By Tim Pelan
Few filmmakers can take a whistle-blowing dramatization of real life potentially dusty legal shenanigans and news gathering and make it so chest convulsively taut the blood in your ears pounds, but then not many filmmakers are of the calibre of Michael Mann (an honorable mention to Tony Gilroy’s fictional corporate legal thriller, Michael Clayton.) The Insider is a 1999 adaptation of a 1996 Vanity Fair article by Marie Brenner entitled “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Essentially Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), head of research and development at Brown & Williamson tobacco company, grew uncomfortable with the direction his pharmaceutical knowledge was being directed towards—into enhancing chemically the addictive nature of his employer’s cigarettes (impact boosting, allowing nicotine to cross “the blood-brain barrier intact”), and the denials of that nature under oath by its CEO and the other “Seven Dwarves,” heads of the major US tobacco companies. Wigand was fired for asking too many questions, and the stakes, once he went public, were huge. From the Vanity Fair article: “Wigand is a key witness in a singular legal attempt by seven states to seek reimbursement of Medicaid expenses resulting from smoking-related illnesses. Each year, 425,000 Americans die of such illnesses; through tax money that goes to Medicaid, the general population pays for a significant portion of the billions of dollars of health costs. If the state attorney general, with an assist from Jeffrey Wigand, were to succeed in proving that cigarettes are addictive, the cigarette companies could be forced into settling the hundreds of thousands of plaintiff actions that would result.” The Insider harks back to the days when grown-up films like All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor and The China Syndrome (not all true stories, but calling truth to power nonetheless) regularly drew crowds and plaudits. Sadly for Mann’s film, that is not so much the case these days. Critical approbation alone does not put bums on seats in theatres.
But for those Manniacs or those who can just appreciate a good story well told, The Insider has the added frisson of Sergio Leone-like extreme close-ups on Russell Crowe’s face tightly compressed, eyes constantly blinking, buckling but not bending. His performance, convincingly aging up with added weight, roll shouldered gait, dyed grey/white hair and large, unflattering glasses as a doughy executive pushed into a corner until he snaps, fighting back with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), not deigning to even tell his wife at first, is a masterclass of understated power and reigned in pressure under incredible odds. Wigand is a prickly, difficult to like character who nevertheless has an unbending will to expose lies that threaten to derail his life. “Who the hell are these people?” Christopher Plummer’s Mike Wallace, the trusted journalistic face of 60 Minutes asks when he’s introduced to Wigand and his wife at a difficult dinner. “Ordinary people under extraordinary pressure, Mike,” Bergman replies. “What the hell did you expect, grace and consistency?”
Sadly grace and consistency are factors put aside at CBS when after Wigand delivers his deposition, breaking his non-disclosure agreement (only after his former employers added further crippling conditions) and Bergman edits a brilliant interview with Wigand, corporate lawyer Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) delivers a stunning warning—if the piece airs as is, CBS could be sued and come under the ownership of Brown & Williamson. “With tortious interference I’m afraid, the greater the truth, the greater the damage.” CBS Corporate turns the screws and Wallace and his bosses climb down (initially), delivering an edited version of the segment.
Bergman and Wigand are two dogged characters, unbending and dogmatic pursuers of truth with fierce principles, not unlike many proto-Mann protagonists. Slant did a great conversation a few years back on Michael Mann films. In it, Jason Bellamy expands on this aspect of Wigand’s character. “Jeffrey doesn’t choose to act so much as he is compelled to act. He has praiseworthy ethics, yes, but he is a slave to them. There are times when we can sense that if Jeffrey were capable of backing down and giving in, that’s what he’d choose to do. But he can’t. It’s not an option for him. Thus he carries on because he must, and because, like Heat’s Neil, Jeffrey can’t stand to be fucked with.” Is it ego as much as injustice that drives him? We’re never really sure. Ed Howard, in the same piece:
“It is his (Wigand’s) decision that is at the center of the movie, his thought process, and thus Mann is constantly looking directly into his eyes, placing his face right up against the surface of the image. At one point, when two lawyers are laying out for Jeffrey what could happen if he testifies—going to jail is a possibility—Mann places Jeffrey’s face in the right corner of the frame, in closeup, his eyes peering out at the audience, as though involving them in his decision-making, inviting them to read his thoughts. It’s this intimacy with the camera that allows Crowe to underplay the externality of his character’s dilemma. We have, or feel we have, such access to his inner turmoil merely by the proximity of the camera, its habit of staring soulfully into his eyes, that we don’t need showy acting to convey what he’s thinking.”
