Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe in Tokyo Vice
From his best-known television show, Miami Vice, to his latest, the HBO Max drama Tokyo Vice — not to mention more than twenty other acclaimed feature films and TV series over the course of a career spanning half a century — director Michael Mann is a master at infusing genre conventions with complex psychology, wrenching emotion, unnerving suspense and an alluring sense of style.
To put it another way, whether made for TV (including The Jericho Mile, Crime Story, Miami Vice, Drug Wars: The Camarena Story and Robbery Homicide Division) or the cinema (including Thief, Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali and Collateral), a Michael Mann project is both a cerebral and a sensory experience.
Tokyo Vice continues that tradition, as well as Mann's affinity for exploring subcultures governed by deeply ingrained codes of conduct — in this case, Japanese cops, crooks and the newspapers that cover them.
Inspired by American journalist Jake Adelstein's 2009 memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, the series, which was filmed on location in the Japanese capital, chronicles the experiences of Adelstein (played by Ansel Elgort of Baby Driver and West Side Story) as the first American ever hired by a Japanese newspaper — and the dangers he faced pursuing stories about some of the most notorious criminals in the world's most populous city.
Here, Mann, who directed the Tokyo Vice pilot and serves as an executive producer, discusses his approach to making the all-important first episode, the appeal of crime stories, the necessity of immersive research and his upcoming novel based on characters from his 1995 film Heat.
How did you become involved with Tokyo Vice, and what was the appeal of the material?
I became involved with Tokyo Vice when executive producer John Lesher, who had optioned Jake Adelstein's nonfiction book seven or eight years earlier, approached me with J.T. Rogers' pilot script. The appeal of the material was immediate. I understand — especially from past work, like The Insider — the thrust of ambitious investigative reporters, and I'm fascinated with '90s Tokyo.
How familiar were you with Japan and Japanese culture before taking on this project? How did that affect your approach to the material?
I had been to Japan many times, but in terms of familiarity with Japanese culture? Not really, not like when you live there, which we did in Daikanyama. Consequently, I approached the material with humility.
The first episode of a television series is important because it establishes a style and tone, introduces the main characters and provides a narrative foundation for the episodes to come. To what extent do those aspects affect the way you direct the first episode of a show compared to a subsequent episode or a stand-alone project like a movie? Anything specific to Tokyo Vice?
I directed the pilot on Tokyo Vice and that's all. For the subsequent episodes, the direct oversight was done by J.T. Rogers and Alan Poul. A pilot is a pilot in the definition of that word as "the first of." The world is a blank canvas. You have to exercise a singular directorial vision, cast the ensemble, impart a deep understanding of character, visualize the material world of the show and how it makes us and the people in it feel.
For Tokyo Vice, there was the palette, compression of nighttime Tokyo, the intense graphics and the overall ambience of lighting and how it's shot. Plus, editing, mixing, music. I paid particular attention to finding Jake's neighborhood, Akabane, and his familiarity with locals.
You're establishing patterns, cluttered newspaper offices or police stations or wild Tokyo nightlife. Then those patterns hopefully are replicated in the episodes. This is particularly important. Given the volume of content now available, the show has to have a signature. It has to have an identity that stands it apart from the miasma of everything else. That signature is what I tried to impart in the pilot.
On some of your projects you not only direct, but you also operate the camera. Why do you do that, and how does it enhance the experience of telling a visual story?
I sometimes operate because I can't resist. Other times, in an intimate dialogue scene, the actor and I will feel a closer connection if I'm two-and-a-half feet away from him. Plus, I know how that next line of dialogue is going to impact upon him, and so in subtle ways I'm adjusting the camera to feature what I know is coming.
Did you operate camera on Tokyo Vice? Why or why not?
On Tokyo Vice I operated, but less frequently because there was so much to take in.
Tokyo Vice shares some thematic similarities to some of your previous work, which has included characters with strong value systems or codes of behavior, even if they are criminals. How did that come into play?
In Tokyo Vice it's less about Jake's value system than it is about his ferociously strong impulse. There is an imperative within Jake. He's a young man who asks, "Who shall I be in this world?"
The first answer he receives is about where — Japan. There was a deep appeal of that culture to him at a pivotal time in his life.
The second was that impulse to puzzle from the chaotic and messy fabric of a real event what really happened. He's driven to discovering and reporting that small truth. The small truth that people didn't know. And, maybe one day, if he's lucky, creating a small piece of history.
But, as acculturated as he's become, he's intrinsically American with that inculcated sense of individual judgment. Up is up; down is down; there's true and false. That sets up a conflict when he's restricted from accurate reporting by corporate convention within the Japanese newspaper. That impulse within Jake is the imperative and the engine propelling the storytelling.
In Tokyo Vice, seemingly every institution or subculture depicted has a strict set of rules: the police, the Yakuza and the newspaper where Jake works. What is it about these rigidly structured worlds that appeals to you?
All kinds of worlds appeal to me. What's attractive about Japan is that you're no longer in Kansas. The modernist homogenization accelerated by jet-setting in the early '60s through the integration of modern life from the '90s internet has little effect on the rigid structures and value systems of Japan.
