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John Dillinger, scholar of crime: The Michael Mann transcript

Johnny Depp as John Dillinger.

By Michael Mann

A lightly-edited transcript of Michael Mann talking with Ebert on June 19, 2009. “Public Enemies” opens July 1.

I was fascinated with how organized crime,with all the profits they made during prohibition, were sitting there with all this cash and decided to go into business, basically. So then the independent outlaw, this 19th century bandit as a model, generated too much heat, so they went from being kind of entertaining celebrities to liabilities, for these mob guys. By the time you get to ’34, half of America’s Most Wanted, half the public enemies, wound up getting killed by organized crime figures rather than by the authorities. Then on the other hand, the formation of the FBI fascinated me; Hoover was brilliant and progressive in his methods, aside from the megalomania. They’re innovative. He was a political animal, moving forward with the formation of the FBI on the coattails of the New Deal basically, and using the publicity of inventing the public enemies to launch himself into power.

I did a lot of research. When we were going up to the real Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, which is way north. When you talk about North Woods, this is the North Woods. For example, there are no Japanese cars, no Camrys, just American cars. Manitowoc is north of Minnesota, the town. Went to the lodge, and they had shellacked on the walls of the real lodge, it’s unchanged, all the newspapers of the period the Chicago American, all those papers that I remember from when I was kid in Chicago, were still around. And you saw the headlines, and this is during the primary, you saw the headlines. On “Monday,” , in 3-inch bold type, “Dillinger." And then on Thursday, “Dillinger.” He gets another headline and then following on Saturday, and the following Monday. And we realized that Dillinger was getting headlines more frequently than Obama and he was the big news.

There were newspapers and all of America listened to the radio, and there were movies. And that was it, so it was a narrower channel. So when you dominated that channel, you really got everybody. So Will Rogers’ wrote about Little Bohemia and the FBI, it made a stir. He said: “Well, they had Dillinger surrounded. They were all ready to shoot him, but then a bunch of folks came out ahead so they just shot them instead. They will get Dillinger someday, probably when he’s with a group of innocent bystanders and he'll get shot by accident.” That was the attitude at the time; that the authorities were buffoons who couldn’t get Dillinger, and these were same authorities that couldn’t fix the Depression, couldn’t relieve the suffering from the Dust Bowl, and Dillinger was attacking the institutions, i.e., the banks that had made everybody’s life a misery. In Chicago, of 166 banks outside of the Loop, by 1933, 140 had failed. So you were going home to your bungalow, a 55- year-old guy living in Rogers Park or wherever and you're saving to retire, you own your own home or whatever, and your bank failed and all you’ve got is the change in your pocket. That’s it. You can go and buy food for maybe the next couple of days, your bank account’s gone, everything’s gone and you’re on the street and you’re hungry. My mother lived through the Depression and they had no money and you were hungry and you were cold and so was everybody else; I mean, it was tough.

The effect of it was huge. I mean, when you read historical accounts of something that’s not even in our motion picture at all, the Dust Bowl. People say Dust Bowl, they think of a Dorothea Lange photo, but they don’t think of a cloud of dust 1,200 miles wide, 500 feet high, that’s suffocating a lot of people who even have the slightest lung disease or problems, farm families where there’s three or four young children and dead parents and there’s nobody to come and relieve them. There’s no 911. There’s no electrification, there’s no phone, there’s just abandoned children wandering in the dust storm and who knows what happens to them?

They happened to have an Edward Hopper exhibit at the Art Institute right when we were here shooting and I spent a lot of time looking at Hopper’s paintings from the 1930s. There are a couple of images in the film that are a direct homage to Hopper, particularly when Dillinger goes and calls Billie on the pay phone after he breaks out of Crown Point jail, that's us trying to imitate Hopper. The grimness and how that impacts on a human being. That’s what I was trying imagine and trying to convey and build into the attitudes of all the characters.

