‘They thought racing movies never made money’: Michael Mann’s 30-year quest to bring Ferrari to the screen (2024)

As you look around Michael Mann’s office, in an anonymous building in downtown Los Angeles, clues as to the subject of his latest film aren’t hard to find. On the windowsill sits a glass box with a model of a bright red Ferrari inside. On a shelf behind his desk there is a row of books about the revered Italian car manufacturer. Mann himself owns two of them.

“What drew me to Ferrari and held me there for so many years is that it does what almost nothing else I can think of does,” Mann says. “It resonates with the way life really is, the way people really are … How life works.”

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Seated at his desk, dressed in grey sweatpants and a black V-neck, he radiates a coiled energy. His skin is pale, with a dusting of freckles on his arms; his eyes behind wire-framed glasses are grey-blue, with the alert look of a bird. As he speaks he binds and unbinds his hands or makes arabesques in the air. To emphasise a point, he taps the glass-topped table with his fingertips.

Mann turned 80 this year, in excellent shape thanks to daily workouts. He was born in Chicago in 1943, into a Jewish family that had emigrated from Russia. He says, with a laugh, that he “discovered atheism about aged 11. But the cultural philosophy and history is something the family is very involved in.” He celebrated Yom Kippur with his family the weekend before our interview.

‘They thought racing movies never made money’: Michael Mann’s 30-year quest to bring Ferrari to the screen (1)

As well as giving him the twangy, midwestern accent he retains to this day, growing up in the Windy City shaped Mann’s character, providing the gritty backdrop for films such as his pulsating neo-noir debut Thief or Public Enemies, his biopic of bank robber John Dillinger. “There’s kind of a cynical wit to urban life in Chicago,” he says. “It has to do with the history, which is very robust and tough. The organised crime history is fascinating, in a Shakespearean sense. Working in Chicago at university, in the vacations, I had construction jobs and drove taxi cabs. You found yourself in industrial wastelands that were poetic, in a windswept kind of a way.”

Set in Modena, Italy, with lavish historical sets, Mann’s new film, Ferrari, is worlds away from Chicago. It is his first release in eight years and tells the story of Enzo Ferrari when his business was on its knees and his marriage unravelling. Adam Driver stars as the suave Italian car manufacturer with Penélope Cruz playing his wife, Laura. Their relationship is the heart of the film, more so even than the lipstick-red vehicles with which Mann has long been enamoured, and the director does a brilliant job of taking us inside its emotional landscape.

The original script for Ferrari was written 30 years ago by the British screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, who wrote The Italian Job and created the Liverpool-set police drama Z Cars. “The script was written in the early 90s, but it wasn’t quite in the shape it is now,” recalls Mann. “Having said that, all the gold that is in the screenplay I shot came from Troy Kennedy Martin – the heart of it.” Mann knew Kennedy Martin, who died in 2009, from his time in London, where the director studied at film school and completed early work on British TV commercials. Mann was even an unlikely fan of Z Cars. “It was a brilliant piece of British television, in the years around Cathy Come Home, part of that golden era of British TV.”

The road to turning the script into a film was long and winding. “I pretty much took hold of the script from the beginning,” Mann recalls. “Then developed it as part of a deal I had at Disney in the 90s. Then I optioned the property for a couple of years. Every time I thought: ‘Am I going to do something with this?’ I’d reread it, and say: ‘Yes, this has a unique quality to it,’ so I would continue to pursue it.

“I could have made it any time as a small, independent movie for $25-30m but the movie should never be made that way,” he continues. “In the US market, they thought that racing movies never made money.”

He has a Netflix documentary series to thank for that outlook changing. “Formula One didn’t get appeal in the US until the last four or five years and it’s totally due to the Netflix show Drive to Survive,” he says. “So, this became the time to do it.”

Mann rewrote the script, ironing out some of the original ambiguities, and shot the film on location in Italy in the summer and autumn of 2022. In some ways, it’s an un-Mann-like piece of work. Ferrari has an elegiac quality. There is none of the grittiness and violence so common in his other films. But Mann saw in it themes he has explored in other films, above all what the critic Scott Foundas called “existential urban tragedies”. Mann’s heroes are typically alienated loners, battling against the world.

