Heat: The greatest film ever made not named The Godfather.
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of Michael Mann’s Heat; an epic crime saga set against the backdrop of Los Angeles. December 15th will be the exact date of 20 years, but I’ll start early. The year was 1995, and on the verge of release, Heat’s biggest marketing tool was the heavily anticipated pairing of screen legends Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. This would be the first time in both the stars’ decorated careers that they would be on camera together (they both starred in The Godfather part II, but were never on screen together given the separate time plot). Neither would disappoint. Pacino delivered one of his best later film career performances as Vincent Hanna, and DeNiro brilliantly, subtly brought the cool, collected Neil McCauley to life. But, filmmaking goes well beyond the actors. They are pieces of a larger puzzle. Filmmaking is a massive collaborating effort. All involved need to be on their A game, from top to bottom. The underlying facts of this production that most do not know about is what this article will deal with, and how and why this film became a masterpiece.
The Conception of Heat
Michael Mann wrote, produced, and directed this picture. Mann is a Chicago born and raised man, who embarked on a directing career that took him around the world. Still, it was his hometown streets that inspired this story. After making 1981’s Thief, Mann decided to rewrite a 180 page script he had been working on since the late 70’s. He originally wanted to have the script taken and made by another director. However, as he continued to rise through the Hollywood ranks, he decided to make the project himself. The story was directly inspired by Chuck Adamson, a Chicago police officer turned screenwriter and television producer. Adamson’s most notorious case was a gang of thieves led by a man named McCauley, who DeNiro’s character is named after. Some of the film’s best scenes were real life occurrences. The scene where DeNiro’s McCauley is breaking into a precious metal stowaway was legitimate. Adamson and his officers were on top of a building waiting for the right time to pounce on the real McCauley and his crew. One of Adamson’s officers went to use the toilet, and thus alerted the criminals, resulting in them fleeing. The film’s most iconic sequence, the cafe sit-down between Pacino and DeNiro was also based on reality. Adamson had run into McCauley one day in a coffee shop, and the two would talk about each other’s future and the possibilities to come. In the end, Adamson would gun down McCauley after a botched robbery, inspiring the ending of the film and the fate of its two main characters. All this history had led Mann to write the story that would indeed become Heat in 1995.
In the late 80’s, Mann had been hired to make a TV series for NBC. He reworked his 180 page script to barely over 100 pages for a pilot, and named it LA Takedown. The project was shot extremely quick, and the network was not happy with the product. Instead of ordering a full series, they instead chose to rework this footage into a made for television movie in 1989. The movie wasn’t received very well, with unknown actors and a story that wasn’t fully explored. LA Takedown would wind up being remembered as a sort of test run for what would eventually become Heat in 1995. For an interesting look of comparison between the two, here is the link to LA Takedown’a diner scene.
In the mid 90’s, after Mann wrapped Last of the Mohicans, he finally had the green light to turn Heat into a full length feature film. The script was sent to DeNiro, who enjoyed it so much that he showed it to Pacino, who also wanted in. With the two heavyweights on board, the supporting cast was rounded out. It cannot be stressed enough how crucial the supporting cast was in this film. Val Kilmer was brought in as Chris Shiherlis, DeNiro’s closest partner. This is one of Kilmer’s finest performances of the last twenty years, as he portrays a crook with a gambling addiction and crumbling marriage. Ashley Judd was cast as his wife. DeNiro’s crew consisted of Tom Sizemore, who was perfectly fit for a hard nosed criminal, Danny Trejo, a consistent actor known for his bad guy image, and Jon Voight, who was the crew’s fence and veteran presence. Even All State spokesman Denis Haysbert has an emotionally moving minor supporting role. Kevin Gage played the sleazy Waingro, pivotal to the film’s events. On Pacino’s law enforcement side, Mann veteran Wes Studi was cast as a detective, along with Michael Williamson and Ted Levine. Rounding out this all star cast is William Fichtner, as a corrupt businessman, a young up and coming Natalie Portman as Pacino’s distraught stepdaughter, rapper Tone Loc as an informant, Hank Azaria, and a then little known Jeremy Piven as a doctor.
The film would be shot 100 percent on location in Los Angeles, no soundstage or studio shots. Mann was big on research, and drove around with a police officer for many days to get a feel for the job, and had Pacino do the same. DeNiro and his fellow actors playing criminals were sent to a state prison to interview inmates. Ashley Judd was sent to talk to a prostitute for her preparation. There was a restaurant in Los Angeles that was a known gathering for both criminals and law enforcement. On different days, one group would occupy its back room. This is where Mann had his actors eat together. He forbid the actors playing criminals and actors playing law enforcement from ever being there together, for character and authenticity purposes.
Lastly, both groups were trained in military fashion to handle and operate weapons ranging from handguns to assault rifles. It is this type of dedication and commitment that resulted in the films authentic and realistic feel, which is crucial to the end product. One of the most fascinating facts of the process is this: there is a quick shot of Kilmer reloading his assault rifle, in the midst of the shootout scene following the bank robbery. It was later discovered that a Marine core training facility in California used this sequence to show their recruits how to properly retreat when severely outnumbered. Kilmer had learned that the training officer had stated, “If you can’t reload a mag as fast as this actor, then get the hell out of my core.” THAT is authenticity.
When all was said and done, the film was ready for release in December of 1995. The picture is nothing short of a classic. The writing is spectacular. It provided, rich, complex characters in an engrossing story. These two men’s obsessions with their lifestyle own them, and they respect one another despite their stands on opposite sides of the law. It is as if in another life, they realize they could have been one another. Pacino’s performance is reminiscent of his subtle early work, while also mixing in his trademark colorful outbursts. The “she’s got a great ass!” scene is evident of that.
Azaria would later reveal his reaction is wholly legitimate, that he was shocked and had no idea where Pacino was coming from or going. DeNiro yet again commands the screen with such a calm, powerful presence. All the supporting characters are excellent, and really carry their weight to fulfill the story being told.
The superb bank robbery sequence would go down as one of the best ever, if not the best. Real life robbers would go on to try and mimic it. Christopher Nolan, arguably Hollywood’s biggest director right now, has said that scene and film inspired his opening and vision for The Dark Knight. Mann’s crew was forced to shoot on weekends only for it, astounding given the result.
The build towards the movie’s climax is filled with tension. The cat and mouse game between Pacino and DeNiro comes to a final showdown, leaving the viewer clamoring to see who comes out on top. Accompanied by a perfectly blended score, it is an immensely moving finale.
All in all, this film is a massive achievement. Every single facet of this movie is fantastic. Rarely does a film hit on all cylinders of production. This one does, and then some. Given all that, this film will still always be remembered for this next clip: The scene that finally brought the audience the long overdue pairing of the acting titans known as Pacino and DeNiro. What follows is two masters at the top of their craft, in arguably one of the best scenes cinema has ever produced. These two men playing off one another, reading each other, ever so simply, yet so powerfully. It is pure cinematic legend.