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Director James Mangold on Oscar-nominated Ford v Ferrari

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.

James Mangold (beard) on set.

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.

L-R: Writer Iain Blair and Director James Mangold

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.

What’s next?
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.

Ford v Ferrari’s co-editors discuss the cut

By Oliver Peters

After a failed attempt to acquire European carmaker Ferrari, an outraged Henry Ford II sets out to trounce Enzo Ferrari on his own playing field — automobile endurance racing. That is the plot of 20th Century Fox’s Ford v Ferrari, directed by James Mangold. In the end, Ford’s effort falls short, leading him to independent car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon). Shelby’s outspoken lead test driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) complicates the situation by making an enemy out of Ford senior VP Leo Beebe.

Michael McCusker

Nevertheless, Shelby and his team are able to build one of the greatest race cars ever — the GT40 MkII — setting up a showdown between the two auto legends at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The challenge of bringing this clash of personalities to the screen was taken on by director James Mangold (Logan, Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma) and his team of long-time collaborators.

I recently spoke with film editors Michael McCusker, ACE, (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, Logan) and Andrew Buckland (The Girl On the Train) — both of whom were recently nominated for an Oscar and ACE Eddie Award for their work on the film — about what it took to bring Ford v Ferrari together.

The post team for this film has worked with James Mangold on quite a few films. Tell me a bit about the relationship.
Michael McCusker: I cut my very first movie, Walk the Line, for Jim 15 years ago and have since cut his last six movies. I was the first assistant editor on Kate & Leopold, which was shot in New York in 2001. That’s where I met Andrew, who was hired as one of the local New York film assistants. We became fast friends. Andrew moved to LA in 2009, and I hired him to assist me on Knight & Day.

Andrew Buckland

I always want to keep myself available for Jim — he chooses good material, attracts great talent and is a filmmaker who works across multiple genres. Since I’ve worked with him, I’ve cut a musical movie, a western, a rom-com, an action movie, a straight-up superhero movie, a dystopian superhero movie and now a racing film.

As a film editor, it must be great not to get typecast for any particular cutting style.
McCusker: Exactly. I worked for David Brenner for years as his first. He was able to cross genres, and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew even then that the most important decisions I would make would be choosing projects. I couldn’t have foreseen that Jim was going to work across all these genres — I simply knew that we worked well together and that the end product was good.

In preparing for Ford v Ferrari, did you study any other recent racing films, like Ron Howard’s Rush?
McCusker: I saw that movie, and liked it. Jim was aware of it, too, but I think he wanted to do something a little more organic. We watched a lot of older racing films, like Steve McQueen’s Le Mans and John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix.

Jim’s original intention was to play the racing in long takes and bring the audience along for the ride. As he was developing the script, and we were in preproduction, it became clear that there was more drama for him to portray during the racing sequences than he anticipated. So the races took on more of an energized pace.

Energized in what way? Do you mean in how you cut it or in a change of production technique, like more stunt cameras and angles?
McCusker: I was fortunate to get involved about two-and-a-half months prior to the start of production. We were developing the Le Mans race in previs. This required a lot of editing and discussions about shot design and figuring out what the intercutting was going to be during that sequence, which is like the fourth act of the movie.

You’re dealing with Mollie and Peter [Miles’ wife and son] at home watching the race, the pit drama, what’s going on with Shelby and his crew, with Ford and Leo Beebe and also, of course, what’s going on in the car with Ken. It’s a three-act movie unto itself, so Jim was trying to figure out how it was all going to work before he had to shoot it. That’s where I came in. The frenetic pace of Le Mans was more a part of the writing process — and part of the writing process was the previs. The trick was how to make sure we weren’t just following cars around a track. That’s where redundancy can tend to beleaguer an audience in racing movies.

What was the timeline for production and post?
McCusker: I started at the end of May 2018. Production began at the beginning of August and went all the way through to the end of November. We started post in earnest at the beginning of November of last year, took some time off for the holidays, and then showed the film to the studios around February or March.

When did you realize you were going to need help?
The challenge was that there was going to be a lot of racing footage, which meant there was going to be a lot of footage. I knew I was going to need a strong co-editor, so Andrew was the natural choice. He had been cutting on his own and cutting with me over the years. We share a common approach to editing and have a similar aesthetic.

There was a point when things got really intense and we needed another pair of hands, so I brought in Dirk Westervelt to help out for a couple of months. That kept our noses above water, but the process was really enjoyable. We were never in a crisis mode. We got a great response from preview audiences and, of course, that calms everybody down. At that point it was just about quality control and making sure we weren’t resting on our laurels.

