Michael Mann ’65: Location, Location, Location

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Mann on location in Columbus, Wisconsin. Peter Mountain/Universal Pictures.

Location matters to Michael Mann ’65. The famously meticulous filmmaker grounds his movies in detailed settings so vivid they became characters unto themselves. From South Florida’s pastel urbanscape featured in TV’s iconic Miami Vice, to the verdant forests evoking early American wilderness (The Last of the Mohicans), Mann makes sure his settings contribute mightily to the storytelling.

His new crime drama, Public Enemies, continues that legacy. But this time, Mann, a Chicago native, turned his camera toward familiar stomping grounds. Filmed last spring mainly in Wisconsin and the Chicago area, Public Enemies opens July 1 and chronicles the real-life pursuit of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). The manhunt led through a succession of Midwest haunts before culminating in a bloody takedown in front of Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934.

“There is no place else in America I can think of where [the] 1930s or ’20s or ’40s is as vivid as it is in Wisconsin,” Mann says. “I’d forgotten how beautiful the state is.”

By the time production began in March 2008, the writer-director had settled on a roster of evocative Wisconsin locales, including Beaver Dam, Columbus, Darlington, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, Baraboo, and Madison. “We found stunning locations, particularly for a period piece,” he says. “In the southwestern corner of the state, not much has changed since the ’30s. County squares are still intact, court houses haven’t been remodeled, and there aren’t tall buildings or Wal-Marts on the edge of town, so that became a really valuable asset for us.”

Mann also recreated a historic gunfight sequence at Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters. In 1934, the summer resort was riddled with bullets when Dillinger crony Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) killed a federal agent. Mann recalls the thrill of shooting on site: “Johnny Depp spent time on the same bed, in the same bedroom that Dillinger stayed in when the shootout happened, and escaped exactly through the same window Dillinger did. To see the actor put his hand on the same doorknob that John Dillinger turned when he left — that’s when physical spaces really begin to speak to you.”

Location also plays a central role in Mann’s personal life. His return to Madison decades after earning a BA in English brought “a moment of clarity when I walked into the Rathskeller,” he says. “I sat down at just about the same place I’d sit at in 1964 when I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life, looking out the same window where I realized I wanted to make films. It was kind of bizarre, in a really good way.”

Though Public Enemies takes place seventy-five years ago, the hard economic times that spawned Dillinger and his gang should resonate with contemporary audiences. As Mann points out, “In 1933, the fourth year of the Great Depression, unemployment in Chicago hit 44 percent. A lot of it was blamed on the banks and the seeming incapability of the federal government to alleviate the misery. Banks didn’t garner a lot of sympathy, so when you have well-spoken, charismatic John Dillinger holding up banks and outsmarting the Feds, in a funny way, he became this celebrity outlaw who kind of spoke for the mass sentiment in the United States at that time.”

Published in the Summer 2009 issue

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