Blackhat Interview

Michael Mann’s Blackhat couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time. The cyber-crime thriller sees Chris Hemsworth as a convicted hacker who will have is sentence commuted if he helps the FBI successfully stop a cyber-terrorist who has been hacking into nuclear facilities and stock exchanges.

Mann and Hemsworth as well as co-stars Viola Davis, Tang-Wei, and Wang Leehom were all at the film’s press day to talk about Blackhat, the real threats of cyber-terrorism, and more. Hit the jump to see what they had to say.

When did the genesis of the story start to interest you?
Michael Mann: The real genesis began when we went to Washington to talk about cyber-intrusions and cyber-theft, and what was happening in the world. It was kind of an eye-opening experience that the way we think our lives are, and we are vulnerable to intrusions from everywhere, we just don’t know it. It’s kind of like a house without doors and windows in a dangerous neighborhood and we don’t know it. The extent of it was widespread. It was a hot button issue in Washington a couple of years ago. We came back to Washington to talk about it, and people didn’t know what we were talking about. That’s how it all began. From there it went to “who’s the guy”, “who’s the main character”, who knows about Blackhat hackers? What motivates them?

What about this film made you want to be a part of it?
Chris Hemsworth: Michael [Mann] did. Michael is one my my favorite filmmakers, I’ve grown up watching his films, and so even before I read the script, I was pretty much diving into the thing. But then read the script, and it was certainly a subject that I have not been involved in on screen, but it was something fairly new to me. I was pretty limited in my digital cyber involvement. It’s fascinating, as something Michael had said a couple of years ago when we were researching the film did exist all the things in the news now, but wasn’t as public, and the idea we are as vulnerable as the film talks about is something that I wanted to learn more about and jump into the opportunity.

Viola Davis: I can only repeat what Chris said, I wanted to work with Michael Mann. I did. I wanted to be a part of anything he was directing. I think you always want to graviate towards people who are great at what they do, and go for authenticity. Cyber-terrorism was something that fascinated me also. I mean I remember playing an FBI agent many moons ago, and I sat with some FBI agents and they said cyber-terrorism was more potent that actual terrorism. I thought to myself “wow” and it was something I wanted to learn more about myself. And exotic locations did appeal to me also.

Tang Wei: Sitting here is more than enough of a reason, what else can I say? I never do think kind of part, I usually I work in art movie, very dramatic, this is the first time I do very independent spirit, and it is also very tough, and computer engineer, so I wanted to try.

Wang Leehom: I just have to add to whatever everyone else said: Michael Mann. One of the greatest directors ever, and to be able to work with him, to get a call from a casting director saying there was a role for an Asian male, who speaks English, with an American accent, I thought “Is this for real? Is this a prank call?” He goes “No, its really a meaty role.” I go “Okay, tell me how to sign up, tell me where to audition?” That was the beginning of an incredible life changing experience.

What did you learn from the consultants on the film? How has their knowledge impacted the way you interact digitally?
Mann: They were with us. We do a kind of immersive preperation to get into character, and that starts many many many months before we started shooting. So whether it’s learning coding or Viola learning women in law enforcement, and attitudes. you pick up how somebody thinks, what their attitudes are, what their background is, how they talk, how they walk, how they drink a cup of coffee, it is so rich. It is always a great idea to work with the actors who are turned on by the same thing of immersive research. From these guys specifically, it was coding from [Mike] Panico who has different kinds of hacking, from Chris McKinlay with that time with Chris [Hemsworth] so Chris could write code, [Kevin] Poulsen’s experience with a Blackhat hacker, Leehom, Chris, and Tang Wei both interacted with these folks, we heard in Washington two years ago, I asked “am I being paranoid in not wanting to take a laptop to where we are going to these locations?” and they said “none of them ever take our laptops where we go to these locations.” So people in the know, who have understood worked on Blackhat.

Hemsworth: As Michael has said, learning how to write code on the computer was new to me. I remember asking one of the guys, does knowing what you know you exist behind the curtain, do you look at the world differently? Do you feel like you have an upperhand? And he started laughing and said, “Man you have no idea how exposed they are and what is possible.” And it’s the power, the brains, not just in the criminal world but anywhere. The other guys are the superheroes, highly intelligent, alien-type advancement they have within themselves.

