Writer-director-producer Michael Mann

The co-exec producer of HBO’s Luck reflects on why the writing is so addictive and challenging and shares what it’s like to work with horses on the show.

With simultaneous careers in features and television, Emmy-winning writer-director-producer Michael Mann has inspired generations of filmmakers. His big screen credits include The Insider, the biopic Ali, Collateral and The Aviator, which he exec-produced. He was also a writer for such small screen hits as Starsky and Hutch and Police Story and changed the face of TV with the pioneering Miami Vice series. Mann is co-exec producer of the new HBO series Luck, which looks at the horse-racing world, marks the TV series debut of actor Dustin Hoffman and has already been renewed for a second season.


Tavis: Michael Mann is a four-time Oscar nominee whose many notable films include “The Aviator,” “The Insider,” “Ali,” and, of course, “Heat.” He has returned to television, his roots, in fact, for easily one of the most talked about new series of the new year, HBO’s “Luck.”

The project stars one Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte and others, for that matter, airing Sunday nights on HBO. Here now, a look at “Luck.”


Tavis: So David Milch and Michael Mann. Is that like Crockett and Tubbs? (Laughter) That’s quite a combination, Mike Mann and David Milch.

Michael Mann: Well, it’s a combination that we talked about over the years for a long time, because I first met David in the ’80s, and I’ve always been a huge fan of his writing.

Tavis: How did you two come together on this particular project?

Mann: David, with (sounds like) Mike Lombardo, but David asked me if I wanted to direct the pilot, and I read it and I didn’t really necessarily want to direct the pilot but the writing was so addictive and so challenging in its way of immersing us, like parachuting us right into deep in the character without prelude, without context, just right into this world, it’s a fascinating, fascinating world, a world that David probably knows more about than anything else. I just really got hooked by the screenplay.

Tavis: Because I’m curious how your mind works, when you say that writing – because I know how much the written word means to you, the script, that is, when you say “addictive and challenging,” that almost sounds oxymoronic, so I know you meant something by that. So how can writing for the viewer be both addictive and challenging?

Mann: Because it’s addictive in the sense that once I start reading the screenplay and I’m reading Ace’s dialogue and I’m imagining right away Dustin Hoffman, I’d like to cast Dustin Hoffman. Then you put it down and you leave it there for a week, and you start picking it up again and you can’t kind of get enough of it. You keep coming back at it for four or five weeks.

The challenge is a completely different part, and that is the challenge of the whole narrative format of the show, which is something independently I was very interested in, which is immersing audience very, very intensely, and the more immersive into characters – that’s what I like when I see cinema, when I see drama, is to be so deeply swept away by it.

One of the difficulties of that is that the most immersive kind is a real insertion, and those kind of insertions do not come with a lot of see Spot run type setup and explanation ahead of time. It usually comes with just kind of dropping somebody into a fast-moving stream, if you can imagine that, and you’re suddenly in it, because the real world is very detailed.

Whether it’s what you do or whether it’s what horse trainers do, it’s very detailed, and it’s not dumbed down. That’s what I found challenging about it, because in many cases in the show we’re indicating what’s happening by the attitude of the actor, not by the words that are on the page.

Like Nolte’s wariness when we first meet him, what’s he wary about? Why is he concerned that people are – why is he looking over his shoulder? Why is his horse a secret? What is the back story about this particular horse, whose father was murdered, we understand, and is a very special animal to him? We’re going to find out, but that’s communicated more from attitude, a coherent attitude by a really great actor.

Tavis: I’ve got some questions about the horses; let me start with the humans, though, since you mentioned Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte. Dustin Hoffman has been on this show many times. I consider Dustin Hoffman a friend. Nick Nolte I’ve never met, but they’re both A-list stars, A-list actors.

Mann: Right.

Tavis: To be direct about it, why are Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte doing television?

Mann: Because, and this is going to sound like a commercial for HBO, because this isn’t really television. This is, I think –

Tavis: It’s HBO, it’s not television.

Mann: Yeah, okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: That did sound like a commercial.

Mann: It sounds like a commercial, but it happens to be true.

Tavis: But I get your point, though. Go ahead, I get your point.

Mann: (Unintelligible) they’re doing some of the most outstanding dramas around, and they have a very unusual business model where the content is unconventional, that’s what they seek. It’s edgy, and along with that, for HBO, comes tremendous commercial success.

So the combination of both of those means that they can afford productions like this and they’re akin to galleryists, if you like, like Leo Castelli. That’s really the way they view what they do.

It was quite an extraordinary time to be doing this kind of work, and a lot of other work on cable television happens to be terrific. I’m thinking of “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men.” We’re really kind of in a period where 10, 15 years from now people may look back on it and say that was some kind of golden age of cable television.

