What fascinated acclaimed filmmaker Michael Mann and kept him so committed across the many years to make Ferrari was an intimate story of incandescent lives seen close up.
Based on Brock Yates’ 1991 book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, The Car, The Races, The Machine, with a screenplay by Troy Kennedy Martin, Mann’s Ferrari is a character study both of a piece with Mann’s filmography and unlike anything else the director has done on the big screen.
Ferrari dramatizes the story with intensity and verve. Kennedy Martin passed away in 2009, but Mann would return to his script and its themes and make a biographical drama for a new era.
From urban crime sagas (Thief, Heat, Miami Vice, Public Enemies) to tense dramas (The Insider, Collateral, Tokyo Vice, Manhunter) to challenging period dramas (The Last of the Mohicans) and the historical portrait of the famous Muhammed Ali (Ali) Mann’s passion for externalizing the inner lives of his fascinating characters has garnered four Academy Award nominations.
Now, he’s focused on Enzo Ferrari, one of the most famous, yet inscrutable and complex men of the 20th century. For Mann, that was a perfect hook.
“There is no equilibrium in his life, and that’s the whole point of Enzo Ferrari,” says Mann. “That fascinated me, because that’s more like the way life actually is,” Mann continues. “Life is asymmetrical. Life is messy. Life is filled with chaos. Ferrari was precise and logical; rational in everything to do with his factory and race team. In the rest of his life he was impulsive, defensive, libidinous, chaotic. This asymmetry and wonderful contradiction is what made him and the other characters in this unique story so human to me.”
The story of Enzo Ferrari first came to Mann’s attention as a potential film collaboration between Mann and filmmaker Sydney Pollack. He teamed up with writer Troy Kennedy Martin to adapt Yates’ book not long after it was published. Kennedy Martin’s story was not a typical biopic. It seized on the four months of Enzo Ferrari’s life, in 1957, when all the conflicts and fortunes, the drama of his and Laura and Lina’s lives come into focus. That crucible, as well as the deep immersion into 1957 Italian culture and racing continuously engaged Mann, a filmmaker known for innovative storytelling.
The characteristics of Enzo Ferrari’s racecars came from within the man himself. From the beginning, they began to dominate the competition and fire imaginations worldwide.
Born in Modena, Italy, the former racecar driver and team manager formed his own company in 1947. Built with almost no funding, Ferrari’s first car in its sixth race won the Rome Grand Prix. By 1957 the world’s greatest racers were vying for seats in Ferrari’s. Enzo and his wife, Laura Garello Ferrari re-invested heavily in the racing division. As a result, by 1957 insolvency was stalking the factory. Meanwhile the tragic death of their only son, Dino, to muscular dystrophy in 1956 has further shaken their rocky marriage. Dino was their center and future; now gone. Both grieve differently over the devastating loss. Meanwhile, Piero Lardi, Enzo’s son born in 1945 from his liaison with Lina Lardi, now seeks the acknowledgment of his father. Together they constitute a second family of which Laura is unaware until it’s revealed. As crises and revelations converge, Ferrari wagers all on winning one race, the supremely dangerous 1,000-mile race across open roads called the Mille Miglia.
It is the summer of 1957. Behind the spectacle of Formula 1, ex-racer Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is in crisis. Bankruptcy threatens the factory he and his wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), built from nothing ten years earlier. Their volatile marriage has been battered by the loss of their son, Dino, a year earlier. Ferrari struggles to acknowledge his son Piero (Giuseppe Festinese) with Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley). Meanwhile, his drivers’ passion to win pushes them to the edge as they launch into the treacherous 1,000-mile race across Italy, the Mille Miglia.
“Ferrari is one of those very expensive independent movies that are almost impossible to get made, and the level of difficulty is extremely high,” says producer John Lesher. “Along the way, we routinely had major disruptions getting Ferrari to the starting line, but it really had a momentum,” says producer P.J. van Sandwijk.
In many ways, Ferrari is a studio-sized movie made with an independent spirit
Mann, Driver, Cruz, Woodley, van Sandwijk and Lesher – the people who worked on the picture contributed heavily in salary cuts to getting it made.
The complex characterization at the center of the film was a perfect role for Adam Driver, who immersed himself in Mann’s process and the intricacies of portraying Enzo Ferrari.
There was further duality in Ferrari’s life; his wife, Laura, was a woman hardened by struggle, grief, petrified love, and from being a woman involved in a business dominated by men. An early deal with Ferrari meant that Laura was a 50/50 partner in the Ferrari factory, which became even more complicated when the couple’s personal life became messy and cold, and Laura’s savvy business instincts emerged as one of the few avenues of control she had. Still, Laura is invested in Enzo’s success and the Ferrari team’s wins on the track. Penélope Cruz took on the role with ferocity.
