Heat 2 Co-Author Meg Gardiner On Writing The Epic Crime Saga [Interview]

"Heat 2" is a dream come true for fans of the original film, and Michael Mann fans in general. It's the filmmaker at his most unfiltered, free of budgetary restraints. Mann and co-author Meg Gardiner crafted a novel that, like the filmmaker's finest work, ticks like clockwork as it often ventures outside of Los Angeles and explores familiar and new characters. 

"Heat 2" marks Gardiner's 16th book to date. She's the writer behind the Evan Delaney and "UNSUB" series. She's explored crime worlds before on the page, but the experience of "Heat 2" was a whole different level for the author. "I had never done so much research in my life," she said. "Michael is legendarily dedicated to deep research into a topic or subject or culture, and the legend is accurate. We did a lot of thorough and surprising research for the book." Recently, Gardiner told us a bit about that research, her collaboration with Mann, and how Al Pacino and Robert De Niro's performances influenced her work.

'Once you hear Al Pacino walking onto a crime scene, it's hard to forget that'

The sequel just reads as Michael Mann unfiltered, just no limitations.

Wonderful. I mean, like he said, I've heard him say that when you write a novel, you don't have to worry about a film budget. You can put everything in there as far as action and excitement without worrying about explosives or how much everything is going to cost, because it's all in your imagination. So it's great. We wanted to put some slam, bang, Michael Mann action, and take it to a whole new level in the book.

Was the story always going to go as global as it does?

It was obvious. Michael had been thinking about this for years and had the idea for a novel — it would be both prequel and sequel and would just explode the world of the story backwards and forwards in time and geographically. Obviously, we're going to have L.A. He really wanted to do Chicago, because he's a Chicago guy. And you got to have Vegas. [Val Kilmer's character] Chris Shiherlis, I mean, that's the core element of his personality when he is a young guy. He's a gambler.

And it seems to inform everything he does in the story.

Yeah, indeed. And Paraguay, Michael had been to Ciudad del Este when he filmed "Miami Vice," the film. So he had experienced the city, seeing what was going on there, got the whole vibe, and really wanted to set part of the novel there.

In your first conversation with Michael Mann, you talked for hours, right? What did you discuss? 

It started to expand, but it was a couple of hours. It wasn't 12, or anything like that. I mean, we had to talk on the phone and work together virtually for a long time because we started the book during Covid, so we couldn't get together. He wanted to do this project. He wanted to do it as a novel. He had read my thriller, "UNSUB," and we had the same literary agent, so he asked to be put in touch with me. We talked about his ambitions for the book, what I could bring to it to help realize those ambitions. He had a strong concept for the story already. So we needed to see if our strengths would mesh and our ideas would click for bringing it to life on the page.

How did you both connect as storytellers?

Yeah, it took a while to work out. I mean, number one, Michael was already an extraordinarily accomplished writer. Because all his work had been in film and television, not in novels, he knew he was moving into an entirely different arena as far as the kind of writing he would be doing. So he's also collaborated quite successfully on some very big films and was open to collaboration. I was delighted to see that he has very strong story instincts and so much craft. He knows so much about grammatic structure. He knows all these characters and the movie inside and out and knew he would have to expand them into the novel. He wanted to work with someone who had experience writing a story that's 120,000 words on the page, which is a lot longer than screenplays.

Legendarily, he is very exacting and driven and wants to get everything right, which I knew I would have to bring my A-game every single day. But as we started to work out ideas, see how we would flesh things out, where the characters were coming from and where they were going to go, I was absolutely delighted with his trust in me, as we got to know each other, that he would let me run with something, write a section and send it to him and see if this was going the direction that we both hoped it would. As a collaborator, he was very generous and open-minded and supportive, which I found thrilling.

You've said before your thrillers are fiction, but they grow from a kernel of fact. What were some facts "Heat 2" grew from?

