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How ‘Ferrari’ Was Forged

Michael Mann delves deep into his newest film, a biopic that has been decades in the making

Neon/Ringer illustration

Michael Mann doesn’t just make movies. He builds them from scratch. The director tells me that, before shooting Ferrari, he and his team put together a packet containing the specifications needed to assemble a fleet of 1950s race cars. “Here’s a picture of it, if you’d like,” Mann says during a video call in November, holding up a page with specs of his favorite vehicle of the bunch, the Ferrari 335 S.

The amount of detail is staggering. There’s a neatly organized table filled with typed notes about the bodywork, hood, trunk, windscreen, lights, exhaust, wheels, tires, steering wheel, shifter, seats, tank, fuse box, pedal box, switches, tachometer, and other gauges. The chart has a column outlining the 16-step process of constructing the roadster and getting it ready for filming. “This is what we did for each car,” Mann says.

To film a realistic biopic about Italian national hero Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the eponymous automaker and racing team, there was no other way. Mann had zero interest in making a highly stylized sports movie. That would’ve been pedestrian. “You’re seeing images and angles and pieces that we really haven’t seen before, especially with the intensity of the action that we’re doing with the cars,” says stunt coordinator Robert Nagle. “And I think it really keeps you in the story.”

Watching Ferrari, released on Christmas and starring Adam Driver in the title role, is a visceral experience. “What I did not want was beautiful pictures and long lenses of cars weaving through wonderful Tuscan roads,” Mann says. “The artistic objective was to impact the audience in a way that they feel the experience of being in the car. I wanted to put them in the car, not be removed observers.”

But Mann’s goal was not only to bludgeon the audience with verisimilitude. To him, fidelity is simply the best way into the life of a man obsessed with his craft. During the period covered by the movie, Ferrari’s company, his racing team, and his marriage are in trouble—and he’s fighting for a way to save them all. “The only reason this had viability for me was because of the unique history of Enzo Ferrari, that happened to be three months in 1957 in which there’s so many tempestuous, operatic events occurring in his private, intimate life,” Mann says. “I would not have been interested in some kind of a linear biopic that crossed decades.” The way Mann sees it, the story is “a deep dive behind the giant representational figure, very stoic and distant with the sunglasses. And you don’t know what’s going on beneath.”

The now-80-year-old Mann always has been interested in showing what makes a certain kind of emotionally distant, hyper-driven guy tick. From safecracker Frank in Thief to bank robber Neil McCauley in Heat, the filmmaker’s most memorable characters start off as both highly principled and deeply flawed. They also tend to end up that way. “In drama, typically when people are in conflict, they resolve the conflict,” Mann says. “Bullshit. You don’t resolve conflict in your life. Usually both things are true, and you carry the contradiction to your grave.”

The director’s latest protagonist fits that mold. And it’s why he’s been chasing the project for three decades: The movie isn’t just a window into Enzo Ferrari’s mind—it’s a window into Michael Mann’s.

The road to Ferrari was as long, twisty, and treacherous as the Mille Miglia. It started in the late ’50s. Back then, Mann was a teenage gearhead. The day after his 16th birthday, he bought himself a bike. “Some strange two-stroke motorcycle or something on the South Side of Chicago,” he says. The first car he owned was a 1957 Chevy that used to be a taxicab. It had 200,000 miles on it, he recalls, and “a $19 paint job.”

As Mann got older, his taste in automobiles matured, even if he couldn’t afford a nice one yet. While attending film school in London in the ’60s, he was “absolutely stone-cold broke. And London is a miserable place to be broke because it’s moldy, cold, damp.” But one day, as he stood on the corner of Brompton Road, someone drove by him in a car that took his breath away. “Aesthetically, I sensed a harmony of it,” Mann says, “like a spectacular piece of architecture. It was like a moving piece of sculpture, like some beautiful black panther.”

It was a 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB four-cam. “I wondered why it did have that effect on me,” he says. First off, it was a beautiful car. There’s a reason, Mann points out, that the MoMa had a Ferrari exhibit. “They belong in museums,” he says. Mann also realized that when it comes to Ferraris, form follows function. “Their aesthetic appeal is based not just on aesthetics,” he says. “It’s not just the shape, but what the car does is so strong that they’re highly prized, and appropriately so.”

