The Casting Process For Heat Was Too Important To Cut Short

Michael Mann spent over a decade trying to get the script that would become his magnum opus, "Heat," made. All along the way, he fine-tuned it; he even shot a beta run of the story as a TV pilot, titled "L.A. Takedown." A notorious perfectionist, Mann's determination to get every detail right meant that casting hadn't even wrapped yet once the cameras were rolling. According to "Heat" casting director Bonnie Timmermann:

"The casting process didn't even, it didn't finish – he was shooting the movie and we were still casting. As a matter of fact, it went on for a long time, in a good way, because we got some very interesting characters."

Perfectionism can be grating to deal with, but it can produce incredible results too. The exquisite casting of "Heat" demonstrates that.

The big two

Two actors that Mann and co. didn't have trouble getting to sign on were the stars, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. According to a New York Times article published in July 1995 months before the release of "Heat," the two had wanted to do a movie together for a while. When De Niro signed on after reading Mann's script, Pacino was quick to say yes too. Producer Art Linson succinctly summarized: "Great material attracts great actors. That's what happened here. We gave the script first to Bob. After Bob, Al became interested. That was the flow."

In that article, Mann notes that Neil McCauley (De Niro) is "highly organized sociopath." Lt. Vincent Hanna, on the other hand, "not a sociopath at all but extremely dysfunctional, who invests his emotions and intuitions in working on crimes." The two having the roles they do play to their strengths. De Niro, famously taciturn, plays the colder character, while the more flamboyant Pacino plays the explosive one.

The casting of two Hollywood legends gave "Heat" a marketing edge; two movie star legends not just appearing together, but facing off with one another. However, the casting is important for the content of the film too. Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley are both the protagonists, so the actors couldn't overshadow each other. If the film only had one of Pacino or De Niro, there would be a power imbalance and the parallels between Hanna and McCauley wouldn't resonate as much. The pair had already played such roles in "The Godfather Part II," so it's no surprise they pulled off the same trick in "Heat."

Supporting players

The focus on Pacino and De Niro is well-deserved, but it'd be remiss to forget about the supporting cast of "Heat." That's where the character authenticity that Mann desired thrives. To fill out its sprawling three hour runtime, "Heat" has a large cast, and each one is a recognizable character actor who deliver even with limited screentime.

There's the number 3 and 4 players: Val Kilmer as McCauley's right hand, Chris Shiherlis, and Kevin Gage as the psychopathic Waingro. Kilmer plays Chris as fearsome on the job but forlorn off of it, desperately in love with his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd). Gage, on the other hand, is downright terrifying, even behind a hockey mask.

Young Natalie Portman, fresh off "Léon," shows a vulnerable side as Hanna's stepdaughter Lauren; her suicidal despair is a forerunner to her Oscar-winning turn in "Black Swan." Amy Brenneman only gets scenes opposite De Niro, matching his performance with the same air of loneliness.

William Fichtner, with only four prior film credits to his name, impresses as Roger Van Zant, the banker who McCauley's crew rips off in the opening heist. Fichtner projects the arrogance of a paper tiger, which gradually crumbles as Van Zant realizes he underestimated the thieves. Dennis Haysbert as Donald Breeden, an ex-con trying (and failing) to go straight, similarly makes the most of limited screen time.

Hanna's police colleagues are pretty underwritten, so it's thankful the actors, Ted Levine, Wes Studi and Mykelti Williamson, are so memorable. Williamson even gets a standout moment, convincing Charlene to rat on Chris so her son doesn't wind up "f***ed for life."

And that's not even the whole supporting cast! In life, everyone's the lead of their own story. One of the strengths of "Heat" is how even the small performances reflect that.