There is both beauty and brutality in Ferrari, and according to director Michael Mann, "That's really what attracted me to it, the ability to combine those elements. Those cars were beautiful, and they were savage. If you didn't control them and everything wasn't perfect, they were deadly."
Set in the summer of 1957, the film follows Enzo Ferrari (played by two-time Oscar nominee Adam Driver) as he tries to prevent his auto empire from crumbling by entering racers into the Mille Miglia, a treacherous 1,000-mile race through Italy. Ferrari makes a point of illustrating not only the beauty of Enzo's creations — throughout his lifetime, he oversaw the construction of some of the most eye-catching and beloved cars in history — but also their potential for danger.
Mann has been developing Ferrari for more than 20 years. In 2015, it looked like the long-gestating passion project was finally coming together with Oscar-winner Christian Bale playing the eponymous entrepreneur. However, Bale eventually exited the project, and although Hugh Jackman stepped in to replace him, progress on Ferrari came to a standstill again. Mann never gave up on the project.
Ultimately, Mann (himself a four-time Oscar nominee for writing, directing and producing 1999's The Insider and for producing 2004's The Aviator) brought Ferrari to life with Driver at the lead, alongside Oscar winner Penélope Cruz as Enzo's wife, Laura, and Shailene Woodley as his lover, Lina Lardi. The resulting film is a thriller about the very tension between beauty and violence, victory and defeat. As the filmmaker tells A.frame, "That counterpoint is very dramatic, and that's what I wanted to capture."
A.frame: It's been eight years since your last movie, Blackhat. Did you plan to take a break from feature filmmaker after that movie was released in 2015?
It hasn't been much of a break. We started working on [Max's] Tokyo Vice in 2017 or 2018, and I started to shoot its first episode in 2019. Then COVID happened and we had to stop for six months before we could go back and finish it. During that whole process, I was co-writing the Heat 2 novel and then we started to edit and finish Tokyo Vice. That was a particularly big undertaking, because I was setting up an entire series. I had to invent the whole world, so that show required a long pre-production process. Then, as I was finishing Heat 2, we started to work on launching Ferrari. The book came out in August 2022, while we were shooting Ferrari, and fortunately, it did extremely well. It became No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list. So, for me, there's been no break. There's been no idleness. I'd really like to take a month off at some point. [Laughs]
Ferrari doesn't have a typical biopic structure. It's not a life-to-death or rise-and-fall film. What was it about Enzo's life in the summer of 1957 that appealed to you so much?
I wasn't interested in making it a typical biopic. Something like that really belongs on the History Channel. I'm not drawn to that. I like to watch those kinds of documentaries, but there's no inherent drama in that structure. To me, it's too episodic, and I think it'd be a very boring thing for me to pursue. What was fabulous about Ferrari was a decision that was made many years ago, which is that it focuses on this amazing period of time in Enzo's life which is full of tense, turbulent, romantic and passionate contradictions that can take an audience behind his iconic, inscrutable facade and into the true story of his personal life.
He's got two families and an illegitimate son in the film, as well as a son who died a year earlier. There's his wife, who is his business partner but is unaware of his second family — even though most of their town knows about it. There's the threat of insolvency stalking his business and his drivers' recent deaths, and then there's his decision to roll the dice on the Mille Miglia. That story and period in his life is really what kept bringing me back to Ferrari. Every time I'd consider putting it down or abandoning it, I'd start reading the script again. I'd get to page 2, and I would always find myself intensely, emotionally involved in it all over again.
What was it about Adam that you thought made him right to play Enzo?
He has a ferocious commitment to his work. He's very, very brave. He's not intimidated by the prospect of taking on a role that's very distant from who he is and from his life. It was really the ferocity of his commitment to his art that I responded to right away. I had a very intuitive reaction to him where I just thought, "He is Enzo." We were sitting down together having drinks, and I had that reaction. I didn't analyze at the time why I thought or felt that. The answer I'm giving you now didn't come before the intuitive reaction I had to him and his presence. That came first. Of course, we eventually worked on his physicality and his performance together, but that's just the craft. That's not the real important thing. For me, the most important thing when I'm working with an actor is determining what's in his heart.