There are a number of heists in the novel, because it's about certainly about Neil McCauley's crew in Chicago, taking down a tunnel job for a savings and loan. Michael wanted to make sure that it would be an authentic tunnel job. So we got on the phone for a couple of hours with a bank robber and asked him how he would do it.

Since we're seeing Neil and Vincent in different times and places, how did you both want to stay true to them and show how different they were in the past?

Like you said, we needed them to be the same people, but at a different stage in their lives. I mean, they're younger, which affects both of them. Neil is not that long removed from prison. Hanna is a lot closer to his tour of duty in Vietnam, and they are both volatile, which is fun.

Did you have a lot of Pacino and De Niro's inflections in mind when writing that dialogue?

I did have Pacino and De Niro's voices in my head and their performances from "Heat" in my mind as I was writing, which I thought was absolutely fabulous, because they brought those characters so vividly and completely to life that it was terrific to have them as models in my mind for writing the new sections of the story. Once you hear Al Pacino walking onto a crime scene, it's hard to forget that. It just runs through your veins as you're writing any other scenes.

So, Pacino has said before that Vincent Hanna was under the influence of cocaine in "Heat."

Okay. I know. Yes. I know Pacino has hinted at that as at least informing his performance in the film.

And he does a bit of coke in the prequel. Even in the book, is cocaine influencing his behavior?

A bit.

'The environment really shapes the characters'

Vincent and Neil are both in Chicago during the prequel. Obviously, these two have always been drawn to each other like magnets then. How did you want to deepen their bond?

I knew we couldn't cross the streams, but to have them in parallel. Well, the streams do cross, but they don't meet each other yet. I mean, that whole thread, there's a degree of separation between them that then comes back to bite both of them later on in the story. I wanted it to really — to be tangible and yet just like an electricity in the air. I mean, clearly, though they're on opposite sides of the law, they have a similar way of looking at the world, so I think that sort of aligns them, at least in readers' minds and hearts.

In Michael Mann's stories, the characters are so much a part of their environment, and their environment is so much a part of them. How did the locations influence how you wrote these characters?

The environment really shapes the characters. I know Michael believes that, and that's one reason he dives deep into researching any culture or profession or underworld facet that he's writing or filming, is that he wants to understand the world that these people emerge out of and that they immerse themselves in. So that's why he had written biographies for the major characters for the film, which did not make it on the screen, but he always knew where these people had come from. And when he gave that to me, when we were working on the early sections, it was like opening a treasure chest. I saw what he'd written up — that Neil, he'd been abandoned by his mother and his father eventually put him and his brother in foster care as young kids, and understanding how that set him off on a course of violence and resentment and being out of control.Neil was the kid in fifth grade that wasn't wearing jeans and Converse. He had third-hand shoes from Goodwill. 

And how Hanna grew up in rural western Illinois, where he was just desperate to get out and would drive late at night through the cornfields and the prairies and turn his lights off and see how long he could go without speeding into a ditch. Chris Shiherlis, his dad died before he was born, driving 150 miles an hour or whatever it was on the Autobahn as a GI. And his mom turned to being a go-go dancer in a biker bar. I wouldn't have come up with that [laughs], but it makes perfect sense when you read what Michael's written.

How did you and Michael decide on the style of the prose? 

What we were trying to do, and I knew that we had to do, was to put on the page the same feeling you get from watching a Michael Mann film. We had to work at it and make sure we got it right. I've seen "Heat" God knows how many times now, and it's never a problem because it's endlessly re-watchable, but Michael sent me the shooting script for "Heat." And that was the first time I had just read Michael's voice on the page, because it's his script and you can see how propulsive and vivid and dramatic it is and how incredibly sharp every word of dialogue is, how the characters come to life, only a very few words and a bit of description. So I knew we wanted to make use of Michael's skill at that kind of vivid writing.

It is a thriller. It is a crime saga. There is a lot of big action. So I deliberately did want it to have very punchy writing, staccato sentences, certainly in the action scenes. And of course, the beauty of revision is you can work on the language at the end. When you've worked out the kinks in the plot and decided who lives and who dies, you can polish your writing.