Mann has a habit of adopting a cut n shut approach to his music scores, selecting different pieces for different moods at particular moments. Gustavo Santaolalla’s solo piece for charango Iguazu is coopted most pleasingly twice—first when Wigand comes home to find “intruders” in his home, actually FBI agents following threats to him and his family, and later, when he does decide to testify after Bergman has engineered it so he can, Bergman and he stand before a body of water, where so many Mann protagonists’ major decisions are made. “A lot has changed,” Wigand reflects, Schwartz’s cued up banjo eliding. “You mean since this morning,” Bergman replies. “No, I mean since whenever.” Then, suddenly, “Fuck it. Let’s go to court.” It’s an unfathomable calculation going on behind his eyes. The security team hustle everyone to the convoy of law enforcement vehicles. The battle is on. From Mark E Wildermuth’s Blood In the Moonlight: Michael Mann and Information Age Cinema:
“Nothing about this man is predictable, nothing can reconcile the basic paradox of such a man, and this is probably why Mann is bringing him, and others like him, to our attention. He is the perfect protagonist for such circumstances… the sheer complexity of human beings who invariably resist absolute and dehumanizing types of control… His family will be in danger no matter what he does, as will his integrity. He faces the coercion of terror no matter what he does. If flight cannot bring security, then why not fight? It is the one thing the control junkies never consider.” Fuck it indeed.
Michael Mann, in Salon: “James Burke (the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, where Wigand once worked, who took every bottle of Tylenol off the shelves of America when it was discovered some were poisoned, creating the safety cap as a result) is Jeffrey’s ideal. From that, one must infer why Jeffrey would go work for tobacco. Because, what does tobacco do? Tobacco hangs out a sign that says, ‘Wanted: Scientists without conscience, for double your previous salary.’ Jeffrey answered the ad.
But if this were Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, I wouldn’t have been interested in making the film. Jeffrey is a normally flawed, inconsistent human being whose personality is somewhat atonal. But he ultimately personifies an anti-ad hominem perspective—to him, life is not about who you are, it’s about what you do. Jeffrey knew that if he went forward and spoke to 60 Minutes and testified against tobacco, the sky would fall. And indeed it did.”
Wigand pushes back against Bergman pretty hard at times, accusing him of considering Wigand as a commodity, something to put on between commercials. “To a network, probably, we’re all commodities,” Bergman replies. “To me? You are not a commodity. What you are is important.” It’s an affront to him that he can’t or won’t protect his source, and when they are both betrayed, it shakes the founds of his cosy belief that he is still important. There are times when he has to walk on eggshells, and times he has to get back in Wigand’s face. Attorney Richard Scruggs (Colm Feore) sympathises, revealing as a former combat pilot he was trained to cope with seconds of high impact decision making in the air and move on, whilst Wigand is facing a steady, constant drip of pressure and threats from all sides—how will he pay his children’s medicare bills, for instance? The Insider takes a potentially uninvolving scenario of white collar woes and through its screenplay by Mann and Eric Roth and Crowe’s performance, you feel the paranoia and turning of the screw yourself. He lets off steam at a driving range at night, one other besuited golfer shadowing him. He comes home and finds a single bullet in his mailbox. Ultimately, he alone must decide to proceed. After his deposition, Wigand smiles in the back of the car, beginning to feel relief at the unburdening, until the incongruous, foreboding site of a burning car at the side of the road, symbolic of his life in flames. When he gets home, he finds his wife, coming apart at the strain, has left him and taken the kids.
The explosive phone conversation between Wigand and Bergman towards the end of the film, when Wigand unloads the burden he’s bowing under (“You manipulated me into where I am now, staring at the Brown & Williamson building, except it’s all dark, except for the 10th floor. That’s the legal department, that’s where they fuck with my life.”)—is based on a real conversation between Vanity Fair‘s Brenner and Wigand in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Hyatt hotel, overlooking Brown & Williamson. “The restaurant revolves slowly,” the article reads, “and each time the B&W Tower came into view, Wigand would grimace. ‘Look at that,’ he said. ‘They are still there, and they will be there tomorrow and the they will be there on Sunday… You can’t schmooze with these guys. You kick them in the balls. You don’t maim them. Don’t take prisoners.’”
In a film of understated tensions and unshowy cinematography by Dante Spinotti, the only real flourish comes as Wigand sits in his hotel room surrounded by boxes of paperwork. There’s a huge mural on the wall behind his bed, and as he views the edited down segment on the TV, he seems to shut down. The mural, a man on a galloping horse through countryside, morphs into his backyard, the girls playing and waving to him as he turns to watch. There are shades of the surreal “hotel suite” finale in 2001: A Space Odyssey here, a life lived being reflected on as he sits impotently in the face of seismic change. Bergman is desperately trying to get in touch, and has a hotel employee bring a phone to the door. He talks Wigand around, while he himself remains in situ at dusk on the beach at the place where he’s staying, the tide swelling around him. They’re both adrift, with only their crusade to keep them going.
Mann said very little of The Insider is untrue, “but it’s all dramatized.” The biggest dramatization is probably when Bergman leaks details of the legal threat which led to the truncated story to the New York Times, who print and damn CBS. The Wall Street Journal also rally, dismissing the dossier on Wigand compiled by Brown & Williamson as nothing more than character assassination. With the story out in the wind, CBS air the complete segment, but for Bergman it’s a pyrrhic victory. The finale seems to suggest that Wigand was right, what they have revealed is nothing more than a blip in time—Bergman witnesses the interview on a television in an airport lounge, whilst commuters and cleaners around him glance up then go about their business. No one was ever going to ban cigarettes after all this, and the legal victory against big tobacco for damages is a long time off.
