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Meg Gardiner: What It Was Like to Write a Prequel/Sequel to the Classic Film ‘Heat’ with Michael Mann


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If I can pinpoint the moment when I knew that writing a novel with Michael Mann was different than working on one solo, it’s the day I got on the phone with a bank robber.

Michael and I were doing research for our thriller Heat 2. Heat 2 is Michael’s first novel, my first time collaborating on a book, and this was my first experience asking a retired robber how to pull off a bank tunnel job. 

I’ve written more than a dozen thrillers. I’ve done extensive research for every one. But nowhere close to this. I was diving into the Michael Mann world, exploring this story, these characters, and his way of working, alongside him. 

Daunting? 

Michael is my favorite filmmaker, an icon, who wrote the screenplays for Heat, The Insider, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, and Ali. He was the executive producer of Miami Vice and Crime Story. A four-time Academy Award nominee. Two-time Emmy award winner.

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I knew that writing this novel would be challenging. Heat 2 is both a prequel and sequel to his classic film Heat, which starred Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Ashley Judd, and Natalie Portman. Heat is about bank robber Neil McCauley (De Niro) and the relentless cop who pursues him, Vincent Hanna (Pacino). It’s a cat-and-mouse story that explodes into bone-rattling action, with two protagonists on opposite sides of the law: master thief and LAPD Robbery-Homicide detective. It’s about their intense conflict but also their rapport, and—after a bank robbery turns downtown Los Angeles into a warzone—their deadly showdown.

The novel would expand on the world of that film, with a brand new standalone story.

Daunting—certainly. But then we started writing. 

Michael and I knew each other’s work. We had to navigate how to work together. Heat 2 is Michael’s original story, with characters he created and has known for decades. It’s his premise. The novel is our joint conception and execution. 

Michael’s vision, his grasp of story and character, his work ethic, exacting standards, and his commitment to immersing himself in the world he’s writing about are legendary, and the legend is accurate. Michael is also a generous and openminded collaborator.

All of that challenged me, in the best way, to bring my A Game every day. To get it right—whether that was an action sequence, the voice of a character in dialogue, or the tech available in the years when the book is set. 

Entering the world of Heat carried the weight of responsibility. Michael put his indelible characters into my hands, and expected me to dive deep into their world. And he expected me to understand them. Fortunately, he gave me the space to figure out who they are, where their limits and moral lines are, and how that guides the story. He sent me character biographies he’d written before filming Heat—material that didn’t make it into the film, written as background for the actors. He knew these people. I needed to get inside them. And to bring new characters onto the scene who were equally compelling. To work out their fates, and the most thrilling, suspenseful way to lead them to that point. 

Novels and screenplays are different creatures. For a writer, moving from screenplays to novels is like jumping from a Formula 1 Ferrari into an F35 fighter. We hoped our skills would complement and amplify each other’s. 

Michael’s Heat script is electrifying. Propulsive, vivid, exciting. And the film hits you like an explosion. 

I have experience telling a story by putting 100,000 words down in print. Knowing how to pace that story. How to build suspense, how to maximize close third person point-of-view to give readers an emotional experience. How to dive deep into a character’s mind with interior monologue. When to show, when to tell. How not to get tangled up in long passages of exposition. How to drive that 400 page story forward. 

For Heat 2, I wanted to create the same immersive experience on the page that audiences get when they watch one of Michael’s films. A great movie hits you on multiple levels simultaneously—and viscerally. The story. The direction. Cinematography. Music. To replicate that in the novel I used language, rhythm, dialogue, jump cuts between scenes, sentence fragments—all those writer tricks—to submerge readers in tense action. Above all, I knew that no matter the form your story takes, what grips the audience is concern for the characters. Will they accomplish their goal? Is disaster looming? What will they do? Who will live? Who will die?

And of course, because Michael Mann was creating this story, we delved deep into research. He immerses himself into the culture of the subject he’s writing about, and the people in it. Their work, attitudes, family life. He searches for an authenticity that will ring true with audiences. 

So for the novel, we interviewed that retired bank robber. We rode out with two LAPD sergeants late one night through Los Angeles streets the Disneyland tourists avoid. 

The research was always in the service of giving power to the story. It was about immersing readers in what feels like real, lived drama. 

Because of COVID, initially we had to write from a distance. We worked out big plot points via phone and email, and sent outlines and chapter drafts back and forth. We juggled time zone differences when I was in Austin and Michael was in Japan, filming Tokyo Vice

We wrote for a year before we finally sat down across from each other at his desk (face to face, like the coffeeshop scene in Heat). By then we had a first draft. We each knew how the other worked. We could write with confidence, sensing when we were on track, and knowing that if we veered off, by hashing out the story we could correct course.

And we didn’t hesitate to be frank about calling for revision. This scene needs another pass. The action doesn’t hold up. 

(Yes, that was Michael’s note to me. He was right.)

By the time we reached the final draft, we were swapping chapters back and forth. Editing each other’s scenes. Dividing up individual pages or topics or paragraphs we needed to strengthen or tighten. To get it all the way there. To stick the landing. 

Heat 2 opens one day after the end of the film, with a wounded Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) holed up in Koreatown, half delirious and desperate to escape LA. Vincent Hanna is hunting him. Hours earlier, Hanna killed Neil McCauley—Chris’s brother in arms—under strobing lights at the foot of an LAX runway. Now Hanna is determined to capture or kill Chris, the last survivor of Neil’s crew, before he ghosts out of the city…

Writing this novel was work, hell yeah. But it was exhilarating. And when you trust your co-author, you buckle up and put the pedal down and write until you get it done. 

What a ride. 

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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