How Michael Mann filmed the incredible racing scenes in 'Ferrari'

Huge crowds of racing fans gather in an Italian city to watch the Mille Miglia race in Michael Mann's “Ferrari.” As a safety precaution, Mann made sure that everyone pictured in the path of the cars was a professional stunt person. (Eros Hoagland from Washington Post.)

Huge crowds of racing fans gather in an Italian city to watch the Mille Miglia race in Michael Mann's “Ferrari.” As a safety precaution, Mann made sure that everyone pictured in the path of the cars was a professional stunt person. (Eros Hoagland from Washington Post.)

Published Jan 3, 2024


There's a spectacular moment in the last third of Michael Mann's "Ferrari" when the dangerous, two-day, roughly 1,000-mile (about 1609.34 kilometres) test of endurance called the Mille Miglia enters Bologna.

The year is 1957, and this the first time in the film that the swarm of Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos has been bottlenecked into a city.

Now, instead of jockeying for place on country roads, where a crash will send a driver careening into a field, they're all trying to squeeze past one another on narrow cobblestone streets, with a canyon of ancient and unforgiving brick walls towering above them.

Then, with one deft movement, the camera lands on a single red Ferrari and the face of its driver, Piero Taruffi, "The Silver Fox," played by Patrick Dempsey, as he bursts into the open air of a piazza filled with blinding sunlight and hundreds of screaming bystanders standing close enough to get a limb ripped off.

The sequence comes just after a more sedate scene, with 59-year-old mogul Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) in a cafe, getting a phone call bearing news from the race that could change the fate of his company. The shift to the action in Bologna is meant to give you a jolt.

"If you were writing this in a script, you would write, 'Meanwhile, back at the race . . .,'" says Mann by Zoom from his Los Angeles home.

More than that, he wanted to introduce the imagery he'd seen in historical photos of the huge crowds that turned out to watch the Mille Miglia year after year.

"Everybody is crowded right to the edge of the road all the time, as if, you know, daring themselves," Mann says. "It's almost like the running of the bulls in Spain or something."

At 80, Mann drives a Ferrari, and for years he competed in the Ferrari Challenge for amateur racers.

In "Ferrari," he wanted to bring that sensation to audiences, while also telling the story of how Enzo's illegitimate son, Piero (Giuseppe Festinese), came to take over his father's business, against the vehement wishes of Enzo's wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), and amid a race that embodies what Enzo calls "our deadly passion, our terrible joy."

Long before sunrise, Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) stands at the starting line of the Mille Miglia in Brescia and gives pep talks to each of his drivers in “Ferrari.” Picture: Lorenzo Sisti from Washington Post.

Here's how Mann pulled off some of the most visceral racing scenes yet caught on film:

Real Ferraris and Maseratis

The film business is full of tricks for how to fake driving.

"It's a cinematic grammar that the audience is very used to, but they also immediately recognise it as not real," says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt.

"And Michael didn't want to do any of that. He wanted the cars on the road."

The immediate problem is that very few 1957 race cars exist today, and all are too valuable to be subjected to the kind of abuse Mann was going to put them through.

That meant action vehicle supervisor Neil Layton and his team had just 22 weeks to build high-functioning replicas of every Ferrari and Maserati on-screen.

Layton's team made 11 cars, each outfitted with a modern chassis and safety features like five-point harnesses, roll cages and hydraulic hand brakes that had to be hidden because they didn't exist in 1957.

Dempsey’s driving skills

A devoted amateur racing enthusiast, Dempsey has competed in France's famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race multiple times. He did all his own driving on the film, and he was the only actor who could just take off down a country road with a camera operator by his side.

In one scene, Mann shows their race-night ritual of writing a letter to their loved ones in case they die. Dempsey proved incredibly valuable in coaching his fellow cast members about what those moments of introspection would feel like.

The quaint city of Modena

Scenes in Bologna, Ravenna and Rome were actually filmed in downtown Modena, while many others were shot in the nearby countryside on the exact roads where Ferrari does its rigorous testing.

Location manager Janice Polley just charmed shop owners and worked around the city's busy summer schedule of festivals to book out a few weekends.

Those are also all real extras from Modena lining the road, dressed in period costumes, with professional stunt people in the row closest to the action.

Crumpled aluminium and crash dummies

Every violent, brutal crash in the movie is based on historical newsreel footage. To recreate it, a replica car made of aluminium was thrown into a building with a crash dummy inside.

"At that point in the movie, it was really important to illustrate just how dangerous and fragile this world is for these guys," Nagle says. "Most drivers didn't retire back then. The attrition rate was ridiculous."