Since achieving stardom in her native Spain in the 1990s in films including Jamón Jamón, Belle Epoque, and Open Your Eyes, Penélope Cruz has brought precision and passion to a rich and varied gallery of strong women in international films including her collaborations with director Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother, Volver, Broken Embraces, Pain and Glory, Parallel Mothers) as well as dramas (Elegy, The Counselor, Loving Pablo), musicals (Nine), action adventures (Pirates of the Caribbean; On Stranger Tides, Murder on the Orient Express, The 355), and comedies of manners including Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. For Mann, Cruz was an easy choice to play Laura.
“We are all complex,” Cruz says. “Nobody can be described as just one thing — good or bad, crazy or not crazy. You could look at this woman, Laura, and try to put a lot of labels on her, but she is very complex because of the things that she has to go through.”
“Michael had conversations with her on Zoom once or twice, and when she was in town for the Oscars he met with her,” van Sandwijk says. “Right away I got a phone call from him saying, ‘She’s incredible. That’s it.’”
Cruz was particularly taken by Mann’s microscopic focus and work ethic — a process she likens to something more earthy and organic: “It’s more artisanal,” she says.
Amongst her research, Cruz recalls visiting with insiders including Enzo and Laura’s doctor, who revealed things to her and Mann about the relationship that were crucial to understanding their dynamic. The power Laura had over the Ferrari company would anger Enzo, and yet, when his engineering staff once threatened to quit if Laura continued to make production visits at the factory, Enzo fired all of them — the world’s greatest automotive engineers — on the spot, immediately, out of solidarity with Laura.
During preparation for the film, Mann took Cruz to Laura and Enzo’s apartment, and specifically into Laura’s bedroom, which the director had never seen before that point. They were both struck by a silk patterned material that covered the entire room, including the walls and curtains. This was a room — recreated for Ferrari by the production design department overseen by Maria Djurkovic — that Laura would not have left for a year and a half and reflected her inner state and her personality.
Cruz, like Driver, adopted a unique physicality in her rendering of Laura that would reveal a woman afflicted with hardship. Mann suggested she wear orthopedic shoes to give her a bit of a waddle, while Cruz saw it as this feeling of having a stone in one shoe.
“There’s something about Laura that doesn’t work and it’s always there,” Cruz says. “It’s as if you had mild chronic pain, only it’s emotional, but it was important for us to see that represented in many ways, but especially physically.”
“Michael and I thought about that on the same day, actually,” Cruz adds. “That happened to us a lot on this film. We would return to set in the mornings and one of us would say, ‘I had a dream about something!’ And after saying it, the other would say, ‘I dreamed the same thing!’ I loved that.”
A Portrait In Complexity
Whether in dramas depicting the pain of lived experience (Marriage Story, Paterson, The Meyerowitz Story), period films that balance comedy and chaos (White Noise, BlacKkKlansman, House of Gucci, The Report), satires of modern behavior (While We’re Young, Frances Ha, TV’s Girls), or genre films that run the gamut from epic to intimate (the latest Star Wars trilogy, 65, Midnight Special), Adam Driver is a singular figure in American cinema, utilizing ferocity, wryness, and serious-mindedness in equal measure. For Ferrari, the two-time Oscar nominee researched the life of the man he would play, studying his decisions, his history, how he moved, breathed, walked, and talked. It would serve to inform a subtle performance underscored by almost-constant inner struggle.
That matched well with Mann, who has a passion for working with actors in pre-production and turning backstory preparation into a visceral process. Mann gives his casts things to sink their artistic teeth into, and Driver says he, like so many, dove headlong into that approach.
“Michael instills you with so much confidence,” Driver says. “He’ll give you the space to try something, but he is very clear with the movie that he’s making, and that clarity is something that I always crave, because even abstractly, it helps you come up with better ideas.”
“I read the Yates book, but it was pretty clear that everyone had a different version of who Ferrari was,” Driver adds. “He was a villain, or he was seductive. He was very charismatic. He was very mean or he was imposing and manipulative, and it was kind of impossible to live up to all of those expectations. So, it went back to the script and the version that we were playing, which is someone who hopefully can encapsulate all those things, who’s mercurial enough but also has this internal engine going constantly. But he’s also kind of emotionally removed.”
