Blackhat: Michael Mann on Digital Filmmaking and Shootouts

Blackhat Michael Mann

Michael Mann has directed some of the best movies of the last 30 years. Now, the man who brought you ManhunterThe Last of the MohicansHeat and The Insider is pointing his digital camera at the world of computerized crime in Blackhat. The new film, in theaters now, stars Chris Hemsworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker tracking down an even bigger cyber threat in exchange for his freedom.

We sat down with Michael Mann to discuss how the filmmaker tried make computers cinematic (no easy feat), how he structured a story around cybercrime, why he chooses to shoot digitally without trying to make it look like film, and how the director who brought us some of the best shootouts ever approaches gunplay.


Related: What’s the Best Michael Mann Movie Ever?


CraveOnline: A lot of people have had trouble putting computers, and people who work on computers, on screen in a way that’s cinematic. Was that something you were conscious of and concerned about?

Michael Mann: Oh, sure. 

What was your approach?

What’s really going on inside the computer? And then when you find that out, that’s really dramatic. You find a way to make that tangible. That’s the idea, because I don’t want to be watching people type on a keyboard. I don’t want to hear it in dialogue. I want to know the adventure of what’s happening. So how do I take what’s going on, which isn’t really visible, and make believe it’s visible? So how far can I push the objective reality of what it looks like? 

It starts with a scan or microscopy of the inside of one of the processors, and what they look like, and if they were really undramatic I’d have done something else. But they aren’t. They’re extremely dramatic, because it’s messy and it’s dirty down there. You get down to 12,000 power magnification, everything is very disorganized and in disarray and there’s duplication, because some parts are falling over. 


“I like making things specific.”


So then it was, how far to stretch things into representation, as opposed to how they actually are. The only thing we really did was give the two states of conductive metal a color, because whether copper’s got a surplus of electrons or almost no electrons that doesn’t change its color. So we made it light and dark.

A lot of your films are very, and maybe I’ll use the wrong word here, but they strike me as very literal. Maybe Manhunter not so much, but otherwise here’s what happened and you film it. In Blackhat we’re getting down to representation. It looks like you’re using CGI.

I don’t feel they’re literal. They’re literal in the sense that I like making things specific. I don’t know if they’re literal.

Yeah, I told you it was a bad word.


But it seemed as though you were filming something that was happening, and here you have to create something. Had you used that much CGI before in your films?

I haven’t, and it was very difficult because some of those people speak a different language than the rest of us. 

Even after all this research into computers?

The computer people are great! We had experts from Qualcomm and from UCLA. Qualcomm makes 95% of the chips in the world’s cell phones, and what you’re seeing in [Blackhat] is partially a model of a Qualcomm chip from about eight years ago. They gave us a 3D model of it that we were able to move around in. The computing power required to move around in the 3D model of a chip is huge. I mean, you can go everywhere you want but you have two million transistors. Dealing with the CGI aspect of it, that gets difficult.