The Corinthia Hotel, London, England. It’s unsurprising Michael Mann feels so at home here. In the sixties, he lived in London, was enrolled at one of our great film schools, and as a student, achieved the Cannes Jury Prize for a short about the Paris revolts. But what does he remember most from those halcyon days? “Well, everyone looked like Keith Richards,” he reflects with a smile (Mann has one of those wide, mischievous grins) “…but it was a terrible place to be broke. It was cold. Mouldy.” The sun is shining behind him and resting on the surface of our table. “You’d never have an October like this.”

Although they represented his formative years, Swinging London apartments and artsy Paris student riot flicks, à la Godard, feel a world away from how most people perceive Mann’s career, especially now that he is a veteran of the artform. Across his most auteur-ish works (as in, those that share a stylistic throughline) Thief, Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice, he is an American director telling American stories about—often ambitious and troubled—American men. Openly homaged by everything from Grand Theft Auto V to Refn’s Drive and 2022’s Holy Spider, Mann’s neo-noirish ‘style’ has a slick, steely neon glare, often set in big cities where street-lights spread out like a blanket of stars; obscuring the crooks and the cops who have set out to capture them. It’s the Michael Mann mood—and it’s as American as a Mustang.

Tuesday Weld and James Caan in Thief (1981).
Tuesday Weld and James Caan in Thief (1981).
A still from Thief (1981). By Michael Mann.
A still from Thief (1981). By Michael Mann.
A still from Thief (1981). By Michael Mann.
A still from Thief (1981). By Michael Mann.

But in his latest feature, Ferrari, the Chicago-born master sets his sights on the Prancing Pony: telling the story of one of Italy’s most famous sons; the car-builder, entrepreneur, and racer, Enzo Ferrari.

Rather than produce a biopic (which Mann tells me he had no interest in doing) it spans a three-month-period of Enzo’s life—a story that has been on the filmmaker’s mind since the nineties, when he and the great Sydney Pollack discussed adapting the late, great Troy Kennedy Martin’s script (also based on a Brock Yates book about the events in that period—although Mann admits the book is mostly generic) into a feature. This is not a film entirely grounded in realism—not your typical warts-and-all character study charting birth-to-deathbed—and for good reason. Mann is drawn to Enzo as a romantic hero; and in the most operatic fashion, his Ferrari story unfolds like a stage-play, with a dialogue and personality he characterises as “strafing wit.” Those chaotic three months in 1957, he tells me, were “kind of like the story of the Traviata!”

That’s because “he is a romantic character,” Mann explains, as if referring to an old friend, “as in his life—it was romantic. He’d been turned down by Fiat at nineteen-years old. He had no money, he’s unemployed. His father and brother both died a year earlier. They can’t run the family shop anymore. And he asked himself in those circumstances: ‘Who should I be in this world?’ and that question bespeaks a romantic notion that transcendence is possible beyond your circumstances.”

What has long driven Mann’s interest in Enzo, and in his persistence to tell this story, is the duality of the life he lived: “It is irreconcilable, and I don’t think he ever bothered to be introspective enough to define it as a duality,” he tells me, “By the time we meet him in ‘57, he’s a fine engineer. Everything he does, involved in racing or factories, is not left to chance… Everything was exquisitely rational,” Mann says. “But his personal life? Completely chaotic. Whereas you and I might ask, ‘Should I?’ with Enzo, his impulse would be, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ For these reasons, he decided to structure the film as a diptych of two styles; the first is set around the drama of Enzo’s life, his relationship with his wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) and his son Piero. “I decided I wanted very formal camera work for the dramatic scenes, I wanted monochromatic set decoration; a uniformity of colours and a static camera position for us to watch the dialogue so the audience is invested in the stakes.” They’re in notable contrast with the other side of Ferrari—the high octane driving sequences and scenes where we see Enzo at work, controlled, innovative (Mann tells me he conducted a lot of research into his diaries and blueprints, and that they were immaculate). “The machine of fate is the racing,” he explains, “and for that I wanted savage red cars slashing across the screen with agitation. I wanted there to be actual racing in the racing scenes!”

Anyone who has seen Michael Mann’s films will recall his successful use of cars as a prop—especially in Collateral, Miami Vice, and Thief. In his own life, Mann was an amateur racer with cars (team Ferrari, obviously) and bikes (with Daniel Day-Lewis of all people), and throughout our discussion he goes into long, fascinating explanations of combustion engines, aerodynamics, and more, gleefully referring to the minutiae of how they work—describing turns, speeds, and physics, not in any metaphorical way, but literally, like a fully-qualified engineer who believes he is in the company of another engineer (he isn’t, I’m mostly puzzled and enthused). These machine-gun spurts of car-speak reveal just how much of a petrolhead Mann is, and it clearly helps in the way he directs the relationship between man and machine. He grins when I bring this up to him: “I just like speed.”

A still from Ferrari (2023). By Michael Mann.
A still from Ferrari (2023). By Michael Mann.