How long was your initial cut, and what was your process for trimming the film down to the present run time?
McCusker: We’re at 2:30:00 right now and I think the first cut was 3:10 or 3:12. The Le Mans section was longer. The front end of the movie had more scenes in it. We ended up lifting some scenes and rearranging others. Plus, the basic trimming of scenes brought the length down.

But nothing was the result of a panic, like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to get to 2:30!” There were no demands by the studio or any pressures we placed upon ourselves to hit a particular running time. I like to say that there’s real time and there’s cinematic time. You can watch Once Upon a Time in America, which is 3:45, and feels like it’s an hour. Or you can watch an 89-minute movie and feel like it’s drudgery. We just wanted to make sure we weren’t overstaying our welcome.

How extensively did you rearrange scenes during the edit? Or did the structure of the film stay pretty much as scripted?
McCusker: To a great degree it stayed as scripted. We had some scenes in the beginning that we felt were a little bit tangential and weren’t serving the narrative directly, and those were cut.

The real endeavor of this movie starts the moment that these two guys [Shelby and Miles] decide to tackle the challenge of developing this car. There’s a scene where Miles sees the car for the first time at LAX. We understood that we had to get to that point in a very efficient way, but also set up all the other characters — their motives and their desires.

It’s an interesting movie, because it starts off with a lot of characters. But then it develops into a movie about two guys and their friendship. So it goes from an ensemble piece to being about Ken and Carroll, while at the same time the scope of the movie is opening up and becoming larger as the racing is going on. For us, the trickiest part was the front end — to make sure we spent enough time with each character so that we understood them, but not so much time that audience would go, “Enough already! Get on with it!”

Did that help inform your cutting style for this film?
McCusker: I don’t think so. Where it helped was knowing the sound of the broadcasters and race announcers. I liked Chris Economaki and Jim McKay — guys who were broadcasting the races when I was a kid. I was intrigued about how they gave us the narrative of the race. It came in handy while we were making this movie, because we were able to get our hands on some of Jim McKay’s actual coverage of Le Mans and used it in the movie. That brings so much authenticity.

Let’s talk sound. I would imagine the sound design was integral to your rough cuts. How did you tackle that?
Andrew Buckland: We were fortunate to have the sound team on very early during preproduction. We were cutting in a 5.1 environment, so we wanted to create sound design early. The engine sounds might not have been the exact sounds that would end up in the final, but they were adequate enough to allow you to experience the scenes as intended. Because we needed to get Jim’s response early, some of the races were cut with the production sound — from the live mics during filming. This allowed Jim and us to quickly see how the scenes would flow.

Other scenes were cut strictly MOS because the sound design would have been way too complicated for the initial cut of the scene. Once the scene was cut visually, we’d hand over the scene to sound supervisor Don Sylvester, who was able to provide us with a set of 5.1 stems. That was great, because we could recut and repurpose those stems for other races.

McCusker: We had developed a strategy with Don to split the sound design into four or five stems to give us enough discrete channels to recut these sequences. The stems were a palette of interior perspectives, exterior perspectives, crowds, car-bys, and so on. By employing this strategy, we didn’t need to continually turn over the cut to sound for patch-up work.

Then, as Don went out and recorded the real cars and was developing the actual sounds for what was going to be used in the mix, he’d generate new stems and we would put them into the Media Composer. This was extremely informative to Jim, because he could experience our Avid temp mix in 5.1 and give notes, which ultimately informed the final sound design and the mix.

What about temp music? Did you also weave that into your rough cuts?
McCusker: Ted Caplan, our music editor, has also worked with Jim for 15 years. He’s a bit of a renaissance man — a screenwriter, a novelist, a one-time musician and a sound designer in his own right. When he sits down to work with music, he’s coming at it from a story point-of-view. He has a very instinctual knowledge of where music should start, and it happens to dovetail into the aesthetic that Jim, Andrew, and I are working toward. None of us like music to lead scenes in a way that anticipates what the scene is going to be about before you experience it.

For this movie, it was challenging to develop what the musical tone of the movie would be. Ted was developing the temp track along with us from a very early stage. We found over time that not one particular musical style was going to work. This is a very complex score. It includes a kind of surf-rock sound with Carroll Shelby in LA, an almost jaunty, lounge jazz sound for Detroit and the Ford executives, and then the hard-driving rhythmic sound for the racing.

The final score was composed by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders.