Tavis: Did you have to have a cast this all-star? Because it’s not just the two of them, it’s a huge cast here.

Mann: Huge cast.

Tavis: A lot of A-listers here. Did you have to have that kind of cast to make this work, or why was that choice made, specifically, to have so many A-listers on this thing?

Mann: It wasn’t because they were A-listers. Dustin and I have wanted to work together since the ’70s, and when I read the script I immediately thought that I want to cast Dustin Hoffman. Then I got to Walter Smith, I want to cast Nick Nolte. Nick and I tried to work together on “Manhunter.” We also knew each other from –

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. Was it easy to cast both of them or did you have to convince them?

Mann: We had to have long conversations with Dustin, because he didn’t – was this going to be, like, seven-day shoots and there’s going to be a fire hydrant going off? The answer is no, it’s not. There’s going to be preparation, screenplays will be ready.

We’ll be working just the way we work as if we’re making a movie, and in fact we shoot at pretty much the same pace we shoot making a movie, which for me isn’t slow anyway. I like to move, move along.

The same kind of depth of exploring character, and Dustin is as specific an actor in what he focuses on, what he wants to know, as he was 30, 40 years ago when we were working on “Straight Time” and I was working as a writer. I was rewriting (unintelligible) “Straight Time” for him when he was going to direct it.

He’s as attentive and detailed, and Nolte is as authentic, in a raw way, but as authentic and ambitious artistically as he ever was.

John Ortiz, we’ve worked together three times. Fine, fine actor, playing Turo Escalante, the same – and then Dennis Farina, who’s my old pal from Chicago, and I couldn’t imagine that combination of Dennis with Dustin was perfect.

Then in an opposite pole, there’s this quartet of degenerates, (laughter) and not only are some – I haven’t worked with any of these gentlemen before, two of them are British, as you wouldn’t tell, but Ian Hart and Ritchie Coster, the plays who play Lonnie and Renzo, and then Kevin Dunn is this amazingly authentic character actor.

Tavis: I’m trying to think who it was, but another great director on this show at one point in time said to me that when he started directing he asked Steven Spielberg for some advice, and Steven Spielberg gave him two pieces of advice.

I forget the second, but one of them was don’t work with animals. (Laughter) Do not work with animals, said Spielberg to this up-and-coming director, and I’ve forgotten who it was at the moment.

But how difficult is it to work with animals? Do these animals have personalities; are they characters in this series, “Luck,” as well? Tell me about the horses, because it’s about horse racing, obviously.

Mann: They’re very much characters, and two of the horses – all three horses you see in the pilot are eventually – they have their own stories, and these horses are eventually going to go across the spread of nine episodes. They’re going to be wind up being raced head to head.

So it’s all heading towards – it’s more like a nine-hour – what we’ve seen is probably the first ninth of a nine-hour movie, okay? The owners of the horses are going to wind up going head-to-head, meaning Walter Smith, the Nolte character and Dustin.

Of course, I realized horses have personality when I bought one and I had one, who’s now out to pasture, a horse named Drifter. Before that, I was a city boy. Horses, I used to go out to the LaBagh Woods and ride at a stable once every two years or something; no idea about horses. Dogs, I knew, had personalities, but not horses.

But horses have really distinct personalities, and they’re magical in many ways. They’re not that difficult to work with, except that we’re extremely careful with the horses, and we have very set procedures which are very, very rigid.

The horse can run about a quarter of a mile. When we do a race, that horse can run a quarter of a mile, he has to rest for 20 minutes, then he can run another quarter mile, rest another 20 minutes, run a third quarter mile, then he’s done for the day. So we have to plan all our shooting.

Tavis: Do horses have agents, too, that make you live by those rules? (Laughter)

Mann: Yeah, just about.

Tavis: “It’s not in my contract, Mr. Mann. I’m only doing three -”

Mann: “Mr. Mann, look at the watch.”

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

Mann: “It’s 15 minutes. I got five more minutes of rest.” So for us to have, say, eight horses in a race, you know, we need at least 32 horses. But we’re very, very careful with the animals, as one should be to be responsible.

Tavis: If I were to ask you, as I will now, to put in a nutshell what the viewer, what the takeaway is for the viewer over this first year of the series, it is what? What are you trying to get us to wrestle with? What’s the takeaway here for us the first season?

Mann: Ace, who emerged from prison, having done three years for a crime he didn’t commit, is motivated by vengeance towards the people who put him there. It was a man named Michael Smythe, who’s played by Michael Gambon, who played the head of Brown & Williamson Tobacco in “The Insider.”

In seeking vengeance, Ace is going to get involved in buying Santa Anita, with a plan to bring casino gambling in, and it’s a trap that he’s setting. Along the way, Ace starts to connect with his horse, that’s the Red Irish horse, and then the unexpected occurs with Ace.