Wigand is redeemed in his children’s eyes, his older daughter understanding that what he did had great consequence. But Bergman feels guilty, and quits. “What’ll I tell a source on the next tough story?” he asks Wallace. “Hang in with us, you’ll be fine, maybe. What got broken here, doesn’t go back together again.” In an echo of Wigand’s dismissal at the beginning of the film, Bergman leaves the CBS building in slow motion just as Wigand left the Brown and Williamson building. As Jason Bellamy says in The Slant, “The Insider makes it crystal clear that doing what’s right takes the same amount of determination as it takes to break into a safe or rob a bank. And it’s just as risky.”
Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Screenwriter must-read: Eric Roth & Michael Mann’s screenplay for The Insider [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Michael Mann talks about corporate morality, muckraking and the drama of making real-life decisions. This article, All the corporations’ men by Michael Sragow, originally appeared at Salon on November 4, 1999.
I seem to remember you smoking at the time of Thief. You say you’ve been a smoker off and on, and that you stopped again before the making of this movie. I know a lot of creative people who use smoking as a sort of kick-start. Did it work that way for you?
You ever smoke?
Well, I don’t know exactly how it works but it’s not a kick-starter. It’s actually more of a depressant. It becomes a habitual thing and associates with memories. When I was a student living in Europe, I stayed up endless nights in Paris, where this very good friend and his wife lived, and we’d drink coffee and smoke lousy, lousy Gauloises. So there’s an association, for me, with a certain kind of conviviality. I mean, I would love smoking, except that if I take a cigarette I feel like someone punched me in the chest—which is good, ’cause if I didn’t feel that way, I’d really be in bad shape. If you could get the flavor of smoking and have an auxiliary set of lungs to take all the damage, then it wouldn’t be bad. But nicotine is addictive and it’s just lousy for your health. And you have to be responsible. I’m a father. That’s an issue. You have to think of the impact on your children of cigarette smoking, and of the impact on them of your own potential for early disease and earlier death. You are asphyxiating yourself on a cellular level. Everything is suffering—your fingernails, your hair, your skin, your lungs, everything is taking a hit. That’s the fact of it.
What was important to Eric Roth and myself from the outset was that there be nothing didactic or patronizing about this film. I would be offended if somebody had the arrogance and the presumption to tell me what I ought to do in my life. This film is not about “you all ought not to smoke” or “you all ought to smoke.” That’s an individual choice. Eric Roth and I are both smokers. We were smoking at the bar at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica while we wrote the screenplay. What this film is about is corporate power and malfeasance. And huge businesses that are highly profitable, that are really in a drug trade. From their point of view, they have a wonderful business—they have a market addicted to their product.
In the movie we view what they do from the perspective of Jeffrey Wigand. And now we’re getting into the reason to make the film—the chance to explore the experience of a man who, like all of us, is far from some ideal of perfection. Jeffrey said, “I’m very much a company man.” He understands corporate life, he’s a product of it, he believes in it, he thinks all corporations should be run like Johnson & Johnson. He talks about James Burke, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, where Jeffrey once worked—how when somebody was putting poison in Tylenol, Burke took all the bottles off the shelves of every store in America and created the safety cap. Burke didn’t need the FDA to tell him to do it, he did it on his own, ’cause he’s a smart business man who’s also a man of science—he’s not gonna have Johnson & Johnson, his company, put on the shelf a product that’s gonna hurt people. It’s bad business, it’s bad science, it’s bad everything.
Now, Burke is Jeffrey’s ideal. From that, one must infer why Jeffrey would go work for tobacco. Because, what does tobacco do? Tobacco hangs out a sign that says, “Wanted: Scientists without conscience, for double your previous salary.” Jeffrey answered the ad. But if this were Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, I wouldn’t have been interested in making the film. Jeffrey is a normally flawed, inconsistent human being whose personality is somewhat atonal. But he ultimately personifies an anti-ad hominem perspective—to him, life is not about who you are, it’s about what you do. Jeffrey knew that if he went forward and spoke to “60 Minutes” and testified against tobacco, the sky would fall. And indeed it did.
Jeffrey knows that within his basic concept of being human, standards are often fungible, negotiable; he also knows that, at a crisis point, you are either going to betray them or you won’t. And if you do, you’re going to be less of yourself than you were before—then some of you is going away. Jeffrey takes a position, the sky does fall on him, and parts of his life get deconstituted. People think Lowell comes out very well in this film, but you can argue that Jeffrey comes out better. Jeffrey attacks Lowell bitterly in a couple of scenes. “What is it that you do? What is the function? You gonna inform people and that’s gonna change things? Maybe that’s just something you tell yourself to justify the status of your position. Maybe this is all infotainment, and people have nothing better to do on Sunday night.” It was our intent that these questions would resound later on through the film. Because when Lowell hits a crisis, it’s after things have turned around for him in terms of the story—that’s when he truly has some critical decisions to make.
And in all of the words the audience’s subconscious has been collecting for over two and a half hours, Jeffrey has established the basis for the questioning of what Lowell’s been doing at “60 Minutes” for 14 years. Lowell can tell himself, “I’m still that guy who worked for ‘Ramparts’ and I get my way with the show and have a larger audience.” But is he really? It’s a challenge to deal with these true-to-life issues. That’s what made the material so exciting.
How did you come to know Lowell Bergman?