You'll see emergency vehicles' hyperactive P.A. [public-address system] shouting at pedestrians to get out of the way because the Japanese pedestrian believes in the inalienable right of tranquility and resents being disturbed by a siren. In the same way, a subway train may be absolutely packed, but it's quiet because it's considered impolite to talk and create noise.
Almost all your film and television projects, including Tokyo Vice, involve cops and criminals. What is the appeal of that world that compels you to revisit it so often?
The appeal of police stories and crime stories to both dramatists and audience is because the conflicts are overt. In The Insider [Mann's 1999 film starring Russell Crowe as a research chemist who, at great personal risk, becomes a whistleblower when an investigative journalist for 60 Minutes played by Al Pacino persuades him to appear on the newsmagazine to expose illicit practices in the tobacco industry] the conflicts were absolutely as lethal and devastating to the people ensnared by them; and, of course, The Insider had nothing to do with criminals and police.
Over the years — whether as performers, technical advisors, or both — you have worked with several former police officers, military veterans, and criminals, including Dennis Farina, Robert Deamer, Jim Zubiena and Edward Bunker. Beyond authenticity and veracity, what do people with those backgrounds bring to their work that stimulates you creatively and enhances your projects?
It's the stimulation of authenticity. I don't like films derived from other films. And I don't like sitting in a room by myself making it up. So, I'd much rather seek people who in their lives have lived the experiences I'm dramatizing. It can get rich and exciting, and I try to reach that point where I'm walking in their shoes and able to see through their eyes. Then I can fully imagine a milieu.
The Last of the Mohicans [Mann's 1992 adaptation of the novel by James Fenimore Cooper, set during the French and Indian War] was fascinating because it was all 240 years earlier, but there were oral histories by the historian Francis Parkman, who had interviewed older people whom he encountered in the 1870s who, as grandchildren, remembered the tales from their grandparents of what occurred in the summer of 1757. In the 1870s it was only four generations removed. But what might have been learned was a collision between Iroquois and 18th Century European courtship, which created how Daniel Day-Lewis looked at Madeleine Stowe in the infirmary scene.
What types of technical advisors did you work with to ensure accuracy of the world depicted in Tokyo Vice?
First, I immersed Ansel into reporting. What do reporters do? How do they do it? How do they socially engineer witnesses, what is the construction of a typical piece of good reporting in the L.A. Times? Through Lowell Bergman — the investigative journalist portrayed by Al Pacino in The Insider — I had contact with journalist and lecturer Jason Felch, who connected us to two crime reporters at the L.A. Times. One was James Queally.
Ansel reported on an incident in Hollywood, a robbery of an auto parts store by a man armed with a machete, subsequently shot and killed by police, in an incident of extreme police restraint...the opposite of news stories from Texas. Plus, demographic shifts in South Central, where Black families displaced by Latinx families are concerned about the change in school curriculum.
Additionally, Ansel engaged in classical aikido in Tokyo. It was not doing mixed martial arts in Pacoima. And learning Japanese, which he did assiduously, doing two to three hours every day with a linguistics professor in Tokyo.
From Tangerine Dream in Thief to Jan Hammer in Miami Vice to Del Shannon's "Runaway" in Crime Story, music is an important component of your work. How do you regard music as a driver of the style and tone of your projects, and how did that come into play with Tokyo Vice?
Pearl Jam's "Release" is important in Tokyo Vice. Jake is a product of the '90s, with that intense Pearl Jam/Metallica/Audioslave extreme yearning, a kind of ferocious determination to make yourself into who you decide you want to be; it's that commitment taken to the extreme. Plus, it's beautiful music. It evoked that middle-'90s culture.
You went to the University of Wisconsin and then studied at the London Film School. From there, how did you break into the entertainment industry as a TV writer?
After the London Film school, I did work on political documentaries and directed a short film [Jaunpuri], which went to Cannes, and commercials. When I returned to the United States in 1971, I started writing, and that came to the notice of an incredibly generous writer named Bob Lewin, who kind of mentored me, along with another generous writer, Liam O'Brien. As a result, I wrote the first four episodes of Starsky & Hutch. Bill Blinn wrote the pilot, which had aired a year earlier.
And I wrote for what I think was the highest-quality show on television in the late '70s, Police Story, executive-produced by [the former Los Angeles police officer-turned-bestselling author] Joe Wambaugh. Every episode was based on a real event, and you connected with the police officer who lived it, in a practice I continue.
From there, I was asked to write a pilot. It became Vegas, which ran for about three years, but I didn't work on Vegas. Then, I wrote and directed, finally, The Jericho Mile, which won DGA and Emmy awards.
Off of that, I directed my first feature, Thief. The next thing I did in television was executive-produce the pilot called Gold Coast, by Tony Yerkovich. We renamed it Miami Vice.
The year after Miami Vice was launched, I started what was probably the most unique and wonderful experience I had in episodic television, which was two years of doing Crime Story. It was the first true serial narrative on primetime, twenty-two hours a year. Remember twenty-two hours a year?