Driver saw Ferrari as man of instinct, someone constantly in movement, perhaps warding off the grief about his son Dino he never fully dealt with. But living and working within the dangerous world of auto racing, he had to construct a coping mechanism. That provided Driver with a sense of how he would portray Enzo Ferrari. He and Mann also met at length with Piero Ferrari, Enzo’s son by Lina Lardi and the current vice chairman of the Ferrari automotive company. Piero began working with his father in the late 1960s and collaborated with the company’s Formula One teams, as well as in the concept and production process, and other aspects of production. When Enzo Ferrari died in 1988, Piero inherited his father’s stake in the company. Piero served as president of the Ferrari company until 2015.
Recreating Great Drivers And Famous Locations
Moving to the racetrack, chief among the team of drivers surrounding Enzo Ferrari would be Alfonso de Portago, whose horrific crash in the final stretch of Italy’s Mille Miglia, which killed de Portago and nine spectators, would for decades overshadow the legacy of the race and be part of the reason it ended in 1957. In Ferrari, de Portago is played by Brazilian actor Gabriel Leone.
“Gabriel had a very early Brando-esque quality, which I thought was pure de Portago,” Mann says, noting that de Portago deliberately dressed like Marlon Brando in the 1953 film The Wild One.
The veteran of the Ferrari racing team was Piero Taruffi, an assured and serene presence among his cocky young teammates. Patrick Dempsey — beloved for his Emmy nominated role on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, as well as films including Enchanted and Sweet Home Alabama — brought not just a wealth of acting experience, but also 20 years of real-world experience behind the wheel: Dempsey has raced in, among others, Mexico’s Baja 1000, the 1,000 Miles of Sebring, the Daytona 500, and the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans. He’s also had podium finishes as a driver and even won as a team owner
“I’ve been aware of this film project for, like, 15 years,” Dempsey says. “This period in racing and Italian culture was like an opera. The highs and the lows, the emotion, the death, the sexuality — all of it was just so amazing.” Dempsey had already read Taruffi’s 1959 book The Technique of Motor Racing, which was a vital resource both for understanding the driver’s technique but also his friendship with Enzo Ferrari, and the trust the two men shared.
Jack O’Connell (’71, Unbroken, Money Monster, TV’s Godless, The North Water) was tapped to fill the role of driver Peter Collins. Along with Leone, O’Connell delighted in joining something of a “drivers’ camp” that Mann and stunt coordinator Robert Nagle set up to acclimate the actors to the conditions of being a racecar driver. “A lot of it was understanding what gave the drivers their unique mindset,” O’Connell says. “The amount of driving that we would have to do on camera was very small in comparison to the amount that we did off camera. But it was all about how motorized you feel and how mechanical your brain ends up feeling. That was very useful, because obviously, when you’re behind the wheel, you’re not concentrating on anything else.”
Crafting The Many Worlds Of Ferrari
Michael Mann looks at hiring a director of photography the same way he does to casting actors, noting how crucial it is to find the right individual for the particular needs of a film. When it came to the cinematography, for Ferrari, he wanted a lighting design that evoked a Caravaggio painting: The light coming from a source, but the scenes not being theatrically lit for where an actor is in the frame.
“I wanted it to feel like light was falling on the space and the people are moving through the space,” Mann explains. “It’s not designed to capture everything in the frame; I wanted it to feel real and be independent, and Erik Messerschmidt has a particular facility with lighting that worked perfectly.”
Messerschmidt, an Oscar winner for David Fincher’s Mank, knew how atmosphere and story needed to merge in the visuals, which are always vital to a Michael Mann’s films.
“Italian Renaissance painting is so informed by architecture and the natural light that Italian architecture of that period lends to a space,” Messerschmidt says. “It’s all this single-source, directional lighting from the windows.”
Mann also worked with Messerschmidt on the idea that Ferrari would “exist in two worlds.” There is the world of Enzo’s more intimate, domestic life, at home with Laura or in the countryside with Lina, and then there is the world of racing. The former would be a more classically composed aesthetic, while the latter would be filled with visceral, dynamic energy often through handheld camerawork.
“We saved the majority of the racing work for the end of the schedule,” Messerschmidt says. “So we were able to conceptualize the film as two parts. Michael doesn’t work in a pedestrian way at all. He never wants to hear, ‘If we’re shooting a racing movie, we need these tools.’”
With that in mind, the two sought out ways to capture the kinetic reality of racing in new and exciting ways. One notion was placing a camera operator in the passenger seat next to the driver for some shots, working handheld with large-format wide lenses, using Sony’s digital Venice CineAlta camera for its ease of mobility as well as Red, Red Komodo, and Red Monstro cameras.