A mutual friend in the DEA, Bill Alden, told me for years, “You have to meet Lowell Bergman.” Alden at the time was head of congressional affairs in the DEA. He had been an agent—a street agent. And he said Lowell was one of three or four journalists that you honestly could trust. If you told Lowell something was on background, it would be on background, regardless of how much Mike Wallace or Hewitt wanted to go out front with it. So his reputation was that of a man of his word—and that reputation preceded my meeting him by a couple of years. We had both gone to the University of Wisconsin, but that’s a big school; we didn’t know each other, we’d gone at different times. When we eventually met, we were trying to develop some projects together, not on this subject at all. But he was living through this experience, and at one point I said, “Forget the arms merchants in Marbaya, what you’re living through is a drama.”
What attracted me was the way Lowell and Jeffrey were such opposites—if they met each other in a social context, I don’t think one would see much of anything in the other. But here were these two men thrown together with only one element in common: Both of them are not living inside the circumscribed “I” of just sheer gratification in careers; both of them recognize that there’s something else in life. They both have superegos that tell you “you ought to be this way” or “you ought to do this somehow,” and they do have a sort of respect for each other’s actions, character and principles. That there’s nothing else in common was great, because it brings into higher relief their sole common component.
When I was in post-production on Heat, in the fall of ’95, Lowell was going through all this. I was one of about 10 or 12 people that he would call up to discuss these issues. He’d say, “You’ll never guess what Don Hewitt said to me today. I don’t believe what’s happening here. I have relations with people and all of a sudden I’m walking through like a pariah; as I walk past them their eyes make it seem like I’m not there.” Another thing is: I’ve known investigative journalists a long, long time. And I do a little bit of that work myself. Whether investigating 1757 (for The Last of the Mohicans) or drugs, you seek people out and talk to them with different degrees of confidentiality. I’ve always been attracted to this kind of reporting, and I understand the guys who do it a little bit. But it is difficult for me to imagine digging out a story on a subject as important as this and having it censured, expunged.
I can imagine it from my own experience in a limited way, but this is terribly important stuff—this isn’t just my artistic vanities involved. Yeah, if I’m one of those journalists, my ego is involved because I dug up this newsbreak of the year, or two or three years, or half a decade. But this is also really important stuff, important to the point where if this can’t get on the air, I’m no longer who I am doing this job, or this job is not what this job is supposed to be. And the way it unfolds—to borrow a line from Heat: “You gotta make up your mind, right now, what’s it gonna be, yes or no? There’s no ‘I’ll call you back.'” That’s really dramatic stuff. That’s another reason why this material so terrific.
If you were already talking to Lowell, what benefit did you get from buying Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece?
What that provided, big time, was Jeffrey; we couldn’t talk to Jeffrey at that point. Marie had some insights into Lowell, even though I knew Lowell pretty well, and we were able to trade notes, and so his character was helped some with that. My anticipation of the film was not to do an elegant, somewhat distant docudrama. I had zero interest in doing that. I want you to feel that you are underneath the skin of Jeffrey Wigand. I want you to step into Lowell Bergman’s shoes. I did not want even to attempt to tell the story if I couldn’t take you there, ’cause that’s the real experience to have. I’d be so disappointed in myself if I couldn’t do that.
The picture is two hours and 32 minutes of talking. Everything is dialogue. On the one hand you could view it as a horrible restriction; on the other hand you could view it as this great adventure. I mean, someone asked me early on, “How do you feel about filming all these phone calls?” And I said, great—you get to have two people talking in two different places. We shoot Jeffrey in his bedroom making a phone call, and where does he get Lowell? He gets him at a crime scene in New Orleans, with a dead body and a street full of mounted police, because Lowell’s working on a story about the New Orleans P.D. Then you can modify the places as a function of the perspective they give to the scene. So when Jeffrey is sitting alone in this Hopperesque bedroom, viewed from the back, cloistered in his corner—and you know he’s heading into a corner—it’s not accidental, given what Jeffrey is thinking, that we show Lowell at a crime scene where there’s blood on the ground. It’s not an analogy or a even a simile, but there is a linkage.
Jeffrey Wigand is an angry man, and we’re beginning to know the nature of his anger. It’s that the people who are persecuting him get to go home at night. He’d be less angry if they hated him. “They are just functionaries, they get to go home at night, and I have to live with this fear of the horrible things that might happen to my family.”
Another advantage of phone calls is that the second character can’t see the first character, so Lowell can have a gesture of irritability or concern without Jeffrey knowing it. And as the geographies change, you move into Lowell’s world. He’s always working on two or three things, including the piece on Sheik Fadlallah, the spiritual head of Hezbollah, which he does right at the beginning of the film. We shot in Berkeley, we shot in Los Angeles, we shot in Louisville, we shot in New York City, we shot in Pascagoula (Miss.), we shot in the Caribbean, we shot in Israel.
There’s also a shocking collision between Lowell’s world and Jeffrey’s. Maybe that’s dramatized best when Jeffrey takes his wife to New York without telling her he’s going to do an interview with “60 Minutes”—and she only finds out when they’re at dinner with Lowell and Mike Wallace.
