A silky-voiced announcer offstage intoning the usual bans against cell phones, cameras, recording devices ended the list of don'ts by warning, "I'll be watching you." The speaker was Tom Cruise.

And so began IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival first weekend kick-off tribute: a thoughtfully constructed, artfully paced and well produced evening boasting one of the biggest marquee names on the planet, honoring the vision of one of America's top directors of crime thrillers, and saluting the city that is the mecca of movie-making. "Michael Mann's L.A.: Realizing Collateral" cut right to the chase.

A clip rolled, the famous ending of Kiss Me Deadly, with its exploding Malibu beach house. IFP president Vondie Curtis Hall came on. People were thanked. Kenneth Turan, the evening's moderator, made a joke. The famous opening of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil played and Michael Mann explained that the three-minute-long nighttime tracking shot whose setting is supposed to be the U.S.-Mexican border was actually filmed in Venice. We were off to the races.

Mann explained that some of the problems Welles faced with this sequence--including having only a 30-minute window to get it before the light was gone--were difficulties he had to surmount in making Collateral, which takes place largely at night. He then talked about Heat, the 1995 heist caper which he shot here; he chose L.A. as the story's location because, he maintains, the city is under-shot. "It's a fabulously diverse 17-million megalopolis," he said, "that also has an industrial landscape. I like the feelings of ennui and alienation the vacant landscape suggests."

Mann called to the stage his collaborator and producer Gusmano Cesaretti,
who has worked with him since 1979. The two segued to Collateral, a project Mann was initially drawn to because it takes place in a short time wherein an assassin and jazz aficionado named Vincent (Cruise) hijacks Maxx, a cabbie (Jamie Foxx), to chauffeur him around L.A. as he completes five hits. Mann said the compressed 10-hour time frame (from 6 PM to 4 AM) was intriguing because it allowed him to build character exposition differently: "You get a sense of their experience through what's implied. The cast created biographies and histories of their characters which were not part of the text."

These were sentiments echoed by Cruise, who came on after a clip from the first L.A.-set movie he saw as a kid, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. "I wanted to work with Michael Mann for a while; we'd been talking about it for fifteen years. I was doing Risky Business when I first saw Thief. When I read the script of Collateral I could see it was special; you could almost hear it, like a fine piano tuning." Mann said the role was the right one for Cruise at a time when the actor wanted to make a significant departure from his previous roles: "Playing Vincent, a very droll, lethal sociopath, is very, very different. The commitment of Tom to become another person is quite extraordinary. He throws himself into his role completely, with great art and great fun." Cruise added, "I never look at a character in terms of making him sympathetic, or not sympathetic, but in terms of fulfilling the character. I don't judge the character as an actor; what attracted me to Vincent was how someone becomes an antisocial person."

Cruise mentioned a number of times how completely Mann had visualized the world of Collateral, and how helpful this was to the actors in defining their characters. "While I was working, Michael would show me pictures of where Vincent grew up, where he came from, where his love of jazz comes from." He admires Mann's meticulous preparation: "A lot of technical work went into the taxicab scenes; Michael rigged them to record sound within the cabs because he didn't want to loop it later. As an actor, I found that shooting in digital really helped, because there weren't any delays for reloading." Mann jumped in, "With digital, we were able do seventeen to eighteen 20-minutes takes--three- to four-page scenes, done en masse. Digital filmmaking affords you a radical amount of control; we could easily alter the look of a scene, change the colors to what we wanted. It's like painting."

Mann said that 85% of Collateral was shot digitally. The entire shoot took only 65 days. Cruise loved the pace, remarking, "You needed that intensity to keep it going. It was like a plumb line; we just kept going." Turan asked Mann if he would ever go back to film. "Sure," Mann replied, "if I'm shooting in the desert in daylight."

The program featured a sizable amount of preview footage from Collateral (the DreamWorks release opens August 6), But the marketing masterstroke of this event was an extended scene from the last third of the film, when Vincent goes to a club where one of the targets hangs out. Some might cavil and say it's a spoiler to show such a pivotal scene before the movie is out, but the sequence is so elaborately, ingeniously choreographed that it only leaves one wanting to see the entire film as soon as possible. It's enough to say it takes place in a Korean disco crowded with 900 people, and represents an important part of two character arcs.

Not too long ago, August meant the dog days of movie exhibition, where product that was either very specialized or of dubious quality was dumped in the short window between when the summer blockbusters were playing out, and the more serious entries of the fall season were yet to debut. Today, it seems like sheer brilliance on the part of DreamWorks to open such a high-profile, high-octane thriller just before the studios' Oscar campaigns start revving into gear.

I, for one, cannot wait.

-by Andrea Gronvall

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