One thing that fascinated me early on was how they thought. Not just period cars and period places and period clothes but period attitudes, period thinking. What the prison system was like that he came out of because it’s very different that it is now. When we meet him, he’s only been on the street for actually about 11 weeks and the prior 10 years he was locked up in a horrendous prison conditions. And how they viewed life related to was so different. If we do anything, anything you’d like, from psychoanalysis to astrology and Scientology, whatever, to make better choices and affect the outcomes of our life--that’s completely alien to their way of thinking. They believed in fate, which had nothing to do with the way they thought or what they did. That’s where expressions like, “well, there’s a bullet with your name on it,” , “when your time’s up, your time’s up.” In other words, this kind of Calvinism without God and it’s kind of predetermination.

So what they did was irrelevant. You just go and do what you’re gonna do for as long as you can do it and it may be a hell of a ride, it may be short and sweet. What mystified me about that was why Dillinger had no idea of a future. Not even a concept of future plans. Now these are guys who could plan in exquisite detail very disciplined robberies and getaway routes. There was a whole system invented by a guy named Herbert Lam, Herbert K. Lam, from who the expression, “on the lam” comes from. And he influenced, well, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, he’d been in the Prussian military and he applied military tactics to the science of robbing banks. He mentored Walter Dietrich, and Walter Dietrich mentored John Dillinger and that’s where John Dillinger got his skills. So the time in prison was a post-graduate course in bank robbery--how you’re gonna employ the methodology . They’d lay on a score for two weeks before they’d take it down. It was very strict; they had caches of gasoline on three escape routes; they had three different escape routes for getting out of these bank robberies. And they had detailed tenths of a mile list on the dash and they would take one route or another and everybody had their appointed job. One guy was the guy who’s driving, Red, who’s driving the getaway car; all he cares about is driving that getaway car. The lobby man, Pete Pierpont, he’s controlling the lobby and he’s not gonna worry about anything coming at him from outside because the outside man , who’s Homer Van Meter, he will take care of everything on the outside. The vault man doesn’t worry about the lobby or the outside and the tellers because he’s just looking at the vault because Charles Makley is taking all the cash from the tellers. So it was a real disciplined, small unit and they were in and out as fast as possible.

With all this planning it never occurred to these guys steal $250,000 and then go to Brazil. Or let’s go to let’s go to Singapore where we’re just round-eyed white people and they’d never recognize us. So there was no idea of the future at all, in any of this; just this intense, white-hot burning drive. And in Dillinger’s case, the last whole 13 months, he lived his whole life in 13 months, that’s it. He hits a bank, gets shot up, gets wounded, gets patched up and all that occurs in ten days. They go to Sioux Falls--no, Mason City, Iowa, then they’re suddenly in Wisconsin, then they decide to go to Florida. And everything is happening in days and weeks and it's all this insane ride with no thought of the future. It’s only when Billie Frechette enters his life, that obvious reasons he starts to have even the idea that there’s something beyond the immediate right now. And that fascinated me about this because it’s such an alien way of thinking.

I think I saw the Biograph Theater the first time from a streetcar down Lincoln Avenue ,when I was a little kid with my mother and she pointed out, “That’s the old Biograph Threater where they killed Dillinger." I must have been, I don’t know, 8 or 9 years old or something. And then after I was in film school in London, we came back to Chicago for about a year-and-a-half after my father died in 1970, we lived about there blocks from there. In 1970, we were living on Webster, right by DePaul there, right off Fullerton, so we used to go to the Biograph because--it was an art theatre, and there’s The Three Penny Cinema across the street, and the Wise Fools had just opened up and playing great blues... it was a great period. So '60, '70 and '71, right in that period. There was great coffee shop on the corner of Fullerton and Lincoln we used go into.

I’ve never seen the Dillinger plaque. I remember walking from the front of it and looking and thinking, he’d gone down that route and then got shot and died on that spot. People in the Chicago Police Department who run forensics, these guys would show up on our set and they’d roll out this long piece of paper and it was every foot of the 88 feet he walked from there to here where he got shot. So when Johnny Depp gets shot in our movie and he goes down and his head hits the ground, he’s looking at the exact brick wall and that old wooden telephone poll that Dillinger looked at when Dillinger was down. Dillinger lived for about three minutes after he was shot. And what was in Dillinger’s eyes was in Johnny Depp’s eyes and it became somewhat magical.