“Michael is interested in spontaneity, he wants to capture the moment,” Messerschmidt says.” I didn’t want to have a camera system that would restrict him. We were able to mount smaller cameras in various areas on the car we couldn’t have done previously because of the size of regular cameras.”
As for the color palette, the yellows, oranges, pale greens and terracotta/ochre hues of Northern Italy set the template. Mann’s concept was to slash through that palette with the bright, primary red of the cars, signifying aggression and energy in the face of the more austere aesthetic elsewhere in the film. Mann chose Oscar-nominated production designer Maria Djurkovic (The Imitation Game, A Bigger Splash, The Hours, Billy Elliot) to create Ferrari’s dual-natured world.
Mann aimed to shoot on locations in and around Modena, Italy, in the summer of 2022
One challenge for production was the need to manufacture the cars that would be used in Ferrari’s racing sequences. Using original cars that are, in some instances, valued as high as $100 million would obviously have been out of the question.
“You can’t just copy an original car because you don’t have the molds or the patterns anymore,” van Sandwijk says. “That was one of the big issues of trying to solve the puzzle. Michael already had a pre-existing relationship with Ferrari from Miami Vice. He drove in the Ferrari Challenge, and that’s how he met businessman Gianluigi Longinotti-Buitoni, who is an executive producer on this film and was instrumental in terms of arranging all the deal-making with Ferrari and others. We had identified two or three of the original cars and we did the 3D scanning of all of those cars — every one of them was slightly different because they were all hand-built. We used a company that built them in record time. I think it was eight weeks or nine weeks that they actually built the cars.”
That process was overseen by Robert Nagle, one of the industry’s top stunt drivers. Nagle’s connection to Mann goes back to 2004’s acclaimed Collateral as a stunt performer, as well as on the transportation crew of Ali and The Insider. Nagle’s background is in mechanical engineering for race car design, and he knew what it would take to build a car from the ground up, including tracking down the right chassis, which Nagle sourced from a company out of the UK. He and his team took those chassis and cut them to accommodate what was needed for the track width and wheelbase. He also augmented the one-seater cockpits to make space for navigators alongside the drivers.
“It was a fair amount of modification, but we didn’t have to re-engineer everything, and that saved a ton of time and money,” Nagle says. “Once those chassis were done, it was a matter of building the bodies over top of that. We have a vehicle that, if you turn it upside down, it’s all contemporary running gear, but from the top side it looks like a 1950s Ferrari or Maserati.”
Mann and Nagle then mapped out the choreography for the race sequences and slowly started assembling those aspects of the film. As in every other facet of Ferrari, authenticity was vital to the film’s racetrack landscape.
“Besides the cars that we actually built, there are all the other cars that are year-specific Mille Miglia original cars,” explains Nagle. “So, for instance, the Mercedes Benz 300 SLs that are racing in the movie are all original from that year. Some of the original Ferraris are there. All the Porsches are original. It got to a point that word got out and owners of some of those original cars started calling the production to say, ‘I have a 1957 car that raced in the Mille Miglia, want to use it in the film?’”
Michael Mann | Director, Producer
Michael Mann is a world-renowned director, screenwriter, producer, and one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers in American cinema. He is a four-time Academy Award nominee, two-time Emmy-winner and recipient of WGA, DGA and BAFTA Awards as a director, producer and writer.
After writing and directing the Emmy®-winning television movie The Jericho Mile, Mann executive produced the acclaimed and highly influential television series Miami Vice and Crime Story. He won an Emmy® for the mini-series Drug Wars: The Camarena Story, which he co-wrote and executive produced. Mann directed the pilot and executive produced the HBO series Luck starring Dustin Hoffman and the limited documentary series Witness also for HBO. Recently, Mann served as an executive producer and directed the pilot episode launching the HBO Max series Tokyo Vice, starring Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe in 2022.
Mann made his feature film directorial debut with Thief and went on to also write and direct Manhunter, The Last Of The Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Ali, Miami Vice, and direct Collateral, Public Enemies and Blackhat. As a producer, Mann’s work includes Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, The Kingdom, Hancock, Texas Killing Fields and Ford V Ferrari. Mann’s latest feature Ferrari, which he both directed and produced, starring Adam Driver, Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley, makes its world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival followed by a theatrical release at Christmas. In addition to filmmaking, Mann’s #1 New York Times Bestseller novel, Heat 2, written with Meg Gardiner, was published by Harper Collins in the summer of 2022 while Mann was shooting Ferrari on location in Modena, Italy.