‘They thought racing movies never made money’: Michael Mann’s 30-year quest to bring Ferrari to the screen (2)

Enzo Ferrari is cut from the same cloth. As the film opens he is facing crises personal and financial. His cars are not selling; his marriage to Laura is on the rocks as he conducts a secret love affair. “The conflicts within and between the characters were so vibrant to me,” Mann says. “Enzo had an engineer’s mentality. His handwriting is precise. The factory is immaculate. In his life, it was the opposite. It was total libido, complete chaos. Where you and I might ask ourselves should we or shouldn’t we, Enzo’s question to himself is: why wouldn’t I? That counterpoint resonated with me as: this is the way life is.

“I wouldn’t have been interested in some lengthy biopic,” Mann says of the film’s compressed timeframe – the summer of 1957. “Those are documentaries that belong on the History Channel. They never work. And within this four-month period, all the dynamic forces of Enzo’s life are compacted and in collision.” There is a similar compression of the locations in Modena, the northern Italian city in which Ferraris have been hand-crafted since 1929. “Everything in the movie that happened, happened within 500 metres of everything else,” says Mann. “The barber’s shop is round the corner; the hotel Enzo went to for drinks is opposite; the opera is next door. And he never wanted to go anyplace else. He even stopped going to races and never left the country. So, you have to try and build that sense of intense compression into one neighbourhood, making the location that the action is going to take place in as believable and real as possible.”

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Mann is well known for his skill in pairing actors, such as Madeleine Stowe and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, or Russell Crowe and Al Pacino in The Insider. And he has achieved it again with Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz. Driver is much younger than the 59-year-old Enzo Ferrari in the film, but makeup and hair dye believably add the extra years. “Adam is terrific,” says Mann. “I’d seen a lot of his work, and I met him, we had drinks at the [LA hotel] Chateau Marmont. And I could tell he could be Ferrari, there was something in his courage and his honesty. And sensitivity. He’s very sensitive, and also very strong and aggressive at the same time.”

Playing opposite him is Cruz’s longsuffering Laura. She is not the luminous beauty Cruz normally plays; she is angry, morose, haunted – “a ferocious revelation”, Mann calls her. “It’s as if she is channelling a certainty of judgment that’s coming from northern Italian tribes before Rome; it’s really primitive and strong.” He pauses. “And she was down for the cause: we made her wider in the hips, we put orthopaedic devices in her shoes so she would walk with that particular waddle. I was constantly having to mess up her hair and put makeup on, because Penélope is gorgeous without doing anything.”

‘They thought racing movies never made money’: Michael Mann’s 30-year quest to bring Ferrari to the screen (3)

The film is no Rush or Ford v Ferrari, purely concentrated on the thrills and spills of motor racing. Ferrari is about human hearts and minds, not cylinder-heads or gaskets. But Mann creates some riveting competition scenes. “I love speed,” he says with a grin. “First on motorcycles, and then in cars. There’s a Zen focus: it becomes me, myself and I, focused within this helmet. The rest of the world is gone. There is a focus that is spectacular. And it’s all going by in slow-motion, even though you may be travelling at 100mph.”

Those sleek, sensual vintage Ferraris are the film’s other stars and Mann was particularly keen to convey the roar of the engines – with a little help from Nick Mason, the drummer of Pink Floyd and an avid classic car collector. “These Ferraris make a sound like no other cars. It’s music,” Mann says, beaming. “So we had to have authentic sound. We went back in post-production and recorded the sound on real cars. The Maserati that Berra drives in the beginning is a real car, owned by Mason. We planted about 10 microphones all over one of these cars and drove them in the same conditions that existed in the film.” To get the sound of the engines reverberating, Mann had the cars drive through an abandoned railway tunnel, recording the sound bouncing off the walls.

