Michael Mann interviewed by Harlan Kennedy
Has Michael Mann gone Gothic?
Deep in the granite depths of a Transylvanian castle, something
terrifying stirs. It is none other than the transmorgifying remains of
F. Paul Wilson's bestselling shock-horror novel "The Keep," now coming to
life as a $6-million "grand guignol" fantasy. Mann, the writer-director
of "Thief" and (for TV) "The Jericho Mile," has set out to transform
Wilson's potboiler about vampires versus the Third Reich into a multi-
layer allegory. And now, after a six-month delay due to the death of
special effects wizard Wally Veevers, "The Keep" is ready to go as one of
Paramount's big releases this Christmas.
I met Mann amid the towering sets of the castle's interior at
Shepperton Studios, London. Black stone walls beetle ceilingward; shafts
of eerie blue light rake the sound stage; and charred human remains,
victims of the omnivorous monster at the movie's centre, are uggily
discernible in nooks and crannies.
This is the keep -- or at least its studio-built interior. For
location shooting, a giant slate quarry in Wales has been used, where a
specially-built Rumanian village nestles inside the striated cliff-walls,
one of which doubles as the majestic castle entrance.
Mann insists that the movie is not just your common-or-gargoyle
horror pic but a fairy tale for our times. And he will forcefully wave
a copy of Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" at you if you look
quizzical. (It's best to wave back.) Bettelheim explained how fairy
tales were complex moral fables salutary for adults and children alike.
He insisted (and so does Mann) that unlike myths, which are built around
clearly identified heroes and usually given a tragic ending, fairy tales
are universal, generalized, and energetically moralistic. They also
favor the happy ending. Says Bettelheim: "The myth is pessimistic while
the fairy tale is optimistic, no matter how terrifyingly serious some of
the story may be."
And terror, claims Mann, crowds "The Keep." Its most notable nasty
is a metamorphosing monster called Molasar with a need for consuming
human essence by destroying human life. Into this creature's domain
stumble such tasty quarries as Jurgen Prochnow (Nazi officer), Dr. Ian
McKellen (Jewish historian sprung from Dachau to investigate the ogre),
Alberta Watson (McKellen's daughter), and Scott Glenn as Glaeken
Trismegistus, destiny's chosen antagonist to Molasar.
HK: I take it that "The Keep" is not "Alien Meets the Wehrmacht." You're
trying to do something else? You're not just vulgarizing Nazism and
turning it into the stuff of catchpenny horror flicks?
MM: No! The answer to that is a categorical no. The idea of making this
film within the genre of horror films appealed to me not at all. It also
did not appeal to Paramount. That doesn't mean the movie isn't scary.
It's very scary, very horrifying, and it's also very erotic in parts.
But what it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely
emotional. It has the passions that happen in dreams sometimes when
you're grabbed in the middle of the dream and yanked into places you
either want to get out of or you never want to leave.
HK: But you tend to wake up.
MM: In this movie -- if it works -- you don't wake up. You're swept away
and you stay swept away. So it's very much a magical, dream-like, fairy-
HK: There is a book called "The Keep" by F. Paul Wilson. Was that your
MM: No. The starting point really preceded the book. I'd just done a
street movie, "Thief." A very stylized street movie but nevertheless
stylized *realism*. You can make it wet, you can make it dry, but you're
still on "street." And I had a big need, a big desire, to do something
almost similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of
Solitude," where I could deal with something that was non-realistic and
create the reality. There is an effect in the film whereby Molasar
accrues to himself particles of matter from living organisms. Now what
is the logic of that? What does it look like? How does it happen?
What's the sound of it? I mean, that's a real turn-on, to fantasize what
these things are going to be like. So you're way out there. And you
have to be consistent. You're not rendering objective reality, you're
making up reality.
HK: But in this fairy tale we find the Nazi Wehrmacht -- men dressed in
totemic black uniforms with swastikas -- things we can recognize and
which set up a response.
MM: Actually only about one-fifth of the film is involved with the
Wehrmact and the character of the captain played by Jurgen Prochnow. The
film revolves around Glaeken Trismegistus, who wakes up after a deep
sleep in a transient, merchant-marine setting some place in Greece in
1941. The movie revolves around him and his conflict, which seems to be
fated, with a character named Roderick* Molasar. The end of the conflict
seems to fate him toward destruction. He may destroy Molasar or Molasar
may destroy him, but in either case Glaeken Trismegistus must go to the
And in the course of coming to the keep to confront Molasar, he has
a romance with Eva, whose father is a Mediaeval historian named Dr. Cuza,
very quick, very smart. At a moment in history when he is powerless -- a
Socialist Jew in Fascist Romania -- Cuza is offered the potential to ally
himself with immense power For him it's a deliverance. And as a bonus
he also gets rejuvenated. So he's seduced into attaching himself to this
power in the keep.
