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Filmmakers: Behind the wheel of a very human race in ‘Ford v Ferrari’

Christian Bale as Ken Miles in “Ford v Ferrari”
Christian Bale as race car driver Ken Miles in James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari.” The character-driven film contains extremely effective racing sequences.
(Merrick Morton/ Twentieth Century Fox)

James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” features immersive racing sequences achieved with detail and daring. Yet the filmmakers agree it would have been a non-starter if not for a focus on story and character. Mangold, editors Andrew Buckland and Michael McCusker, sound designer David Giammarco, production designer François Audouy and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael shared some of the secrets of how they put viewers in the cockpit for the famed 24 hours of Le Mans, 1966.

Mangold: I’m not a big racing guy ... I’m fascinated by the struggle, before computer models, to build something from nothing that can outperform anything that exists. And you’ve got to do it with your hands, and you’ve got to put your body at risk. You don’t know if you’ve built something that will even stop, until you put yourself behind the wheel.

Southern California locations play a key role in ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale as American race car builder Carroll Shelby and English race car driver Ken Miles.

Giammarco: For Jim, it’s all about story. We were fortunate enough to record period-correct GT-40s, and a Ferrari from that time. Sonically, if we can get it accurate, it’s great, but it’s really more important to tell the story.

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Mangold: The racing would seem like some Epcot-Imax demonstration video if it wasn’t for your connection to the characters [leads were played by Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as driver Ken Miles]. I try and make everything as specific as if it were a dialogue scene.

Ford v Ferrari is directed by James Mangold, flanked  here by actors Matt Damon and Christian Bale
Matt Damon, director James Mangold and Christian Bale (in the car) on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s Ford v Ferrari. Mangold says his racing movie takes less after “Grand Prix” than it does “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” for its male friendship.
(Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox)

Audouy: From the very beginning, the movie had this enormous third-act racing sequence that is a third of the movie: the Le Mans race in 1966. It’s probably the most famous race course in the world. It’s an 8½-mile course that goes across French countryside. We settled on an airport in Agua Dulce for four or five months. [Production shot the countryside scenes outside of Atlanta and a racetrack in Savannah.]

Mangold: To communicate what makes Le Mans special, we couldn’t just do a spectacular 20-minute race with a series of cuts to the scoreboard, then time cuts, then it’s over. It was something you had to live in and endure in the same way that the race is a marathon in real life. It’s “I want to know what they’re feeling and what they’re doing and why.” I want the shots to tell the story of how I’m getting around the car in front of me, how I’m compensating for the fact my brakes are not working.

Papamichael: We like to go close with wide lenses. It’s like when we did the Johnny Cash story [Mangold’s “Walk the Line”]; it’s not from the audience’s perspective, it’s not long lenses.

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James Mangold’s auto racing drama starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale is classical filmmaking at its finest.

Giammarco: Jim wanted us to be in those cars with [the characters]. The suspension rattling and shaking all around, we wanted to create that environment, what it’s like to be inside a car that’s on the verge of flying off the track. The things that rattle in the car, the vibrations, the rain on the roof. Inside the GT-40, there’s this little ring dangling on the window latch. So our Foley editor, she cut these tiny things, they’re so small, but [the sound] pops right through. That was a thing he loved: Little, tiny tinkling while the suspension was groaning and lurching and the engine was roaring.

Audouy: We ended up building about 34 cars from scratch. In re-creating them, you want as much detail as possible to make them feel real. With the Ferraris, we hand-applied hundreds of little red rivets. We added the painstaking, loving details — the patches on the seat belts on the racing harnesses, the emblems on the steering wheels, the stickers on the outside.

McCusker: One reason it feels so visceral is those are real cars; they’re really in those cars. They couldn’t actually go 200 mph; some could go maybe half that. We applied editorial techniques to speed them up.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale with direcor James Mangold on the “Ford v Ferrari” set.
Matt Damon and Christian Bale with direcor James Mangold on the “Ford v Ferrari” set.
(Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox)

Papamichael: These cars look most dynamic when you’re inches from them, low to the ground, with a wide-angle lens that really conveys all the speed. You see the ground. The camera’s inches away, another car comes into frame and almost clips the matte box [of the camera].

Buckland: Being in the cockpit of the GT-40 with Miles — even if we cut outside the car for a moment to demonstrate its maneuverability, it’s still a very subjective experience.

Mangold: We built special rigs where the actors would ride but weren’t necessarily driving; the driver would sit above them or to the side so we could take them over 100 mph through a slalom of cars.

Papamichael: It’s a minimal amount of green screen. The stunts are designed to have the cars physically inches away from each other. When you see a car spin off in the background or through his POV in the windshield, that’s all choreographed stunt driving and mechanical special effects. They’re going 90 mph, and we were in pursuit vehicles, hanging on the edge of our seats as well; it really informed the performances.

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Mangold: At speed, there’s a vibration to the whole chassis. There’s particulate in the air. Wind coming in every crack and crevice in the car. It’s not just that it looks better [than green screen]; the acting is better because they have more to balance.

Giammarco: There were moments where we pulled sound out, those internal moments for the character.

Mangold: The Ken Miles who gets in the car at the start of Le Mans is not the same character who gets out of the car at the end. I could give you technical stuff, but that’s really why it works. Everyone has an arc during the action, so the action doesn’t become a kind of eye candy or ear candy to occupy you until the next “acting scene.”

McCusker: I was asked, “What’s it like cutting a car movie with characters in it?” It’s actually a character movie with cars in it.

Mangold: The movie is ultimately about intimacy, friendship and grieving and grace and the kind of brotherhood of men and women who accomplish things, and not about the outcome of one specific race, which is more of a cinematic convention but not really what life is about.

Featurette on James Mangold’s racing drama, “Ford v Ferrari” (2019)


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