And so when I went to the real Little Bohemia, I was surprised it was still there and it was unchanged and when we asked if we could shoot there, they said yes. So we shot Little Bohemia in the real place. The room that Johnny Depp is in is Dillinger’s bedroom and it was that bed and when he puts his hand on the doorknob, that’s the doorknob that John Dillinger used. Even the toilet fixtures are unchanged. Everything was exactly the same. And we used the exact route that Dillinger broke out of. They went across past the bathroom, it’s a red bedroom, and they got out that window over the roof and down and escaped to the north along the bank of the lake and Baby Face Nelson went up south. If there’d been a better way to do it, I’d probably would have used it but there wasn’t. The way they suppressed the FBI assault and then escaped out the back and scooted off in the woods was brilliant.

There’s an HBO “Making Of..” documentary and it’s got footage of the Crown Point jail. I wanted to go to the real jail and look at and it was disused from ’74; it was all caved in, brick walls had fallen in and everything was rusty. But I realized you could never set it anywhere else because of the unique way the place is built. So we restored the whole jail and that was also shot in the real place. We have him taking about 3 or 4 guards captive. Dillinger, in real life, took 17 guards captive with this silly wooden gun before they got their hands on real weapons.

I think Dillinger had an invincible spirit. One of the things I marveled at about him, with all the attrition of all the people who were close to him, with the devastation all around him, he never gave up. It never occurred to him to get depressed. So his spirit was invincible and I don’t think he was Robin Hood, unless Robin Hood is defined as “steal money from the rich to keep it all for yourself.” People cheered at who he was taking the money from. I think he was superb at managing his public image. He was great at it and it was all very conscious and tactical by design. He knew how to behave. He had savoir faire. I mean, he was really charming. The newspaper accounts of that period, they’re shocked at how well-spoken he is, how charismatic, he cracks jokes. People would say that after being in his presence for 2-3 minutes you thought he was your best friend. This was all manipulative. There was nothing that wasn’t self-serving or designed about it, The true spirit of the guy was conveyed by a lot of people who did some books on him, but Martie Sanders, the Chicago actress who played the cashier at the Biograph--she gave me an article written by her husband’s grandfather. He was a photographer named Sol Davis who worked for the old Chicago Times. He was a Russian immigrant and read that Dillinger had been arrested in Tucson and was gonna be flown to Crown Point and he knew they’d obviously land in Chicago, because in those days commercial air travel was only four years old. And it was 17 stops between Tucson, and one of the stops was St. Louis.

So Saul Davis took the train to St. Louis and he just bought a ticket on the airplane, a commercial airplane, so he and his camera could get on flight from St. Louis to Chicago with Dillinger. And he shot all the famous pictures of Dillinger where you see him handcuffed in his seat on the airplane with a blanket around his shoulders and taking a nap. And he did the only interview with Dillinger in which he wrote down Dillinger’s speech patterns--the only place we really have Dillinger actually speaking and it being recorded is in Saul Davis’ article. And Dillinger was a guy who was just so tough, mentally tough, not just physically tough, just mentally so tough. He was 5’8”, he wasn’t a giant but just so strong-willed and of an indomitable spirit. This is off on a sidetrack. I wanted to know about prison because it’s the prison that made him, those prison conditions made him into who he was. Of course, all of this is about finding character, what’s the character, what’s behind it. Why does he love women, why is he going to movies, why is he the guy when he comes out of prison, within weeks of getting out of prison after being away from culture for 10 years--there’s no TV in those days--how was he able to have contemporary use of language? It's almost as if he had gotten out of prison in ’51 or ’52, and suddenly he walks in a jazz joint and he’s got bebop on his mind. I mean, how is he so current? In his clothes and his dress? We also had his clothes, by the way. We had his clothes, his shaving kit, everything he abandoned in Little Bohemia. And how did he come on to women? How did he talk to women? He imitated the movies. The first thing he said to Billie Frechette was some horrible line from the movies, “Where have you been all my life?” You couldn’t put that in the movie. But he explodes out of the prisons, so what was that prison that informed him?