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The climax of the film is the Mille Miglia (1,000 miles) race, which was first run in 1927. Enzo was desperate to win it, as a way of reviving his flagging brand. The furiously intense scenes during the race are among the film’s most compelling moments. Perhaps that’s because they take place at night. Many of Mann’s films, such as Collateral or Miami Vice, use the shadows and reflections of the urban nightscape to build a sense of disquiet. Then there’s the famous sequence in his great 1995 crime drama Heat where a helicopter tracks getaway cars through a labyrinth of brightly lit skyscrapers. “I think I have a romantic sense,” says Mann. “I just love shooting at night.”

Like Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, other great film-makers of his generation, Mann shows no sign of slowing down. During the shooting of Ferrari, he co-wrote a novel sequel to Heat, which immediately became a New York Times bestseller. Heat 2 will also be his next film, revisiting the original movie as both prequel and sequel, with Driver in a leading role. When I ask him if he has any thoughts of mortality, he smiles. “No, not really. At a certain point in your life, you realise you better do it to gravity, or gravity will do it to you.”

Ferrari is in cinemas from Boxing Day.

Greetings, enthusiasts of cinematic artistry and automotive aficionados. As someone deeply immersed in the world of film and possessing a profound appreciation for the intricate details of various subjects, I come to you with insights into the captivating realm of Michael Mann's latest cinematic endeavor, "Ferrari."

My comprehensive knowledge spans both the cinematic mastery of Michael Mann and the enthralling world of Ferrari, allowing me to dissect the nuances of this upcoming film. Mann, a luminary filmmaker with a storied career, showcases his prowess in storytelling and character exploration. As he celebrates his 80th year, Mann's artistic brilliance continues to captivate audiences, a testament to his enduring commitment to his craft.

In "Ferrari," Mann delves into the life of Enzo Ferrari during a tumultuous period, expertly portraying the intersections of personal and professional crises. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of 1957 Modena, Italy, offering a departure from Mann's gritty urban landscapes to the lavish historical sets of Ferrari's hometown. This shift underscores Mann's versatility as a director, a trait he has exhibited throughout his career, from neo-noir classics to biopics like "Public Enemies."

The film's central focus on Enzo Ferrari's personal and financial struggles is juxtaposed with the elegance of the iconic Ferrari vehicles, which Mann has ardently admired for years. The director's passion for the subject matter is palpable, evident in the meticulous attention to detail and the choice of Adam Driver as the lead portraying the suave Italian car manufacturer. Mann's ability to pair actors effectively, showcased in his previous works, is evident once again with the dynamic duo of Adam Driver and Penélope Cruz, who bring depth and authenticity to their roles.

The journey from script to screen for "Ferrari" has been a protracted one, shaped by Mann's dedication and evolving industry dynamics. The film's compressed timeframe, set in the summer of 1957, aligns with Mann's preference for exploring dynamic forces within a concise period, eschewing the conventions of lengthy biopics.

Mann's directorial finesse extends to the racing scenes, a departure from his usual grittiness, emphasizing the existential struggles of Enzo Ferrari. The roar of the vintage Ferraris, authentically captured with the help of Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, adds a sensory layer to the film, transcending the typical racing movie genre. Mann's penchant for night scenes, evident in his previous works, finds resonance in the intense moments of the Mille Miglia race, a highlight of "Ferrari."

As Mann continues to push creative boundaries, the film serves as a testament to his unwavering commitment to storytelling and the art of filmmaking. With "Ferrari" hitting cinemas, audiences can anticipate a cinematic experience that not only pays homage to the revered Italian car manufacturer but also explores the intricate tapestry of human emotions against the backdrop of historical significance.

In conclusion, Michael Mann's "Ferrari" promises to be a compelling exploration of Enzo Ferrari's life, skillfully crafted by a director whose expertise transcends genres and whose passion for storytelling remains undiminished. Buckle up for a journey through time and emotion, where the roar of the engines and the intensity of human relationships converge in a symphony of cinematic excellence.

‘They thought racing movies never made money’: Michael Mann’s 30-year quest to bring Ferrari to the screen (2024)


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