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‘Ferrari’ Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt on Filming the Drama’s Intense Race Scenes

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There was significant pressure on the day in which director Michael Mann and his team filmed the violent car crash from the 1957 Mille Miglia race for his upcoming film Ferrari. “We only had one shot at it,” says cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, explaining that the special effects team created and rigged a single self-driving car that could hit the desired speed, launch into the air and tumble before landing in a ditch. With no second take, they filmed the stunt with six cameras as a precautionary measure.

Based on the biography Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races, the Machine, the drama was filmed in and around the Italian city of Modena, the birthplace of the eponymous automaker, played in the film by Adam Driver. The movie traces Ferrari’s personal life as well as professional racing, including the brutal Mille Miglia crash that claimed the life of driver Alfonso de Portago, his navigator and 10 spectators.

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Erik Messerschmidt Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Mann’s research for this scene involved race footage such as a fatal crash from Le Mans during the early ’50s. “It was a good reference for both the brutal reality of that type of crash but also the way that it would be covered. He wanted it to be a very observational camera, almost like a newsreel,” says Messerschmidt. “They had done weeks of testing with various cars, various weights, placing weights in different parts of the car to get the car to tumble in certain ways — hopefully to get it to land where we wanted it. Mike was quite specific, as he always is. He wanted the car to land in that ditch.”

The Oscar-winning DP of Mank (who reteamed this year with David Fincher on the Netflix thriller The Killer) carefully chose to film the stunt at a specific time of day when the sun was low and he could get the right lighting. “We waited and waited and waited, and then we did the shot,” he says. “And it turned out the car landed exactly where the special effects team had predicted it would land. It was extraordinary. I’d never seen anything like it.”

That practical stunt was combined with visual effects to place the spectators in the frame and complete the shot. On set, the team arranged dummies around the location “because Michael wanted to be very specific about the placement of the people,” says Messerschmidt. “The dummies are weighted, so they interact with the car in a very specific way, and they are an excellent reference for the visual effects team. We [also] shot plates with extras.”

Overall, the visual style of Ferrari (which will be released Dec. 25 by Neon) included two distinct aesthetics — a painterly look for Ferrari’s personal story and a more aggressive camera for the racing. “Michael wanted that to be very visceral, very high energy, and he wanted to put the audience in the seat with the drivers,” the DP says. “We were also driving the cars extremely fast. He wanted the cars to go the speeds that the drivers were used to driving them in. And we did.”

Ferrari is among the first movies lensed with Sony’s Venice 2 camera and prototypes of the Rialto 2 extension system that effectively detaches the sensor from the camera body to allow it to be placed in smaller spaces. “We put them all over the car,” says Messerschmidt. “We put them on the bumpers, on the front hood, on the wheel, handheld in the passenger seat, handheld outside the car on the biscuit rig. That particular system freed us up enormously, and it allowed us to be quite expressive with [the] camera in a way that I don’t think normally would be possible. Certainly not at that quality.”

For scenes depicting Ferrari’s relationships with his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) and mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley), Messerschmidt says Mann wanted something that was more “classically” photographed and lit, with a more “patient” camera and artistic look. “He was interested in emulating Italian Renaissance painting,” says the DP of Mann’s reference points. “He asked me to look at Caravaggio and that school of painting. Particularly the Venetian school is something that I adore,” Messerschmidt adds. “I put together a look book and sent back images — Tintoretto, Titian and Caravaggio, of course. And a little bit of Rembrandt, too … that style of classic Italian portraiture, with a mix of the Dutch masters in there as well. And that was really the direction we wanted to go with the personal story.” 

FERRARI Courtesy of Eros Hoagland/ Netflix

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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