Each of these story tracks all vector towards culminating episode eight and nine. Walter will run the black horse at the exercise girl. There’ll be a competition between the exercise girl and Ronnie Jenkins, the jockey, played by Gary Stevens, who actually won the Kentucky Derby twice, who shows up at the competition. Who’s going to ride that horse?

The degenerates win, and the degenerates, what they’re going to do with their winnings, they are going to become horse owners. They are going to wind up owning that horse that you first saw race. That’s going to become their horse.

So they become horse owners, still living in this ratty motel in Koreatown called The Oasis.

Turo Escalante and the (unintelligible) that story continues with complexities of their romance and their relationships, and everything moves towards the realization of the deeper conflicts, the resolution of the deeper conflicts within every single one of our characters.

It’s almost as if each one is fighting some aspect of their own inner nature, and luck, to us, means, to me it means the yearning for transcendence, the yearning for some kind of change. The degenerate gambler who thinks I used to be a prince, I’m going to become who I really used to be if I win, or Marcus, who actually would like not to win, because he’s very uncomfortable having won. I’m talking about episode two now.

But that common yearning for change, change in one’s life that I think each one of us seeks, that’s the universality that I think is in this show that’s really rewarding when you stick with it.

Tavis: That’s what I wanted to get to, and I asked that because I’ve been reading a number of critics about the series. Some appear to get it, some appear not to get it, but the one thing they all agree on is that you can’t figure this out in the first couple episodes.

It’s going to take watching a few of these to really get a sense of where this thing is headed. I assume as a producer here you’re okay with that. Being on HBO, of course, gives you time to develop that, but we live in a world now where people’s attention span is really very short, and if I have to watch seven, eight or nine episodes to get to the point you’ve made now, which is that you’re trying to get us to wrestle with the humanity of these characters and this yearning for transcendence that we all want, what you just said so beautifully, will people stick with it? Two episodes, and you think we got it?

Mann: First of all, I think audiences are smarter than they know they are.

Tavis: Okay.

Mann: Okay? And we rely on that. By “we,” I mean David Milch and I; we count on that; we rely on that. We think that they won’t understand some of the details of how you bet the pick six, but they get it that Jerry had a very smart idea in this one race of betting only the one horse.

Tavis: Yeah.

Mann: They’ll understand that, and I think they will be easy with not worrying about some esoterica of detail that goes by as long as they get the general drift. By the time we’re into episode two, a lot of these explanations, a lot becomes clear, and I think audiences, I hope audiences kind of flow with the pattern of it.

Tavis: Can you get the general drift of a series like this without understanding horse racing language?

Mann: Absolutely. I don’t understand horse racing rules. (Laughter)

Tavis: And you directed the doggone thing.

Mann: Well, no, that’s actually an advantage, because whenever you’re on a frontier, meaning you’re kind of encountering something you don’t know, you’re really at your best. That’s true for an actor; it’s true for a director who’s responsible for the narrative.

So you have to find out about these things, it’s quite fascinating. The converse is also true. You can’t really – David and I were never interested in doing “My Friend Flicka.” If we’re going to do horse racing, it’s horse racing from super-money people to Charles Bukowski. That’s the world. That’s the real world of it, and that world, like any other world, if we’re doing a show about brain surgery, that would be real complexity.

Now we try to organize it and make it so that if you just kind of drift away with it you’re going to get the general sense of it. By the second episode, second, third episode, I think that everybody will be tuned up.

Tavis: You mentioned a couple of times in this conversation Chicago. You grew up in Chicago. Were these the dreams that you had as a kid in Chicago?

Mann: I had, probably without knowing it – you mean directing films?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Mann: Probably without knowing it. I was always drawn to certain kinds of architecture. I was drawn to listening to loud music and driving through some of those bridges in the city. I got excited by that.

By the time I was 21, I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to direct films. So but prior to that, no, I had no idea. I had no visual sensibility at all. I didn’t really have – I wasn’t attracted to cameras, I wasn’t attracted to cinema.

Tavis: What was the way in for you?

Mann: The way in for me was I took a course in film history at the University of Wisconsin, and started seeing some films, in particularly (unintelligible) and then “Dr. Strangelove,” when “Dr. Strangelove” came out. Between the two of them it was kind of a revelation, and one of the times in my life it ever happened.

I remember it vividly. It was 10:30 at night and I was walking down Baskham Hill, which is this hill, about 10 below zero, snow all over the place, and it was almost like – it just struck me, like the sky parted or something and a bolt of lightning came down, figuratively, and said, “You’re going to do this – you’re going to make films. That’s what you want to do.”

