By Iain Blair
Filmmaker James Mangold has been screenwriting, producing and directing for years. He has made films about country legends (Walk the Line), cowboys (3:10 to Yuma), superheroes (Logan) and cops (Cop Land), and has tackled mental illness (Girl Interrupted) as well.
Now he’s turned his attention to race car drivers and Formula 1 with his movie Ford v Ferrari, which has earned Mangold an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The film also received nods for its editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
The high-octane drama was inspired by a true-life friendship that forever changed racing history. In 1959, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is on top of the world after winning the most difficult race in all of motorsports, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But his greatest triumph is followed quickly by a crushing blow — the fearless Texan is told by doctors that a grave heart condition will prevent him from ever racing again.
Endlessly resourceful, Shelby reinvents himself as a car designer and salesman working out of a warehouse space in Venice Beach with a team of engineers and mechanics that includes hot-tempered test driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale). A champion British race car driver and a devoted family man, Miles is brilliant behind the wheel, but he’s also blunt, arrogant and unwilling to compromise.
After Shelby’s vehicles make a strong showing at Le Mans against Italy’s venerable Enzo Ferrari, Ford Motor Company recruits the firebrand visionary to design the ultimate race car, a machine that can beat even Ferrari on the unforgiving French track. Determined to succeed against overwhelming odds, Shelby, Miles and their ragtag crew battle corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to develop a revolutionary vehicle that will outshine every competitor. The film culminates in the historic showdown between the US and Italy at the grueling 1966 24 hour Le Mans race.
Mangold’s below-the-line talent, many of whom have collaborated with the director before, includes Academy Award-nominated director of photography Phedon Papamichael; film editors Michael McCusker, ACE, and Andrew Buckland; visual effects supervisor Olivier Dumont; and composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.
I spoke with Mangold — whose other films include Logan, The Wolverine and Knight and Day — about making the film and his workflow.
You obviously love exploring very different subject matter in every film you make.
Yes, and I do every movie like a sci-fi film — meaning inventing a new world that has its own rules, customs, language, laws of physics and so on, and you need to set it up so the audience understands and they get it all. It’s like being a world-builder, and I feel every film should have that, as you’re entering this new world, whether it’s Walk the Line or The French Connection. And the rules and behavior are different from our own universe, and that’s what makes the story and characters interesting to me.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
Well, given all that, I wanted to make an exciting racing movie about that whole world, but it’s also that it was a moment when racing was free of all things that now turn me off about it. The cars were more beautiful then, and free of all the branding. Today, the cars are littered with all the advertising and trademarks — and it’s all nauseating to me. I don’t even feel like I’m watching a sport anymore.
When this story took place, it was also a time when all the new technology was just exploding. Racing hasn’t changed that much over the past 20 years. It’s just refining and tweaking to get that tiny edge, but back in the ‘60s they were still inventing the modern race car, and discovering aerodynamics and alternate building materials and methods. It was a brand-new world, so there was this great sense of discovery and charm along with all that.
What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
Trying to do what I felt all the other racing movies hadn’t really done — taking the driving out of the CG world and putting it back in the real world, so you could feel the raw power and the romanticism of racing. A lot of that’s down to the particulates in the air, the vibrations of the camera, the way light moves around the drivers — and the reality of behavior when you’re dealing with incredibly powerful machines. So right from the start, I decided we had to build all the race cars; that was a huge challenge right there.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Day one. I wanted to use real cars and shoot the Le Mans and other races in camera rather than using CGI. But this is a period piece, so we did use a lot of CGI for set extensions and all the crowds. We couldn’t afford 50,000 extras, so just the first six rows or so were people in the stands; the rest were digital.
Did you do a lot of previz?
A lot, especially for Le Mans, as it was such a big, three-act sequence with so many moving parts. We used far less for Daytona. We did a few storyboards and then me and my second unit director, Darrin Prescott — who has choreographed car chases and races in such movies as Drive, Deadpool 2, Baby Driver and The Bourne Ultimatum — planned it out using matchbox cars.
