The controller general

Michael Mann has built a fearsome reputation as a Hollywood hotshot, genius and control freak. Whether it's levelling a forest or hiring the SAS, everything must be just so. By Peter Guttridge
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Michael Mann's time has finally come. The box-office success of his high octane heist movie, Heat, following the 1992 success of Last of the Mohicans, has promoted him to Hollywood's A-list of directors. But it's been a long wait for the 53-year-old, Chicago-born director who was hailed back in 1979 as the new Spielberg on the strength of a made- for-TV prison drama, The Jericho Mile.

He's made only five films since then and the first three - Thief (1981), The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986) - were overshadowed by the phenomenal worldwide success of Miami Vice, the Eighties cops and cocaine show that Mannexecutive produced. Even so, one critic has gone so far as to call him "the key American auteur of the last 10 years".

That might be pitching it a bit high, but certainly Mann fits the bill as an auteur, given his consistent vision, the thematic continuity of his films and the fact that he is involved with every aspect of the film- making process - he writes, directs and, when possible, executive produces.A Michael Mann film, whether a period epic like Mohicans or a high-tech thriller like Thief, is a visceral experience, with a strong visual style and potent use of music. What he's after, he has said, is "the intensity of the experience, the power of film to ... take over your nervous system and sweep you away." Mann, sitting in London's Dorchester Hotel in expensive casuals, talks in a gravelly voice, combining tough guy prose with high theory - a consequence of growing up in Humboldt Park, one of America's toughest neighbourhoods, taking English at Wisconsin University and film at the London Film School.

His film-making strengths and wish to control his films have been on show ever since his feature film debut, Thief, in 1981. When Jericho Mile was screened on US television, he was offered 22 feature films to direct. He turned them all down in favour of a deal he struck with United Artists to executive produce, write and direct his powerful thriller about a Chicago burglar, played by James Caan.

After film school, Mann had remained in Europe to evade the draft, making documentaries and commercials. But he had always been drawn to stories about criminals and, when he returned to Los Angeles in 1972, had his first break writing for Starsky and Hutch. His talent for writing action scenes and for creating authentic underworld characters made him sought after for other police and crime series. He created the Vegas TV private detective series, then walked away from it when they changed his concept of an existential loner into "disco with white patent leather shoes and people running around in jump suits".

All Mann's films are about existential loners. His protagonists are honourable men with their own codes of conduct in conflict with the world around them. The high-tech professional burglar in Thief, based on the life of his friend, Chicago thief John Bardolino, is no exception.

Mann drew a startling performance from James Caan, who showed a vulnerability seldom revealed by him elsewhere. Indeed, Mann has a knack for bringing out hidden facets of actors. Who would have imagined Daniel Day Lewis as a romantic action hero until he starred in Last of the Mohicans? "I'm basically a director who likes actors," Mann explains. "I have a tremendous respect for the acting process.

Thief showed what Mann could do with music - the score by Tangerine Dream was apt and evocative. It showed too how brilliant he was at creating the right look for a film. In the extraordinary night photography Mann went for a hard metallic look, in keeping with the film's hi-tech content. He used entirely metallic colours - cyan, yellow, magenta - and a lot of reflections.

Mann's next film, The Keep, a horror story about Evil Incarnate, set in the Second World War, bombed. Mann returned to television. "I was asked if I wanted to take over a television project. It was Miami Vice. I read the screenplay for the pilot and my first response was `How do I get this out of TV so I can direct it?'. But I couldn't, so I ended up executive producing it then taking over the show and controlling it."

Although Mann didn't direct any of the show's episodes, his total involvement - "in the writing, casting, shape and scope and rhythms and patterns" - meant it had his stamp. He married fast-paced action to rock music for the first time on TV. He gave the show a distinctive look, colour co-ordinated - from Don Johnson's "Euro" suits worn with rolled-up sleeves, pastel T-shirts and expensive loafers (without socks), to the turquoise and pink art deco hotels he chose for locations. The result was exhilarating and had a major influence on TV, movies and even men's fashion.