Wigand as a character and a man is so human to me and, I found, so powerfully emotional, because he isn’t a two-dimensional invention of fictive imagination. You would never sit in a room, by yourself, and imagine a scene in which he goes to New York for an interview and does not find it possible to bring himself to tell his wife. And yet, when it happens, you know that in the nanosecond before she trips to it, he is in agony, because of course he realizes it is inevitable that she’ll have to know. He just couldn’t tell her. And that’s life, man—that’s what happens in life.
When that happens, and Wallace asks Lowell, “Who are these people?”—it’s a laugh line, but—
The laugh immediately turns on you. The laugh line sets you up for what to me is one of the most important lines in the picture, which is Lowell saying that they’re ordinary people in an extraordinary situation: “What do you expect? Grace and consistency?” The line we could have added and never put in was: “Like in the movies?”
Which brings us to the opposition of Lowell Bergman and Wallace. And Wallace is not a bad man in the film. But from the way he’s depicted here, he’s probably been involved with high-stakes journalism for too long; maybe he can’t separate from the adrenaline rush and the perks to the extent that Bergman does even from the start.
Well, what did you feel about Wallace’s sense of himself and his life—of where he is in the throw of his life?
You feel that he’s a guy who is incredibly good at what he does. I mean he’s terrific even before he starts to interrogate the sheik—
I’ve cut it down. It’s hilarious. It went on.
And he has a sense of integrity tied up with his own performance, which is valid.
Sure he does. He’s the guy who says, in Scene 54, where they eat lunch, “They aren’t gonna be able to stop a story like this. This is public interest. This is like someone dumping cyanide in the East River, or someone manufacturing faulty airframes. We can publish it.” You bet he believes that.
I think Wallace wants to keep doing this the rest of his life, so a self-protective reflex kicks in when he bows to CBS. Yet he also finally knows that not running the interview is wrong.
Or that the game is up. I mean, this is all public record—he switched when the New York Times, the New Yorker‘s bible, came out and attacked “60 Minutes” for smearing the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, and after the Daily News was very vocal on the same issue, with a banner headline something like “What ’60 Minutes’ won’t show you.” Public opinion swung the other way. The show airs without the Wigand interview on Nov. 12, ’95, and by Nov. 13, ’95, he’s on “Charlie Rose” saying, “We were caving in, and we were wrong.” And he has flipped over to the other side.
Now, I don’t think any of that’s wrong. I don’t think it is a measure of some kind of moral deficit that he reacts to his community. I think it’s human; I think it’s what people do. So let’s drop all the pretense and bullshit: There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s actions that count, not what motivated you to do them. There’s no purely motivated action in this motion picture—not on the part of Wigand, not even on the part of Lowell. It’s life. I always viewed Wallace and Hewitt and everybody at “60 Minutes” as riders in a train wreck not of their own making. You had CBS corporate anticipating or reacting to messages they were getting from Brown & Williamson. So of course CBS corporate focuses in on this show and tries to block this interview. Everybody is a victim in a train wreck, and everybody reacts differently. That’s the way we viewed it, and I think that’s the way the film portrays it.
All this is what separates The Insider from a conventional “docudrama.” There seem to be five things going on in every scene.
I wanted to direct, I tried to direct the subtext. That’s where I found the meaning of the scenes. You could write the story of certain scenes in a code that would be completely coherent but have nothing to do with the lines you hear. For example, in the hotel room scene, Scene 35, when Lowell and Jeffrey first meet: All Lowell knows for sure is that Jeffrey has said “no” to helping him analyze a story about tobacco for “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t know yet that there’s a “yes” hiding behind this “no.” There’s a whole story going on that’s not what anybody’s talking about. If you wrote an alternate speech for Jeffrey, it would go: “I’m here to resurrect some of my dignity, because I’ve been fired, and that’s why I dressed up this way and that’s why I have these patrician, corporate-officer attitudes.” And you could do the same for Lowell, and have him sitting there and saying, “This man wants to tell me something that is not about why he’s meeting me.”
Al Pacino just took over Lowell’s great reporter’s intuition to sit there and laser-scan Jeffrey with his eyes. You know, he looks at him, looks at him, and doesn’t move, until, after all the fidgeting and shuffling with the papers, Russell, as Jeffrey, gets to say his great line—”I was a corporate vice president”—with the attitude “Once upon a time, I was a very important person.” And that [Mann snaps his fingers] is when Lowell has it. Suddenly, here’s the significance of this meeting: “He’s the former head of research and development at Browne & Williamson Tobacco Company, and he wants to talk to me.” Without hitting anything on the head with exposition, without any of that awful dialogue, like “Boy, have I got a lead which may give us the newsbreak of the decade,” you know that Lowell knows he’s on the scent of a helluva story.
What’s great about Pacino’s performance is that he never loses that alertness and sensitivity—even when the light goes out of his eyes.
It’s so profound and so subtle. It happens when he picks up the remote and turns off the VCR that’s been playing the interview that didn’t air. It’s in that moment, and it’s the simplest thing. I’ve looked at it over a thousand times, I guess, in the editing. If you analyze it frame by frame there’s nothing going on. But in the context of the scene and of the story, it’s one of the most perfectly acted moments I’ve ever seen. It’s a Picasso brush stroke; it sucks you in and you impute what’s happening. And Al is managing what you impute, not consciously, but because he’s being the moment—to the core of his being. There is no performance there. That is total, one-to-one meaningfulness. He shuts off the VCR and holds up the remote and turns and—boom. It’s just a spectacular moment.
