It is 2 a.m., time for a man to be murdered beneath a magnolia. Normally, one shot, and it would be over. Boom. Next? But a short, trim man in snappy blue pants with a red stripe and gray designer sweatshirt orders a test kill. If someone's going to die, he wants to make sure you'll "see the muzzle flash."
Out comes a man with a gun. Bang. Perfect. He nods for the execution to proceed . . . But wait! Something's amiss. He jumps up, runs his hands through the victim's limp hair, musses it, summons the hairdresser: Fluff it before he dies.
"Most directors tell you what they want and let you do it," sighs the exasperated French coiffeuse. "But he wants to touch everything -- even down to fixing knots on ties and collars of people who aren't acting in his movie. He's a perfectionist. It can make life difficult."
"Everyone off the sidewalk!" orders Michael Mann, 42, executive producer and chief stylistic overseer of TV's "Miami Vice," this night stalking Atlanta as writer-director of "Red Dragon," an $11 million suspense thriller about a serial killer. Suddenly, he spies a dewy windshield on the killer's van.
"No, it's not all right," he says. "Someone clean it." Someone does. Fast. He may be short, but they call him "Sir."
"He knows exactly what he wants," shrugs executive producer Bernie Williams. "He does his homework. He tells you six weeks before he gets there: 'Get me three cars with Illinois plates.' He's very efficient and very demanding. But you make good pictures by being demanding."
Michael Mann's fetish for detail has made the writer-director-producer one of the hottest triple threats in Hollywood today and "Miami Vice" a hit. Millions tune in to his bubbling Pop Cop bouillabaisse of sex, drugs, glitz, ritz, machine guns and rock 'n' roll.
As the hippest cop shop on TV, "Miami Vice" spins its contemporary morality plays via staccato storytelling, heavy on glances, short on words, mood-setting pop rock and high-gloss color composition.
Some critics call this just another New Look formula, just a pink flamingo away from "Hill Street Blues." But others say it's taken TV off the assembly line, drawing such motion picture heavies as directors William Friedkin and John Milius to flirt with pilots for the once-scorned tube. Mann is the man behind it all, a benevolent dictator, proud that his "American Casablanca" is flying so high it can hum along on autopilot.
As a producer, Mann's tastes are spawning imitators galore and changing the face of prime-time TV. He likes to oversee every aspect of "Vice" from script to final edit. That means handpicking actors' shoes (Italian slip-ons), their suits (Armani or Versace, $800 off the rack, worn over T-shirts), the pulsating rock music (Glenn Frey, Chaka Khan, Melle Mel), the colors (South Florida's chic pink and key lime pie green, no "earth tones," please).
He keeps in touch with Miami by phone, but leaves the daily producing to John Nicolella, along with such decrees as No Cops Drive Clunkers. Undercover cop Crockett, played by Don Johnson, zips around in no less than a black Ferrari Daytona, not unlike Mann himself, who whips down from his Mediterranean-style villa in the Hollywood Hills in a Ferrari 308 GTS. It's black, too. Why not trademark red?
"I don't like red," he says.
In his films, too, he looks at each frame like a painter. Color is crucial "to create mood and atmosphere," he says. For "Red Dragon," based on Thomas Harris' novel, it's silver and green to invent a modern, techy look. In "Vice," it's pastels to "evoke the heat. We didn't pick pastels so people could say how smart things looked; pastels vibrate."
But why did Mr. Style park a boring white Chevette beside a baby blue Mustang and a yellow Corvette during a kidnap scene in Atlanta? Just a little color chemistry to spark canned heat on film. "White makes it burn a little," he says, borrowing that trick from an obscure 19th-century British painter whose works he discovered as a struggling filmmaker in London.
"You find these things and they rattle around until you find a way to use them."
Voila', a 35 share slugging it out head to head against "Dallas," which won the last ratings battle by a slim Nielsen point. And now Mann has parlayed his high style into an action-adventure movie deal with Tri-Star, another possible cop show with NBC and "Red Dragon," which earlier this month moved to Washington for six days of shooting at FBI headquarters, the U.S. Customs building and a parking lot on 14th Street.
In the beginning, there was The Memo. "MTV cops," scribbled Brandon Tartikoff, NBC Entertainment president, in a note to himself. And High Concept was born. Tartikoff pitched it to a Universal executive, who summoned writer Anthony Yerkovich, 34, a veteran of "Hill Street Blues." Yerkovich came up with a rough draft for a pilot about vice cops in Miami evoking South Florida's samba of Latin refugees, drugs and murder. But what producer could pull it together? Universal called Mann's agent, Jeff Berg of ICM. Might Mann be interested?
