Q&A With Ali Director Michael Mann

Michael Mann has a lot on his plate in Ali.

Besides reputations, the real guy is still around to say, "Hey, you're getting it wrong." But, for the record, he didn't. Ali the man is said to be delighted with Ali the movie.

In a New York City hotel room, Mann is clearly a student of Ali, the times. And he's not afraid to defend some of his creative decisions or to shoot down one longstanding rumor.

McCuddy: Of all the challenges in making this movie, what was the biggest?

Mann: It's probably bringing everybody in this connection, getting a period, accurate sense is the most important. I mean everything about Will and the training he did and the boxing and becoming a fighter...

McCuddy: Two years.

Mann: ...and then the more kind of challenging qualitative accumulation of Ali experience so that he could truly be Ali, when I'm going to ask it of him, when we're rolling, when we're shooting, is that he be spontaneous as Ali.

McCuddy: Not as Will.

Mann: Not as Will. It's not performance, it's not acting. So, all of that [had to be] taken into consideration. Beyond all that, there's an issue of understanding these times. It's easier for Jon Voight because Jon's a little older than I am, and I'm one year younger than Ali, so we lived these times, as young men.

McCuddy: But the others...

Mann: Right, it's bringing Jamie [Foxx], Will, and Nona [Gaye], and Jada [Pinkett-Smith] and everybody else of different generations into 1964, 1965, 1968.

McCuddy: There's a racial war, in a sense, then from the black point of view?

Mann: In the United States?

McCuddy: Yeah.

Mann: There are many wars in the United States. Don't forget by '65, '66, there's Caesar Chavez, the farm workers, La Raza, Weathermen, Black Panther party, are all on one side, all together. And on the other side, are, in 1965, Roy Wilkins, the NAACP, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, the entire right wing, and the establishment, regardless of where they came from, and regardless of race, creed and religion, and that's a polarization.

So it's a different cut through things. It's race war if you're in Alabama. It's not a race war if you're in Chicago, but maybe it is, it's certainly a de-facto apartheid, and racism. If you're in Louisville, and you're Mohammed Ali, you know it's very confusing. It's border South. There's water fountains you can't drink at, but everybody's polite. And there aren't police dogs and fire hoses, and in a way it's probably more confusing. And you have an uncle, who's college educated who killed himself, because at 34 years old, the only job he can get is washing windows.

McCuddy: So there's a lot on the plate. You have to layer that time and that consciousness.

Mann: And you've got a father who has two consciences. One for white people, and one for the West side of Louisville. And you're a young Cassius Clay and you're going to have one consciousness, one presentation. There's going to be one Ali, and you're going to watch yourself in the course of self-determination.

McCuddy: And Will nailed it, he got it.

Mann: He nailed it, yeah.

McCuddy: Some people have said they're confused by some of the times because you didn't superimpose places and dates at the bottom of the screen.

Mann: They just think they need to know that. They don't need to know that.

McCuddy: And will Will be Oscar-nominated?

Mann: I certainly think he ought to be.

McCuddy: I want to talk about two other Oscar-winning actors you've worked with.

Mann: Sure.

McCuddy: [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro. In Heat, are they really together in that restaurant scene?

Mann: Sure, yeah.

McCuddy: There's an Internet rumor...

Mann: (shaking his head) That is the most bizarre...

McCuddy: ...that you shot them over the shoulder...

Mann: That's the most bizarre...Why in the world would anybody do that?

McCuddy: Well, everybody says, 'Why didn't he take a two-shot?'

Mann: I did. It's not as immediate if you just see one eye, you're not connecting into the face of somebody. If you're looking at me, I'm seeing two eyes, I'm seeing all this expression. Why in the world would I want to just shoot them from the side? I did, but that's not the telling stuff.

Michael Mann knows about the "telling stuff." And he's a director that only gives you the information he wants to, in his films and his interviews. Ali opens Christmas Day.