There’s no way Bergman comes off as unscathed in this movie. The whole point is—
The whole point is “Well, my career is over. I can’t do what I want to do the most. I want to stay at ’60 Minutes’ and work on ’60 Minutes.'” And why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t he want to have a big audience? Why shouldn’t he want to take tough subjects and put them in front of the 30 million people who watch that show every Sunday night? And he realizes that he can’t do it. There’s not a happy ending for him.
Of course, Crowe’s biggest moment comes when Wigand decides to testify in court in Mississippi even though he knows Brown & Williamson may try to have him thrown in jail when he returns to Kentucky. He’s standing in front of the house of his lawyer, Richard Scruggs, and he says, “Fuck it, let’s go to court.” To me, the key words come right before that; when he suggests he wants to change things that haven’t changed “since whenever.”
He’s saying that these issues are not temporary and they are affecting your life in the real simple ways and in the profound ways. And if you don’t make that choice—”Fuck it, let’s go to court”—then you’re going to wind up walking away less of who you were than a moment before. That’s the key moment. And that’s exactly the way it happened. There was nothing we could to improve on it, or we would have. We just did exactly what was said, on that same lawn, in front of that house, by those trees. “Fuck it, let’s go to court.” Those were his words. And he said ’em, to Lowell and Scruggs, at that place—we used Scruggs’ house for Scruggs’ house—with more police there than I put in the scene.
In some of your films, I thought you strained to touch on the pressure the world puts on home life and families. Here these scenes are tremendously moving, partly because of Crowe and Diane Venora, who is amazing as his wife. When Jeffrey realizes he may go to jail, he asks flat out what that means and what will happen to his wife and daughters.
People go to jail on episodic television and in motion pictures all the time. “Well, if you’re convicted, Guilty!” Bang. Bullshit! What does it really mean? I mean, what does your wife do if that happens? Oh, your wife’s gonna have to go to work? So who’s gonna take care of your children? In the real world, there are ramifications. When Brown & Williamson threatens Jeffrey Wigand with litigation, how does he get attorneys? Who pays for the attorneys? How do you stay secure? How do you afford security? How do you protect your telephonic communications from being invaded? It costs money to have somebody sweep your phone systems. How do you afford all this stuff? Even the pressure on a well-constructed marriage would be huge. Think of it: A Fortune 500 company that is highly litigious, that is known for having thuggish tactics, wants to get you. They really want to get you. And Jeffrey Wigand is not in a marriage where there is a lot of communication—this is not Lowell Bergman walking home and his wife looks up from gardening and asks, “Honey, what’s wrong?” ’cause she knows something’s wrong. This is a marriage where the two people can’t talk. You know the heart of the marriage, ’cause they can relate to a third party—the only time they’re just spontaneously close is when one of their kids is sick. But one-to-one, it’s defensive, the words and behaviors are encoded, there are all these problems. It’s not so much a good marriage that gets broken, as a broken marriage in which the participants care about each other, try to re-form, and just when they’re trying to re-form—that’s when it gets attacked. You bet that’s where the pressure hits.
It’s a wonderful ensemble, but to me Crowe gives the most original performance. He’s got this crabbed intensity that comes out in an unpredictable, stop-and-go style. How did you work with him on that? Did you go moment to moment?
First of all, I don’t talk about some of that. Some of this stuff, it’s just not right to be public about. It’s how we work, it’s what we do; the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to it! But it’s not moment to moment, it’s all in preparation. It’s in really understanding the character and then finding ways to build on that understanding. In the hands of an actor like Al Pacino or Russell Crowe, that’s a great exploration. And the way I work you have to form most of the character, ideally, before you rehearse. You test it in rehearsals, you modify it on rehearsals, so by the time you’re on the set, you’re executing, and if you can do it like that, then you’re open for spontaneity. And that’s the gold. It’s when what you didn’t plan is suddenly occurring because the actor is in the moment, because he’s being the moment. The look in Russell’s eye when he rolls his head a little bit; the way he delivers the soliloquy he’s got when he stands against the window and tells his wife it’s gonna be better: “Can you imagine what it’s gonna be like for me coming home from work and feeling good at the end of the day?”
Director Michael Mann talk extensively with Charlie Rose about the film.
Thieves, assassins, mad men, whistle-blowers, and gamblers have all populated the extreme adventures of Michael Mann’s films. For more than 30 years, with style and precision, he has examined the richness of human experience. The Study of Mann by F.X. Feeney.
