31 Things We Learned from Michael Mann's 'Collateral' Commentary

“I start with a question as a storyteller and filmmaker, how should this story tell itself?”

Tom Cruise in Collateral
Dreamworks

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter finally gets off his ass and watches Michael Mann’s Collateral... and then rewatching it immediately after with the commentary track on.


I’m not sure why I’ve taken sixteen years to watch Michael Mann’s Collateral, but I assume it has something to do with how ridiculous and/or ugly Miami Vice (2006), Public Enemies (2009),and Blackhat (2015) are. You know it’s true. Anyway, it took the arrival of Mann’s hitman drama on 4K UltraHD to get me to give it a spin, and good goddamn is Collateral a fantastic film. It’s a gorgeous exploration of Los Angeles at night with arguably Tom Cruise’s finest performance, and it’s easily among Mann’s best films.

The new disc also includes a commentary by Mann, so keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Collateral.

Collateral (2004)

Commentator: Michael Mann (director)

1. One of the big reasons why he chose to make Collateral was the way Stuart Beattie’s script captures an entire story in a very short period of time. The whole movie is “like the third act of a traditional drama.” He likes how it doesn’t go backward to offer more detail into these characters’ lives, and instead we’re just catching them at this moment.

2. Cab drivers described their back seats like a radio station with a randomized tuner in that you never know what’s gonna end up playing out back there.

3. He intended the opening montage with Max (Jamie Foxx) to show off Los Angeles’ specific diversity in — “a Pac-Rim, Hispanic, Los Angeles way.”

4. One of the brief faces we see early on belongs to Manny Urrego who, as an ex limo driver himself, helped Mann by providing spreadsheets and a complete business plan for Max’s limousine company.

5. The sequence with Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) in the cab was shot with a Sony F900 high-definition video camera. “”If we were shooting film, you wouldn’t see any definition of the images behind them.”

6. The script for Collateral was originally written to take place in New York City, but he had been wanting to shoot an LA-set film taking place at night. The original also featured the Russian mob.

7. It’s not explicitly spelled out in the film, but Mann says it’s intended that Vincent (Tom Cruise) has been contacted and hired through a tangled network of ex-KGB, ex-Stasi, and cartels who “have the best of computer technicians, signal-intercept capabilities, to run sophisticated counter intel” to discover any pending investigations.

8. Heads up haters. Mann refers to Cruise as “average size.”

9. He mentions during one of the film’s many overhead shots that they were “only possible with high-definition video.”

10. Vincent is being intentionally rude upon first entering Max’s cab, but it’s not because he’s a jerk — he’s testing Max to see if he’s a man with an aggressive streak. Had he been, Vincent would have quickly changed cabs.

11. Mann imagines that Vincent lives offshore in “a domicile that’s maybe inUttahorn Province in Thailand or Songkhla… a Buddhist country where people leave everybody else alone a lot.”

12. Mann used Cary Grant’s performance in His Girl Friday (1940) — which he refers to as Front Page, the name of the play it’s based upon — “in preparation for Vincent’s use of irony, his droll wit, and his facile nihilism.”

13. The apartment where Vincent kills his first target is essentially as they found it. The crew only added a big screen television, although Mann doesn’t say if they left the TV as a parting gift.

14. He’s unsure if anyone will care, but Mann points out during the long scene in the cab after Max realizes Vincent is a killer that “for myself, I have to know exactly what a scene is trying to do, and I believe that I should be able to distill that into one simple set of words called ‘the action.'” For this scene that boils down to answering “what does Vincent want?” with the answer being that he needs “to manage Max.”

15. Cruise trained for roughly three months on the LA County Sheriff’s combat shooting ranges, and it was apparently his first time with live rounds. Surprising exactly no one, Mann adds that “Tom is extraordinarily skilled at everything athletic that he tries.”