We came up with a 1936 Bureau of Prisons investigation because that State Prison was a scandal. They had institutionalized forms of torture, of beatings, suffocation of people in strait jackets--it was horrendous, it was a hellhole. And he survived that at the top tier of that kind of population so this was a tough, tough guy.

I think people will get a little confused because quite by accident I have Billie in a red dress at the Aragon Ballroom, when the two of them meet. That’s why they’ll think this is gonna be the lady in red. And of course it’s not the lady in red.

Johnny Depp is a deeply interesting man and he has rich currents of past and history that some of his best roles never tap into. I think his work in "The Libertine,” for example, is fantastic. And yet that doesn’t go into what’s in his gut, and as an unabashed Johnny Depp fan, what I wanted to see from him was him do a) a tough outlaw, a mentally tough-minded outlaw like John Dillinger, and b) to expose himself emotionally, to have the opportunity to do a role in a film that would allow him to open up and for us to be able to locate inside his emotional experience as opposed to the brilliant performances, I wanted to see what’s really deep inside, and I know that deep inside him there are these deep currents of experience and anguish that we all have, that every human beings has and he’s a man. He’s not a kid, he’s a man. And courageous. And searching, always searching.

And so that’s why I was really interested in having him as Dillinger. Now, when we started talking about it, I realized that he had been interested in Dillinger for 20 years, 20-30 years, he’d known about Dillinger. As a kid growing up in East Kentucky Dillinger was a hero and so he had an affinity towards Dillinger, not just the bank robber or that part of it, but who the guy was, the charismatic man, what was going on deep inside the guy. Something I will never speak about because they’re private….they go on within that private lab that exists between a director and an actor, but he brought himself to this role with some real passion and sourced some of his emotions from some very, very difficult places so I think his work here is amazing, it’s astonishing and it speaks of great courage as an artist for an actor to go to the places that I know Johnny went to bring some of that sense of it. So when he loses Walt, or when he loses Billie Frechette, or what he’s thinking about in that movie theatre when Clark Gable gets up there. And Clark Cable was playing a character that’s somewhat influenced by the real life John Dillinger; And he’s saying those words like, “Die the way you live,” , “All of a sudden, living a long time doesn’t mean a thing.” And, what’s was Dikllinger thinking when Myrna Loy, who looks like Billie Frechette, says, “Bye, Blackie,” Or where did he get the audacity to stroll through the Chicago Police Department Detective Bureau--I think the real place he went is on 11th and State.

Polly Hamilton, who was with him that last night, didn’t know he was John Dillinger. She thought he was Jimmy somebody. He had had some plastic surgery, got a mustache, changed his appearance; the cleft on his chin was actually removed by that point. And so he says, “Well, I’ll go in with you,” and he goes strolling through the Detective Bureau. And when he broke out of Crown Point, he wrote Henry Ford a letter, saying, “Dear Henry Ford, you make the best goddam getaway car in America. Truly yours, John Dillinger.” So he did this stuff; I mean, he just had that audacity. He and Red Hamilton used to tail the head of the Indiana State Police, who was obsessed with getting John Dillinger. And the man spoke with a stutter and then they would call him and torture him, saying, “Hello there, you shuttering b-b-b-bastard, we were having dinner three tables away from you and you d-d-d-didn’t even spot us,” This is in Indianapolis. So the kind of outrageous short-lived sense of humor never deserted him.

