To the BFI Southbank yesterday to hear Michael Mann discuss his career and introduce a preview screening of Ferrari, his long-gestated portrait of the former racing driver and car firm founder. Inevitably Mann’s crime dramas were to the fore in that chat with broadcaster Edith Bowman (and the audience’s questions), but the new work was a welcome reminder that of the dozen features Mann has directed half explore other genres: biopics, thrillers, a period adventure and a horror film.
In conversation Mann was focussed, articulate and wide-ranging, referencing German Expressionism and the purity of silent cinema, life as a poor student in sixties London, the “vibrations” of certain pastel colours and the insight he gained into John Dillinger’s personality after seeing the infamous robber’s patterned tie and socks in a forgotten suitcase during location scouting. Asked if his aim when starting out was to tell stories, Mann replied that that came later; his initial intention was to “impact people with what you are thinking and experiencing”. Mann would return to this principle throughout the evening, using it to explain how he got the audience rooting for both Vincent Hanna and Neil Macauley at the end of Heat and why there are so many close-ups of the drivers’ viewpoint in Ferrari.
It was, all told, a valuable chance to hear how a filmmaker thinks, in real time. To give a flavour of that, what follows are edited quotes from Mann reconstructed from my notes and my memory, with a few thoughts of my own on Ferrari at the end.
The philosophy of Thief and Miami Vice the television series:
“It was very political; the theory of value, which the [recent] writers’ strike took a quote from – ‘profiting from the value of my labour’. [Castillo] was the ideological jesuit – small ‘J’ – to talk about accountability and responsibility. About a third of the scripts from the first two seasons were significant"
Starting with the ending of Heat, and the duality of its lead characters:
“Films only really function from the end to the beginning. I knew how it would end and it was reverse engineering the rest from that…. Causality is a function of the way they think the world works… In real life we carry these contradictions to the grave”
On Ali, the man and the film:
“We were recreating parts of his reality on location… I looked at his fights and treated each three minute round as three acts, picking the salient points and improvising the rest… We gave up on padded gloves and occasionally Will [Smith] got cut”
Shooting Collateral digitally:
“I’m always looking for more intense modes of expression to impact audiences… There’s a certain kind of dusky atmosphere in Los Angeles… After three months of research, my nightmare was waking up and finding that this film doesn’t exist; there’s nothing physical [there]!
How the FBI made up for its deficiencies, and how Dillinger escaped the Bohemia lodge, as depicted in Public Enemies:
“They hired people like Charles Winstead – Stephen Lang’s character – who were soldiers and good at urban combat… Chaos engendered by bad decision-making [on the part of the FBI]”
Working with real criminals and real police:
“Chuck Adamson, who killed the real Neil Macauley in 1963, John Santucci and Dennis Farina – who was a very dangerous detective – used a commanding, operational mode of speech [that went into the films’ style of dialogue]… Assembling the fragments of real lives give characters depth… Al [Pacino] is not afraid of high E on the violin”
Having turned his careful attention to so many subjects in the past, Mann’s latest looks at the “operatic, tumultuous events” in the professional and personal lives of Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver), his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley) over a few months of 1957. Mann wanted to examine the “addictive mentality” of a man who won races in the 1920s – the film opens with archive footage into which Driver has been inserted – before shifting to making the cars for others to drive, and making them faster. It was a fascinating time in the world to ask oneself “What do I want to be?”, Mann said, a time in which “You suddenly had the power to be in a machine that would move you through the world” at astonishing speed.
What Mann has produced - from a script by the late Troy Kennedy Martin - goes some way to answering that question, thanks to a serious and convincing performance from Driver and an impassioned one by Cruz. The film shifts gears too, from the many domestic scenes – conventionally shot – to the test drives and races in which the cars are throbbingly present thanks to impressive sound design and road-level framing. There are, inevitably, echoes of John Frankenheimer's dynamic Grand Prix (1966) and Lee H. Katzin’s more elegiac Le Mans (1971) here and if the overall cinematic effect is a little, dare I say, pedestrian, Mann does have one shock waiting around the final corner. As Laura pursues her own suspicions about her husband’s affair(s) and Ferrari concentrates on beating rival Maserati in the upcoming Mille Miglia public road race the film builds to its climax, which I won’t reveal here yet which delivers a real emotional punch. It is this, recalling a similarly-structured moment that closes Public Enemies as well as the aforementioned Heat, that elevates the work.
Mann is in motion again, it seems.
Ferrari is released in the US on 25 December and the UK on Boxing Day