"What the hell do I want to go back into TV for?" shrugged Mann. He'd made his mark with "Jericho Mile," a 1979 ABC-TV prison drama about a lifer who yearns to run in the Olympics. That won him an Emmy and spawned almost two dozen feature film offers.
"At least read the script," said Berg. He read it. He flipped.
"I said, 'This is great, man,' " he recalls, giddy from the flashback. " 'This is terrific.' You get seduced by content. If I'd been directing it, or if I'd written it, I'd have been filled with doubts. But given the fact somebody else was directing and somebody else wrote it, I could be objective. And my instincts told me, 'This thing is gonna go.'
"It was vivacious, audacious, irreverent. It was something I'd been interested in doing for a long time: pump a contemporary rock and roll sensibility into a police-ier genre. So I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' "
Miami was ripe: riddled with Latin expatriates flush with flight capital, Colombian dopers stalking each other with Mach-10 submachine guns, a never-ending battle by undercover cops against bad guys. Real life was a script.
Naturally, city boosters balked at exposing real Miami crime on prime time: They feared scaring tourists away. "Their attitude was absurdly provincial," says Mann. "They wanted some goody-goody, boring show no one would watch. That would have really made people stay away. It was like saying 'Kojak' keeps people away from New York."
Curiously, the same officials now rave that "Vice" has boosted tourism. How is that possible? Try exotic opening credits of machine guns, horse-racing, pink flamingos, bikini-clad women, speedboats, Art Deco hotels. Miami never looked better.
"We changed the image of Miami," says Mann. "We took its cultural essence, falsified what it looked like with selective art direction and put it on TV. Now Miami is trying to make itself look like the Miami on the show. It's trying to conform reality to our fiction."
Local cops love it, too, including the one who pulled over Mann's metallic green Mercedes 500 SEC on Biscayne Boulevard. "Where you going in such a hurry?"
"The production office."
"You with 'Miami Vice?' "
"Yeah. I'm the executive producer."
"Wow or something similar ! I got a great story for ya."
"So he starts telling me this story about a detective who got so frustrated busting dope dealers who fled the country that he kidnaped a few to make some money and killed one.
"I already had Glenn Frey's music for the 'Smuggler's Blues' episode, but no story. Then I got stopped by the cop and he gave me the story." He forgot to write the ticket. "No, I won't tell you how fast I was going," says Mann.
At least one Big Dealer has come through for "Vice," too. Mann calls him "Ralph, a retired businessman." He wandered into a Miami nightclub at 3 a.m. with eight bodyguards. Mann was hunkered down at a table with director Rob Cohn when he spied the entourage. Ralph looked mean. "The guy would be terrific for the show," said Mann, making introductions. Rob Cohn, his director, sat speechless.
"You mean we can use real people?"
"Sure," said Mann. Then I say, 'Hey, Ralph, you want to be in 'Miami Vice?' And given Ralph's normal line of work, he doesn't suffer from inhibition. He's Cuban. He says, 'Shu, mang.' That's, 'Mang,' m-a-n-g. 'Ah can do any-ting. I am the prince of Mi-Jami.' We've gotten used to writing Cuban phonetics."
Cohn auditioned him the next day; he joined the Screen Actors Guild and appeared as a villain. "He was great!" laughs Mann, who rarely gets hustled for such parts by star-struck dopers.
"They're not exactly impressed with TV. It's a lark. They don't need the money. Ralph spends more on lunch than he made doing that one episode. He's about 30, worth seven figures."
He's hardly a household word like actors Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, a k a detectives Crockett and Tubbs. They were accidents waiting to happen.
"We didn't plan on reading them together," he recalls. "For the auditions, they were paired with other people. They'd just met in the hall and there was electricity. They were the ones who suggested they read together."
Crockett was supposed to be the ex-football player who'd gotten a divorce, drove a Ferrari and had a pet gator named Elvis. "A kind of hip, midthirties, New South, informal kind of guy who looked like he grabbed stuff from the closet and just threw it on, even if it did happen to be coordinated pretty well," says Mann. "With a dry wit and slow delivery."
For Tubbs, he wanted a "sharp, fast-talking New Yorker. But I wanted the southerner to have more liberal attitudes, jumping with opposites. We were looking for chemistry and that doesn't happen until you see it."