The director drove a Ferrari for the first time in the early ’80s, not long before Sonny Crockett got behind the wheel of a Daytona Spyder 365 GTS/4 in Miami Vice. Mann bought a 1983 308 GTB in Europe and brought it back to the United States. When I asked him whether it lived up to his expectations, Mann just smiled and said, “Yeah.”

The history of Enzo Ferrari and his company, which the ultra-competitive retired race car driver founded in 1939, has intrigued Mann for a long time. “He wasn’t doing racing to sell cars, he was building passenger cars to finance the racing and was constantly in financial trouble, which sounds analogous to being an architect,” he says, before pausing and turning inward. “Or a film director.”

Mann has been trying to make a movie about Ferrari since late last century. He was going to collaborate on it with two friends: Academy Award–winning filmmaker Sydney Pollack, who was attached to produce, and writer Troy Kennedy Martin, who based his screenplay on journalist Brock Yates’s Ferrari biography. “Troy was a very, very witty Irish writer living in London and spending too much time in the pubs,” Mann says of Kennedy Martin, whose credits include the first version of The Italian Job. “That was Troy. And he’s a wonderful guy.”

The script ended up going through several drafts. And the movie’s development dragged on and on. “I’ve watched him try and get this project off the ground for 20-plus years and have been pulled in and out of it,” Nagle says. Every time the stunt coordinator heard that Ferrari was revving up, it fizzled. The film gestated so long, sadly, that its original brain trust never got to see it get the green light. In 2008, Pollack died at 73. In 2009, Kennedy Martin died at 77.

Even without his initial partners, though, Mann remained committed to the movie. A decade ago, it looked like it was finally going to happen: Christian Bale signed on to play the lead in 2015. But he dropped out a year later, reportedly because he was concerned about having to gain weight to play the aging automaker. Hugh Jackman then slid into the role, and by 2020, Ferrari seemed like a go picture. Then news broke last February that Jackman was being replaced by Driver, who had just come off playing the head of another iconic Italian company in House of Gucci.

“Adam’s lived life, and so did Enzo Ferrari,” Mann says. “Adam’s rooted in a realistic perspective on the facts of life. He’s not inherited a network of contacts because his family was in the film business. Everybody knows he was a veteran. He was in the Marine Corps. He grew up in the real world and has a powerful ambition to be an actor. … He understood that drive and that ambition in Enzo. Adam made himself into something. He made himself into this. It wasn’t gifted.”

From their first meeting, Mann knew he finally had his man. “I just thought, ‘This is Enzo,’” he says. “And for me, when I’m deciding on casting or building character, everything’s from the inside out. That’s where it begins. They have to have it inside of them.”

In the reportedly $95 million movie, Driver plays a man almost 20 years older and much heftier than he is in real life. It’s not easy embodying a famous person whom you don’t exactly resemble. But like Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace in Mann’s The Insider, the director thinks that Driver’s performance feels true. “Adam’s work, you almost have to have a SAG card to understand how spectacular it is,” Mann says. “Because the degree of difficulty is huge. It’s transformational. To think like, walk like, move like, talk like, breathe like [Enzo]; building Enzo from light, athletic, much younger Adam is a real high bar.”

When Mann was casting Laura—Ferrari’s wife, business partner, and foil—Penélope Cruz made his job easy. “I considered a number of different actresses for the part, we always do,” he says. “But on the Zoom with Penélope, I knew by about minute six that she’s going to be it. I restrained myself from saying anything until about minute 20. Then I said, ‘You want to do this?’ Because it was just so apparent that viscerally, in the corner of her being, there was nobody else that could do Laura the way she could. That kind of no-bullshit certainty, that attitude of somebody who has opinions and would never doubt them.”

Laura and Enzo, while grieving the 24-year-old son they recently lost to muscular dystrophy, have a marriage fraught with passion and resentment. “Their relationship continued to be hostile and romantic at the same time until they died,” Mann says. “There was never any resolution to it. Her doctor showed us some letters that Enzo wrote to her in the ’70s—she died in ’78—that are affectionate, romantic, and everything. They couldn’t live apart; they couldn’t live together.”

In the movie, Laura learns that her husband isn’t just having an affair with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley); he has a child with her. “He has another home, another wife, and another son you didn’t know about, and the rest of Modena does …” It was infuriating to Laura, one of the most prominent women in the insular northern Italian city. “It’s a very unusual place,” Mann says. “Nobody ever emigrates. Why would you go anywhere else? Everything’s here in Modena.”