I presume you were housed in multiple cutting rooms at a central facility.
McCusker: We cut at 20th Century Fox, where Jim has a large office space. We cut Logan and Wolverine there before this movie. It has several cutting spaces and I was situated between Andrew and Don. Ted was next to Don and John Berri, our additional editor. Assistants were right around the corner. It makes for a very efficient working environment.

Since the team was cutting with Avid Media Composer, did any of its features stand out to you for this film?
Both: FluidMorph! (laughing)

McCusker: FluidMorph, speed-ramping — we often had to manipulate the shot speeds to communicate the speed of the cars. A lot of these cars were kit cars that could drive safely at a certain speed for photography, but not at race speed. So we had to manipulate the speed a lot to get the sense of action that these cars have.

What about Avid’s ScriptSync? I know a lot of narrative editors love it.
McCusker: I used ScriptSync once a few years ago and I never cut a scene faster. I was so excited. Then I watched it, and it was terrible. To me there’s so much more to editing than hitting the next line of dialogue. I’m more interested in the lines between the lines — subtext. I do understand the value of it in certain applications. For instance, I think it’s great on straight comedy. It’s helpful to get around and find things when you are shooting tons of coverage for a particular joke. But for me, it’s not something I lean on. I mark up my own dailies and find stuff that way.

Tell me a bit more about your organizational process. Do you start with a Kem roll or stringouts of selected takes?
McCusker: I don’t watch dailies, at least in a traditional sense. I don’t start in the morning, watch the dailies and then cut. And I don’t ask my assistants to organize any of my dailies in bins. I come in and grab the scene that I have in front on me. I’ll look at the last take of every set-up quickly and then I spend an enormous amount of time — particularly on complex scenes — creating a bin structure that I can work with.

Sometimes it’s the beats in a scene, sometimes I organize by shot size, sometimes by character — it depends on what’s driving the scene. I learn my footage by organizing it. I remember shot sizes. I remember what was shot from set-up to set-up. I have a strong visual memory of where things are in a bin. So, if I ask an assistant to do that, then I’m not going to remember it. If there are a lot of resets or restarts in a take, I’ll have the assistant mark those up. But, I’ll go through and mark up beats or pivotal points in a scene, or particularly beautiful moments, and then I’ll start cutting.

Buckland: I’ve adopted a lot of Mike’s methodology, mainly because I assisted Mike on a few films. But it actually works for me, as well. I have a similar aesthetic to Mike.

Was this was shot digitally?
McCusker: It was primarily shot with ARRI Alexa 65 LFs, plus some other small-format cameras. A lot of it was shot with old anamorphic lenses on the Alexa that allowed them to give it a bit of a vintage feeling. It’s interesting that as you watch it, you see the effect of the old lenses. There’s a fall-off on the edges, which is kind of cool. There were a couple of places where the subject matter was framed into the curve of the lens, which affects the focus. But we stuck with it, because it feels “of the time.”

Since the film takes place in the 1960s and has a lot of racing sequences, I assume there a lot of VFX?
McCusker: The whole movie is a period film and we would temp certain things in the Avid for the rough cuts. John Berri was wrangling visual effects. He’s a master in the Avid and also Adobe After Effects. He has some clever ways of filling in backgrounds or greenscreens with temp elements to give the director an idea of what’s going to go there. We try to do as much temp work in the Avid as we are capable of doing, but there’s so much 3D visual effects work in this movie that we weren’t able to do that all of the time.

The racing is real. The cars are real. The visual effects work was for a lot of the backgrounds. The movie was shot almost entirely in Los Angeles with some second unit footage shot in Georgia. The modern-day Le Mans track isn’t at all representative of what Le Mans was in 1966, so there was no way to shoot that. Everything had to be doubled and then augmented with visual effects. In addition to Georgia, where they shot most of the actual racing for Le Mans, they went to France to get some shots of the actual town of Le Mans. Of those, I think only about four of those shots are left. (laughs)

Any final thoughts about how this film turned out?
McCusker: I’m psyched that people seem to like the film. Our concern was that we had a lot of story to tell. Would we wear audiences out? We continually have people tell us, “That was two and a half hours? We had no idea.” That’s humbling for us and a great feeling. It’s a movie about these really great characters with great scope and great racing. You can put all the big visual effects in a film that you want to, but it’s really about people.

Buckland: I agree. It’s more of a character movie with racing. Also, because I am not a racing fan per se, the character drama really pulled me into the film while working on it.


Oliver Peters is an experienced film and commercial editor/colorist. In addition, he regularly interviews editors for trade publications. He may be contacted through his website at oliverpeters.com.