Mann Is In The Details

Over a piece of broiled fish and a cup of coffee, Michael Mann is talking about a smudge on Jeffrey Wigand's eyeglasses. The smudge, visible in a key scene in "The Insider" between Wigand and the wife he is losing, is of course deliberate--there are rarely accidents in the movies of this brilliant perfectionist. "The smudge helps me feel the awkwardness of the man. My heart goes out to him," explains Mann, 56, in a voice that's never shed the accent of his Chicago boyhood. "I was reacting against the airbrushed perfection of characters we see all the time in the media. Jeffrey and Lowell [Bergman] are so complex and edgy." More than the saga of the tobacco wars, it was the characters of the whistle-blower Wigand and the TV journalist Bergman that drew Mann to the project. "I felt a strong identity with them, they were so human and flawed."

Mann does exhaustive research at the beginning of a project (he can still detail the sociology of Iroquois families, which he explored for the 1992 "The Last of the Mohicans"), and he meticulously helps prepare his actors. For his 1995 cop thriller "Heat," there were intense interrogations before the cameras ever rolled; for "The Insider," he had Russell Crowe, who plays Wigand the scientist, do chemistry experiments. Mann samples music early in the creative process, and uses still photographs to explore the look he wants. But though he put Don Johnson in a pink T shirt and painted South Beach in pastels for TV's "Miami Vice," he insists he doesn't just impose a style. "It's a struggle finding the language for each film," Mann says. "It's also the most exciting part, and admittedly, I do it intensely." Among the future projects to which he'll turn his laser eye: a movie about Howard Hughes to star Leonardo DiCaprio.