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'Ferrari' is an inside look at the legendary family from the director of 'Heat'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Power, speed and loss are at the heart of Michael Mann's new film, "Ferrari." Enzo Ferrari and his wife Laura have built an admired car and racing company in post-World War II Italy, but they both reel from the loss of their son Dino and their company's looming bankruptcy. Adam Driver stars as Enzo Ferrari, the former Grand Prix driver who transforms racing, and Penelope Cruz as Laura. Michael Mann, of course, is the director behind a succession of award-winning films - "Heat," "The Insider," "Ali," "Collateral" and the groundbreaking TV series and movie "Miami Vice." He joins us now from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL MANN: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: What drew you to the Ferrari story?

MANN: What drew me to the Ferrari story is the melodrama, a very operatic melodrama at the heart of it that occurred in four months of 1957. Ferrari presented a inscrutable, iconic presence. You could never see behind the sunglasses. The story went behind that into the - all the dynamic forces in Ferrari's life, which were as combustible and volatile as the race cars built.

SIMON: How do you think - because there's especially touching scene at the grave of their son, where Enzo and his wife seem to go frequently - how did the loss of his son, and friends in racing, shape Enzo Ferrari's life and his attitudes?

MANN: I think it's a really good question. It shaped it a lot. Death was prevalent. Death was omnipresent. Dino, he had muscular dystrophy, and he was failing for a long time. There's a very touching picture of Dino leaning against the car as a 19-year-old, and his arm is touching Enzo's arm. You never see Enzo in physical contact like that, and I took that image of his head, and that's the image that we used in the photograph in the cemetery.

You know, we know there's loss. And he manages by living very much in the present and looking into the future. Laura is also in mourning, but she's kind of a prisoner of the past, and she can't break into any kind of future. It was a devastating loss. It was her only child. And the notion, the cloying contemporary notion of healing or something is nonsense. You don't heal from the loss of a child.

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand how dangerous it was to be a race car driver back in 1957.

MANN: He had two friends, Campari and Borzacchini. Both got killed the same day at Monza. And so he asked himself if - he could either continue and build a wall, or he should go do something else. And he built a wall. But the wall was actually quite permeable. The reason it was dangerous is because Ferraris were - in that period were probably better engineered than other cars, but nevertheless, the cars made a lot of power. They could go 160, 170 miles an hour, and very light bodies with narrow tires. And so you're driving a car that was more powerful than your control of it. One mistake, and there was a disaster.

SIMON: How do you depict the speed and the fury of Formula One racing back in 1957 today? How do you capture that?

MANN: Well, the big race in the film is the Mille Miglia, which is a thousand miles across open roads, through towns, forks in a road, left turns over bridges, some without signs. It was insane. And I raced as an amateur - very amateur racer for about five or six years on and off in the Ferrari Challenge. And I did enough to know - maybe I put three turns together the right way once, and that was enough to know, OK, this is how it's supposed to feel, except you're supposed to be doing it every time. And so they're - the action, what you're doing is you're not conscious of the millisecond that you're in. All your attention is focused in this very powerful Zen way on what's next. You're seeing one or two turns ahead. When everything's working harmonically, there's a kind of ecstasy to it that's hard to describe.

SIMON: This - I gather this film took quite a few years to reach the screen, didn't it?

MANN: Yes, it did.

SIMON: For those of us who aren't directly in the industry, just fans, help us understand how that process goes.

MANN: Well, first of all, the film's a drama with beautiful and savage racing. It is highly emotional, highly engaging, but it gets - scripts fall into genre types in the minds of the studio. So this became car racing, in all or part, and no car racing movie had ever made money in the history of cinema - not Grand Prix, not LeMans. And I had a couple of opportunities to do it if I reduced the scale of the film and could have done it for about 35 million, something like that, in that neighborhood, and I didn't want to. It had to be done right or not at all. And in this period of time, the last three or four years, it became possible to do it.

SIMON: I got to ask you a question that's been raised in a few reviews. Why cast American actors like Adam Driver and Spanish actress Penelope Cruz to put on Italian accents to play Italians instead of casting Italian actors, even if to speak English?

MANN: Well, because you cast great actors. It's who's right for the part. It doesn't matter what part of America or England or Spain they come from. Penelope's done numerous films in Italy in Italian. I think Adam did a brilliant, transformative job because in his heart he has that same drive that Enzo Ferrari does, and that's what counts. So the notion of, oh, you can't cast them because he grew up in Indiana to me is absurd.

SIMON: You have been so prolific and, I gather, just hit 80 years of age, right?

MANN: Right - 80.

SIMON: Has it gotten easier or harder to make films?

MANN: I think I've got incrementally better at it. I don't have to go through as many mechanical steps, and I get there faster and don't spend time on things that aren't actionable. If they're not going to directly affect how Penelope Cruz or Adam Driver, you know, thinks or feels, then, it doesn't matter how interesting it is. And on the other hand, you know, understanding the insides of a Lampredi V12 engine, which looks like a gorgeous watch, except it's got explosives on it, you know, fuel becoming rapid expanding gases a thousand times a minute - to really understand that the way Enzo understood it is essential.

SIMON: Michael Mann - his latest film in theaters on Christmas Day is "Ferrari." Thank you so much for being with us.

MANN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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