Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro Talk Heat

Celebrating and looking back on a modern crime film classic.

Last week, the Academy hosted a Q&A with the cast and crew of 1995’s Heat at their Samuel Goldwyn Theater celebrating the movie’s recent 4K remasteredness. The session was moderated by Heat Fan Club president and number 1 admirer, Christopher Nolan. Below are highlights from the Q&A with writer/producer/director Michael Mann and actors Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, courtesy of 3 excerpts uploaded on the Academy’s YouTube channel several days ago.

0:15 – Christopher Nolan kicks this whole thing off with a well-articulated, long, thought-provoking question about how Al Pacino and Robert De Niro approached playing the iconographic roles of Heat’s detective protagonist Vincent Hanna and criminal mastermind antagonist Neil McCauley, respectively. It’s the type of question that immediately lets everyone in the room know you’re smart and prepared. But maybe it’s a bit too well-articulated and too long and too thought-provoking because crickets greet Nolan for a brief moment after his question ends and is followed by some slightly awkward laughter from the befuddled participants. Dumb it down, Nolan!

2:00 — Pacino discusses the dichotomy of his and De Niro’s characters noting his character’s life is collapsing all around him as De Niro’s life is on the cusp of beginning anew. It’s an interesting dynamic on a relationship chock-full of ‘em.

2:40 – Although never explicitly shown in the film, Pacino says he performs as if his character is strung out on cocaine.

3:55 – Once Pacino is done, De Niro asks for Nolan’s question again. I thought he was playing the situation for the laughs, but it seems he actually forgot or wasn’t paying attention. God, I love Robert De Niro.

5:10 – Prompted by Nolan to discuss the approaches to the nuances of his acting in the movie, De Niro gives props to Michael Mann as a creator of characters that are written with depth and how he gives appropriate weight to all individual moments. Films are made by a committee after all, and it’s easy to forget all these other things handled by all these other people have to go right for De Niro to look good.

6:00 – Mann explains the richness of Heat’s narrative stems from developing a detailed history and personal motivations for each character and how they got to where they are in their lives at this current moment – this current moment meaning the events that took place in the movie. I don’t know if every film needs to craft a backstory like a Game of Thrones lore encyclopedia to tell a story with layers, but it’s obvious Mann has put the work in.

9:00 – Mann speaks on the fates of each character as a mechanism driven by what defines them. In his mind, it seems it was inevitable that the calculated, purposefully isolated character of De Niro would perish and someone like the more free-spirited, live-in-the-moment character of Val Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis would ultimately escape.

0:00 – Right off the bat, Nolan delves into the most memorable scene from the film: the exchange between De Niro and Pacino at the coffee shop, the greatest personification of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object paradox. Nolan seems particularly interested in the technical details, like how many cameras were involved and were the actors even in the same room together when the scene was shot (you only ever see one of their faces at a time, with the back of the other’s head as the offset).

1:30 – Two over the shoulder cameras – as used for the film – and one profile camera encompassing both actors in its scope – not used for the film – were rolling during the shot. Apparently, most of what’s seen in the movie comes from the 11th take, which was humorous to those involved because a) Mann remembers such a seemingly minute detail that the others seem to not have known or forgot and b) De Niro just recalls being frustrated at having to do multiple takes at all.

2:50 – Pacino makes mention to the fact that De Niro (or Bob, as his friends seem to call him) suggested they not rehearse the scene beforehand. They detail some actory reason as to why, but it’s becoming more and more obvious that De Niro just likes doing things, umm, a certain way, otherwise known as his way. Remember that Tribeca promo?

God, I love Robert De Niro.

5:00 – Nolan asks the two actors if after they were finished filming the coffee shop scene, did they know that they “had it”, meaning did they think that they just created what would become one of the most iconic moments in both of their careers. Ok, probably not meaning that, but meaning more or less did they think they did a good job. I just wonder what it’s like knowing you’re the shit, and everybody thinks you’re the shit, and you’re doing the thing that makes you the shit with another person of equal the shitness, and how do you not just be like “I’m great, all you guys suck” all the time?

0:30 – Mann talks about the inspiration of the Heat coming from a real life conflict between a Chicago police officer and the criminal he pursued and killed in the 60s, specifically highlighting the former’s appreciation and enthusiasm of the latter and the coffee shop discourse between the two that actually happened.

2:00 — The fascination of this story for Mann derived from the dynamic lives of its characters, how the criminals were more than just the laws they broke, how the cops were more than just the laws they upheld, and the polarities they each represented. Different sides, same coin.

Most fans of Heat and general filmmaking will find something of value from this Q&A. More videos expounding on several other areas of the film can be found here. Enjoy!