I remember the moment the idea occurred to me. I wanted to do a saga of the pursuit of Tony Spilotro, a Chicago organized crime figure who was played later by Joe Pesci in Casino. My friend Charlie Adamson, who cocreated the show and was Dennis Farina's partner in real life in the Chicago Police Department, followed Spilotro to Vegas. He went to work with Larry Leavitt, who was head of the Department of Justice's Organized Crime Strike Force for the Southwest, and eventually did the  Kansas City [organized crime] indictments. Who Spilotro was as a character and a person and the person and character — played by Farina — of Frank Torello, who pursued him relentlessly — fascinated me. How would I tell this in a motion picture?
The idea came to me to do it as a serial on primetime network TV. It was the first. Fortunately, I had a wonderful relationship with [NBC executive] Brandon Tartikoff, and he got the joke right away. We were able to launch and do two years of the show.
The next thing I did after that was Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, which won the Emmy for [Outstanding] Miniseries. Then Robbery Homicide Division, Witness and Luck.
You've been working in television for more than forty years — from the dominance of the broadcast networks to the rise of cable and now the escalation of streaming platforms. For most of that time, TV has been regarded as subordinate to feature films, but over the past decade or so, the balance has shifted. Regarding programming content and cultural resonance, what is your perspective on the evolution of television?
My perspective is no different than it was when I started. I come from a European tradition of directing in which directors directed a motion picture, an opera, a play, something on television and then a second motion picture. There wasn't that segregation within the industry structure as in the U.S.
So, to me, television was a different and very exciting kind of narrative. It occurred to me there was zero reason why TV couldn't be as boldly cinematic as a theatrical film I'd make — like Manhunter, for example. Plus, I had stories I wanted to tell and was able to push them out there through forty-four hours of Miami Vice's first and second seasons. What a great release, especially episodes like "Golden Triangle" or "Stone's War" or "Smuggler's Blues."
The way I regard television today is that when so much creativity is let loose, the results at the top get absolutely spectacular. I think what Adam McKay is doing with [Winning Time] the L.A. Lakers show on HBO, and the marvelously talented Sam Levinson is doing with [HBO's] Euphoria is brilliant. It is serious work, and it seriously advances narrative form.
You're one of the filmmakers featured in another HBO series, One Perfect Shot, created by Ava DuVernay, in which directors examine the details of a single shot from their body of work. What shot, from which movie, do you discuss, and why?
I discuss one moment in the shootout of the bank robbery in Heat. The reason for that moment — other than the kinetics — is that the film dives into a large number of characters' lives, treats all characters as fully three-dimensional human beings, authentically in lives they're living equally replete with aspirations and problems.
All their life story tracks converge for the first time in that moment. There are tragic outcomes. Breedan [Dennis Haysbert] is killed, [Tom] Sizemore's [character Michael Cheritto] is killed, [Al Pacino's character] Vincent Hanna's partner [Detective Mike Bosko played by Ted Levine] is killed. From that attrition there is, then, the immediate, urgent drive to the final concluding dialectic between Hanna and McCauley [Robert De Niro].
I say dialectic because we are emotionally engaged with each man, and one will kill the other. So, it becomes a fugue-like construction where we want both to survive, 100 percent. There's no compromise. And the challenge of being able to pull that off, wherein we're invested in the fate of both, and then afterward the dying Neil McCauley is fortunate to have the only other person who understands him most deeply at his side as he's dying, even though that person is one who just shot him — pulling that off was fascinating.
But the first collision of all characters occurs in that bank robbery. I'm not certain that I successfully expressed all the narrative functioning going on in Ava's show, but it was a great pleasure to be able to explore that with Ava DuVernay.
Speaking of Heat, in August, you will publish the novel Heat 2, which you wrote with author Meg Gardiner. It's described as a combination prequel and sequel to the story in the movie. Do you foresee other books expanding on the characters in Heat?
Yes, and I plan to go beyond the 2002 ending of Heat 2. I definitely plan on taking the story further. The character who dominates the last half of the book is Chris Shiherlis, played by Val Kilmer in the original movie. And his fate is left open-ended with him on the frontier edge of a new future. The Heat film is a slice of who they are. I had the full spectrum of early life. So, the ability to tell their past stories and imagine their futures in a novel was exciting.
Your work has included several characters who are either temperamentally or literally loners or outsiders, even if they are part of a group. I think of the characters played by Peter Strauss in The Jericho Mile, James Caan in Thief, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, Robert De Niro in Heat, Russell Crowe in The Insider, Tom Cruise in Collateral and now Ansel Elgort in Tokyo Vice. What is your affinity for those character types?
Interesting. I haven't thought of them as loners or outsiders. I try to make them highly individualized, three-dimensional, complete. And within the matrix of a drama with the characters and events in collision, to have a strong character to identify with is appealing to me.
Regardless of how we are in our lives — we are all alone within ourselves. So, I try to make characters real individuals, as unique and as complex as you or me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.