From Script to Screen: Michael Mann’s Heat

By  · Published on December 12th, 2016

An analysis of the diner scene from the page to the frame.

Unless you were alive for it, there’s no way to describe the ripple that went through the film world when it was announced that Michael Mann’s Heat would star as its two leads Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Though the two men at the time – 1995 – were practically synonymous with one another, and though they had both appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, these two titans of acting had never appeared on screen together, and the idea of them going toe-to-toe in a taut caper flick like Heat was almost too much to take.

When the film eventually came out, initially some folks were upset that for all the hype, DeNiro and Pacino only had a couple scenes together: the ending, and the now-famous diner scene. It wasn’t a lot, but it was more than worth it, especially in regards to this latter scene. It runs six minutes, 17 seconds long, consists of only a few shots – two over-the-shoulder close-ups on each character, and the wide shot that establishes them sitting together – and that’s it: one scene, two men, three shots, and together they add up to cinematic immortality.

It’s not just the depth of character this scene reveals that makes it so incredible, it isn’t just the cinematographical simplicity that perfectly establishes the adversarial relationship of respect between the two men, nor it is any individual element, but rather how Mann combines them into a scene of broad implications built on details. Like Kubrick before him – though they aren’t the two most directly-related directors – Mann’s cinema is one of minutiae, his worlds are rich with embellishment that fill in the blanks narrative, dialogue, and character alone cannot. And if ever there was proof of how Mann’s attention to detail factors into his work, it’s found in his personally-annotated shooting script of Heat, which for the purposes of his latest essay Vashi Nedomansky has merged the pages of with the diner scene as released to reveal what remained from the script, what was excised, and what was improvised in the moment. Not only does it provide an insight into the process of filmmaking, but the art of acting, of collaboration, and also the constant evolution that begins with the first keystroke and ends with the projector starting up. Fans of the film and filmic storytelling need to get their eyes on this immediately.

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