What were some of the earliest visual ideas you had for Ferrari?
I wanted to shoot two different kinds of movies, in the sense that I wanted the mise en scène of the family drama in the film — which is the heart of it and what audiences end up engaging with so strongly — to involve a kind of Renaissance-like, Caravaggio-inspired lighting and be very monochromatic in terms of tone-on-tone interiors. There's a stasis or static quality to those scenes, so that the human face and the expression of the dialogue is what's dominant. The racing scenes, which resolve some of the dramatic issues of the film, I wanted to be very expressionistic with these slashes of violent red cars speeding through everything. I also wanted to take the audience and, in effect, put them in the driver's seat, so that they're feeling the agitation of the race, as opposed to externally observing it with beautiful long lens shots of cars and hills. I wanted to subjectify the experience of racing in the film and make it as agitated and savage as possible. That was the design of it.
"I cut my salary and Adam cut his salary, and I got two producers to work for basically no money. That's how we got it made."
Enzo is only interested in racing, but he has to worry about selling enough cars to keep his company afloat. As a filmmaker who had to work for years to get this movie made, how do you relate to Enzo's place in the battle between art and commerce?
You find that one is dependent on the other, but you don't compromise one for the other. I could have made this film anytime in the last 20 years if I wanted to cut its ambition in half, because it all translates into production dollars. Obviously, I decided not to do that. I wanted to make this film the right way or not make it at all. But it was a huge, huge struggle with this film. I mean, half of it could be a sitcom. Every week in pre-production, the federal government would raise the interest rate, which meant the bank had to raise their interest rate, which then meant we suddenly had to find another $2 million. Where's that coming from, you know? That went on and on and on until I started shooting it, but a couple of things made the film possible. The first is that we had spectacular foreign pre-sales. Secondly, the Italian tax credit provision is very, very strong, and we were the beneficiaries of that. We also had a terrific partner in the Italian bank that we worked with. They really wanted to see this film made. So, we had real cooperation and some generous people work with us. I also cut my salary and Adam cut his salary, and I got two producers to work for basically no money. That's how we got it made.
Were there any moments from Enzo's life that you wanted to include in the film but ultimately couldn't, for whatever reason?
It wouldn't have been historically accurate to include it, but there's a moment that's fascinating to me. In 1962, I think, he and Laura were fighting like crazy. One day, somebody calls Enzo and says, "Laura just fell into the canal and I saved her." Enzo says, "Why'd you pull her out?" At the same moment in time, his engineering staff complains to him about Laura interfering with the work in the factory and says that it has to stop, so Enzo fires the entire engineering staff out of solidarity with Laura. That is their relationship. It's so crazy and exciting and dramatically unusual. It's not War of the Roses. It's different.
You've been working to make this movie since 2000. How does it feel to be at the end of the line now?
It's been in development for a long time, but development is just theory. That changes when you're actually making the movie. When you've reached Day 1, it's like it's all brand new and you just got the screenplay. It's like, "Here we are. Now, should I shoot the scene in this fantastic house or that fantastic interior? And look at these nice roads that we're discovering just outside of Modena!" It's all brand new when you actually go ahead and make the movie.
I'm always severely troubled when there are things I know I wanted to do and didn't get them done, but there are none of those on this picture. I feel a sense of equanimity that I've done everything to the movie that I wanted, including even the color timing and everything about it. I recommend anybody who can see this in Dolby Vision go see it in Dolby Vision. It's a more intense experience.
Do you plan to take that break now, or are you going to dive right into your next project? I know you've mentioned adapting Heat 2 into a film.
I want to shoot Heat 2 in 2024, and then I've got two other movies I want to do after Heat 2. [Laughs] So, I've got a lot left to get done!
By Alex Welch