Depp as Dillinger in 'Public Enemies'
from San Francisco Chronicle / by Ruthe Stein
Johnny Depp and director Michael Mann circled around John Dillinger for decades. Independently, each imagined the infamous Depression-era bank robber filling the big screen. Good-looking, sexy and charismatic, Dillinger is a role Depp was destined to play. Meanwhile, the rat-a-tat style Mann displayed in “Miami Vice” and “Heat” seems well suited to a 1930s gangster movie.
The gestation of what became “Public Enemies”- a promising summer movie pitting Dillinger against federal agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) – began in earnest three years ago. Mann is known for working slowly, accounting for an output of just 10 movies in 30 years, and he took his time even after Depp and Bale were cast.
So how does one explain releasing “Public Enemies” at a time when people loathe banks almost as much as they did during the Depression and might cheer a bank robber, as they cheered Dillinger back then?
“The timing is an accident,” Mann said. “We couldn’t have planned it.”
All the filmmaker’s instincts told him that he had the right leading man, a feeling confirmed when he talked to Depp and found out the actor had thought about playing Dillinger for 20 years. Depp’s inspiration was a grandfather who ran home-distilled alcohol during Prohibition.
“A lot of what goes on inside Johnny Depp could be used and revealed,” Mann said. “I know there are dark currents within Johnny and also from his past life, and I know he has a lot of John Dillinger inside of him. He has a deep understanding of a troubled past and a troubled life, but is someone who is a very passionate man. He could understand those currents in unique ways.
“I’m not saying Johnny Depp was troubled,” the director clarified, but that the actor “could really empathize” with Dillinger’s troubles.
Mann is eager to defend his other star in the wake of Bale’s expletive-riddled outburst at his director of photography on the set of “Terminator Salvation.” Almost 2 million people have checked out Bale’s rant on YouTube.
There was “absolutely no” similar behavior on the “Public Enemies” set,” Mann said.
“Christian is a sweetheart to work with,” Mann insisted. “This is a guy who doesn’t even travel with assistants. I can only surmise, if something like that happened, the provocation to Christian must have been extreme and going on for a long, long time.”
Even in a shoot-‘em-up there’s got to be a girl. In “Public Enemies,” she’s played by Marion Cotillard, an Academy Award winner in 2008 for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in “La Vie En Rose.”
Cotillard takes on another actual person: Billie Frechette, who was Dillinger’s girlfriend and drove a getaway car for him.
Growing up in Paris and Orléans, Cotillard had never heard of Dillinger.
“I only knew Bonnie and Clyde because of the movie,” she said.
The “Public Enemies” trailer shows Frechette meeting Dillinger much like Bonnie Parker met Clyde Barrow.
“What is it exactly you do for a living?” Frechette asks.
“I rob banks,” Dillinger replies.
“I think she was scared when he said that, but she was in love with him and, you know, almost at first sight,” said Cotillard, who did extensive research on Frechette. “The guy was very charismatic.”
She dismisses rumors that Dillinger beat up Frechette.
“I cannot picture him doing those kind of things,” she said. “He was a real gentleman.”
Listening to her praise Depp to the skies – “generous,” “amazing,” “a passionate actor” – it’s possible she may be blurring her co-star with his role.
As an example of Depp’s generosity, she talked about how supportive he was during scenes together when she was struggling to achieve a proper accent. Frechette was half French and half American Indian – so Cotillard could get away with a little bit of a French accent, but nothing as pronounced as the way she normally speaks.
“I needed many takes to have the accent right, and I was very stressed out about the whole thing because it was my first movie after ‘La Vie en Rose,’ ” she said. “Johnny was very nice and reassuring.”
Mann encouraged his cast to do research, sending Cotillard to the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, where Frechette had grown up, and Depp to places in the Midwest that Dillinger had passed through. The director gave Depp toiletries and shirts that Dillinger had abandoned in a close escape. In one hotel, the actor was able to touch the same doorknobs Dillinger had.
In his own research, Mann found that, although Dillinger and his gang could plan robberies in a very meticulous fashion, they couldn’t plan next month. They had no concept of the probability that if they kept robbing banks, eventually they would get caught.
“They had no plan for the future,” Mann said. “They were living for the moment.”
With Dillinger, as well as Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, also portrayed in “Public Enemies,” there was a “disconnect between cause and effect. If you trusted the wrong person and got shot, it wasn’t because of an error of judgment. It just happened,” Mann said. The expressions “a bullet with your name on it” and “when your time is up” were popular in the 1930s and reflect a sense of things being out of your control.
In the same period, the FBI was forming, making use for the first time of a network of data management that made it possible to track criminals. Before then, anyone who robbed a bank in Wisconsin had to deal only with local law enforcement. This is the background for the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between Dillinger and the FBI’s Purvis.
Mann discounts the contention that “Public Enemies” glorifies Dillinger.
“He was a tough guy who killed people, absolutely, and that’s how we show him,” he said. “He wasn’t a sweetheart. But he was charming as hell, and he knew how to manipulate people.”
“Public Enemies” opens July 1 at Bay Area theaters.