Michael Mann still has another gear. At 80, he's driving 'Ferrari'

Full Screen
1 / 8

2023 Invision

Adam Driver, left, and director Michael Mann pose for a portrait to promote "Ferrari" on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK – Michael Mann, who gave Crockett a white Ferrari on “Miami Vice,” pummeled cars with bullets in the shootout in “Heat” and set the thriller “Collateral” in a taxicab, has had an affection for automobiles since growing up in Chicago.

“It’s a city in which you drive, you know?” Mann says. “It rains and things get quite beautiful. The streets get black and the cars get reflective. I like motion. I like speed.”

Recommended Videos

Mann has also been a racing hobbyist. Off and on for years, he competed in the Ferrari Challenge — a four-day race, he fondly recalls, during which “the rest of the world just goes away.” So, the driving instructions that Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) gives in Mann’s latest film, “Ferrari” — “Break later, hold the line” — are familiar to him.

“Let me put it this way,” Mann said, grinning, in a recent interview. “At one point I was practicing on a road in Atlanta and I did 75 laps without stopping.”

But what Mann remembers from those laps — or at least the four of five good ones he strung together — is the taste of what real mastery of the car might feel like.

“If I can have a sense of something, I can project and imagine it pretty fully,” Mann says. “So I do truly understand the passion and addiction — what Jean Behra the race driver described as the ecstasy of when there’s this unity, a harmonic between you and the machine.”

Mann, the 80-year-old filmmaker of “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Insider” and “Thief,” has himself long exhibited a rare harmony with the machinations of filmmaking. He makes fine-grained, visceral dramas that thrum with existentialism. The fervor of his obsession, the rigor of his research, the intensity of his drive has often mirrored the compulsions of his single-minded protagonists.

“He said to me one time, ‘It’s hard not to get philosophical about an engine’ — which I think is so much who he is,” says Driver. “So many things have to be operating down to the millimeter for an engine to work and the timing and all these movable elements. Then there’s the driver. It’s similar to him and the camera.”

“Ferrari,” which opens in theaters Dec. 25, is Mann’s first film since 2015’s “Blackhat.” He's wanted to make it for three decades. Its script, based on Brock Yates’ 1991 Ferrari biography, was written by Troy Kennedy Martin, who died 14 years ago.

But while you will find plenty of speed and gorgeous, rosso corsa-colored cars in “Ferrari,” that’s not what compelled Mann, for so many years, to make the movie. The film, set in 1957 Modena, Italy, captures Ferrari in the tumultuous lead-up to the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile cross-country race. He's struggling to keep his troubled business afloat while splitting his personal life between wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and another woman, Linda Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has a young son, Piero.

“Those torrid passions, almost operatic, and powerful emotional driving forces, that’s why I did the movie. Not because of the cars,” Mann says before adding with a laugh: “There’s nothing wrong with the cars. I love the cars.”

“If you really understand what Ferraris are, the right ones anyway, you go buy one,” adds Mann, who, for the record, owns a couple. “You don’t have to go make a movie about them.”

Death hangs over “Ferrari.” When we encounter Enzo and Laura, they're both still grieving the death of their son, Dino, from the year before. For Enzo’s fleet of drivers, the prospect of death on the road is present on every hairpin turn and in every crack in the pavement.

“There’s death all around, and all around this movie,” says Mann, noting the post-WWII context of Italy. “But Ferrari is in the present and he’s looking for what’s next, what’s next.”

“Heat,” which Mann recently revisited in the 2022 bestseller “Heat 2,” co-written with Meg Gardiner, was a crime epic of causality, in which each character's decisions mark their fate. In “Ferrari,” the price of passionate determination is just as clear. Still, Enzo keeps moving relentlessly forward in “Ferrari” even as the movie builds toward catastrophic collision.

“I don’t feel there’s a price to pay for it. I think bad outcomes go with the territory. You don’t win,” says Mann. “You have to be able to overcome adversity and setbacks and soul-destroying disappointments. You have to be able to find the means to overcome that or you can’t accomplish anything.

“I think wanting to accomplish, wanting to exceed limits, that’s an absolutely universal human trait,” Mann continues. “Our whole history as a species is to run faster, go further, discover what hasn’t been there before, move beyond the limited circumstance we find ourselves in when they’re terrorizing us or limiting us or even just boring us.”

It can be tempting to see Mann as a technical stylist, a movie engineer. But spend five minutes with him and it’s clear he’s overwhelmingly consumed by the psychology of his characters. Driver estimates character psychology was 90% of their conversations.

“He’s not after technical things," Driver says. "The technical things are to support emotion and feeling, which is an intangible thing that he can’t control. He’s always after moments.”

In playing Enzo, Driver acknowledges he was also to a certain extent playing Mann. “There’s something I stole from him that made its way into the movie that I won’t give away,” the actor says.

The two found a connection, Mann says, in their self-critical intensity. “If something’s not working right, my first thought is it’s my fault,” the director says. “I think he’s the same way. We’re both, for better or worse, afflicted with that sense of responsibility.”

Mann is currently developing “Heat 2” as a film, potentially with Driver playing a young Neil McCauley, the character played by Robert De Niro in the original. (“We’ll see what happens with ‘Heat 2,’” says Driver. “Who knows.”)

“I look at Michael and I think, ‘Thank god we’re in the same orbit, relatively,’” says Driver. “I feel very emotional about Michael, that he exists.”

On set in Modena, Driver witnessed Mann deal with all kinds of setbacks — waning time, location issues, distracted extras. “And Michael will just will his film into existence from sheer focus and tenacity," says Driver.

“Ferrari,” with a reported production budget of $95 million, was financed independently. The indie distributor Neon is releasing it. The movie is, by any measure, an exception. It's a film about racing devoted to character, a big-budget original movie in a film industry that usually devotes such resources to sequels or reboots.

“I make these movies,” Mann shrugs. “I make the movies I want to make.”

Even in his 80s, Mann has lost little of his velocity.

“I know for myself, I’m better at doing a picture that has me on the frontier,” Mann says. “Where it’s something I haven’t done before.”

In that, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Vincent Hanna, Al Pacino’s detective in “Heat.” “I gotta hold on to my angst,” Hanna said. “I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp, on the edge, where I gotta be.”

“I’m usually oriented to: I’m totally f---ed. What am I going to do next?" Mann says. "That tortures me.”

Has anything changed in Mann's taste in movies over the years, either those he makes or watches? He ponders the question, mentioning an oft-returned-to favorite (John Huston's “The Asphalt Jungle”) and a recent favorite (Greta Gerwig's “Barbie”). Then he answers.

“I probably have less patience for slow.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

Recommended Videos