Public Enemies: Designing and Lensing the Gangster Flick

“Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cotillard, is being released by Universal Pictures on July 1, 2009.

The biggest challenge facing Mann was turning
21st-century America back into the world of the early
1930s. As there were some 114 different sets to dress for the film, the art department was kept occupied well before principal photography began. In addition to his crew’s work on developing sets, Mann felt it was important to lens at as many of the actual locations as possible. As Dillinger and his crew traveled across the Midwest during their bank-robbing spree, so would this production.

A keen historian, the writer/director gives an example of just how easy it was for Dillinger and his crew to get away with it all as they robbed. “Indiana State Police had 27 officers for the whole state of Indiana,” Mann offers. “Law enforcement was local, underpaid, poorly supplied, and they didn’t talk to anybody else. They didn’t know what was going on in the next county, unless it was anecdotally in a bar or in a café. If you’re a crew of bank robbers, you could commit a bank robbery in Indiana, go across the border into Illinois and be home free. There was no law against interstate crime and no federal police force at all.”

Dillinger's Haunts

Though in various states of repair, several of the
actual sites visited by Dillinger are still around today. Fortunately, the production was allowed use of the structures for three of his iconic showdowns with the law: the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana; the Little Bohemia Lodge in Manitowish Waters,
Wisconsin; and the Biograph Theater on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, Illinois.

Before Dillinger’s daring escape in Sheriff Lillian Holley’s (Six Feet Under’s LILI TAYLOR) personal
automobile (after he carved a wooden gun out of a washing board), the Lake County Jail briefly saw him as a reluctant guest. Of the location, production designer Nathan Crowley elaborates: “The front
portion, which was Sheriff Holley’s house, was pretty much deteriorated, while the back part, which was the jail, was rusted and corroded. We didn’t have to make anything up, which was fantastic. It had the real corridors and the real geography.”

A combination of period streetcars, cobblestone lined roads, numerous 1930s storefronts and automobiles gave an eerie and realistic look back in time to the sweltering evening of July 22, 1934: the night John Dillinger was betrayed by the “Lady in Red” and gunned down by Purvis’ men.

As the team reconstructed events, Mann was most exacting. He explains the process: “We rebuilt the
street front of the Biograph. We engineered it so that we were able to stage exactly where Dillinger was when he died—the same square foot of pavement that he died on—so that when Johnny looked up he saw the last thing Dillinger saw. That means a lot to an actor and to a director…to find yourself in those environments where you can suspend your disbelief and give yourself the magic of the moment.”

The film’s lead agrees. He couldn’t help but be wowed by his surroundings at the Biograph. “Everywhere you looked, it was 1934,” notes Depp. “It was pretty incredible to be standing in front of the Biograph Theater. As far as you could see, it was 1934…from the roads to the building storefronts to the marquee lights. Every detail was accounted for. I salute Michael for that. His attention to detail is unparalleled.”

Robberies in Wisconsin

Other Public Enemies locations included a number of towns and cities in Wisconsin, including Columbus, Milwaukee, Madison, Darlington, Oshkosh and others. For the shoot, both Mann and Crowley kept a close eye out for period structures and streets that could be transformed into 1933–’34.

In the cases of Oshkosh and Columbus, filming
took on a more expansive approach; complete blocks
of downtown areas were redressed for the shoot. All of the work was accomplished with the cooperation of the respective cities’ managers and property owners. While the filming schedule was much longer in these locales, potential logistical problems were kept to a minimum.

The production designer elaborates: “Dillinger
raided banks in small towns, so we needed some small places that hadn’t been modernized or had big chain stores that would be hard to take out. Columbus is very proud of its historic downtown area, and we turned the clock back on it. That meant everything: cobblestones, traffic lights, signage and facades.

“We had 30-odd stores to deal with in Columbus,
so we were really looking for a place that was willing
to help and wanted us there,” Crowley adds. Similarly, an elaborate bank heist was staged both inside and outside of a building in Oshkosh. Because the scene involved a getaway, several storefronts were dressed accordingly.

Shooting in Chicago

During his spree, Dillinger was a frequent visitor
to Chicago; therefore, a number of scenes were filmed there. Most of the office scenes, as well as various apartments, were accurately depicted in Chicago. The production went to several of the same neighborhoods to capture the look and feel. For example, the arrival of the Dallas field agents was staged at Chicago’s train terminal, with an actual period steam engine train used for the shoot. Crowley shares: “We shot some big streets in Chicago to get some scale to the big city.”

It was crucial to Mann and his five-time collaborator,
cinematographer Dante Spinotti, to lens a drama set in the ’30s while not making it seem as if it’s a period piece. The director explains: “What I try to do in Public Enemies is avoid anything that feels like the convention of a nostalgic filter, of making things looking old. If you’re alive on Tuesday morning of March 17, 1934, things are very immediate; they’re right in your face. It’s a cold, rainy day, and it’s in Chicago and it’s in color. It seems to be very Purvis and his agents move in on Dillinger at the Biograph Theater.

DP Spinotti offers: “There’s a combination of a handheld, very close approach to the faces of the actors, all shot with long lenses. But in the same setup, we really captured at least one side of the scene. That offers a real-time immediacy and a sense of witnessing whatever is happening, which was a very important part of the way we shot this film.”

This sense of immediacy extended to their thoughts
on lighting scenes; it was just as important to light the environment as it was the specific actors. Spinotti elaborates: “We always kept in mind an extreme realism of the situation. We wanted to represent, in an aggressive, real way, what the time was and what the scene is. So, we lit the whole scene, but we rarely lit the shot. The actors have to look properly correct when they end up in their close-up, which is recorded by a camera on the close-up while another camera is getting the reverse close-up on the other actor or actress.”