In Ferrari, rival automakers even go to the same barbershop. “By the way,” Mann says, getting excited, “when Adam goes and sits in that chair, that’s the chair Enzo sat in. The guy playing the barber is the son of the barber who shaved Enzo. And the decor of that barbershop is exactly the same as it was in 1956 or ’57.”

In the world of Ferrari, Modena’s second religion is automaking. During an early scene in the movie, set during a mass at the San Biagio church, the priest pretty much says so: “If Jesus had lived today, and not 2,000 years ago, he would have been born in a small town like Modena. He would have been not a carpenter, but a craftsman in metal. Like yourselves. So a God who understood, as a carpenter, the perfection of the adze, appreciates as an engineer, the precision of your lathe, the nature of metal. How it can be forged, shaped, and hammered by your skills into an engine holding inside it fire to make power to speed us through the world. Which is why we give thanks to him today.”

As the priest is speaking, some of the parishioners listen for the starting gun at the autodrome in the distance, then take out stopwatches to track what turns out to be a driver’s record lap time. The men, including Enzo, can’t help it. They’re obsessed.

Ferrari isn’t the city’s only car manufacturer with a racing team. Maserati, De Tomaso, Pagani, and Lamborghini were all based in the area at one point. “Those crafts are still alive in Modena,” Mann says. For that, he’s lucky. To make Ferrari, the director needed to build 11 working replica race cars. “And I mean from scratch,” he says. (There’s one automobile in the film that Mann didn’t have to recreate: the 1957 Maserati 250F; Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason let him borrow his.)

In early 2022, with preproduction fast approaching, Robert Nagle called vehicle supervisor Neil Layton about a possible gig. “Straightaway, we hit it off,” says Layton, who worked on the last three James Bond films. “We were both on the same wavelength.” When Nagle told him about the project, Layton was blown away by how ambitious it was. They were fully building cars, not just customizing ones that came off an assembly line.

“The biggest challenge was that we all wanted to deliver a vehicle that Michael would see from the word ‘Go’ and would tick all his boxes,” Layton says. “Many people had told me that Michael’s attention to detail is exceptional.” Adds Nagle: “I know Michael well enough and he’s going to want these cars to really run flat-out, which is as hard as we can run them.”

The process started with laser scans of actual classic Ferraris. “Then when we have the exact—down to the millimeter—shape of the car, we put that into a computer program,” Mann says. “And then reverse engineer what the chassis has to be.” The goal was to make race cars that looked like they were from the ’50s but ran like modern vehicles. The custom Ferraris had contemporary engines, brakes, transmission, and suspension. “The cars had to be fast,” Mann says. But, he adds, “They had to be reliable. They had to be totally safe.”

Layton, Nagle, and Co. did much of the design and construction work in England. It wasn’t easy. When it came time to make the Ferrari 801, they had to improvise. After all, there was no real-life example of the single-seater left on earth to use as reference. “I went online, I found a one-eighteenth-scale model car, I purchased it from America,” Layton says. “It turned up and we scanned the car, and we times-ed everything by 18. Then from that model—and I’m actually looking at the model now, in front of me, on my desk—we created the car.”

The team built the 801 in a single week, a remarkable turnaround. According to Layton, they needed only 212 days to complete the entire fleet. “We were doing split shifts,” he says. “We were working seven days a week for 22 weeks, revolving the crew.”

But after they’d finished, there was still a lot to be done. That’s where Campana came in. “We are the oldest body shop still in business in Modena,” says owner Rita Campana, whose grandfather founded it in 1947. The family business mostly does work on modern cars for private customers. It had never been involved in a movie production.

But it turned out Rita’s father and Mann have a mutual friend: Gianluigi Longinotti-Buitoni, the former president of Ferrari North America. A year ago, on behalf of the director, Longinotti-Buitoni approached the company about assembling the film’s cars. “We decided to accept the challenge and to dive into this project,” says Campana, whose shop was also tasked with crafting period-appropriate speedometers, brake lights, pedals, and steering wheels. After meeting Mann, she felt confident about the decision to come aboard. “He knows the cars,” she says. “So we had in front of us someone who understood the work, who understood the problems, who understood the timing.”

About the timing … “We recreated nine cars in three months and a half,” she says. “Normally, for a real historic car, it would take one, two years to completely recreate the car, so it was really challenging. We called a lot of artisans in Modena and around Modena to help us.”

When principal photography began in the summer of 2022, the cars were ready to roll. “When the bodywork went on and all the cars got painted, they came complete,” Layton says. “Once they got painted red, they then became the Ferrari.”

