AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
MICHAEL MANN – IN INTERVIEW
by Harlan Kennedy
Has Michael Mann gone Gothic?
Deep in the granite depths of a Transylvanian castle, something
terrifying stirs. It is none other than the transmogrifying remains of F.
Paul Wilson's best-selling shock-horror novel The Keep, now coming to live as a
$6-million grand guignol fantasy. Mann, the writer-director of Thief and (for TV) The Jericho Mile, has set out to transform
I met Mann amid the towering sets of the castle's interior at
This is the keep – or at least its studio-built interior. For location
shooting, a giant slate quarry in
Mann insists that the movie is not just your common-or-gargoyle horror pic but a fairy tale for our times. And he will forcefully wave a copy of Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment at you if you look quizzical. (It's best to wave back.) Bettelheim explained how fairy tales were complex moral fables salutary for adults and children alike. He insisted (and so does Mann) that unlike myths, which are built around clearly identified heroes and usually given a tragic ending, fairy tales are universal, generalized, and energetically moralistic. They also favor the happy ending. Says Bettelheim: "The myth is pessimistic while the fairy tale is optimistic, no matter how terrifyingly serious some of the story may be."
And terror, claims Mann, crowds The Keep. Its most notable nasty
is a metamorphosing monster called Molasar with a need for consuming human
essence by destroying human life. Into this creature's domain stumble such
tasty quarries as Jurgen Prochnow (Nazi officer), Dr. Ian McKellen (Jewish
historian sprung from
I take it that The Keep is not Alien Meets the Wehrmacht. You're trying to do something else? You're not just vulgarizing Nazism and turning it into the stuff of catchpenny horror flicks?
No! The answer to that is a categorical no. The idea of making this
film within the genre of horror films appealed to me not at all. It also did
not appeal to
But you tend to wake up.
In this movie – if it works – you don't wake up. You're swept away and you stay swept away. So it's very much a magical, dream-like, fairy-tale reality.
There is a book called The Keep by F. Paul Wilson. Was that your starting point?
No. The starting point really preceded the book. I'd just done a street movie, Thief. A very stylized street movie but nevertheless stylized realism. You can make it wet, you can make it dry, but you're still on "street." And I had a need, a big desire, to do something almost similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, where I could deal with something that was non-realistic and create the reality. There is an effect in the film whereby Molasar accrues to himself particles of matter from living organisms. Now what is the logic of that? What does it look like? How does it happen? What's the sound of it? I mean, that's a real turn-on, to fantasize what these things are going to be like. So you're way out there. And you have to be consistent. You're not rendering objective reality, you're making up reality.
But in this fairy tale we find the Nazi Wehrmacht – men dressed in totemic black uniforms with swastikas – things we can recognize and which set up a response.
Actually only about one-fifth of the film is involved with the Wehrmacht and the character of the Captain played by
Jurgen Prochnow. The film revolves around a character called Glaeken Trismegistus,
who wakes up after a deep sleep in a transient, merchant-marine setting some
And in the course of coming to the keep to confront Molasar, he has a
romance with Eva, whose father is a
Mediaeval historian named Dr. Cuza, very quick, very smart. At a moment in
history when he is powerless – a Socialist Jew in Fascist
And Molasar comes to life by taking the power, the souls, of the Wehrmacht Nazis.
What happens is that after the second time you've seen him, Molasar changes. And he seems to change after people are killed. After he kills things. It's almost as if he accrues to himself their matter. Not their souls; he doesn't suck their blood. It's a thing unexplained, his transformation is seen visually. He evolves through three different stages in the movie. He gets more and more complete. He starts as a cloud of imploding particles, then he evolves a nervous system, then he evolves a skeleton and musculature, and at the third state he's complete. And then it's a bit ironic when he's complete, because there's a great resemblance to Glaeken Trismegistus.
Is he evil personified?
No. Well, yes he is. Yes, Evil Personified. But what is evil?
Try Satan? Or Lucifer?
Yes, but think about that. Satan in Paradise Lost is the most exciting character in the book. He's rebellious, he's independent, he doesn't like authority. If you think about it, Satan could almost be played by John Wayne. I mean the Reaganire, independent, individualist spirit. It's all bullshit, but that's the cultural myth that the appeal taps into.
Is Glaeken Trismegistus the alter ego of Molasar? Is he the good side?
No, he's not. I tried to find a more surreal logic to the characters; so that there's nothing Satanic about Molasar. He's just sheer power, and the appeal of power, and the worship of power, a belief in power, a seduction of power. And Molasar is very, very deceptive. When we first meet him, we too believe that he is absolute salvation. And it's all a con. Now when Glaeken shows up, the first thing he does is seduce Eva Cuza. So my intent in designing those characters was to make then not black-and-white. I put in things that are not normally considered to be good into Glaeken and qualities that are not evil into Molasar.
Why did you choose these names? You wrote the script.
The script was taken from a book, which we've talked about; but I did give Glaeken his last name, which he didn't have in the book. And I couldn't find a better name than Trismegistus.
There's something about Trismegistus that rings a bell.
It's the Greek for "harvest."
Of course! Now once the script was written, did you change many details?
Yes. Once I've written the screenplay I've finished the movie, in the sense that I have a complete evocation of it on paper. Then it's a whole new film again when I start shooting. It doesn't change that much, but now the words are plastic, flexible. So I'm constantly rewriting bits of dialogue before I shoot, which drives the actors really crazy. Then two days before we shoot it they get new pages. Then the day before, they get more new pages. And then when I get them on stage I say, "You know the dialogue – yeah, well, forget it, I want to make a small change."
How important to you is the use of the wide screen?