On The Insider Russell Crowe met the real Jeffrey Wigand three times, and then we both said, ‘That’s enough.’ He got everything he needed, and there was that fine point in which he was still on a frontier—needing to project and extrapolate what Jeffrey would do. The trap both Russell and I wanted to avoid was falling into a Xerox of the actual guy. I didn’t want anything imitative. What results therefore is Russell’s evocation of Wigand, the essential, authentic Wigand that’s based on his origins and what he’s confronting. The beauty of Wigand is his awkwardness. He was definitely a hero, warts and all. He’s a scientist who went to work for a tobacco company—for the money. That’s what makes his obstinacy so heroic. His personal failings by contrast are what make him so much like us. If there had been bonding and pal-ship between him and Lowell Bergman [the producer from 60 Minutes goading him to take action played by Al Pacino], I might not have had the idea to make the film. It was precisely because Lowell didn’t exactly care for the guy, and yet put everything on the line to defend him, that I could access him, access the pair of them, and hopefully persuade the audience to access him. —Michael Mann
Michael Mann was a guest in the second season of The Hollywood Masters, the interview series moderated by THR’s executive features editor Stephen Galloway.
60 Minutes veteran Mike Wallace loathed Michael Mann’s account of how the news magazine squashed one of its most explosive stories, about wrongdoing in the tobacco industry, as Mann presented the events in 1999’s The Insider. “It really upset him,” he said of the 1999 exposé that earned seven Oscar nominations and severely damaged Wallace’s once-towering reputation. “He detested the film.” He added, “I know it injured Wallace, and I feel bad that it injured him.” Speaking to students at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, Mann described several phone conversations with Wallace, and said at one point he even asked if he could tape-record them. “I said, ‘Mike, do you mind if I record this?’ ” Mann recalled. “And he said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because I want to put this right into the movie.’ ” Wallace replied, “Turn on your tape recorder, dear boy.”
You reunited with Pacino on The Insider. Very different film, one of my favorites of yours. Do you all know who Mike Wallace was? He was one of the great American journalists and, though the argument that he makes to the 60 Minutes producers who uncovered a cover-up is a flawed one, it’s a pretty good one.
That’s what’s wonderful about life. I mean, it is true. You know, they’re both true, they’re both multi-faceted arguments. That’s our life. I’m more interested in that, those kind of dramatic constructions than I am in the fiction of, you know, “Well, you have a binary choice.” There are no binary choices. There’s five choices. There’s complexities with all of them. Everything’s true. Bergman felt horrible and he has an imperative, he has to do what he did because he promised Jeffrey Wigand, who’s the whistleblower, that he’d protect him. What made it engaging is he didn’t like Jeffrey Wigand and Jeffrey Wigand had a lot of flaws. If Jeffrey Wigand was a saint, I wouldn’t have been as interested in this story. Precisely because of the unpleasantness about Wigand, but what he revealed. The act of revealing it took immense courage, even if the motivations were flawed. He basically was the head scientist for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company and detailed how, even though they got in front of Congress and said that “We don’t manipulate nicotine levels, we just take a bunch of leaves, roll them into cigarettes, and you smoke them, and whatever happens happens”—that that was all a pack of lies told in Congress under oath by the heads of all tobacco companies, that they adjust the nicotine addiction levels, they manipulate it through chemistry, and he was the chief guy who was doing that at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Bergman got him to go on 60 Minutes. So the moral dilemma is obvious and it is crushing to Wallace. Wallace, 10 years ago, probably wouldn’t have faded the play the way he did then. I’m moved by it because that is fact, that is real. Wallace is saying how Mike Wallace really felt.
Mike Wallace called you up?
What did he say?
He said he would call me because he had read the screenplay. This is when we were in pre-production and about to start shooting, and he would prefer the film not to be made. And he would call me, and have these engaging dialogues. They were funny, they were hilarious. And halfway through one of them I said, “Mike, do you mind if I record this” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I want to put this right into the movie.” “Turn on your tape recorder dear boy.” And I did, and much of what Wallace says in that speech, particularly, “How fortunate I am to have to have Lowell Bergman to shine a light on the path of moral rectitude.” That’s directly a quote from him. So we had a lot of dialogue, I had a lot of dialogue while this was going on, and the film was dead [accurate], it’s not just accurate, it’s authentic. And, a higher standard, and I know it injured Wallace, and I feel bad that it injured him.
Did you talk to him after the film?
I did. I talked to his wife Mary.
And what did he say?
Uh, he detested the film. People around him told him, “Mike, you know, you kinda come back at the end, it happened, you know, you don’t come off that badly”, but really, it upset him.
He told you that directly, I detest this film?
Angrily or politely?
Oh, very politely. I mean, I was staying on Central Park West when we were shooting in New York, and I came out of the elevator, and in a very small elevator, next to me is Don Hewitt.
Who’s the executive producer [of 60 Minutes].
Who’s Mike Wallace’s partner and executive producer. Both these guys started the first magazine news show in television history called 60 Minutes. There’s an irony in some of this stuff because NBC tried to do the same thing and that was called The First Tuesday series and that’s where I shot the stuff in Paris [in 1968]. And I had no idea, that Hewitt, who’s also a major character in this piece, lived in this building. What is he doing in an elevator standing next to me? And he didn’t know who I was, and we’re shooting this film, and Hewitt has been railing against this film on Page Six, and the elevator’s going down about five or six floors, I had a van and, like, whole crews waiting outside to go to location scouting. I said to myself, “You know I could say absolutely nothing, and he’ll go on his way and I’ll go mine,” and I said, “I can’t do that.” And I said, “Mister Hewitt, how do you do? I’m… I’m Michael Mann.” And he was shocked for about two milliseconds, then he puts his arm over my shoulder, and as the doors to the elevators open he says, “That f—ing Lowell Bergman!” [Laughs.] And I instantly became his best buddy, and we were walking out.
