Interview: Michael Mann, Director Of 'Blackhat' Over his years as a director, Michael Mann has taken on many crime stories. In his new film, malware is a central villain and the hero battles an adversary who resides in the virtual world.
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'Blackhat': A Classic Detective Story For A Brave New World

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'Blackhat': A Classic Detective Story For A Brave New World

'Blackhat': A Classic Detective Story For A Brave New World

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Look over the output of writer, producer, director Michael Mann. You'll find a lot of criminal activity - films like "Heat," "The Insider" and "Public Enemies," TV shows like "Crime Story" and of course, "Miami Vice." With his new movie, "Blackhat," he's taking on cybercrime.

MICHAEL MANN: This is basically a detective story. It's a detective story, but it's happening in the brave new world that we live in.

RATH: Chris Hemsworth with plays Nicholas Hathaway, a brilliant criminal hacker in a maximum-security prison. When a cyberattack triggers a nuclear accident in China, Hathaway gets furloughed so he can help solve the crime.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Is he political?

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (As Nicholas Hathaway) Terrorist attack, maybe declaration.

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Carol Barrett) The guy we're working will drop the big hammer and not think twice about it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He's on the move again.


TANG WEI: (As Chen Lien) Now China.

HEMSWORTH: (As Nicholas Hathaway) This is only the beginning.

RATH: Hathaway teams up with a Chinese army officer, played by Asian-American pop star Leehom Wang. There's plenty of space for gun battles and explosions, but the heroes are fighting an invisible villain.

MANN: Hathaway has to find and stop an adversary who resides, for the most part, in a virtual world.

RATH: We have to talk about the weird timing on this because I imagine that by November, you've pretty much wrapped up everything on this film. Then the Sony cyberattack happens. What goes through your mind when you're watching the news about that?

MANN: We started researching this two and a half years ago. And the extent of intrusions and the awareness of vulnerabilities to hacking because of the interconnectedness of absolutely everything - we've been tracking it all along, so this was kind of one in a sequence. And since this is our subject, we were kind of familiar with it. What did hit home was that some of these people are my friends that got attacked, so that became very personal.

RATH: So what was it that initially got you excited about this topic?

MANN: Stuxnet happened, and I was very interested in that because it was more than a hack. It's not kind of impersonal, un-dramatic, just ones and zeros doing things.

RATH: Stuxnet was the worm virus that was sent to attack the Iranian nuclear infrastructure.

MANN: Exactly. And when I read about how the malware was built, it was a scenario but a very dramatic scenario, kind of a multi-act play. You know, who's conceiving this? Who's writing it? What kind of people are they? And then in the private sector, who are black-hat hackers? What is the - what's the high? What's, you know, the elevated experience? And we wanted to do a large-scale kind of crime story, something epic in size, and this was it.

RATH: You know, a lot of Asian-Americans have complained about wanting to have more Asian male leads that...

MANN: Right.

RATH: ...Aren't stereotypes. And the officer - the Chinese officer in this film, played by Leehom Wang, definitely seems to deliver on that. Can you tell us about him? I understand he's a pop star in China?

MANN: Oh, he's not just a pop star in China, he is the biggest pop star in Asia. He's Justin Timberlake of Asia. I had trouble shooting in some locations in Hong Kong because if I'd pan the camera to the right a little bit, there'd be some block-long, two-story-high, you know, billboard of Leehom Wang selling Seiko watches. We'd have 1,500 screaming teenagers at 3 o'clock in the morning waiting to see Leehom Wang. And Chris Hemsworth laughs about it, and told this anecdote - they're basically pushing Chris Hemsworth out of the way to get to Leehom Wang.

RATH: (Laughter).

MANN: He grew up in Rochester, New York, until he was 17. He's tremendously, tremendously bright. I love him. He's just a great guy.

RATH: Looking over your body of work, I mean, going back to "Crime Story" and "Miami Vice," you know, "The Insider," it seems safe to say you have a fascination with illegal activity.

MANN: Yeah, well, I like dramatic conflict. I like things in high relief. I like people who are faced with important questions that - you know, they have to make critical decisions.

RATH: Is there something about that that just opens up human experience for you somehow? What is it about it?

MANN: Well, it's kind of an opportune dramatic structure. Most of us live our lives within the confines of the judicial system we were born into, the political economy we were born into. A criminal, by self-definition, is outside social mores and values, so that puts him into conflict - conflicts that he has a struggle to manage to maintain his existence. And if I can bring an audience into some empathetic relationship where we're invested in them, then we see them in an internalized kind of a way.

RATH: I wanted, finally, to take you very far back because I came across a line in a piece about you, where it said that you, as a young man, you moved to London after discovering Stanley Kubrick, the great director of "2001," "Dr. Strangelove," "A Clockwork Orange," you know, many great, great films. I was just curious about that. What was it about Kubrick that caught your imagination?

MANN: You know, I saw "Dr. Strangelove" in 1963, when I was in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was an undergraduate. And it was a revelation. What struck me is that it was possible to make a film, as a real auteur, for a mass audience.

RATH: For people who haven't seen it, I should say that you are so inspired by a dark, dark, dark comedy about nuclear holocaust.

MANN: Right, it's something that I quite still haven't figured out, which is why that film passed the test of time. I don't know matter how many times I've seen "Strangelove," but it's as fresh and exciting today as it was, you know, in 1963.

RATH: Could you see yourself making something in that vein?

MANN: I...

RATH: What would be the black comedy that Michael Mann would make?

MANN: Oh boy, OK.


MANN: I don't know. I would really have to - that's a very good question.

RATH: Michael Mann's latest film is "Blackhat." It's out right now. Michael Mann, thanks very much. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

MANN: Pleasure being here.

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