Michael Mann interview: ‘Tokyo Vice’ director and executive producer
For acclaimed director Michael Mann, everything grows out of the little details.
“You start with a blank canvas,” Mann, the executive producer of HBO Max series “Tokyo Vice” and the director of the show’s pilot episode, tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “There’s the script, there’s the physical world with all the people in it, and that is going to be created and built into the very small world of ‘this is what the show is.’ And you want it to have a real signature and an identity all its own.”
Based on the memoir by Jake Adelstein and written by J.T. Rogers, “Tokyo Vice” is an eight-episode series focused on the author, a young American (played by Ansel Elgort) who moves to Japan and attempts to become the first American reporter employed by the country’s largest newspaper. During his rise, Jake intersects with a righteous local police detective (Ken Watanabe) and a rising member of the Yakuza (Show Kasamatu), while trying to publish meaningful reporting about organized crime.
Mann directed the pilot episode of the show and Rogers said previously in an interview with Gold Derby that the two-time Emmy Award winner deserved “enormous credit” for the look and feel of the subsequent episodes.
“There’s a certain approach to generally shooting in real places I have: you never take no for an answer. And in Tokyo, it’s really put to the test,” Mann says of directing the pilot on the streets of Tokyo before and after production shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. “We had a lot of help, but shooting in Tokyo, you are not in Kansas. I mean, it is top-down, but it’s also bottom-up. If you’re shooting in Shibuya, there’s a whole little structure of Shibuya, and you have to be talking to the political head, and plus the head of the police for that one particular prefecture. And that’s the way that was the way it works. Plus, you run up against a quite wonderful Japanese cultural tradition and value system where if somebody has a food stand, they’ve been running that food stand for 35 or 40 years, they have their customers, and they are not going to interrupt the flow of their customers or the customers’ expectations. Like, there’s a couple of people who may show up exactly at 4:30, so if you want to shoot at 4:30, you can’t and no amount of money is going to change that attitude…. That also made it pretty tough, but we managed to do it by being persistent and innovative.”
In addition to its fidelity to the culture of Japan in the late ‘90s, “Tokyo Vice” is also a thoughtful period piece about the era itself. In the pilot, a key scene features “Release” from Pearl Jam, a song Mann chose not just because he’s a fan of the band and its grunge contemporaries like Soundgarden, but because it represents Jake’s mindset.
“Jake is very much a product of the ‘90s and it happened to be key to his character, this sense of extreme expression, extreme yearning for identity, for a state of mind – the anguish that’s inherent in that body of music is very powerful to me. And I think it’s formative for Jake,” Mann says of the Pearl Jam track. “His circumstances are part and parcel of that music. Jake is making himself into who he wants to be, and he’s decided that the place he has to be is Japan, and who he should be is a reporter. This is a guided, formation of an individual. And that’s a very transcendence mode if you like, and the music that expresses is Pearl Jam.”
Among its accolades, “Tokyo Vice” has been praised for its depiction of journalism. It’s an occupation Mann took seriously during production, putting Elgort through the paces of what it means to be a crime reporter. (The actor trained with Los Angeles Times crime reporter James Queally.) Asked why he has an affinity for journalists – three of Mann’s four Oscar nominations came for the 1999 film “The Insider,” about a “60 Minutes” segment on a tobacco industry whistleblower – Mann says it’s about their “quest for information” more than anything else.
“I’m always after first-person situations. I don’t usually derive my material from other material – it’s more exciting to me anyway to dive into a landscape and try to find it in a first-person way,” Mann says. “It’s wanting to know how to find this stuff. So, I understand [journalists], let me put it that way. It’s probably just because it’s easier for me to understand… it’s not very meretricious.”
Mann is a four-time Emmy Award nominee with two wins – for writing “The Jericho Mile” and producing “Drug Wars: The Camarena Story.” If he’s nominated for directing the pilot of “Tokyo Vice,” it will be his first recognition from the Television Academy in 30 years – and it also might be his only chance at acknowledgment for “Tokyo Vice.” Mann is busy working on a new film about Enzo Ferrari that will likely prevent him from directing an episode in Season 2.
“If a show catches on, it’s for a whole bunch of reasons,” Mann says about the response to “Tokyo Vice” so far. “The structure of these stories and where they were in Season 1 and where they’re going in Season 2 is very exciting….So if I turn onto something, and it’s taking me into a new and exciting world, I’m there for it. And that’s what we tried to do with ‘Tokyo Vice.’”