Davis: I learned that I am a sitting duck. No, seriously. I wish I could say more, but I am a sitting duck, because I can’t get ahead of them, they are far ahead of me. That’s what I learned, how vulnerable we are. It’s a big silent monster out there.

Why were these the best actors to tell your story?
Mann: It’s the individual choice of each individual. The casting process. I see Hathaway coming from a working class neighborhood, the south side of Chicago, whose father was a steelworker, because I knew people like that in the 70s, because my father was like that. There was a certain quality, very bright, very direct, and very centered. I was sitting with Chris Hemsworth in Costa Rica, and we were talking and talking, and he didn’t know this, but I thought “This is the guy. This is the guy.” It has to do with natively who Chris is. Plus Chris’ enthusiasm for the kind of immersive immersion of the character took us to state prisons Stateville Prison and blast furnaces at U.S. Steel at four in the morning and his willingness to lose himself into the moment which all good directors look at. Leehom and Tang Wei are both brillant. Leehom is a great musician, and his precision and intellect, he just fit who I had in mind for Chen. And Tang Wei, within five minutes of meeting her in Hong Kong, I knew she was Lien. I was asking myself, “do I want to let her on that I’ve already made the decision,” because she is as close to Lien when it comes to the character. There are very few women programmers in China, and even fewer network engineers, so it kind of speaks to her independence and strong individuality, and that’s who Tang Wei is. Viola goes without saying. Those are some great actors, I am very fortunate to work with. All these are individual castings.

Michael, Public Enemies was your last film, so I was just wondering if you were taking a break in between or if Blackhat was something you had been working on since then?

Mann: Both. After Public Enemies I did Luck for almost two years, and from Luck I started working on three screenplays, which this [Blackhat] is one. We were in Washington when the story really occured to us, August 8th, 2011, hence for three and a half years.

What is your favorite Michael Mann film?

Leehom: Blackhat.

Hemsworth: Last of the Mohicans.

Tang-Wei, you mentioned that this was your first action film, what was more challenging, the action aspect or the language?
Wei: Definitely, that’s not my mother tounge. Even Cantonese, I speak very fluent Cantonese, but when I am doing a movie in Cantonese I still have a problem. But I love learning languages. Actually computer code is another language as well, so that’s why I was really curious to join this film, so I can learn. Throughout the movie, I thought more about how great the experience is to work with Michael, Chris, and Leehom, so language is a second thing, the experience with working with an amazing team is more important.

Why was it important to tell a story about cyber-crimes?
Mann: It takes place in a world as it is right now, right on the cutting edge of this moment. Everything is the connectiveness of all things. Everything is connected with everything else, that’s the world we live in now, it’s never going to go back to what it used to be. You have a convicted Blackhat hacker who is on conditional release from federal prison to pursue a psycho criminal adversary. A guy who is high-speed, dangerous, world-class, he’s a ghost, he’s out there somewhere, they don’t who he is, where he is, why he’s doing what he is doing, and so doing Hathaway is trying to outlive his past and take control of his future that me may have, may not have. His pal who he went to MIT with, who could not come from more different worlds; and Chen’s sister, who is a network engineer, candid and spontaneous; and in a unit with Barrett, who engineered this, and feels like she is being played; it sets up a conflict amongst this group, which then resolves itself into being very unified, and they move forward in what’s really kind of the tack of the story, but the thrill in making this was, the tropes, the parts, the mechanics of the storytelling was an opportunity to also pull them out of the world we live in now. So rather than something we might have done 20 years ago, when they are trying to find the location of where a guy may be, you would interogate an informant. Instead of that, Barret and Hathaway con a guy in the NSA to download a password, and he’s downloading a PDF, Hathaway is able to get in, download some software, restore some code from the guy in the reactor, and what does he get; he gets that location. Still don’t know where the guy is, who he is, what he is, but they know that his command control server is Jakarta, Indonesia. So the storytelling itself was also exciting.

Can you explain how the training for this film differs from others like Thor, and how did you come to finding your voice of Hathaway?

