This July, Establishing Shot presents It’s Revived!, a miniseries celebrating some of our favorite (or at least some of the more fascinating) movie remakes out there in anticipation of IU Cinema’s fall film series Re:Made. Up first, Jesse Pasternack discusses how Michael Mann turned a TV movie into a stone-cold cinematic classic.
Every cinema enthusiast encounters certain popular ideas about movies at some point in their life. They range from the belief that sequels pale in comparison to the original film in the franchise to the certainty that some genres (especially horror and musical) only have niche appeal to the types of folks you wouldn’t want to talk with for too long. As a cinephile continues their journey into the wonderful world of movies, they decide which of these ideas they like and which ones don’t hold true for them.
One of these ideas relates to the topic of remakes. Many people often deride the idea of remaking classic movies like King Kong (1933) or Halloween (1978). The fact that there have been remakes of both films shows that this idea doesn’t hold much weight with development executives. But there is a flip side to this which I actually like quite a bit. This point-of-view holds that, instead of remaking good movies, filmmakers should create remakes of bad movies. Said remakes would be a do-over and a way for a talented filmmaker to take an interesting premise and reconfigure it to reach its full potential. It is telling that some of the best remakes to come out of the American film industry — namely Martin Scorsese’s morally murky Cape Fear (1991) and Steven Soderbergh’s well-plotted and ultra-cool Ocean’s Eleven (2001) — are strikingly different from what came before them. They serve as compelling evidence for the argument that the best remakes are the ones which take a bold and different direction from their source material.
But perhaps the best argument that the greatest remakes are of less successful material is writer-director Michael Mann’s film Heat (1995). It was a financial success that would go on to influence everything from The Dark Knight (2008) to Grand Theft Auto II (2001). But what many don’t know is that this iconic film is actually a remake of L.A. Takedown (1989), which is a TV movie that was also written and directed by Mann. Watching these two films, as well as comparing and contrasting them, is a great exercise in seeing how a director can use a remake to revise their previous work.
Both L.A. Takedown and Heat tell the story of workaholic cop Vincent Hanna (first played by Scott Plank and later by Al Pacino), who pursues a bank robber and starts to realize that they have a lot in common. In L.A. Takedown, the robber’s name is Patrick McLaren (Alex McArthur), but in Heat he is called Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro).
What stands out on a first viewing of L.A. Takedown is its sense of speed. This 93-minute-long television movie moves like a bullet train. It has this pace mostly because of Mann’s need to color between the lines of network television — L.A. Takedown was commissioned by NBC — but it also comes from how he had to adapt his source material. Mann didn’t write an original teleplay from scratch for L.A. Takedown. Instead, he cut 110 pages from an older draft of Heat. That makes this television movie feel even more like a rough draft for what would come later.
Mann seemed to have learned a lot from L.A. Takedown in terms of how to make better narrative decisions in Heat. I’m not talking about the novelistic complexity and subplots which he was unable to use in L.A. Takedown but rather specific changes he made for his later film. For example, Hanna’s marriage in the television movie is much happier than it is in Heat. Near the beginning of L.A. Takedown, his wife cheerily asks him if she should make him breakfast. Her line is a reflection of how, despite Hanna’s devotion to his work, they have a good marriage. In contrast, the same scene in Heat has that character asking Hanna the following: “Are you taking me to breakfast?” This simple line change establishes that Hanna’s wife is not the happy homemaker of the first incarnation of this story, but rather a person with her own needs that don’t always line up with those of Hanna. He is unable to take her out to breakfast because he has to work, which sets up their marriage as one which is more complex than its earlier counterpart.
This television movie also feels like a “prototype” (to use Mann’s preferred term) for Heat from a visual perspective. The color palette is full of bright colors like oranges and browns. The camera also has a narrow depth of field which focuses more on the characters than the city surrounding them. In contrast, Mann uses a different visual style for Heat. The color palette contains more shots which make great use of the color blue, such as an early one when a lonely McCauley looks out at the ocean from his temporary home. In addition, Mann takes a more expansive approach to depicting Los Angeles, which he developed thanks to his experience filming L.A. Takedown. In an interview, Mann notes that filming it gave him a feeling for the city he had never had before. That feeling is present in the many long shots of the city and its beautiful lights, occasionally from the perspective of a helicopter, which make it feel like a suitably epic stage for this grand crime story.
The most iconic scene in both L.A. Takedown and Heat is when Hanna and McCauley/McLaren talk shop over coffee. Both scenes have a sense of narrative ingenuity that is present even in the earlier version, which lacks the novelty of Pacino and De Niro performing a scene together for the first time. Like everything else about L.A. Takedown, this scene has a bluntness and brevity which can feel bracing. It accomplishes its narrative purpose — let its protagonist and antagonist meet, acknowledge their similarities, and affirm they will kill the other if necessary — as fast as it can. But in Heat, Hanna and McCauley have a more wide-ranging conversation. Their talk does move the narrative forward, but it also finds time for them to discuss the people in their lives, what they want out of their careers, and even what they’ve been dreaming about lately. The depiction of both scenes — brief and to the point in L.A. Takedown and digressive yet important in Heat — accurately reflects the tones of both the television movie and the feature version.
Remakes are, more often than not, attempts by studios to make some money off of beloved films. But the experience Mann had making his television movie and its reworked, feature-length version suggests that there is another way to use remakes. They can be rough drafts for filmmakers to work out ideas which fascinate them and see what does or does not work about a story. It’s a different way of making a film that is more akin to theatrical practices. But perhaps it is one worth exploring, especially since it helped create a masterpiece like Heat.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.