What about all the music references? Did you and Michael discuss quite a bit which songs fit which mood? 

We actually did not debate any of the songs. It seemed to be really organic to figure out when we wanted to include a reference to music, particularly the scenes with Chris. There are a lot of references to music. I don't know why we ended up doing it that way, but it seemed to really fit. We knew Chris was not going to be listening to Brahms [laughs]. So we narrow it down. Miles Davis is out, I'm pretty sure. It's a mix of hard rock and West Coast rap, hip-hop. It just seemed to fit his personality, his mood, whether it was anger or wistfulness or longing or something to pump him up when he is going to go kill someone.

We learn a lot about Chris in the sequel, but in general, how did you want to tell us more about these characters while still preserving what's mysterious about them? 

Always want to keep a little bit of mystery alive. Because we knew it was going to be a prequel and a sequel, there could have been ways to write it that just referenced points that were mentioned in the movie. And we didn't want to do that. We didn't need to see Neil meeting Nate or Chris at Folsom or San Quentin, or anything like that. We wanted to dramatize, to show their lives, how their lives unfold, and how they drive their lives in the most dramatic fashion possible.

'They're not just having a cup of coffee'

Writers talk about how difficult writing sequels and prequels are, but here, you're writing both. What's challenging about a sequel and a prequel?

Just in general, for writing a prequel, you have to create dramatic questions. You can't just run through events that readers or viewers already know about. You have to create whole new storylines and bring in new characters whose fates are unknown. So you have to involve more people and make readers concerned about them and want to know what happens to them and how it affects the character they already know and love.

For a sequel, it has to equal or surpass the original. It really does, as far as drama, as far as development of the characters, bringing in the right mix of new people that you're going to care about. For one, it jumps back and forth, over more than a decade. And in the sequel portions, Neil's not around. So we didn't want to do it just straight through chronologically.

Throughout the year of writing, how often were you thinking about the diner scene? 

Constantly. Constantly, both because it's so subtle and it's understated. The more you watch it, and the more I've talked to Michael about it and have him go through what was in his mind for the story at that moment, you see how much is unsaid. They're not just having a cup of coffee. They're two predators and they both go in with an agenda and they both want to learn as much as possible as they can about the other guy. The surprising thing that happens in that scene is that they realize how much they have in common. There's this respect and rapport that develops, which is remarkable.

I always kept that in mind, that Neil and Hanna are both very conscious of who they are and what they want, what they're after, and how to go about getting it. But I mean, come on, just watch that scene. There are these tiny little moments where Pacino and De Niro react to each other — it's just incredible. One of them looks off to the side and the other one moves his shoulder to do that. Then when Pacino tells Neil that, "No, brother. I won't enjoy it, but I'd rather you were going down." De Niro is going to respond, but he pauses like an experienced criminal. He looks off to the side to check the exits or something for just a second, really pausing, just for just a fraction of a moment, to make sure that he has a way out of this, when he tells Pacino, "I'll take you down too, brother."

I vividly remember seeing that movie when I was 13 and getting chills when Pacino said, "Brother, I will take you down."

[Laughs] Okay. So this is an aside, but you saw the movie when you were 13. My nephew who just turned 14, he just texted me. He said, "Am I old enough to read it?" I told him yes, but now you have confirmed that I am not making a terrible mistake and it's going to ruin his life. 

[Laughs] He'll learn a lot about crime. That's great.

From the best. From the guys who were the best at it. But we didn't just talk to the criminals, either. We rode out with the two L.A.P.D. sergeants.

How was that?

That was enlightening, very entertaining, informative. I mean, we drove through some of the streets south of USC, which are still not gentrified. Once you start noticing all the women standing on the corners, you can't ever un-see it, but it's revealing. And we also found out that if you linger too long on a street corner there without offering to purchase, the women will chuck a shoe at your truck.

No kidding?

Yeah. They don't want you slowing down business.

"Heat 2" is now available to purchase.