Depp Does Dillinger
Johnny Depp Talks Michael Mann's 'Public Enemies' and a lot more...
John Dillinger is still relevant. With banks foreclosing homes, with jobs so scarce, with cutbacks, layoffs, entire systems falling apart (like print media), a Robin Hood figure is always a nice fantasy. You need a man you can get behind when reading about the latest financial disaster befalling our brethren.
So, with Michael Mann's newest take on Dillinger via "Public Enemies," Dillinger worship in inevitable, though partially because the great Johnny Depp is playing the famed '30s-era bank robber (there have been two other, very different films starring two great actors: one with Lawrence Tierney, the other with Warren Oates). Depp is dapper, tough, tender and smart. You want him to win. And if you know the story then you know he won't, but damn if he didn't try.
While recently talking to the picture's cast and director (Mann), I could see that not only did Depp understand what made Dillinger tick, but also that he clearly loved the guy. And you can feel his love, even if the character at times simply appears mythic. But what about others involved? Co-star Christian Bale, who plays FBI man Melvin Purvis (who brought Dillinger down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago), is mixed concerning Dillinger's morality. And Mann? Well, the director relates to him in literary terms, which is a beautiful way to think of Dillinger.
Here's our talk with Depp, Bale and Mann -- all very different, all fascinating. First, Depp:
On working with digital film ("Public Enemies" was shot, to some controversy, given it's a period piece, on HD): "It's got its advantages. The idea that you can keep rolling for 52 minutes, and it's relatively cheap. There are advantages; there are disadvantages. [But] I like the texture of cinema. I like the texture and feeling of grimy cinema. I sort of prefer that.
On Dillinger, the man: "I think he was not unlike any other Southern gentleman, in a way. The fact is he made a relatively grave error in his youth in a fit of drunken ignorance, which I know I remember a few of those. (Laughs.) That sent him to prison for 10 years. They whacked a ball and chain on him for that, and so coming out of prison from 1923 or something to 1933 was like -- the world wasn't color, it was Technicolor. And women were wearing tight clothing and skirts; it was a whole new world. [So] there was a Southern gentleman in there and there was also this supreme existentialist ... [a guy who thought] this day and every day is mine.
On playing "quirky" characters: "I think they're all normal. To me. I mean we're all really weird when you get right down to it. I would say, however, Dillinger is one of my more 'normal' guys. Normal in the sense that he was much more of an Indiana farm boy, who stepped in a pile of something unpleasant. And prison became criminal school for 10 years. That was his college education and he became very good at what he learned. And the fact that this guy became that sort of mythic Robin Hood figure is [because] this is a guy who really took the ball around with him, and that's pretty normal to me."
On Warren Oates as Dillinger: "There's no way to not remember Warren Oates as John Dillinger. I remember seeing that as a kid and just loving him. But I did stay away from it, because I didn't want to accidentally steal anything from the guy because he was so good. The one thing that stuck in my mind about the Warren Oates version ... I felt that, at the time they did it, there was only a certain amount of colors available on that palette ... And I feel like that with the stuff that's come out, and the new information in regard to Dillinger's personal life: There were a few more colors available."
On Dillinger's confidence: "He actually did walk through the Dillinger squad [a scene in the movie shows Dillinger brazenly walking through a police station in the room reserved to hunt down Dillinger]. He ... wandered through all of these cops, with his picture all over the place. That's all true. He had an enormous amount of, for lack of a better word, chutzpah. He had confidence. One of the things that I admire about him is that to have gotten so far, and to become that kind of existentialistic hero, that every day was his last. He had made peace with that. He was fine with that. Yesterday didn't exist, he just kept moving forward. There is something admirable about that. I think he felt the clock was ticking. I don't think he was dumb to think he was completely untouchable. I think he was thinking ... what happens now?"
How can he personally relate to Dillinger: "As an actor, when someone hands you the ball, depending on where you've been in your life, if you worked in sewers, or pumped gas, or worked in construction -- if somebody hands you the ball, you run with it, as far as they'll let you. Which is all I've been doing for 25 years. John Dillinger was in that prison for 10 years ... I hate the idea of [people simply thinking he] manipulated the media. I think he understood the game. And because of his savvy, and because of what he learned while inside, he learned how to play the game well. I also think Dillinger had a somewhat semi-fascination with Hollywood and the ideas of movie and his legend and leaving his mark. Really, I think most people feel like that."
How Dillinger will resonate during our current economic crisis: "I certainly hope so."
And if he hopes people start robbing banks, too: "(Laughs.) I don't know if I'd go that far, but, uh, people are different than they were back then. There was some degree of, I don't know, innocence left. And today, we've really, really hit the digital wall. And a kind of wall where almost everything is available. And I think people now are radically different than John Dillinger. I don't know if you could have a similar kind of folk hero today. [Rebel leader] Subcomandante Marcos down in Chiapas, who is trying to protect the Indians in Mexico, he might be the closest thing to a folk hero. But in terms of innocence and purity, in 1933, the banks were clearly the enemy. They foreclosed and they were taking people's houses, not that it's all that different now. Here we are teetering on a similar recession and depression. And, uh [Depp thinks about this for a moment and smiles] ... God, the banks are still the enemy, you're right. (Everyone laughs.) Oh I don't know, if someone starts robbing banks, you know, hey, as long as no one gets hurt."