But their heads didn’t swell. If that had happened, they would have believed they were invincible and would stop being cautious and would have just walked into scores without thinking much about it. And that didn’t happen. When a member, Russell Clark, broke their strict rules of operational security, by getting drunk and shooting his mouth off at a bar, they threw him out of the gang and they said, “you have 24 hours to get out of Chicago or we’ll kill you.” And they meant it. And he left. They were dead serious about what they were doing and about maintaining the their discipline.

I think he accepted that his life was gonna be short and they were there for the intensity of the ride and they didn’t say, “well, should there be a future plan or should there not be a future plan?” They didn’t even have the idea to think about a future. I think the grimness they came from was so extreme that they never even questioned about the bountifulness of the moment. They were kings; they put their hands in their pockets where if you’re lucky enough to have a job in 1933 you’re making $500 a year and they had $20,000 in cash in there. So they felt they were kings. I spent a lot of time with Jerry Scalise, who...he’s a good Chicago boy; he’s from the patch; he was hooked up with various figures. He comes out of the Near Northwest side, the patch, and he and Artie Rachel stole the Marlboro diamond out of London; they’re Chicago crew, and Jerry did a lot of time and for Jerry, too, I mean, there was the adrenalin rush of the score was that he didn’t wanna be a highline burglar, didn’t wanna go into the drug trade; he was just always into scoring stuff, armed robberies, that was his thing. He did lots of time in prison and he was a technical advisor and got very close to him during the shooting of it. And so I could ask him questions like, what is that feeling of invincibility. He says you think you’re king when you walked out of one of these places and you scored and you can’t wait to do it again. And if you think you can, put your hand in your pocket, now you can. And that was the thrill and like a drug. So I think that very much is what that feeling was like. For them, they never questioned tomorrow. So I don’t think it was a wish for death; it was the notion that when death comes, it was gonna come anyway so you may as well have as great a time as you can up until that point.

J. Edhgar Hoover was challenged by a rival agency, the Treasury, in a contest of who would become the federal police force. There had to be a federal police force because you could rob a bank in Wisconsin, escape across the state line to Illinois and nobody could pursue you. There was no law against interstate crime; you were home free. It’s almost like the wild west. And his rival was Treasury because Treasury had just had this big success in sending Al Capone away on income tax charges. So they were….and Roosevelt’s first Attorney General, I’m blanking on his name, hated Hoover. And when that guy was in his 60’s he married a young Cuban woman in Miami who was in her 20’s and on their honeymoon they took a the train from Miami back to Washington and however athletic the sexuality became, he died of a heart attack on his honeymoon on a train.

And then Roosevelt named his replacement which was Attorney General Cunningham. Cunningham liked Hoover and then Hoover suddenly had a shot but he was challenged both by people who didn’t like the notion of the centralization of police authority and they likened him to a Czar's megalomania. It became a battle that Hoover wasn’t gonna win in Congress. He was very close to Walter Winchell. He said, “I’ll win this in the headlines," and so he created Public Enemies. So now with Dillinger Public Enemy No. 1, he was naïve, he thought we’ll take John down, John Dillinger, and garner all this publicity and that will vault me, will vault the FBI, into what it should become, the first national police force. The only problem is that John Dillinger had something to say about it and Hoover was too inexperienced to think that his neophyte accountants and lawyers could do actual real, physical crime work. The bumbling that went on was way more than I characterized. There were many incidents like Little Bohemia. None as dramatic, where all the bad guys get away and all the FBI agents are shot. Tt wasn’t until he imported these southwestern lawmen, who were real gunfighters, there’s a guy named Doc White; there were couple of other guys who came up, Charles Winston, guys who were had been in a lot, a lot of shootouts, real gunfighters, 20-30 shootouts in their lives, and with them Hoover was able to make some headway.

