Director Michael Mann on His Research Process for Films Like Blackhat and Insider

How do directors research a story beforehand to preserve authenticity?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and access insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.


Answer by Michael Mann, Director, Producer, Blackhat, Heat, The Insider, Collateral, Last of the Mohicans, Thief

I don't look at other pictures about a subject. If I want to do a movie about a thief, I don't watch a film about a thief, I meet and hang out with thieves. The same goes for researching investigate journalists. When I was doing Insider, that methodology projected into the work I asked the actors to do. I took Al Pacino to the FBI in his role as an investigative journalist to conduct a difficult interview with the head of FBI Counter Terrorism, reluctant to tell him anything. That was a challenge the real Lowell Bergman faced everyday.

We were meeting Blackhat hackers from the start. Particularly Kevin Poulsen, who's an editor at Wired, now, and Chris McKinlay, who got his PhD in Math from UCLA and had hacked OKCupid to become the most desirable male in Los Angeles for a while, which is how he met his fiancé. Then we also met with other experts: some tech people at Verisign; some folks at Qualcom including their chief of engineering, who gave us access to a 3D computer model of a Qualcom chip through which you could drive anywhere... down to structures 20 atoms wide... which was quite extraordinary; Mike Rogers; Juan Zarate; men in Department of Homeland Security, the FBI. We also spent time talking to steelworkers and going to work on the 5 a.m. shift with steelworker Jayson Culp at U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana and we spent time in prisons, including Statesville in Illinois, talking extensively to the men.

You try to get personal, fast. Some men were stunningly candid and conscious of their condition and the life that's ahead of them. You get into their frustrations, what drives them, their mistakes, their real fears, their adaptations to prison environment and aggressive brio, what life do they see on the horizon, do they see a horizon? The idea is to get enough input...much of it is sensory...and understanding to the point where Chris Hemsworth, who was committed to immerse himself and use this kind of material, can start building with his imagination some of that human experience with specificity, as Chris did. In another area, I can understand the experience described by hackers writing code, an immersion, like an opiated, positive feedback loop. You get that when you're gaming. But from a hacker's and coder's point of view. Once that happens, you start to have a fraction of the experience of the characters. The difference of course between a hacker and a gamer is that for a gamer, the outcome occurs in a virtual world where for a hacker, it's the polar opposite. The outcome is kinetic and happens with impact in the real physical world.

In Chris Hemsworth's case, for his character, Nicholas Hathaway, I had decided he was a working class guy from the south side of Chicago. I grew up in an inner city neighborhood of Chicago. That built the spine of a whole history for him (a lot of which isn't in the text of the film). His father was a steel working, single parent, great father. So, that's why being in the blast furnace and mills with Jayson Culp at 5 in the morning was important. It's all about simulating real experience.

To me authenticity is more important than precise accuracy. Blackhat is a drama. A detective story about a guy who was released from prison because of his hacker/coder expertise to hunt down a blackhat hacker and cybercriminal somewhere in the world. No one knows who he is, where he is, why he's doing what he's doing. But, they expect more attacks. He's a ghost. The adversary causes a near meltdown of a nuclear reactor in China. He's manipulated the price of soy futures on the commodities exchange (Soy is number one animal feed in the world). So, no one knows why their adversary generated cash fast but carelessly or melted down a reactor's cooling system of a certain type. The authenticity hopefully helps them to believe what they see.

I also think that as really smart organisms, which we all are, perceptually, we're aware of more than we know. We read and recognize truth-telling when we see it. So the more authentic I could be, the more Chris feels that he can write code, that he is Nicholas Hathaway... people pick up on that in the theater. If we've done it right we get a better pipe-line between audience and characters' emotions into the story telling.

Also, when we heard social engineering stories about people dropping USB drives in the parking lot of a research facility, hoping that one of the workers would pick it up and plug it into their laptop to see what was on it, not knowing that the USB was loaded with malware which then invaded their system, we used that. That instance triggered one particular scene in the movie.

But, it's not accuracy for it's own sake. The imperative, the critical path is the story.

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