Director Michael Mann gets into the world of cyber intrusion in Blackhat

Director Michael Mann's trademark has been stylish dramas about crime and corruption - award-winning films such as Heat (1995), The Insider (1996) and Collateral (2004), which have won the director widespread critical admiration.

But with his latest, Blackhat, he tackles an altogether new kind of underworld - international cybercrime - where "blackhats'' or malicious hackers could, in theory, attack a nuclear power plant or manipulate financial markets.

He also got to set it in Asia, a region he had been dying to film since first visiting Hong Kong in the 1970s, and cast two Asian stars - Taiwanese-American singer Wang Leehom and Chinese actress Tang Wei - in a story that starts with the sabotage of a nuclear plant in China.

Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles recently, the 71-year-old says he was inspired by the 2010 discovery of the computer worm Stuxnet, which infiltrated nuclear facilities in Iran and damaged centrifuges by making them spin erratically.

"It was the first digital weapon, and it was a stealth drone: It hit, had an effect, but the target didn't know it had had an effect for 18 months.

"When I read about it, I thought, wow, if the malware was a person, this would be a drama because of the way it moved in and first took over the monitors to make them say, hey, everything is fine. And if it was discovered, it destroyed whatever discovered it."

For a director more familiar with guns and car chases, this meant learning the basics of how computers and networks work. "I was a novice to this kind of programming and weaponry, but it took me into the whole area of cyber-intrusion.

"Then we had meetings in Washington and with blackhat hackers, which was kind of a revelation to me - I started viewing everything, our lives, differently. It's almost as if we're all swimming in this atmosphere of interconnectedness and data, but we're not aware of it, we still think we're living lives with privacy, in which we control everything that comes in and out. But, of course, we don't.

"So that opened up the possibility of telling this story from the cutting edge of the world as it is right now."

Mann, who has set many of his films in Chicago and other large American cities, also fulfilled a long-held dream in terms of the location shoots.

"I've wanted to shoot in Hong Kong since I was first there in 1979. To me, it's fabulous, it's so alive and interesting. When you land at the airport, you see all these white towers that are just marching up a hill - it's exquisite, visually. And very impressive civil engineering and infrastructure."

He denies that the locations and casting are a ploy to target Asian audiences, particularly the much sought-after China market, which Hollywood films such as Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014) and Iron Man 3 (2013) have openly courted.

"I wouldn't be making a movie and putting these many years and this much effort - leaving before my wife wakes up and getting home as she's going to sleep for so many nights - because of a marketing analysis. That's not why you do it," he says.

Although top billing goes to Australia's Chris Hemsworth, star of the Thor superhero movies (2011 and 2013), his Chinese co-stars each get parts they can sink their teeth into - Wang as Chen, the Chinese military official who recruits his former MIT roommate Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) as a "whitehat" hacker in the investigation, and Tang as Lien, a computer engineer and Hemsworth's love interest.

Mann constructed a detailed backstory for each. For example, he modelled Wang's Chen after a young Beijing man who came up to talk to the director at the Venice Film Festival a few years ago and surprised him with his perfect American- accented English.

"He had been in high school and undergraduate studies in the United States, and I thought this very incongruous and kind of surprising. So Chen would be educated at MIT and speak perfect American English."

Tang, Wang's co-star in Lee Ang's 2007 thriller Lust, Caution, was cast purely because of her magnetism and charisma.

Mann recalls: "She walked in the room, sat down, started to speak. Her English wasn't that great, but within three minutes, I knew this was Lien. There was something kind of volatile and candid about her manner, very impulsive and spontaneous."

stlife@sph.com.sg

Blackhat is showing in cinemas.