FBI agents had to be at their office on time. If they were one minute late at their desk, they were fired. No personal pictures on your desk. No sign-ons, no weapons; they sat dreaming it all up from Washington, D.C. Hoover had in his head the FBI was gonna be America’s Scotland Yard; "we’re investigators, we’re the gentlemen of the FBI." That was the model and as much as one may not like Hoover because of politics and the megalomania it’s false to not also acknowledge that the administrative reforms, his innovations, were fantastic. I mean, his data managing, the notion of data managing, of network, of triangulation, of sending an agent with a picture of Billie Frechette to every single store in America that sold a certain hat, a certain coat, and say, “has this woman come in here?” That had never been done before. Using airplanes, using long distance telephones; this is all from scratch. Sort of like he invented the notion of the data base to bring in all this material to one central place, drawing conclusions, and then disseminating it nationally, networking. And it’s quite, quite revolutionary.

For me the ambition of this work was to try and locate the audience as much as I was able to in being alive in those days and living through that experience to make as much as possible an internalizing experience, being Dillinger, being Billie Frechette, and being Melvin Purvis. And that’s why high-def instead of film was because it feels like it’s real. We shot side-by-side tests and you look at the scene out of the black car with rain on it at night on film, it looks like a period movie. You look at it on high-def you feel like you can reach out and touch it, like you’re right there. But more important was bringing the actors into character in terms of period wardrobe and period thinking, attitudes, and to try shooting in such a way to feel like it’s like an internal world of this is what….is the world that really fascinated me.

Billie was vulnerable and needy. Her father had died. I think the importance of a father to daughters is, he becomes a model of the way you can expect to be treated by men--for nothing more advanced than statistically the guy who’s in your environment the most is your Daddy, he’s just there, okay? So how your father treats your mother becomes your unconscious model of how you can expect to be treated so if your father and mother have a nice relationship and your father treats your mother lovingly and with respect and caring in a normal way. When you go on a date when you’re l4 or 15 and some guy’s abusive or too pushy, you say, wait a minute, this doesn’t conform to the model and you push back at it. But Billie didn’t have a father and so she had disastrous, catastrophic relations with men. It’s like she’s being abused and beaten and doesn't know that’s wrong; that kind of low self-esteem. Dillinger’s mother died when he was three and he was seeking maternal affection and everything that a man gets from a woman, and his only mode of courtship was caring; was offering things. So the two of them were kind of pre-determined to have a strong, strong, almost symbiotic love affair.

They were together almost until she was arrested. So it went on for about 5-6 months. When I started with Marion Cotillard, she spoke broken English with a French accent and--she’s phenomenal. When you meet an actress who’s just won the Academy Award and she comes to your office and she’s dressed not very attractively, no make-up, nothing, no assistants and she’s just there about the material, right away you know you’re with the real deal. I mean, there’s no doubt about it. And she’s of that unique kind of unselfconscious person, just dedicated to the work, a healthy, healthy artistic ego, ambitious artistically and a terrific gal and she was a pleasure.

You know, Melvin Purvis left the FBI. No matter what he did, Hoover hounded him. It was like a personal form of blacklisting. He electively wrote letters, to whatever job Purvis had. Purvis was tremendously popular in ’33, ’34. So Hoover expected to get the benefit of killing Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger. Purvis got the credit. Dick Tracy is kind of modeled on Melvin Purvis. So Hoover sidelined him and kicked him out of the FBI and then hounded him. Purvis tried various careers in law enforcement, some politicking thing, but Hoover constantly--it was like the FBI’s behavior during the blacklisting period. Purvis had a military background and given his Southern background and how he related to Hoover as kind of idealized, almost an older brother or father figure, it was like, well, "Hoover is criticizing me but he still loves me." Psychologically I think that’s what was going on. So to his dying day he was injured by the rejection of Hoover, which was total.

The FBI was totally cooperative with us; they had no sensitivity about Hoover at all, zero. And in Washington they said, “is there anything else you’d like?” And I said, yeah, pull out the Melvin Purvis file. They said sure, and they went to get the file. There’s one sheet of paper in it. One sheet of paper. His employment application. That was it. And they were stunned. And it was like Stalin erasing all these pictures of the politburo with Trotsky before Stalin and Trotsky been erased? So, same thing. Hoover erased Melvin Purvis.

Transcribed by Carol Iwata.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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