HK: And Molasar comes to life by taking the power, the souls, of the
MM: What happens is that after the second time you've seen him, Molasar
changes. And he seems to change after people are killed. After he kills
things. It's almost as if he accrues to himself their matter. Not their
souls; he doesn't suck their blood. It's a thing unexplained; his
transformation is seen visually. He evolves through three different
stages in the movie. He gets more and more complete. He starts as a
cloud of imploding particles, then he evolves a nervous system, then he
evolves a skeleton and musculature, and at the third state he's complete.
And then it's a bit ironic when he's complete, because there's a great
resemblance to Glaeken Trismegistus.
HK: Is he evil personified?
MM: No. Well, yes he is. Yes, Evil Personified. But what is evil?
HK: Try Satan? Or Lucifer?
MM: Yes, but think about that. Satan in "Paradise Lost" is the most
exciting character in the book. He's rebellious, he's independent, he
doesn't like authority. If you think about it, Satan could almost be
played by John Wayne. I mean the Reaganite, independent, individualist
spirit. It's all bullshit, but that's the cultural myth that the appeal
HK: Is Glaeken Trismegistus the alter ego of Molasar? Is he the good
MM: No, he's not. I tried to find a more surreal logic to the
characters; so that there's nothing Satanic about Molasar. He's just
sheer power, and the appeal of power, and the worship of power, a belief
in power, a seduction of power. And Molasar is very, very deceptive.
When we first meet him, we too believe that he is absolute salvation.
And it's all a con. Now when Glaeken shows up, the first thing he does
is seduce Eva Cuza. So my intent in designing those characters was to
make them not black-and-white. I put in things that are not normally
considered to be good into Glaeken and qualities that are not evil into
HK: There's something about Trismegistus that rings a bell.
MM: It's Greek for "harvest."
HK: Of course! Now once the script was written, did you change many
MM: Yes. Once I've written the screenplay I've finished the movie, in
the sense that I have a complete evocation of it on paper. Then it's a
whole new film again when I start shooting. It doesn't change *that*
much, but now the words are plastic, flexible. So I'm constantly
rewriting bits of dialogue before I shoot, which drives the actors really
crazy. Then two days before we shoot it they get new pages. Then the
day before, they get more new pages. And then when I get them on stage I
say, "You know the dialogue -- yeah, well, forget it, I want to make a
HK: How important to you is the use of the wide screen?
MM: Very. It's important to me for two reasons. One, because this is
an expressionistic movie that intends to sweep its audience away -- be
very big, to have them transport themselves into this dream-reality so
that they're in those landscapes, there with the characters. You can't
sweep people away in 1:85 and mono.
Also, I'm just not interested in "passive" filmmaking, in a film
that's precious and small and where it's up to the audience to bring
themselves to the movie. I want to bombard an audience -- a very active,
aggressive type of seduction. I want to manipulate an audience's
feelings for the same reasons that composers write symphonies.
HK: What are your feelings about ultimately seeing this big-screen film
on television and video-cassette, with the sides chopped off? Are you
pushing your compositions towards the middle of the screen?
MM: No. Whatever happens to it when it goes out on television and video,
that's the breaks. I can't do anything about that. But I can do
everything about the cinema experience which, for me, is obviously
primary. So the shots are composed for the big screen and the film is
designed to be effective for theater audiences. And if it does that job,
then it's also going to do well on TV.
HK: With bits chipped off.
MM: Yeah. But commercial reasons aside, I'm interested in the theatrical
experience, not the small-screen experience.
HK: Of course "The Keep" isn't just a film with human heads. It's got
special effects as well. Since there are a lot of pyrotechnics and
elaborate technical challenges in the movie, are you storyboarding?
MM: I storyboarded everything. Then I threw it all away. When you get
on the set and the light is doing something different and better than you
thought, you start moving your actors -- and there goes the storyboard
right out the window. In this picture we used arc lamps that date from
the Twenties and Thirties to to get a certain kind of hard blue shaft of
light coming through all the openings in the keep. And it usually comes
from behind people and makes shafts across them, creating a kind of
Albert Speer/Mussolini monumental quality.
You make a film during a year of your life. You grow and you
change. And if you're lucky, the film has increased in magnitude. By
then, the effect you thought of a year ago can seem pretty thin. So
there goes the storyboard again.
