Michael Mann: Mann on a Mission

More than just a writer and director, Michael Mann has proven himself to be a gifted psychologist, cultivating what he calls "structured schizophrenia"--working with actors to create personas unlike any audiences have seen from them before, as he did with Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans and Russell Crowe in The Insider. His latest transformation is Will Smith, who pulled no punches in altering not only his body but his entire mental state to play former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the hard-hitting biopic Ali.

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Long after he helped television find its cinematic potential with "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story," director Michael Mann ascended the feature ranks using stunning visuals, music and dialogue to tell stories about men struggling to live up to personal codes that inevitably lead them to sacrifice all they hold dear.

That same narrative arc--developed in films such as Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and The Insider--cut to the core of Mann's latest and riskiest project, Ali. The movie charts the political awakening of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, which led to his Muslim conversion and subsequent refusal to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds. That stance came at a great price, costing Ali, played by Will Smith, the heavyweight crown he won in the stunning knockout of the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston, and robbing him of his prizefighting career for more than three years. His embrace of the black-power and antiwar movements made him as influential in the political arena as he was in the boxing ring. Like all Mann protagonists, Muhammad Ali is as full of flaws as he is of charm--unabashedly womanizing, and abruptly rejecting spiritual adviser Malcolm X when the civil rights leader was ostracized by Elijah Muhammad, the Muslim leader who manipulated Ali for his own gain through much of his fighting career.

Perhaps Mann's greatest strength is his eye for casting seemingly unlikely actors who not only physically inhabit lead roles, but are up to the painstaking task of transforming themselves into a character. His approach has led to numerous indelible performances, perhaps the most dramatic being the transformation of Daniel Day-Lewis from art-house and My Left Foot origins to his convincingly heroic portrayal of frontier sharpshooter Hawkeye in 1992's The Last of the Mohicans. Mann took things a step further with Russell Crowe, packing pounds on the L.A. Confidential macho man and dialing down the testosterone for an Oscar-nominated performance as tobacco-company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in Mann's last film, The Insider. Indeed, some have murmured that Crowe's Best Actor Oscar for Gladiator was heavily influenced by his performance the year before in The Insider.

The stakes and level of actor transformation are just as high in Ali. While Smith is one of Hollywood's most bankable performers in popcorn films, he hasn't been seriously tested as an actor since an early standout performance in Six Degrees of Separation. Ali has a high budget--$105 million--and enters a holiday box-office derby that has historically shown disdain for boxing movies and biopics. The odds on Ali, the movie, might be comparable to those against Ali, the boxer, when he fought Liston or George Foreman. Of course, Ali became a legend for prevailing in both contests. Mann knows that the job he has done turning Smith into Ali will spell the difference between victory and defeat. He is predicting a knockout.

MICHAEL FLEMING: While Heat, The Insider and even Thief were based on real people, their stories were obscure enough to allow the films to sneak up on audiences. Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous living icons in the world. What made you do this?

MICHAEL MANN: There were two things. One was having the only person on the face of the earth who could possibly play Ali. Will Smith had the courage, the commitment and the conviction to launch into what he and I both knew it would take to pull this off. And that was a solid year of preparation. When you do what I do with an actor, you need people who have an extraordinary level of commitment that matches mine. We sat across the table, looked at each other and said, "Are we really going to do this?" We decided, "Yes, we will do whatever it takes to do it right." For me, the faith I had was based on knowing Will had an extraordinary and extreme commitment and intelligence. And he never wavered--ever. The other thing is, Muhammad Ali is, of course, an icon, and he is that to me personally. I'm one year younger than Ali, so the news broadcasts he was reacting violently to in his heart, that would enrage and appall him on a Tuesday night on the six o'clock news in 1967, were the exact same reactions I and millions of other people our age felt. Now, just because he's an icon, that's not a reason to make a motion picture.

Q: Well, it's almost a reason not to make one, because his story is so familiar.

A: I remember the exact moment it triggered for me. I was in London, doing press on The Insider. I found the way to tell the story, a form in which I had a possibility of bringing audiences inside the experience of being Ali. I could take that audience and internalize them into some of his experiences. That became a very dramatic motion picture.

Q: You mean the feeling of what it would be like to be in the ring?

A: I mean everything. Being in the ring, facing the monster Sonny Liston, understanding how strategic Ali's thinking is. The whole search for making himself into who he is. There's a refrain in the film, where he says, "I get to be who I want to be, not who you want me to be. I'm free to think any way I want." I wanted to show Ali as he forms who he is, and comes to the very courageous political positions he took. It's one thing to have a historical figure on the screen take a position, and show it objectively in a removed way. It's a whole other thing to feel that sinking feeling when you take that position and are denounced by everybody, the way he was in 1965. And not just by the right wing; he was denounced by [civil rights leader] Roy Wilkins, the NAACP, the New York Times, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis. Ali is a passionate man, and there were the romances, and the way his perception was rocked stunningly by going to Ghana for the first time, being in independent Africa. He says, "Where I come from, they barely let black people drive buses, and here I am, flying on Air Ghana, flown by black African pilots." He touched everybody, and experienced everything. And there is a genius to his language. It's very comedic, very witty. His native intelligence was apparent, even in 1965, but it developed. Will and I studied his press interviews, and there was an extraordinary difference from the time he fought Liston in 1964 to when he traveled to Africa to fight George Foreman in 1974. My personal opinion is that it had to do with supporting his family by spending three and a half years going to college campuses and getting into debates with everybody. That made up for the formal education that stopped for him early. But he started boxing when he was 12.

Q: Once you find the story as a writer, what does the director in you do next?

A: Then I have to bring an actor truly into the character of Muhammad Ali from 1964 to 1974, and I can design that journey. We spent a year doing that. It's not dissimilar in a way to Daniel Day-Lewis becoming Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans. Everyone thought he was five-foot-four and shriveled up in a wheelchair from My Left Foot, but he happened to be an athlete--he was a long-distance runner. We did a very similar thing here, and spent a very long time. This is serious stuff. You do not engage in trying to do Muhammad Ali lightly. You don't mess this one up--not if you're Will Smith, not if you're Michael Mann. And if you do, you'd better be able to say that there was not one unit of energy, a quotient of intelligence, that wasn't applied to doing this, and getting Will into that character.

Q: You've thrived by making over actors like Day-Lewis and Russell Crowe. Is "makeover" the right term?

A: It is much deeper than a makeover, which is cosmetic. This is a launch into structured schizophrenia. Here, you have to build within yourself another identity. Part of your brain remembers it when you go home at night, and some of Will Smith is banging around in there, but so is someone else.

You are trying to become a different person in the way you think and the way you talk, and what you think is funny and what arouses you. Everything has got to be that total version. It is difficult to let go, but there are parts of Muhammad Ali you would like to hang on to, anyway.

Q: Whether it's Will Smith, Daniel Day-Lewis or Russell Crowe, is there a way to tell you've got an actor game for this kind of transformation?

A: I can just tell. You've got to be able to look them in the eyes and judge: Are we on the same wavelength? Or, rather, are they as crazy as I am? Is there that same passion and commitment? Does something difficult get your blood running? Al Pacino is a guy who is always willing to get up on that high wire. Some people are, and some are not. If you do what I do, you need someone to be that way. I could tell that Will was committed to going there. Will's a guy who has tremendous charisma, and when faced with something difficult, gets excited about it. And we got there. That includes [costars] Jamie Foxx, Jeffrey Wright, Jon Voight. Commitment is an honest process, and you cannot pull something like this off without it.

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