I didn’t want that “previzy” feeling. Even when I do a lot of previz, whether it’s a Marvel movie or like this, I always tell my previz team “Don’t put the camera anywhere it can’t go.” One of the things that often happens when you have the ability to make your movie like a cartoon in a laboratory — which is what previz is — is that you start doing a lot of gimmicky shots and flying the camera through keyholes and floating like a drone, because it invites you to do all that crazy shit. It’s all very show-offy as a director — “Look at me!” — and a turnoff to me. It takes me out of the story, and it’s also not built off the subjective experience of your characters.
This marks your fifth collaboration with DP Phedon Papamichael, and I noticed there’s no big swooping camera moves or the beauty shot approach you see in all the car commercials.
Yes, we wanted it to look beautiful, but in a real way. There’s so much technology available now, like gyroscopic setups and arms that let you chase the cars in high-speed vehicles down tracks. You can do so much, so why do you need to do more? I’m conservative that way. My goal isn’t to brand myself through my storytelling tricks.
How tough was the shoot?
It was one of the most fun shoots I’ve ever had, with my regular crew and a great cast. But it was also very grueling, as we were outside a lot, often in 115-degree heat in the desert on blacktop. And locations were big challenges. The original Le Mans course doesn’t exist anymore like it used to be, so we used several locations in Georgia to double for it. We shot the races wide-angle anamorphic with a team of a dozen professional drivers, and with anamorphic you can shoot the cars right up into the lens — just inches away from camera, while they’d be doing 150 mph or 160 mph.
Where did you post?
All on the Fox lot at my offices. We scored at Capitol Records and mixed the score in Malibu at my composer’s home studio. I really love the post, and for me it’s all part of the same process — the same cutting and pasting I do when I’m writing, and even when I’m directing. You’re manipulating all these elements and watching it take form — and particularly in this film, where all the sound design and music and dialogue are all playing off one another and are so key. Take the races. By themselves, they look like nothing. It’s just a car whipping by. The power of it all only happens with the editing.
You had two editors — Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland. How did that work?
Mike’s been with me for 20 years, so he’s kind of the lead. Mike and Drew take and trade scenes, and they’re good friends so they work closely together. I move back and forth between them, which also gives them each some space. It’s very collaborative. We all want it to look beautiful and elegant and well-designed, but no one’s a slave to any pre-existing ideas about structure or pace. (Check out postPerspective‘s interview with the editing duo here.)
What were the big editing challenges?
It’s a car racing movie with drama, so we had to hit you with adrenalin and then hold you with what’s a fairly procedural and process-oriented film about these guys scaling the corporate wall to get this car built and on the track. Most of that’s dramatic scenes. The flashiest editing is the races, which was a huge, year-long effort. Mike was cutting the previz before we shot a foot, and initially we just had car footage, without the actors, so that was a challenge. It all transformed once we added the actors.
Can you talk about working on the visual effects with Method’s VFX supervisor Olivier Dumont?
He did an incredible job, as no one thinks there are so many. They’re really invisible, and that’s what I love — the film feels 100% analog, but of course it isn’t. It’s impossible to build giant race tracks as they were in the ‘60s. But having real foregrounds really helped. We had very few scenes where actors were wandering around in a green void like on so many movies now. So you’re always anchored in the real world, and then all the set extensions were in softer focus or backlit.
This film really lends itself to sound.
Absolutely, as every car has its own signature sound, and as we cut rapidly from interiors to exteriors, from cars to pits and so on. The perspective aural shifts are exciting, but we also tried to keep it simple and not lose the dramatic identity of the story. We even removed sounds in the mix if they weren’t important, so we could focus on what was important.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
At Efilm with Skip Kimball (working on Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve), and it was huge on this, especially dealing with the 24-hour race, the changing light, rain and night scenes, and having to match five different locations was a nightmare. So we worked on all that and the overall look from early on in the edit.
Don’t know. I’ve got two projects I’m working on. We’ll see.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.