The name placard on the dais said “A. Driver,” and if you’re making a Ferrari movie, you’d certainly better have one.
This particular Driver happened to be in high demand at the Venice Film Festival, which bowed on Wednesday and has mostly had to make do without famous movie stars as the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike prohibits actors from promoting films made by most major studios. But since the new Michael Mann-directed film “Ferrari” will be released domestically by Neon and internationally by STX — two companies that aren’t members of the group that Hollywood guilds are striking against — its star, Adam Driver, was free to make the trip to Venice and add A-list appeal to a festival in dire need of it.
“I’m proud to be here, to be a visual representation of a movie that’s not part of the A.M.P.T.P.,” Driver said on Thursday at the news conference for the film, referencing the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. He praised the interim agreement devised by SAG-AFTRA that allows stars to promote independent films as long as their distributors agree with the terms the actors’ guild is seeking.
“Why is it that a smaller distribution company like Neon and STX International can meet the dream demands of what SAG is asking for — the dream version of SAG’s wish list — but a big company like Netflix and Amazon can’t?” asked Driver, who has previously promoted Netflix movies like “Marriage Story” and “White Noise” in Venice. “Every time people from SAG go and support movies that have agreed to these terms with the interim agreement, it just makes it more obvious that these people are willing to support the people they collaborate with, and the others are not.”
After the crowd at the news conference applauded, Mann added, “No big studio wrote us a check. That’s why we’re here, standing in solidarity.”
You wouldn’t think while watching it that “Ferrari” is an indie movie. With a reported budget of $95 million, this is the sort of lavish adult drama that Mann used to make for major studios all the time. But movies like “Heat,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Ali” and “The Insider,” all films Mann made in the 1990s or early 2000s, have fallen out of favor in our superhero-saturated era, and expensive prestige releases like this one have recently struggled to break out at the box office.
Can the record-breaking success of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” reinvigorate the sort of big-budget dad drama that used to be a theatrical staple? “Ferrari” is counting on it, even if its fellow December releases, like “Wonka” and “The Color Purple,” don’t necessarily lend themselves to “Barbenheimer”-level portmanteaus. (“Wonkari” and “Ferple” just sound like off-brand Pokemon.)
Like Nolan’s summer hit, “Ferrari” is about a midcentury visionary with a wandering eye: Driver’s Enzo Ferrari is a racer-turned-automaker who’s feuding with his wife (Penélope Cruz), hiding a mistress (Shailene Woodley) and trying to save his namesake company before it goes belly up. Mann tracks him during the summer of 1957, when it seemed like so many of Ferrari’s problems could be fixed by a single, momentous race. If one of his drivers can win the dangerous, thousand-mile race Mille Miglia, Ferrari reasons, it would stoke enough demand to lift the company’s fortunes. Still, his single-minded pursuit of that goal turns out to be a life-or-death matter with all sorts of unexpected casualties.
It may be hard now to conceive of “Ferrari” as a Driver-less vehicle, but over the many years that Mann tried to mount it, the director flirted with leading men like Robert De Niro, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, who went on to topline the Mann-produced “Ford v Ferrari” (2019). The 39-year-old Driver is called upon to play a man two decades older for most of the film’s running time, but that gray-haired intensity actually suits him: His Ferrari is hard-nosed and compelling, like a too-serious MSNBC commentator who slowly attracts an ardent, horny fan base.
Regardless of whether “Ferrari” can chase the box-office success of “Oppenheimer,” Driver said it was a miracle it was made at all, summing up the film’s truncated production schedule and false starts in a way that his title character could understand.
“It’s hard not to get philosophical about an engine — the amount of pieces that have to come together, similar to films, and work on the exact right timing in the exact right moment,” he said at the news conference. “And then there’s the element of human intuition and reflex. It’s a 50/50 marriage, and that’s very much filmmaking.”
When all those different elements manage to coalesce on a premium race car — or a big-budget indie film — it’s beautiful, Driver said. “It also makes you aware of how many things could go wrong at any moment,” he noted. “It’s a special thing to be part of.”