Back to the Scene of the Crime With Heat 2
Austin author Meg Gardiner and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Michael Mann team up for a literary sequel to the classic heist flick
Meg Gardiner has done it all. The Austin-based novelist has practiced law and taught writing; lived in California, Oklahoma, and London, England; won a bunch of money on Jeopardy! a few decades before you could just win over and over, and then her daughter did it more than 30 years later. She's published 14 thrillers, won a handful of awards for them, and is well-regarded in her field.
But she has never done anything quite like her newest novel.
Co-written with legendary filmmaker Michael Mann, Heat 2 is the literary sequel to the director's increasingly deified epic crime movie, Heat. The 1995 original was a flick Mann had always wanted to make, the story of an unstoppable force (Al Pacino as the extremely driven LAPD robbery/homicide Detective Vincent Hanna) and an immovable object (an ice-cold Robert De Niro as the equally compulsive career criminal Neil McCauley). Co-starring a murderer's row of Mann regulars/A-team character actors (Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Wes Studi, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, and Ted "Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me" Levine), many of whom would become cult icons in their own right, Heat has, over time, generated its own field of gravity.
Gardiner was well aware of this when she was contacted to work on a sequel. "Michael had it in his mind for quite a number of years to expand the world of Heat," Gardiner said. "The movie is iconic, but it's a snapshot in the lives of the characters. A very intense, revealing snapshot, but just a snapshot."
Spoilers for a nearly 30-year-old movie: Not everyone survives.
Gardiner said Mann had long been thinking about who these people were, "where they had come from and how he might send them forward into the future." Dude was and is a brilliant and accomplished screenwriter, but this is his first novel. They were connected by their mutual agent after Mann read her serial killer procedural Unsub and wanted to talk to her about working together. And that, as they say, was that.
Gardiner called the process exhilarating. They worked their way moment by moment, talking on the phone for hours and hours, sending outlines and notes and ideas and snippets back and forth constantly, swapping chapter drafts. She was in Austin; he was in Japan filming his HBO Max series, Tokyo Vice. The pandemic meant they couldn't meet in person; they wrote together for a year before ever being in the same room.
Before getting into Heat 2, it's important to understand what Heat is.
A generation of (probably, but not always, male) movie nerds can likely remember the first time they saw Heat. It was released Dec. 15, 1995, right as college kids were getting home for Christmas break. Maybe they were cineastes who knew Mann from early movies such as Thief and the Thomas Harris novel adaptation Manhunter (the latter would spawn a sequel of sorts called The Silence of the Lambs and was eventually remade as Red Dragon). They probably knew Mann's work and not known it as executive producer of Miami Vice, one of the most iconic American television shows of the 1980s and one those college kids probably watched as teens and middle-schoolers. They definitely knew his last movie before he unleashed a crime wave on L.A., the romantic blockbuster The Last of the Mohicans, the soundtrack for which was a dorm room staple during the Clinton administration.
They likely didn't know that Heat was, of all things, a remake of a 1989 feature-length TV pilot Mann wrote and directed called L.A. Takedown. Flush with hitmaking capital from Mohicans, Mann revisited the script, rewrote it a bit, changed some names, and created one of the great crime epics.
At the time, Heat was critically well-regarded but only barely broke even domestically, picking up $67 million against a $60 million budget (it made almost twice as much overseas). But over the years, the cult grew, never leaving the minds of fans, including a mess of directors. Mann is all over Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, while the opening sequence of Christopher Nolan's second Batman movie, The Dark Knight is practically a tribute to the bank job in Heat. (Nolan's Batman is a pretty Mann-ish fellow: obsessed with work, crappy at romantic relationships, more of an operative with an expert skill set applied in a specific moral direction than a classic hero). And clearly, Heat never left Mann's mind either.
– Meg Gardiner
"It's one of those movies where it just, very quietly over the past 20-odd years, sort of asserted itself as this classic," Gardiner said. "You watch it for the first time and you're overwhelmed, almost viscerally overwhelmed. And then you keep rewatching it over and over. And every single time you do, you discover something new and the action always pops and the characters reveal themselves with greater nuance and subtlety, and it never feels like there's a second that drags."
These were almost mythic figures and Mann wanted to dig deeper. He brought Gardiner along for the ride.
Since Gardiner and I spoke, Mann (currently filming autosports biopic Ferrari) has made noises in the press about bringing Heat 2 to the big screen. While that is certainly his prerogative, there is something kind of wonderful about making the prequel/sequel a novel rather than a film. Movie tie-ins – let alone the dreaded "novelization" – have a certain low-rent air about them, but they certainly don't have to be. Mann and Gardiner have produced an excellent thriller that simply happens to star characters that certain fans will know cold. (However, it is slightly disconcerting to hear Mann refer to the "Heat universe" in interviews the way someone might talk about DC or Marvel. Never let it be said the dude doesn't keep up with the times.)
Anyway, Heat 2 goes full The Godfather Part II. In 1988, before the events of the film, Neil's crew pulls a job and we find out exactly why he doesn't get attached to anything he cannot walk out of in 30 seconds flat if he sees the heat coming around the corner. We also see a pre-Los Angeles Chicago Detective Vincent Hanna confront a particularly savage home invasion crew. Post-film, the focus shifts to Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer in the original movie), having survived the blown bank heist in 1995, heading to Central America to regroup and figure out the next stage of his career as he discovers warring Asian crime families vying for a serious prize.
It's full of the usual Heat tropes (Neil vs. scores, Vincent vs. whatever he is chasing), Mann themes (life is short, time is luck, you are your work, the internet is useful for planning scores), and phrases Mann loons will recognize from other movies. And Gardiner was charged with helping bring it to life. "I felt myself challenged in the best way to bring my A game every single day," she said. "I felt a great responsibility to honor such iconic characters and find out what else was happening to them before and after in a way that was true to who they were."
Which is to say, when Michael Mann asks if you want to write this book with him, you do take a deep breath. "It's a big ask," Gardiner says. "But I've always wanted to write a heist novel and realized, 'When will I ever get a chance to write the heist novel of my dreams that's also something much more?'"
From the beginning, Gardiner said they were writing a novel, not a screenplay. "This meant understanding everyone's point of view and giving their interior monologues a detail that was completely different from a Mann screenplay."
And while Gardiner said it was impossible to keep the actors' voices out of her head while she and Mann were trading chapters back and forth, "those performances are so vivid and grounded and nuanced that I could see these people in 3D as I was writing every word." Which was a challenge, as Mann had worked with those actors and created these characters, so Gardiner needed to work to understand them as deeply as he did. And if you're going to work with Mann, a man famous for his work ethic and immersion into the characters he is building, you're going to do research. "I love it," Gardiner said. "You can just let yourself go wherever the research suggests and call it writing. I've written more than a dozen novels, but I have never done more research than I did working with him on this. The legend is accurate."
Heat 2: A Novel by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner, William Morrow, 480 pp., $24.99, will be published Aug. 9.