Talking about the driving scenes, there is a crash sequence in the film’s final third—based on true, gruesome events—which caused an audible shudder and gasp when I first saw Ferrari at the Venice Film Festival. Amidst the slow drama and pensive conversations, a moment of violence and chaos is flung upon the spectator. This is probably the best example of Mann’s diptych of styles in action. But it is brutal—a reality check from the rustic Italy that the audience comfortably settle into: from the lavish apartments in Parma, where Cruz and Driver perform their verbal showdowns; the town squares, where spectators cheer the drivers on; and after watching a particular lunch scene where the racers banter over large portions of pasta and red wine (if you had just walked into the theatre, you might assume it was an olive oil commercial). Nothing up until that point prepares you for that crash sequence. “It would’ve been more disrespectful if I didn’t do it authentically,” Mann says when I ask about the scene. “The way his body ends is based on visual forensic reports, which we were able to get a hold of.” It’s just another case during our conversation where I start to realize Mann’s own attention-to-detail overlap with Enzo’s—his obsessive commitment to research that never undermines the reality of his subject (he did it with The Last of the Mohicans, too) but with enough romance and color to remain exhilarating until the final moment.

Penelope Cruz in Ferrari (2023). By Michael Mann.
Penelope Cruz in Ferrari (2023). By Michael Mann.

Who knows how the film would’ve looked had Mann directed it twenty years ago when he first intended it. I ask whether he thinks he would’ve made a different movie; a different approach to Ferrari. “I think it benefited,” he adds. “I’ve lived longer, I’m older, more mature. I think there’s a better depth of understanding of what motivated Enzo and Laura. I know more about life, and I’m attracted to the difficulty of a well-rounded, three-dimensional human being with anomalies, with asymmetry, and I’m able to create the asymmetry while telling a story. The movie’s better off being made now. It’s not a character study, but a real dramatic, engaging one. But who knows?” he laughs, “Now, maybe I would be making Heat 2 instead.”

I’m pleased that Michael Mann brings up the sequel (although he also describes it as a prequel and a sequel) to Heat—his most commercially successful and well-known work. You’re never sure how much you’re supposed to ask about a project until it’s really, fully announced, and he has only just, as of writing, recently published the follow-up to his thrilling 1995 Pacino-De Niro face-off in book form, with his co-writer Meg Gardiner. The material is there. The story is written. It’s just a matter of when we’ll see it on the big screen. But writing a book was an experiment in itself for Mann: “It was interesting, I thought I wanted to be a novelist at one point, but I got a D in Creative Writing for Television as an undergraduate,” he laughs. The book covers the formative years of homicide detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro), leading up to the events of the original film and then going beyond it, introducing us to new characters from crime syndicates across the globe. It’s a sweeping, confident work, which went on to top the New York Times bestseller list in its first week of publication—so Heat 2 seems destined for the big screen treatment. “I had so much more material on it, on the characters’ lifestyles, and their backstories,” he adds, “And you know, it’s a fascinating piece of history. I grew up in Chicago, a lot of the characters are based on real people who I know, or knew, and a lot of them have died. So it’s always a very rich field for me to explore, and also to try to project into the 2000s.”

Off-the-bat, Mann is a proud Chicagoan. He still speaks in the city’s broad, jowel-curling accent—that could easily threaten at times to erupt into a roar—as well as the notorious no-nonsense attitude that sometimes enjoys playing devil’s advocate in conversation, or contradicting some of my questions about how deep, how philosophical, how emotional (or in other words, how self-indulgent) his work is. That’s not what city boys do. “Directors who grew up in Chicago and were raised in the suburbs make comedies. Whereas me and William Friedkin [whose Sorcerer, French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. share the same grizzly affection for hard-boiled crooks and cops] grew up in the city!” He smiles.

Michael Mann and Ashley Judd on the set of Heat (1995). By Frank Connor.
Michael Mann and Ashley Judd on the set of Heat (1995). By Frank Connor.

Did his youth influence the sort of crime stories he would go on to tell? “If I think about it seriously, that particular period [when I grew up] of Chicago between the fifties to the eighties, the dynastic struggles within organised crime were Shakespearian. There weren’t five families like in New York. Just one. And there was real succession, and it’s a political, socio-economic fact of life there.”

Chicago’s an interesting place, there’s kind of a tough Berliner wit, almost like a Weimer sensibility,” he adds, abruptly reflecting on the city that shaped him. Growing up, Mann was surrounded by these sensibilities, these stories, by his knowledge of the city’s tough natives; by the opera and drama of Chicago life; the pushers, hustlers, and hardened cops, operating in the wet, shadowy streets that would come to life in the likes of Heat, Thief, Collateral, Public Enemies, The Insider, and Miami Vice (even if some of these films were not literally set in Chicago). “There were fascinating characters, and when you’re growing up there—ten, eleven, twelve-years-old—just like you know the name of the baseball players for the White Sox or the Chicago Cubs, you knew who these people were. You just did.”

Life itself has been Mann’s ultimate resource. Before aspiring to be a filmmaker, he spent his early years performing odd-jobs as a kid—as a short-order cook, on construction, and a cab driver; exposed to characters from all walks of life. So it’s unsurprising that there’s a realism to how he shoots his cities, or how much of his dialogue feels so grounded and natural. Authenticity is what Mann values the most. It’s his Golden Rule, he explains—not merely in terms of following the finer details to how a story is told (Ali is a succinctly researched true story, but is still gripping, dramatized entertainment) “but by being authentic with the material that you have, and by the stories that you go on to tell as a filmmaker.” It’s a brilliant piece of advice for a budding director: “This is something I aspire to. Authenticity is a criterion I always remind myself of. You can get seduced. You see some nifty thing [idea or project]—but get rid of it! Nothing gratuitous,” he tells me, finally, and with absolute seriousness: “No vanity.”