Watching them rehearse in a jammed studio were Mann, Tartikoff, Universal TV executive Terry McCluggage and others. "We'd gone through about 100 people, then they started working together and everybody knew, 'That's it.' "
Mann is a curiosity: a driven, intense, chain-smoker, no wasted motion; an intellect Romanesque in profile, with dark hair lapping at his collar. A benevolent dictator on location, some call him "the Godfather." The cocky, tough-talk dialect of, say, a Chicago jewel thief, masks a Renaissance man who can talk art, fashion, literature, pop music, you name it, with a passion.
Back home, he rarely takes power lunches at the Polo Lounge or Ma Maison. "You just don't see him hanging out there," says Paul Bloch, his Hollywood PR man. "He gets up at 6 a.m., takes care of his wife and kids and goes off to work." He lives with his second wife, Summer -- a painter -- and four children, and changes the color of his living room every six months.
Fine art may hang from his wall, but he's drawn to life's naked underbelly, an action junkie always flirting with the edge. Five years back, he slipped across the northern Thai border into Burma to research a screenplay about the Golden Triangle. He consorted with hill tribes, opium warlords, exiled Chinese Kuomintang army men, watched the DEA and the CIA fight their private drug wars. He sailed with pirates who fish by day and prey on boat people by night. He survived a Malaysian brothel town he likens to "Dodge City" where "people will kill you for your shoes." No one bothered him.
"One of the best passports in the world is the film business," he shrugs.
The elder of two sons born to a Chicago grocer, Mann grew up scrappy, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood around Humboldt Park. He was the tough Jewish kid who learned how to fight young and ever since has been drawn to gritty street sagas. He would never have made "American Graffiti." He graduated from high school in 1962, then went on to the University of Wisconsin. He wanted to escape Chicago. "It was flat and boring," he says.
At Wisconsin, he majored in English literature, stumbled upon a course in film history and began watching German Expressionists, silent films. He was enthralled with filmmakers like Eisenstein and Stanley Kubrick. "He'd just come out with 'Strangelove.' It was wild, irreverent. I got excited and said, 'I've got do this.' "
He wound up in London at the International Film School with Americans nervous over Vietnam and Portuguese students fretful about tours in Angola or Mozambique. He kept in touch with his draft board by post card. Then he got the letter.
"Dear Michael . . . You have asthma, so we'll classify you 1-Y." Home free, he found work as a production gofer for 20th Century-Fox, then quit to scrounge commercials. One for Buffalo Doormats paid the rent, then came a documentary on the 1968 student riots in Paris for NBC. He directed "an abstract little art film" called "Juanpuri" that won the Jury Prize at Cannes. But his career was going nowhere fast. Globe-trotting commercials paid the rent, taking him to Majorca, Morocco, the Caribbean.
"I was living a swinging London life style," he told Film Comment. "Then I got a divorce and made a 90-degree turn in my life." He canned commercials, aiming to "make movies about characters that interested me."
Homesick for the "pace and aggression of American life," he landed in Hollywood in 1971, "starved" for two years, and learned how to write action and gritty dialogue. He had a knack for creating believable mobsters and cops. Then came The Break: work as assistant story editor on "Starsky & Hutch." Two weeks later, he was fired -- until Aaron Spelling read a Mann script the writer handed in while walking out the door.
"All of a sudden they wanted to hire me back and make me associate producer," he laughs. But he kept writing for hire. There was the pilot for "Vegas," several episodes of "Police Story" and "Jericho Mile" (four Emmys). For the critically acclaimed "Thief," he hung out with Chicago cops, fences and thieves.
"These were not the kind of guys who burglarize your house," he says, admiration in his voice. "They consider somebody who steals jewelry a junk score. These were high-line pros, extremely disciplined. They might spend 40 to 50 grand just developing a score, get ready to take it down, then one thing is out of place and they'll just walk away, write off the whole thing. And they can't deduct it as a business expense."
But "The Keep," a $6 million Grand Guignol fantasy for Paramount featuring Nazis and ghosts, was a commercial flop. It boasted eerie "Ghostbuster"-style special effects, but had "some failings," he concedes.
But no one remembers that now that "Vice" is hotter than a Miami sidewalk. He's got poetic license: to cast a Chicago jewel thief he met as a cop, to spend upward of an unprecedented $1.3 million per TV episode, to have fun. So what's the secret? What's the formula?
"Anything I like," he says, racing back to the set.