16. He and Cruise worked out where exactly Vincent came from, and while nearly none of it is mentioned in the film their collaborative backstory is pretty detailed. “If he was in a foster home for part of his childhood, and he was back in public school at age 11, that would have been sometime in the 70s. He would have been dressed very awkwardly. He would’ve probably been ostracized ’cause he’d have looked odd. We postulated an alcoholic, abusive father who was culturally very progressive, he was probably part of Ed Sadlowski’s Steelworkers Local, he was a Vietnam veteran, he had friends who were African-American on the South side of Chicago. The Checkerboard Lounge is thirty minutes away on the Calumet Skyway. The father was probably an aficionado of jazz. There was a great jazz scene on the South side of Chicago, but it’s almost as if the father blamed the son for what happened to the mother. The father never tutored the boy in jazz…” And so on.

17. The scene in the jazz club is a metaphor of sorts for Collateral‘s themes with Max’s inability to improvise being chief among them.

18. “There’s a stillness to the depth of which Tom is into the moment,” he says regarding the scene at 44:15 with Vincent and Max at the table with Daniel in the jazz club. He adds that he admires Cruise’s acting skill here and that he’s “so economically. completely in the moment.” That stillness fractures for the first time after he shoots Daniel. “And there’s a paroxysm of regret. That’s the first anomaly to the perfect, machine-like presentation we’ve had from Vincent.”

19. Lenny the taxi company dispatcher is voiced by Michael Waxman, Collateral‘s First Assistant Director. He read them offscreen with the intention of having an actor perform them properly later, but “we couldn’t find a voice as wonderfully kind of annoying as Michael’s voice can be.”

20. Max’s mom is played by Irma P. Hall who they discovered was from a small Texas town very near to Foxx’s own home town. They compared notes and realized they knew some of the same people.

21. “This night we had elaborate security precautions,” he says regarding the filming of the sequence on the footbridge outside the hospital. Apparently the whole area is “hotly contested” by opposing gangs on either side of the freeway.

22. “I view music as telling different parts of the story,” he says, adding that he equates it to having multiple characters with varied perspectives.

23. He knew immediately upon hearing Audioslave’s “Shadow on the Sun” with Chris Cornell’s vocals that he wanted it for the scene in the cab where Vincent and Max see the coyotes trotting through the downtown intersection.

24. Fever, the club in the film, is a real club actually named Bliss. The characters enter at the real location, but the interior was filmed on a set built to handle the large number of extras and facilitate the impending action.

25. Foxx was supposed to drive forward at 1:25:24 with his door open and have it hit the parked cars, but the door closed so he just swerved the cab itself into the cars instead.

26. Mann views the cab ride after the club shooting as Collateral‘s pivotal scene. “Max, for the first time, is seeing beyond the end of the gun, and is seeing Vincent for who Vincent is.”

27. The cab stunt when Max rams it into the concrete wall and flips the car was captured in a single take with the car coming to a stop exactly where they planned. He thought it looked “too violent” though and did two more takes, but they ended up using the first take footage anyway.

28. He points out several shots in Collateral that wouldn’t have been possible on 35mm film including the one at 1:38:37 — a closeup of Vincent in the office that shifts focus to reveal Max on the parking garage rooftop across the street. “Max would either be not exposed at all, and/or he would not be able to carry the focus.”

29. That parking garage rooftop belongs to the Secret Service, and it was a long haul convincing them to let the film shoot up there.

30. As meticulous of a filmmaker as he is, Mann loves unplanned beats including the one where Vincent throws the chair into the glass and tries to jump over it — only to fall on it instead.

31. When Vincent repeats the bit about a man dying on the MTA and no one noticing, he’s actually asking “‘Will anybody note that once upon a time I was here?’, and he’s sincere.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“I start with a question as a storyteller and filmmaker, how should this story tell itself?”

“One of the hardest things for an actor to play is indecision.”

“The local gang, which is the 18th Street gang, provided the graffiti on the walls here.”

“Understanding Vincent doesn’t let him off the hook.”

“A couple other of these guys playing security guards are some folks we got on a work-release program from LA County jail.”

Final Thoughts on ‘Collateral’

Collateral is a brilliant thriller, and Mann’s commentary is informative to the extreme. It sounds almost as if the track is actually spliced together from two sources — the volume and tenor of his voice change on occasion — but he speaks throughout the film on all aspects of its production. Mann occasionally dips into technical jargon regarding his camera choices and such, and he offers praise for his performers, but the bulk of his commentary sees him exploring the story and character motivations. It’s a fantastic listen.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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