Did you ever see him after that?
No, I never did. But the point is that I respected both these guys tremendously, for the work they did. And Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace could manipulate media, and make moves in their sleep.
The cinematography of The Insider. Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti. Nominated for the 2000 Academy Award for Best Cinematography and Best Picture.
I don’t care about putting a distinctive stamp. What I do care about is… when you read a screenplay, it’s possibly something you’d really like to work on. Something that represents a challenge, and so you go through a lot of things: the history, deep into what the story means—that’s what you’re trying to represent with your cinematography. There are a number of different ways of cooperating with a director. When I work with Michael Mann, Michael is usually very keen on his camera angles. Very rarely, if I step in, was I consulted about where or what kind of lens to use in how to do a shot. Sometimes, it happens. It’s a lot about prepping, so it’s a lot about interpreting the scenes with lighting in a way that is functional—also very efficient, very simple in communication, and possibly, also, somehow fascinating and dynamic. I’ve done films where my cooperation in telling the story with a camera—the angles and the editing—I had a much bigger influence in doing that.
Michael is, for sure, the kind of director who, if you agree with him and understand what he has in mind to do, you can work with him. If you are someone who discusses or does disagree, you better not do that. You don’t need to step into a hard time. So if you agree and understand, it’s all fine—and you like it. If you agree with something, you like it. I always found, even when I did my first movie with Michael… the way I describe it is that, for me, coming from Italy and some good television, he was like finding a way of making movies that maybe I dreamed of, in my mind, but that I actually never worked on. It’s kind of interesting. He was great, and I have always highly admired him; I learned a lot from Michael Mann. It was always an operation that needed quite a bit of concentration to make it happen.
I think Michael has been as influenced as anybody else by the technical change to digital from film, because, obviously, it has been such a major change when you can see what you’re doing. It’s not small; you can see exactly what you’re doing. What I’d say, just as a note, is that the first movie I did with Michael was Manhunter, and Michael had started and learned a lot more about lighting throughout his movies. Every movie I work with him, he was a little more prepared. “Hey, why don’t you do this instead of doing that?” I remember a famous scene in Last of the Mohicans. We were shooting at night with Magua, and it was one of those night exteriors: 6:30, dawn is coming up. So I see the light getting blue in the sky, and I follow a technique that I experienced and worked out many times: I placed every light on a dimmer, so when the general light comes up, you boost up your Tungsten lights, and so you avoid seeing the light comes up. At some point, Michael turned to me and said, “Dante, why did you turn this up in the forest?” I said, “Michael, that is the sun.” He hadn’t realized that the sun was up! —Dante Spinotti on Michael Mann’s preparedness, remastering classics, and new technologies
William Goldenberg, ACE, has more than twenty film and television credits since 1992. He won the Academy Award for Film Editing for the film Argo, and has been nominated for The Insider, Seabiscuit, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Imitation Game. He has also received nominations for nine other editing-related awards. Goldenberg has had an extended, notable collaboration with the director Michael Mann including Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Miami Vice. Some of his other work includes Unbroken, Alive, Pleasantville, National Treasure, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Gone Baby Gone.
“An excellent documentary of key scenes with Michael Mann and actors. For as long as these videos are available online, you can treat yourself to some old but powerful Michael Mann interviews with some of our best loved Michael Mann scenes. This is wonderful footage, including actor interviews about the Tiger scene from Manhunter and that extraordinarily charged cliff scene in Last of the Mohicans. It includes scenes from Heat, and also The Insider. Actors speak about who they feel Michael Mann is, with some superb quotes to take away that sum up our favourite director. Get Michael Mann’s inside story. Essential viewing, enjoy.” —Michael-Mann.net
How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?
“Protecting concentration is a big thing for me. I like a quiet set. The actors have the most extraordinarily difficult task: being somebody else, and projecting themselves authentically into a given moment. I’m extremely zealous about guarding their concentration—and mine—from any needless distraction that might interfere. No training, no prior training, no theatricality is going to take you through this moment if you’re an actor. You build it in yourself and you go through it. If he does it, the camera will see it. If he doesn’t, it won’t. Now, you go back and look at the moment and you know what’s going on with this guy. And there are no tears, no bullshit, no burlesque. And then he gets up and he just walks away. That’s the quintessence of Russell Crowe.”
Michael Mann is a master of the modern urban noir, with a unique brand of pulp poetry that is pure cinephiliac pleasure. He defined cool in the 1980s, directed some of the most highly regarded thrillers of the 1990s, and pioneered digital filmmaking in the 2000s. BAMcinématek presents this career retrospective showcasing the visionary auteur’s intelligent, stylish, and intensely entertaining films, which mark an uncompromising commitment to aesthetic perfection and an almost obsessive exploration of his key archetype: the renegade antihero who plays by his own rules. Watch the entire conversation between director Michael Mann and Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri from February 11, 2016 event, part of the full-career retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s The Insider. Photographed by Frank Connor © Touchstone Pictures, Forward Pass. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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