There are two poles in this movie: the village and the Keep. And
whatever is happening in the village is completely different from what's
going on in the Keep. So everything in the village is very bright, very
white. It's got a basic innocence -- with enough realistic textures like
dirt to make it believable -- and a slightly sinister overtone, which
comes in the shape of the crosses. Rooftops are never symmetrical,
they're always twisted a little bit. Basically we exposed for shadows,
and let the highlights burn out everything for it to be sunlit and
brilliant inside the village. Then when things start going bad it's
still sunlit, and things happen in a very scary, overexposed way.
In the Keep everything is very dark. We exposed for the highlights
and let all the shadows go. Instead of a flood or a wash of light, there
are very defined shafts of light. It's only in those shafts that we can
see things. The lighting was designed in a very integral way, very
closely between myself, Alex Thomson (the cinematographer), and John Box
(the production designer).
HK: We're living in an age where there are nuclear factors contending and
the planet is in jeopardy. So is this film an escape from or a
confrontation with that reality?
MM: It's both, I think. It's a reality that's not part of everybody's
everyday reality; it's a dream. You bet it's an escape. The whole movie
is one huge dilation of space and time into a dream reality, so it's a
huge escape. But in dreams there are a lot of hidden themes. With the
themes, and how they affect an audience, I attempt to make the film very
meaningful. Not meaningful in a two-dimensional way like a message. You
know, "Those guys' politics bad; these guys' politics good." Nothing as
specific as that, but rather a penetration of psychological realities.
HK: How do you think audiences will feel after seeing your film?
Disturbed, frightened? Will they be thinking?
MM: If the film works, they'll come out emotionally exhausted. The film
is uplifting in the end, the way it turns out. But then the next day the
audience will start thinking about it and say, "Whoa!" The best work in
"Thief" was immediate in that sense, in that people would come out either
loving it or hating it. And some loved it and hated it at the same time.
A friend of mine called and said, "The film was fabulous, I just hated
it." When I asked why, he said, "Because I like to feel that I control
my destiny, I control my life, and the film made me think that I didn't."
As far as I'm concerned, that meant the film just hit a home run with the
bases loaded. "The Keep" is less immediate than that, but emotionally
deeper because it tries to get at the way you think and feel in the way
HK: A Jungian intrepretation or a Freudian?
MM: Freudian. But not a slavish, doctrinaire, mechanistic approach. Any
mechanistic application like that is not artistic, and a dead end.
HK: You're using the music of Tangerine Dream for the film. Why?
MM: Because we have a terrific relationship. I think their work on
"Thief" was very successful. This music is very different. This is much
more melodic, there are different influences. We're using Thomas Tallis,
we're using a lot of choirs processed through a vocoder. I've got in my
brain maybe seven or eight hours of their music.
HK: The cinema seems to be bringing forth or giving birth to a new trend:
myths, fables, fairy tales. Why?
MM: In the Thirties and Forties people saw a movie once or twice a week.
Now people see moving pictures six hours a day. So what's the motivation
to go to a cinema? It has to be a different order of experience.
Otherwise stay home and watch the idiot box. Cinema has to be more
experimental, it has to transport people away, it has to provide them
with a suspension of disbelief, a feeling they've been swept up into
another reality they can't get when they're bigger than the image.
If there is a single trend right now, I think it's to people making
very emotional films. Even hardcore Marxists like the Taviani Brothers
are making very emotional films. Their film "The Night of the Shooting
Stars" is a very political film, but it's political about emotions. It's
simple and poetic, yet it's a clevage right through modern man in a
HK: What other films or filmmakers have impressed you or influenced you?
MM: You're influenced by who you like. I like Kubrick, I like Resnais
immensely. I like Tarkovsky, although there's very little in Tarkovsky
I'd want to do myself. In fact I fell asleep through half of "Solaris,"
but I love it. And "Stalker." He has a Russian, suffering nerve of pace
that it's hard to relate to, but you can't help being impressed and moved
by what you see.
HK: Do you want to produce films?
MM: Yes, because there are more pictures I would like to see made that I
can make or want to make. A case in point is a screenplay I wrote called
"Heat," which I love. As a writer, I really want to see this picture
made. But as a director I don't want to touch it.
*This is the only place I have ever heard "Molasar" being referred to as
"Roderick Molasar," and, truth to tell, it strikes me as being a little
silly, seeing as the weapon with which Glaeken vanquishes Molasar is, in
fact, an energy rod. I mean, really: Roderick; energy rod?
Puh-leeze! (Such a shallow pun!) In the series of six books
written by F. Paul Wilson starting with THE KEEP and ending with NIGHT
WORLD (known collectively as The Adversary Cycle), Molasar is not given a
first name, while Glaeken is not given a last name.