Hemsworth: The training for this was different. Once I’m done with Thor, I get rid of that bulk and that size, because that’s just for the screen for that character. But instead of just running on the treadmill, I wanted to build into the training some sort of martial arts. I’ve boxed a lot in the past and I’ve done a lot of Muay Thai. Michael and I talked about the time he’d spent in prison. You go in one person and come out another. And through those experiences, he was going to physically be able to handle himself, and whether that was from his background growing up or not, but certainly what his experiences were in prison. We spent a number of days in Chicago, and there were endless kinds of conversations between Michael and I and with the dialect coaches. It became more an attitude I think than anything else. There was the structural sound to it and the phonetics and what have you, but the way this guy spoke and the rhythm to his speech, we picked up things from friends of Michael’s in Chicago. Also, we went to certain prisons and spoke with people the way guys in prison speak. There’s a rhythm to that and a bounce and I think we captured that. I mean, I had dialect coaches, but Michael was my guide.

How did you go about choosing the locations in the film, and shooting on-location as opposed to shooting on green screen?
Mann: First of all, it’s a visual medium. It’s an interweaving of text, music, visuals, the story, dialogue, and people. You want places to feel evocative of what the scene is about. So if it’s tense, you don’t want to be in a room like this. If there’s tension, you want to be in a room that has a very low ceiling. You try to convey these things that allow an audience to feel. I found Asia a very exciting place to go. The ultimate thing is that a location makes the scene come to life. If we can make a scene come to life, then it comes alive for all of us. For the actors walking in the room, they look out the window of a Hong Kong safe house and they see all this life. Kowloon is really there. It’s not digitally put in. We’re not looking at a green screen where some of the gaffers put up a piece of tape and say, “You see that piece of tape? That’s not really a piece of tape. That’s the rest of the street.” This is the real thing. We’re really there. You’re really seeing that out the window. And you walk to work. You walk up the narrow staircase with all the smells and everything else. And that’s really the place. We’re all real complex organisms. We’re all perceptually way more brilliant than we even know we are. We take everything in. All these great actors take all of that in and they really feel like they’re walking on Woosung Street in Kowloon to the safe house because they’re walking on Woosung Street in Kowloon to the safe house. So those are the kind of decisions. For the end of the film, it became what’s the most alien landscape I can imagine to put these two fugitives in who are very much underdogs that are being hunted but nevertheless are hunting with improvised weapons and everything else. And that became in Jakarta at the ceremony.

Wang: One of the great things I learned from Michael Mann about location scouting was that the best way to do it is in a helicopter. That’s something he told me. He said, “You’ve got to know, if you ever want to do location scouting, go up in a helicopter.” He spent so many days up in a helicopter in every single city, and then when he’d see something that struck his fancy, he’d go check it out. That’s why there are so many really cool locations. I’ve been to Malaysia so many times over the last 20 years and Hong Kong, but the places he found, I was like, “How did you find this place?”

Hemsworth: Michael’s right. You can shoot in the backlot of L.A. or somewhere in a parking lot and mark it up and throw a green screen, and there’s been plenty of that over the years. But you have a visceral, physical response to being in those places, and the sights and sounds and the smells just bring something else out in you. You’re not having to fake that or imagine that. It’s there. It becomes as much an act of something you bounce off as the other people you’re working with. It was such a treat to work in those places which were loud and noisy. I remember a lot of the time the sound guys were worrying about, “We can’t shoot this because there’s too much noise,” and Michael said, “No, no. Just keep going. This is great.” So, it sounds unlike anything else. It looks unlike anything else. I wish you could always shoot like that. It was great.

Davis: I’d never been to that part of the world. I absolutely loved it. The location is another character. It really is. It can’t be recreated on a soundstage. Yeah, you can imagine it, but I’d rather not. The heat, Kowloon, the noise, everything was just different. It just was a different world. I know for myself, as imaginative as I feel I am I would not have been able to go there. I have to be there. And that safe house was just this closed in space and being with all these people and the sounds and the light going on outside. It was pretty extraordinary. Like I said, it’s a character in and of itself.

By Michael Lee

Michael Lee has an English and Communications degree from Concordia University Irvine. He is a fan of films that are comic-book adaptations and dry witty comedies. has been reacquired by its original founders. Please pardon any interruptions during this transitory period.