Very. It's important to me for two reasons. One, because this is an expressionistic movie that intends to sweep its audience away – be very big, to have them transport themselves into this dream-reality so that they're in those landscapes, there with the characters. You can't sweep people away in 1:85 and mono.
Also, I'm just not interested in "passive" filmmaking, in a film that's precious and small and where it's up to the audience to bring themselves to the movie. I want to bombard an audience – a very active, aggressive type of seduction. I want to manipulate an audience's feelings for the same reasons that composers write symphonies.
What are your feelings about ultimately seeing this big-screen film on television and video-cassette, with the sides chopped off? Are you pushing your compositions toward the middle of the screen?
No. Whatever happens to it when it goes out on television or video, that's the breaks. I can't do anything about that. But I can do everything about the cinema experience which, for me, is obviously primary. So the shots are composed for the big screen and the film is designed to be effective for theater audiences. And if it does that job, then it's going to also do well on TV
With bits chopped off.
Yeah. But commercial reasons aside, I'm interested in the theatrical experience, not in the small-screen experience.
Of course The Keep isn't just a film with human heads, it's got Special Effects as well. Since there are a lot of pyrotechnics and elaborate technical challenges in the movie, are you storyboarding?
I storyboarded everything. Then I threw it all away. When you get on the set and the light is doing something different and better than you thought, you start moving your actors – and there goes the storyboard right out the window. In this picture we used arc lamps that date from the Twenties and Thirties to get a certain kind of hard blue shaft of light coming through all the openings in the keep. And it usually comes from behind people and makes shafts across them, creating a kind of Albert Speer-Mussolini monumental quality.
You make a film during a year of your life. You grow and you change. And if you're lucky, the film has increased in magnitude. By then, the effect you thought of a year ago can seem pretty thin. So there goes the storyboard again.
There are two poles in the movie: the village and the Keep. And whatever is happening in the village is completely different from what's going on in the Keep. So everything in the village is very bright, very white. It's got a basic innocence – with enough realistic textures like dirt to make it believable – and a slightly sinister overtone, which comes in the shape of the crosses. Rooftops are never symmetrical, they're always twisted a little bit. Basically we exposed for shadows, and let the highlights bum out everything for it to be sunlit and brilliant inside the village. Then when things start going bad it's still sunlit, and things happen in a very scary, overexposed way.
In the Keep everything is very dark. We exposed for the highlights and let all the shadows go. Instead of a flood or a wash of light, there are very defined shafts of light. It's only in those shafts that we can see things. The lighting was designed in a very integral way, very closely between myself, Alex Thompson [the cinematographer], and John Box [the production designer].
We're living in an age where there are nuclear factors contending and the planet is in jeopardy. So is this film an escape from or a confrontation with that reality?
It's both, I think. It's a reality that's not part of everybody's everyday reality; it's a dream. You bet it's an escape. The whole movie is one huge dilation of space and time into a dream reality, so it's a huge escape. But in dreams there are a lot of hidden themes. With the themes, and how they affect an audience, I attempt to make the film very meaningful. Not meaningful in a two-dimensional way like a message. You know, "Those guys' politics bad: these guys' politics good." Nothing as specific as that, but rather a penetration of psychological realities.
How do you think audiences will feel after seeing your film? Disturbed, frightened? Will they be thinking?
If the film works, they'll come out emotionally exhausted. The film is uplifting in the end, the way it turns out. But then the next day the audience will start thinking about it and say, "Whoa!", The best work in Thief was immediate in that sense, in that people would come out either loving it or hating it. And some loved it and hated it at the same time. A friend of mine called and said, "The film was fabulous, l just hated it." When I asked why, he said, "Because I like to feel that I control my destiny, I control my life, and the film made me think that I didn't." As far as I'm concerned, that meant the film just hit a home run with the bases loaded. The Keep is less immediate than that, but emotionally deeper because it tries to get at the way you think and feel in the way dreams work.
A Jungian interpretation or a Freudian?
Freudian. But not a slavish, doctrinaire, mechanistic approach. Any mechanistic application like that is not artistic, and a dead end.
You're using the music of Tangerine Dream for the film. Why?
Because we have a terrific relationship. I think their work on Thief was very successful. This music is very different. This is much more melodic, there are different influences. We're using Thomas Tallis, we're using a lot of choirs processed through a vocoder. I've got in my brain maybe seven or eight hours of their music.
The cinema seems to be bringing forth or giving birth to a new trend; myths, fables, fairy tales. Why?
In the Thirties and Forties people saw a movie once or twice a week. Now people see moving pictures six hours a day. So what's the motivation to go to the cinema? It has to be to have a different order of experience. Otherwise stay home and watch the idiot box. Cinema has to be more experimental, it has to transport people away, it has to provide them with a suspension of disbelief, a feeling they've been swept up into another reality they can't get when they're bigger than the image.
If there is a single trend right now, I think it's to people making very emotional films. Even hardcore Marxists like the Taviani Brothers are making very emotional films. Their film The Night of the Shooting Stars is a very political film, but it's political about emotions. It's simple and poetic, yet it's a cleavage right through modern man in a strange way.
What other films or filmmakers have impressed you or influenced you?
You're influenced by who you like. I like Kubrick, I like Resnais immensely. I like Tarkovsky, although there's very little in Tarkovsky I'd want to do myself. In fact I fell asleep through half of Solaris, but I still love it. And Stalker. He has a Russian, suffering nerve of pace that it's hard to relate to, but you can't help being impressed and moved by what you see.
Do you want to produce films?
Yes, because there are more pictures I would like to see made than I can make or want to make. A case in point is a screenplay I wrote called Heat, which I love. As a writer, I really want to see this picture made. But as a director I don't want to touch it.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1983 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.