Before filming, Mann visited the test track his crew used near Modena. “It was probably the only, dare I say it, downtime that Michael had spare,” Layton says. “But I think that was his escape.” That day, the director inspected each car. “I was expecting Michael to say, ‘This is wrong, that’s wrong,’” Layton says. “But he went ’round, and Michael saying nothing was probably the best compliment that I could have received.”

The only thing Layton remembers Mann asking him to address was the depth of the grill on the Ferrari 315 S. It was off by five millimeters.

The Ferraris in Ferrari don’t just look good. They can move. “They are probably the best picture cars I’ve ever driven,” Nagle says. “If you had your own little race series, these cars would be running up front. They were fast, they handled well—they did everything you asked that a 1957 Ferrari couldn’t do.”

To truly capture the speed of the vehicles, Mann mounted cameras on and inside them. “There would be 30 to 40 different configurations of where I wanted to put the cameras,” he says. “And then we devised a system, like rails, where I could have a camera moving on a car. Not just a stationary mount, but a camera moving on a car, as well as panning and tilting. All the controls over it from a remote vehicle that also had to be very quick, that could be half a kilometer away, let’s say. And we could control what that camera’s doing. So it could slide up from the right front fender, up the side of the car, come up the passenger [side], pan left, and see the car next door. We were able to have all that function at significant speed—110, 120, 130 miles an hour—and not have the stuff fall off. That’s the big thing.”

For Campana, watching the cars her company worked on in action was thrilling. “When you see a movie, it’s maybe two beautiful hours, but it’s done,” she says. “When you’re on set, it’s 300 people working together.”

During shooting in Italy, it was hard for Nagle not to get lost in his surroundings. One stretch of road, through the Apennine Mountains, took his breath away. “And then you inject these beautiful cars driving through there and the contrast of the green with the red of the cars,” he says, “which was just breathtaking.”

But as picturesque as Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography is, dread looms over Ferrari. Car racing in the ’50s was a disturbingly dangerous pursuit. In that era, several of Enzo’s Scuderia Ferrari drivers lost their lives. “The attrition rate of drivers back then was just crazy,” Nagle says. “Rarely did you get a driver that retired. They usually died. And they didn’t wear seat belts. I mean, there was a whole litany of safety features that just did not exist.”

Hell, it wasn’t even easy to safely recreate a race from that period. The 1957 Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile trek that serves as the film’s extended climax, was particularly brutal. “These are open-top vehicles. No roll cage,” Nagle says. “We did have seat belts in them to keep my guys safe, but I can only do so much practically for crashing these [cars] before it becomes too dangerous.”

For Mann, it was important to take the audience on a ride that was both profoundly exhilarating and terrifyingly perilous. That’s what life was like for a race car driver. As Enzo himself says, “It is a terrible joy. A deadly passion.”

“It is addictive,” Mann says. He knows from experience. For years, he raced cars at an amateur level. One day, while doing practice laps at Road Atlanta, he correctly drove through three tight chicanes before the track’s back straightaway. Once. “If you get it right once out of 75 times, if you’re a director or an actor, you understand, it becomes a fractal of an experience,” he says. “And so you can project and extrapolate and imagine if I had that feeling I had at that moment all the time, that’s what it would be like to be an actual professional race car driver. And so then it becomes a certain harmony, a certain unity, of yourself and the machine. You all become one organism.”

The sensation was fleeting. But Mann is fascinated by the kind of person who routinely risks his life to feel that way. Being an elite professional race car driver requires ignoring your own survival instinct. It’s completely unnatural. “The only risk you may be aware of is ‘Am I taking the car beyond the limits?’” the director says.

Ferrari has no shortage of death and destruction, but it’s not about mortality. It’s about a man who pushes himself to the limit—consequences be damned. Even at 80, that’s still how Mann makes movies. The director doesn’t consider the painstakingly detailed biopic he spent decades developing a crowning achievement. He sees it as his latest challenge. “There’s only one thing that kept me involved in this, and that is the story,” he says. “The unique passion and operatic volatility of these people’s lives in this period is so authentic to me.”

When I ask him whether he’s walking on air just a little bit these days, he manages to smile. “In a way,” he says before quickly changing his answer. “Not really. Because I don’t have dream projects.” And when he says it, I believe it. To Michael Mann, there’s no point in having a good idea if it can’t actually be realized.

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