in the gunfire or the violent confrontations and executions: Vincent uses just as much violence as is necessary for him to do his job. Or to finish the job when things go wrong, as he does in the penultimate confrontation in a crowded club. But, at the centre of all the fury, there is a quiet space - as the pair travel from address to address, shut up together in the intimacy of the cab - where the crucial character interactions take place.

“The amazing thing about the relationship between these two guys is that, in some crazy way, Max is inspired by Vincent,” says Foxx, who gives his finest movie performance here, both drawing on and totally distinct from his career as a stand-up comic. “It’s as if Max has been just bursting at the seams for something different in his life, and when it happens he eventually embraces it.”

“What I thought was brilliant about the script when I first read it,” comments Mann, “was the simple dialectic of these two very different lives coming together and colliding on this one night in LA.”

"one of the great LA films"

Collateral is one of the great LA films, focusing not on the tourist sites, but on the back alleys and gas stations and above all the downtown area where tourists rarely go. Occasionally, this is seen from directly overhead, so that it looks like a grid through which Max’s cab is driven on a route which, for all his love of short cuts, he cannot really control.

Downtown LA is like other US cities: high-rise offices and parking garages, hotels and public buildings. But it is also not like other US cities. “This is LA. It’s not Chicago, it’s not New York, it’s not Detroit,” insists Mann. “The air has a certain liquidity to it at night. It’s the way things are in LA. For people who don’t live here - or for some who do - it’s not the Los Angeles of palm trees and Malibu, but the city of Los Angeles: Commerce, Wilmington, South Central, East LA, downtown… 

“And there is a unique mood to the skies above LA at two or three a.m. Streetlights reflect off the bottom of clouds. Even in darkness, you can see into the distance: silhouetted palms against the sky… I had to figure out how we were going to evoke that three-dimensional night - how to see into the LA night.”

“Michael Mann has been to places I didn’t even know existed,” says Foxx. “I tried to tell him, ‘Mike, I’m from the ghetto,’ and he said, ‘You’re not from the ghetto. I know the ghetto. You want me to show you some ghetto?’ And he took me places where even I was like, ‘Man, lock the doors! Where are we?’ That’s the genius of it. Michael doesn’t try to make Toronto or Vancouver look like LA; you’re actually in LA, with somebody who really knows this city.”

LA is the cauldron into which the action of Collateral is poured, very carefully, over a very precise period of time. “One of the things that attracted me to the project was the compression of time: it all happens in one night,” says Mann. “The whole story takes place between six p.m. and about four a.m. in this PacRim-diverse and most contemporary of American cities, where coyotes roam the streets as if the layer of civilisation is new and temporary.

"the collision of two lives in very extreme circumstances"

“That’s the world I wanted Max and Vincent moving through as the story unfolds. Tonight, everything in their lives is changing. Totally. Forever. Finality has shown up on the horizon, heading this way. This is the collision of two lives in very extreme circumstances. It is a compression of all they have been and who they think they might be, all collapsed into the events of one night. I liked the intensity, the immediacy of that…

“To me,” he concludes, “it’s about emotion; it’s how those environments surrounding these characters make us feel, so the atmosphere around them was quite critical. I find Los Angeles at night to be very emotional. I wanted to tell a story that evokes some of the wildness that lurks just one layer below the surface.”

Published October 14, 2004

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