Critics sniped, accusing Mann of putting style before substance. "It's not about style," Mann patiently explained to the film magazine Sight and Sound. "It's about the intensity of the experience. But that only works when what things mean and the way they feel are operating in total harmony. Style just gets you seven minutes of attention."

Mann is seen in the industry as gifted but infuriatingly uncompromising, a man who insists on handling every aspect of production from casting to the colours of a car. For Last of the Mohicans he levelled hills, cleared 38 acres of trees and hired 130 carpenters to recreate Fort William Henry. Small details received the same attention - the moccasins didn't just have to look as they would back then, they had to look as they would after someone had walked 60 miles in them.

This unrelenting approach pushed some of his crew too far. The first costume designer quit. The director of photography was fired halfway through the project, complaining, "He wants to do everything himself." Mann is unapologetic.

"Everything impacts on an audience. Everything. And you can either pay attention to it or let it go and let technicians do it. To me that's wasteful. I want to affect the way audiences think and feel as accurately as I can so I don't want to leave anything to chance. If something isn't quite right so the effect of the scene is diluted or one extra pops out wrong to your eye and blows the authenticity of a major moment - well, these things can't be allowed to happen. That's the kind of detail I'm interested in. But what colour the cars are? I really don't give a shit."

Music again played an important part in making Mohicans a gut-wrenching experience. "I use whatever feels right for the story," Mann says. "For example in the massacre in the forest, amid all the butchery, the critical path for the scene is that Hawkeye is trying to find Cora, the woman he cares about. So I went for a piece of music - it was a perpetuum mobile - which keeps the tension building and building in his search for her. Then when he finds her and saves her it resolves. It never hits a tonic but we bolted on the main theme at the end of it."

Manhunter, which he made in a break from Miami Vice, is notable for its extreme stylisation and use of futuristic architecture. "I was looking for a way to express the psychopathology of this world of horrific crimes without actually showing what Dollarhyde, the serial killer, had done in a realistic way. I built a house for him influenced by William Lescaze, the late 1940s futurist architect. Right angles are rational so there are no right angles in Dollarhyde's house - you have strange angles and intersecting planes all bathed in blue light."

For Heat, Mann attracted a first-rate cast headed by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, on screen together for the first time ever. Mann is modest about this achievement. "There's no entrepreneurship, I just showed them the script. I mean you're not gonna kid, coax, cajole or bribe Al or Bob to do anything they don't want to do. Nobody Svengalis anybody - these guys have been around too long for that."

The heist movie, which pits Pacino's on-the- edge cop against De Niro's control freak professional robber, is a heavily revised version of a TV movie Mann did in 1989. While its action sequences are the best of their kind ever committed to screen, he also takes time to develop the lives of even the peripheral characters. "I wanted to explore the characters in Heat. I always felt Mohicans was too tight, too compressed."

As usual he did heavy research, bringing in three former SAS men to advise on close quarter combat in an urban environment for the shoot-out after the bank heist. Attention to detail is what makes the sequence so riveting. "We went to great pains to be sure we got the right sound for the machine guns letting rip in the concrete canyons. There's a certain pattern to the reverberation. It makes you think you've never heard that in a film before so it feels very real and authentic. Then you really believe the jeopardy these people are in."

Heat came out at around the same time as Scorsese's much trumpeted Casino, also starring De Niro. Scorsese was canonised by critics as the great American director after GoodFellas but Casino looks old and weary compared to Heat. De Niro acting for his mentor, Scorsese, does a tired, seen-it- before turn, whereas for Mann he delivers one of his zingiest performances in years.

While Tarantino is generally seen as the new Scorsese-in-waiting, Mann might just have stolen a march on both of them. He is besieged with film offers now.

"I've made five films in 13 years and I don't want to spend two or three years doing the next one so I'm looking to speed up. Unfortunately the one piece I'm looking at which I'm particularly drawn to and which may be my next film is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It takes place in Mexico in 1840 and is a very daunting, difficult project." He sighs and scratches his head. "It's like, `That looks hard, let's go and do that.' Why do something easy?"

The National Film Theatre is screening all Michael Mann's films (including the UK premiere of the Director's Cut of `Manhunter') plus episodes of `Miami Vice' and `Crime Story' this weekend. (0171-928 3232 for details)