I’d been searching and was fairly well stressed out because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a (unintelligible) professional but it wasn’t for real, and then it just occurred to me, this is what you’re going to do.

Tavis: So much has changed in the years that you’ve been doing this. I was actually on a plane the other day and watching people watch films on their handheld devices. The screens on which we watch these things have gotten and I suspect will continue to get smaller.

As a filmmaker, given that screen sizes are smaller now than ever, has that impacted in any way the way you shoot or do the work that you do?

Mann: No. I still –

Tavis: HBO Go, for example, is offering this kind of stuff on small screens.

Mann: Right. No, that’s a great question because you really do scale your compositions and how you’re going to present the physical and the flesh-and-blood world to a certain format that you have in your mind, and for me it’s still the cinema screen.

I relate more to the fact that 80-inch plasma has just started to become ubiquitous and in people’s homes the fairly decent 5.1 sound system and the big screen isn’t that out of reach.

That’s why I take – so the distance you are from it, with the edges kind of moving into your peripheral vision a little bit, if you put yourself there, that’s what I’m composing for.

Tavis: When I say “Miami Vice,” because you know you can’t have a conversation with Michael Mann without at least uttering the phrase, when I say “Miami Vice” these many years later, you think what now, looking back on that?

Mann: What I think back on are some of the really stunning episodes we did in the first year and a half to two years, and maybe not so much the takeaway about the clothes and everything, but about oh, I don’t know, an episode like “Stone’s War,” which kind of did Contragate, and I had G. Gordon Liddy in a guest-starring role. Jackson Brown did the music.

Tavis: I remember that episode, yeah.

Mann: Yeah, and we kind of did Contragate the Friday before the Sunday that Hasenfus got shot down, and before it became a news item. That, “Smuggler’s Blues,” with Glenn Frey, which Miguel Pinero, the late, great Miguel Pinero wrote. Some of the (unintelligible) people still stop me and ask me, “What about that episode with the guy, it was Bruce McGill, who had,” for some reason they still remember it all these years later.

So I think about those, and how exciting it was to do it for all of us who worked on the show about 16, 17 hours a day. And as good as the people in front of the camera looked is exactly how bad everybody behind the camera looked. (Laughter) You saw people who were, what people looked like (unintelligible).

Tavis: Some (unintelligible) do that to you, though.

Mann: Me included.

Tavis: Yeah.

Mann: We were not fashion statements, but.

Tavis: So on this new series, “Luck,” you’re the producer. You directed the pilot.

Mann: I directed the pilot.

Tavis: Are you going to do some directing here and there, or are you just going to be producing on this?

Mann: I may, but I directed the pilot. For the first season I directed the pilot, and then I switched into the executive producer role, and then David and I are executive producers and show runners together for episodes two through nine.

Tavis: In terms of feature films, what’s on the docket for Michael Mann?

Mann: The docket. I just got back from doing research on one that a man named Alex Sage is writing in Indonesia. It’s all going to take place on the South China Sea, called “The Tam.”

Then developing something that takes place in 1415, culminates in the Battle of Agincourt. I love medieval subject matter. I’ve been dying to do something of the period.

Tavis: But you’ve never done one, though, to my – have you done something medieval?

Mann: No, I haven’t done anything medieval. (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Yeah, it’ll be your first time –

Mann: I’ve done “Last Mohicans,” that was 1757; that’s hardly medieval. No, but I love the medieval world.

Tavis: So “Luck,” this thing’s going to work, on HBO? I ask that because I love David Milch – the last project he did – “Deadwood,” of course, remarkably well. The last guy, was it “John from Cincinnati,” didn’t quite connect. But we’re back now with “Luck.” But this one’s going to work?

Mann: I certainly hope so. I certainly hope so. David’s a pro. David’s a tough guy. He’s been around for a lot of years. He’s a great, great writer. Some of the – I tell you what, David and a mutual friend, Eric Roth, who’s my sometime co-writer, and I sit around and we work on the stories.

Then David takes them away and he’s the boss of writing the stories. But some of those conversations, which we record and transcribe, are hilarious, so if for some reason “Luck” doesn’t work, I think we have a (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Tavis: Well, if anybody could bring that to life, Milch and Mann could. The new series on HBO is called “Luck,” as if you didn’t know. They have advertised this thing everywhere, and that’s another good thing about being on HBO, they’ve got the resources to put the word out about the project.

Michael Mann, director and producer, is the co-executive producer on this, along with our friend David Milch. Mike Mann, good to have you back on the program and all the best on – good luck on the new series. (Laughs)

Mann: Thank you. Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Tavis: Tell Dustin I said hello. Good to have you.

Mann: Yeah, I sure will.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching and keep the faith.


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Last modified: February 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm