Excerpted from Making Some Light, one of a series of interviews contained in the book, Projections: A Forum For Film-Makers.
Graham Fuller: Did you have a struggle to get Twentieth Century-Fox to finance this picture?
Michael Mann: It was not a struggle at all. Joe Roth (Fox chairman) and Roger Birnbaum (president of worldwide production) got it right away.
GF: Was that based on reading the screenplay?
MM: No. Before it was a screenplay. I'd acquired the rights to Philip Dunne's 1936 screenplay myself, had done a story outline based on it, and walked into their offices and basically said, 'Guys, I want to do Last of the Mohicans and I want to do it in a vivid, realistic way.' They said 'Yeah, great idea.'
GF: Had you read James Fenimore Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales when you were young?
MM: Absolutely not! I'd probably read a classic comic-book version or something when I was young. But I've read a lot of history and this period has fascinated me for a long time. I saw the movie when I was a kid. It occurred to me recently that it may have been the first film I saw that made an impression on me. It was after the war, around 1948 or 1949, when I was four or five years old. There was a church in my neighborhood, about a block away, and they used to show 16mm films in the basement - and they showed the 1936 version with Randolph Scott as Hawkeye. I remember the corollary tragedy of Uncas and Alice at the end, plus I remember the fearsomeness of Magua, and the uniqueness of the period. I couldn't identify what was so fascinating then, but I can now - it's the combination of three discrete and very exciting cultures in the same motion picture, which happens to be a tightly plotted war movie. One is the extremely formal culture of the European ruling class. Secondly, even Magua in the 1936 movie was an expression of a fascinating Native American, northeastern woodlands culture of Hurons and Mohawks, men with their heads shaved and tattoos. Thirdly, the familiar image of the frontiersmen - Hawkeye, incidentally, is the progenitor of all the American western heroes in a direct evolutionary line from Last of the Mohicans through Stagecoach to My Darling Clementine. Then there's Hawkeye the character: what made him, where he came from, what kind of man he was, what he would have though and felt, what his rhythms would have been, being able to move through and survive in the wilderness forest, how sophisticated or unsophisticated, how 'urban' his attitudes may have been, given the volatile times and incendiary ideas 'blowing in the wind'. How close was his culture on the frontier to the ideas being preached from Albany, New York or Boston pulpits. In researching the period, I found that events in 1757 moved as fast as in 1968. And suddenly this period became as alive to me as, say, seven or eight years ago. Ultimately, for me, it's about trying to make Hawkeye as real as if I was writing and directing a picture about a man who is alive today. The big encounter in the movie is between Hawkeye and Cora Munro, effectively a meeting of people from two different planets. It's a collision between the child of scottish-irish immigrants - people who were probably impoverished tenant farmers from the borderlands in the north of England - and a woman who thinks she's going to New England - almost an extension of Grosvenor Square - only to discover that this is a vast new continent, and that attitudinal changes and ideas are sweeping across it. But the characters do not come from an upper-middle-class intelligentsia. Hawkeye comes from a grass-roots level, from Iroquois culture - as if produced its own John Locke 200 years ago but nobody knows about it yet - and from the experiences of poor people on the frontier. It's like hearing the new music before anybody else - the man who sings the songs is Hawkeye, and the woman who hears them is Cora. Suddenly she's no longer in narrow New England, she's in a whole new world. The big challenge for me was to work that Cora-Hawkeye story into a tapestry of a full-blown war with three other conflicts going on at the same time. As it becomes a romance I hope the audience will track with the romance and want it to survive. This woman goes through a great change and so does Hawkeye, but for him it's a transformation from being a Mohican to becoming a frontiersman - a synthesis of the European and native cultures - which is a transformation from son to man. Chingachgook realizes this before Hawkeye does and talks to him about it at the end of the film.
GF: Was there a point when you were writing the screenplay where you abandoned Cooper's novel?
MM: Yes, very early on, though not at a specific point but in specific areas. For example, I based [Major] Heyward on Cooper himself, not on Cooper's character. Cooper believed in static hierarchies, a kind of political harmony of the spheres: If people and classes stay in place, there's a harmony; if they don't, there are problems. In Cooper, Hawkeye is constantly apologizing or reassuring total strangers that he's not of mixed blood!: 'Hi, I'm Hawkeye, how are you? I'm not of mixed blood.' So the whole notion of races crossing, of miscegenation, of people moving into different classes, was anathema to Cooper. I decided to take all these characteristics and stick them into Heyward. If you read the novel very carefully, the daughter, Cora, who falls in love with Uncas and dies, is a mulatto. Her father, Colonel Munro, wanted Heyward to marry Cora but Hayward preferred Alice; Munro was initially insulted and went into a two-page diatribe about the fact that her mother was an aristocratic woman. I switched it around so that it's Cora and Hawkeye who fall in love.
GF: You've also eliminated some of the more fantastical elements from the book - the character of the psalm singer, Hawkeye dressing up as a bear, that kind of a thing.
MM: The silly stuff. In fact, the structure of the story for this film is based 50 percent on Philip Dunne's screenplay.
GF: Why did you use it as a source?
MM: Because it's a terrific piece of writing. Dunne did a very interesting thing. He was writing at a time of tremendous political struggle in the United States, a country caught in a depression and at the same time seeing events in Asia and Europe. The view here was isolationist, although some people with political agendas saw the need to take part in international struggles against the rising tide of fascism. Also, there was a heavy dose of anti-British sentiment among the isolationists, led by the Chicago Tribune. Dunne essentially gave Hawkeye the political attitudes of the isolationists: independent, anti-authoritarian...anti-British. But then at the end of the movie, in 1936, both men - Hawkeye the proto-American individualist, and Heyward - both in love with Cora, march of to war together to face a greater common enemy.
GF: Are you trying to make any contemporary political statements yourself?
MM: No. The project's attraction lies in making a passionate and vivid love story in a war zone. To make that period feel real means making dramatic forces out of the political forces of this time, which also fascinated me. The politics are functional to the story-telling, as is the visual style. I didn't want to take 1757, this story, and turn it into some kind of two-dimensional metaphor for 1991. What I did want to do was go the other way and take our understanding of those cultures - and I think we understand them better today than Cooper did in 1826 - and use our contemporary perspective as a tool to construct a more intense experience of realistically complex people in a complex time.
GF: Do you perceive Hawkeye as a force of nature?
MM: He exists within natures's systems the same way any skilled Sauk, Ottawa, Mohawk or frontiersman would at the time. First of all, he can survive just like Daniel Boone did. Daniel Boone could take a 'possibles' bag, his long rifle, lead, flint, steel and tow, and a blanket and go survive in the wilderness forest for two years. Hawkeye could do the same thing. So could most native Americans then. So I don't see him as a force of nature - any more than anyone who is street-wise is a force of the streets. I see him as someone who doesn't view nature as an adversary, as a European might. He understands nature's systems and flows within the like a man absolutely contemporaneous to his time. That means he knows how to read the granulation of earth inside a deer's hoof-print and can tell how long ago the deer used that path because he knows how much dew there was yesterday morning. He's probably involved with the fur trade, he's living among the native peoples, some of whom had successful relations with Europeans for 150 years, who were thought of by most Europeans as a nation unto their own, not as a minority, as we see Indians today. The Six Nations of the Iroquois, and specifically the Mohawks, probably controlled 65 per cent of the world's fur trade in 1757 as trappers and middlemen, and they knew what they were doing.
GF: What I am getting at is do you see Hawkeye as a pantheistic creature, the 'green man' of mythology? Is he part of the mythos of the woodsman, like Robin Hood?
MM: It would be nice to say yes, but it's not true. He is, to my mind, something much more earthly than that. It takes a little getting used to, but I'm trying to bring out that aspect of colonial-Indian relations in images, in how the people and backgrounds mix. I started with the idea that on the frontier, for long periods, people peacefully coexisted and were interdependent. Coexistence became impossible only when avarice for fur and real estate was fuelled by the periodic tidal wave of European immigration In almost all cases, the initial contact between European settlers and Indians was peaceful, and characterized by Indian generosity in sharing agricultural techniques and food. The place was abundant.
GF: Are you showing that?
MM: I'm showing the co-existence. In one of the early scenes there's a militia recruitment meeting on a farm in the Mohawk Valley and the community is a mixture of colonials and Mohawks, old men, men with children, women. Implicit is the fact that they know each other, they're equally well-dressed and armed, their food and games are cross-cultural, and they seem relatively affluent.
GF: This is obviously a very different kind of film for you. Apart from The Keep, which is set in the Second World War, you've made a crime melodrama, Thief, a highly stylized serial-killer thriller, Manhunter, and been responsible for an entire sub-genre of intensely modern, drug-related TV police dramas. Has Last of the Mohicans required you to make a major adjustment in terms of your aesthetic as a film-maker?
MM: No. It's just an accident that most of the other films I've done have been in that genre.
GF: What about the way you're shooting Last of the Mohicans?
MM: It's pretty much dictated by the content of the story and it's exciting to me to do something different. If I'd tried to shoot this film the way I shot Manhunter, I don't think I'd have done a very good job. I don't think I could anyway; I'd be bored and it certainly wouldn't serve Last of the Mohicans.
GF: How did you design the look of the film?
MM: I started with nineteenth-century landscape painters - I looked at Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, chiaroscuro lighting, and a lot of eighteenth century portraits.
GF: Did you look N.C. Wyeth's paintings for the Scribner's Classics edition of Last of the Mohicans?
MM: Yes, but Wyeth was a twentieth-century illustrator - and I wanted to see how artists saw the environment that we were actually going to shoot in, because it didn't exist any more and didn't by the time Wyeth was working. It's been said that they didn't need roads in parts of Pennsylvania because the trees were so huge and the canopies so dense, which is characteristic of ancient forests, that the floors were clear of brush. It was dark underneath, but you could drive a coach straight through. And we've found that here on location.
GF: Did you storyboard the film at all?
MM: Just for a couple of sequences involving the opening and the Glenn's Falls cave, where there were a lot of complex elements. But I did a lot of very detailed work in plan, not in storyboards. It's been mandatory on this picture. Nothing that had to be supplied for a scene could be rented or bought. We've made it all - from designing and manufacturing the breechcloths of six different Indian peoples to building French and English ordnance. The Huron had had a lot of trade with the French and they were influenced by eighteenth-century French fabric design. The Abenakis were converted to Catholicism by the Jesuits, so there's Christian imagery blended with the Abenaki in their tattooing and ritual mutilation. Again, we picked up stuff from painting and made projections. The logistics of where things would happen in the fort, on the battlefield, were also interesting. I tend to design stuff like that with a floor plan, not storyboards. Usually I've designed how I'm going to shoot something, how I'm going to block it, based on how it looked the last time I was there. But when you're out in nature it only looks that way for about five minutes - you go back and a cloud came in, the sun's not there, and it's pissing with rain. What was suddenly staggeringly beautiful is nothing, so after a while you think - get me to a city under a sodium vapor lamp!
GF: I noticed in the screenplay that you've written the fight sequences with great intricacy. How do you replicate those movements blow by blow - have you got an army of fight choreographers on stand-by?
MM: Not really. We did a lot of research and there's been a big training program on the film. Daniel Day-Lewis and some others trained down in Alabama with David Webster. Daniel is very impressive. Starting with contemporary weapons and working his way back to black powder, he became a staggering shot. After a day and a half, he was knocking everything down with a .45. There are a lot of aspects to that training that are designed to give him the skills he needs to feel as Hawkeye - as well as being able to perform them. But the real value transcends anything physical and really feeds back into something attitudinal.
GF: A lot of that will have come out unconsciously in the acting.
MM: Yeah - in carriage and in body language. In terms of fighting with knives and tomahawks, we don't know how people fought. But we know that everybody below commissioned officers abandoned swords altogether and fought with tomahawks. If two groups were facing each other, once they'd fired off a couple of musket volleys, they'd have to engage in hand-to-hand combat, which is butchery with edged weapons. We figured out that a tomahawk is like a section of sabre with an added mass at the back end pushing the cutting edge, and unlike a sabre, it's not going to get caught up in trees in the forest. So we used eighteenth-century fighting manuals to train everybody and a small inventory of parries and blows.
GF: I think some people assume that because the Indians look so ferocious, and because of the way the Hurons are depicted massacring the women and children outside of Fort William Henry in the novel, they were pure savages.
MM: Well, the massacre was a savage event, but it was promoted by the French, or at least they were complicit in it. And the times were savage, certainly in terms of what happened and happens to native peoples who get colonized. That's not to excuse it, it's to know it for what it was. But there was nothing savage or culturally primitive about the northeast woodlands Indians. You can talk about the development of the European political system, yet the Iroquoian confederacy existed 200 years before 1757, as a bi-cameral parliamentary kind of democracy. Their social attitudes and value system were democratic and, on issues like child raising and divorce, strikingly modern. The Mohawks had positioned themselves commercially as almost a merchant-class between the English fur traders and the tribes went further west, as well as being hunter and trappers of fur themselves. They had a corn agriculture and lived in cabins before the Europeans got here. So I don't think there was anything primitive or savage about them. One of the hardest things for this movie to communicate is how cultures, mores and values are relative to each other. For instance, it would not have been considered cruel for or unjust to torture someone to death who had been captured. Conveying that cultural relativity and placing us ethno-centrically inside an Indian culture, through Hawkeye, is one of the hardest challenges of this picture for me. Maybe it's a subtlety, but it's shot inside Mohican culture, and that affects how Hawkeye comes on to Cora and certain pragmatic decisions he makes that necessarily cause him to abandon her, even though it is heart-breaking for him.
GF: Ford's Drums along the Mohawk was set in the Revolutionary War, Vidor did the Roger's Ranger's film Northwest Passage, and Bruce Beresford's new film, Black Robe, is set in the 1630s. But, apart from the three earlier versions of Last of the Mohicans, there have really been very few films based on the Anglo-French war in the colonies and the Indian allegiances.
MM: And it was really the first world war, because the English and French were fighting in Europe, in India and in North America. But there's been a lot of interest in the last year. Granta did a 'history' issue which contained a piece by Simon Scharma about the death of General Wolfe, who defeated Montcalm at Quebec.
GF: Reading your screenplay, I wondered if you'd sold Montcalm down the river. You have him and Magua effectively plotting the Fort Henry massacre.
MM: I didn't have time in the screenplay to lay out why he did what he did, but his aide-de-camp Bougainville kept a diary, which gives a brilliant day-by-day account of what happened. Montcalm's plan was to hit Fort William Henry about six weeks earlier than he did, take it, then Fort Edward on the Hudson, then advance down to Albany. What happened was there was so much black marketeering going on among the French in Quebec that the supplies were constantly disappearing and treasuries were being stolen - the usual human shit! It delayed him for about six weeks and that cost him that year and eventually the war, because by the time he destroyed Fort William Henry all his Indian allies had to canoe back to where they came from before the Great Lakes froze over. So, the taking of Fort William Henry was a phyrric victory, and I think the reason he offered the English very favorable terms of surrender was to accelerate his calender, but it wasn't enough.
GF: Is your film concerned at all with the passing of Indian cultures?
MM: Yes. It comes up from two older men at the end of the film. The Sachem (the Huron ancient) says, 'More white men come with the dawning of each day. And night enters our future with them...I have been to Versailles. I have seen his cities. His numbers are endless. Our council has asked the question since I was a boy: what is the Huron to do?' Most of the Indians had no idea how many Europeans there were. Because there were 25,000 Mohawks, they assumed that maybe England had a population of 25,000 - they couldn't conceive of the numbers of peoples. Some, like the Sachem, had been there and had come back, and he understood that European immigration and power were destructive forces and that they were coming their way. And he has no answer to the problem of what is to be done. He poses a question. Chingachgook answers it in the last scene in the movie when he says to Hawkeye, 'The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the red man of these wilderness forests with it. Until one day there will be nowhere left...there will be no more frontier. Then our race will be no more or be not us. The frontier is for my white son and his woman. And one day there will be no more frontier, then men like you will go, too, and new people will come to work and struggle and some will make their light...' That's the way it goes. Parents give to children, children to their children. It's a one-way street. The only enduring value is making some 'light'. He recognizes the forces of human history, sometimes tragic, sometimes oppressive.
Read More Of Michael Mann's Thoughts ... on the DVD version of LOTM ... DIRECTOR'S EXPANDED EDITION OF THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS