I’m busy working on Preacher, and it’s no spoiler to say that it features a gunfight or two. Last night, I twittered to ask what people’s favorite gunfights were, Western or otherwise.

I got a lot of replies, but one name that kept coming up was Michael Mann. He consistently finds ways to send thousands of bullets flying while acknowledging the rules of physics.1

I haven’t seen Public Enemies yet, but this clip shows the feeling he creates:

But when you’re talking about Michael Mann gunfights, you really have to discuss Heat. Here’s the showstopper:

I looked up Mann’s screenplay for Heat, to see what that looked like on the page.

Mann uses a lot of sluglines and short sentences to create the tempo of the fight. It’s chaos, and that’s reflected in the writing. He’s inconsistent with scene headers, and not especially concerned with establishing geography.

It doesn’t matter: action writing needs to create the feeling of an action sequence, not choreograph each bullet.

Bosko’s moving 90 degrees to the right, crossing the street. There would be no, there was no, and there never is any, warning. Neil Hanna and Schwartz with 12- gauges OPEN FIRE. World War III ERUPTS. Now we hear distant POLICE SIRENS.

CHRIS

is hit in the neck.

NEIL’S

FIRING 3-SHOT BURSTS that blow up Schwartz and a lamppost and hit a woman who falls over her shopping cart, shrieking. Hanna’s behind the lamppost.

BOSKO

across the street with his AR-180, opens up on the station wagon which takes HITS. A BLACK AND WHITE slides sideways and COP #1 with a shotgun runs across the street hollering at kids who stop and stare and drop school books.

COP # 1

Drop! Drop down!

CERRITO

over the station wagon roof FIRES a BURST at Bosko, then swings onto Cop #1 and fires, killing him. Cerrito jumps into the wagon.

THE STREET – WIDE: A BUS

The driver panics and slams on his brakes and his bus full of people stalls in the combat zone between Bosko and the wagon.

BOSKO (O.S.)

(screams)

Get the bus out of here...

NEIL

shielded by the green bag of money which has taken hits, FIRES at Hanna and backs to Chris.

HANNA

pulls Schwartz to cover.

CHRIS

dazed – holding his bleeding neck while Neil FIRES into the parking lot...

PARKING LOT

...hitting Casals getting out of his car. Casals sits down as if stunned.

MAN

pulling his car out of the lot ducks behind the wheel and crashes it into a parked car.

EXT. BANK – CERRITO

CERRITO

(to Neil)

C’mon! C’mon! C’mon!

Neil can’t rake it through the incoming FIRE from Hanna and Cop #2 to the station wagon and Cerrito and knows it.

NEIL

(to Breedan and Cerrito)

Go!! Go!!

ON STATION WAGON

Breedan floors it.

HANNA

re-emerges, kneels and PUMPS SHOTS into the station wagon.

BOSKO

rounds the bus with the AR-180 and OPENS UP

STATION WAGON

draws everyone’s FIRE. Breedan ducks and pilots it through the gauntlet.

NEIL

has taken off down the sidewalk, supporting Chris. TIGHTEN. He runs in among crowds of civilians. He knocks over a man, breaks through. People are screaming, staring, shocked.

INT. STATION WAGON – BREEDAN

getting BLOWN APART by Hanna, Bosko, and Cop #2 falls over the wheel and then is thrown back.

EXT. STREET – STATION WAGON

tires are BLOWN OUT.

It spins across the street on steel rims and crashes sideways into a parked car on the east side of Hawthorne.

INT. STATION WAGON – CERRITO

shot three times, holds his abdomen and bails, returning FIRE. Breedan, like a rag doll is half over into the rear seat and still being hit by more rounds. We HOLD on David Breedan. He’s dead.

CUT TO:

EXT. SIDE STREET – CERRITO

east up a side street past people who stand on their lawns and stare – traumatized.

WIDER

Bosko and Cop #3 chase Cerrito. Cerrito FIRES a long BURST. They can’t fire back because of the people.

CUT TO:

EXT. SAFEWAY – TRACKING NEIL + CHRIS – DAY

and the money – running, skipping and dodging past all manner of pedestrians, newspaper coin boxes, fruit vendors and parking meters. People dodge, scream and fall down. It’s chaos.

TRACKING HANNA

a half block behind, chasing Neil – pushing through the same people.

HANNA

(shouts at pedestrians)

Get down! Get down!

EXT. SAFEWAY PARKING LOT – NEIL + CHRIS

Neil – supporting Chris – throws a lady, who was getting out, back into her Olds Cutlass. He dumps Chris and the money in the back seat and turns on Hanna.

NEIL

extends the collapsible stock braces on the roof for accuracy and FIRES over the roof of other cars and through people at Hanna closing in 5o yards away.

CUT TO:

EXT. SAFEWAY – HANNA + CIVILIANS

who panic. SHOOTING. Windows EXPLODE. A lady holds her ears and shrieks. A newspaper coin box SHATTERS. A man’s bag of groceries explode milk and eggs everywhere. He goes down.

HANNA

doesn’t have a clear shot and drops, dragging people down with him.

NEIL

behind the wheel – burns rubber pulling out of the lot over curbstones and through a fence into the alley.

For another example of scripting a gunfight, I’d point you back to the Alaska pilot. You can see the gunfight here, and read the script in the Library.

  1. I have nothing against impossible gunfights like in The Matrix, Equilibrium or Wanted, but I’m trying to keep to keep this one a bit more grounded.