Michael Mann on Why ‘Ferrari’ Star Adam Driver Is the Ultimate Muse

TheWrap magazine: “I knew the first time I met him after about 10 minutes that he’s the guy to go on this journey,” the legendary filmmaker says

Michael Mann GettyImages-1830804961
Michael Mann (Getty Images)

There’s no measuring the degree to which director Michael Mann’s work has slipped into our American pop subconscious, whether it’s visual lifts from his classic “Heat” shootout in “The Dark Knight,” or FX’s “The Bear” using his 2006 film remake of his own TV hit “Miami Vice” as a comic throwaway bit for Cousin Richie’s security password. Beginning with his James Caan-starring debut flick “Thief,” Mann’s sensitive, masculine tone dramas cover an impressive range. He’s widely known for his searing transformations of actors we thought we knew, physically and emotionally: Russell Crowe (“The Insider”), Will Smith (“Ali”), Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx (“Collateral”), Daniel Day-Lewis (“The Last of the Mohicans”) and in one of cinema’s longest-awaited tête-à-têtes, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro (“Heat”).

The 80-year-old filmmaker is also notable for striking while the iron is hot for performers in their prime (Christian Bale, Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in “Public Enemies,” William Petersen in “Manhunter,” Chris Hemsworth and Viola Davis in “Blackhat,” Colin Farrell and Foxx in “Miami Vice”).

If you’re lucky, you get to be his muse. And Adam Driver — starring as manufacturer and magnate Enzo Ferrari in Mann’s current film “Ferrari” — is as challenging and rewarding a partner for Mann as several of the Hollywood luminaries mentioned above.

Is it true that you’ve been working on “Ferrari” for something like 25 years?

It went through a number of iterations to try to get it going. I had opportunities to do it as a low-budget production, but I would have had to sacrifice too many parts of the story, so I basically decided that it had to be done the right way or not at all.

It became maybe the largest-budget independently financed film ever, which is both an adventure and a nightmare. It was basically made [possible] by the people who worked on the movie. Very generous slashing of salaries by Adam Driver, by myself, by the producers, and a lot of cooperation on a tight schedule.

The movie’s screenwriter, Troy Kennedy Martin, passed away in 2009. Did any of his work change in the intervening years? You tend to write or cowrite a lot of your films.

Troy wrote the golden heart of this story. The characters, the idea [of focusing on] these three or four months in 1957, all the dynamics of Enzo Ferrari, Lara his wife, Lina his lover with whom he had an illegitimate child. All these things, along with the solvency of the company, that made this human drama tempestuous and edgy and irresistible.

Your movies zero in on one specific time or event in a person’s life, like in “Ali” or “The Insider.” “Ferrari,” with its laser focus on these events, follows that tradition.

That compression is their intensity. And I seek that intensity because I make films to have an impact on audiences and to transport them. That’s the turn-on. I’m drawn to execute and maximize that as much as possible.

“The Insider” was a wonderful challenge because it’s the words and actions of law firms creating life-taking aggression in real life. That drove me to find narrative ways to subjectify so that you are [tobacco whistleblower[ Jeffrey Wigand, and you’re seeing through his eyes, you’re walking in his shoes as much as possible. And that’s stayed with me as something to try to push and develop in my later films.

Adam Driver (center) in “Ferrari” (Neon)

Adam Driver has become a bit of a muse to your peers, like Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese. Directors seem to like him for a highly specific quality. What is that quality for you?

Adam is emotionally committed to his art and getting it right. He’s an intensely driven artist. He comes to acting with a gravitas that’s based on objective reality. He’s lived a life like everybody else and brings that kind of protean understanding of the way the real world works into everything he does and into these characters.

There’s a huge transformation of Adam into Enzo — not just the age, but the culture, the psychology, how he walks, how he talks. All that required a great learning curve, even little gestures, like when he’s talking to reporters in the movie and (Mann mimics Driver’s finger-pointing). I knew the first time I met him after about 10 minutes that he’s the guy to go on this journey with me.

Your cinematographer, Oscar winner Erik Messerschmidt, is a huge motorsports fan. Patrick Dempsey, who has a role in the film as famed Italian driver Piero Taruffi, is a real-life racing competitor. Did you know that before making this?

I didn’t know that Patrick knew about this project. And over the last 10 years, I’d get an email from him or a note or we’d bump into each other, and he’d ask,
“Michael, when are we going to make ‘Ferrari?’” So, it was always, “how can I involve Patrick Dempsey in this?” — obviously, he did all his own driving.

One thing I really admired about the film is it dispels this myth surrounding your work that they’re “guy movies.” The women in your films are tremendously important, including the Penélope Cruz and Shailene Woodley characters here.

That never made any sense to me. Laura (Cruz) is very powerful, and Lina (Woodley) is a much more subtle, difficult character to play. The women I’ve talked to who’ve seen this film strongly respond to the Laura character, who has really lived a life.

It’s not contemporary. It’s really about women who have had children, who lost children, who struggled in horrible circumstances to keep a family together. They succeed, they fail. And she is a powerful force of nature.

Penélope Cruz in “Ferrari” (Neon)

I have to ask about “Heat 2,” as I know you want Adam to play Vincent Hanna, the Pacino role. How’s that coming along?

The book [Mann and Meg Gardiner’s 2022 novel “Heat 2”] has so much in it that it’s “What’s the objective of the motion picture of the story?” It’s at Warner Bros. and I’m writing the screenplay now. I really can’t wait to start shooting it, I plan to start shooting in 2024.

A version of this story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Photo by Maya Iman for TheWrap.

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