Writer-director James Mangold plays the Hollywood studio game well enough to build allies who believe in him. While at Fox, studio chief Emma Watts backed X-Men installments “Wolverine” and “Logan” and Oscar-winner “Walk the Line.” That made greenlighting $100-million sports saga “Ford v Ferrari” less of a risk, but it’s the kind of movie that studios don’t care to bank these days. The true story behind the legendary 1966 Le Mans race floundered in development for decades before Mangold started chasing it in 2011. (Fox handed him “Wolverine” instead.) When Michael Mann and Joseph Kosinski’s versions fell apart, Mangold was ready to pounce.
He pushed the movie forward thanks to Oscar-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who were lured by the strong script (by “Edge of Tomorrow” writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and “Machine Gun Preacher” writer Jason Keller).
The end result passed muster with new Fox owner Disney, which sent the film to Telluride and Toronto. The movie should not only play for global audiences but also will be in the hunt for multiple Oscars. Mangold argued for both stars competing for this year’s Best Actor Oscar. “I find the games with awards have gotten silly,” he told me. “Both guys agree. They’re the two leads in the movie. What does it do to all the people playing supporting roles?”
Despite a 152-minute running time, the bone-rattling “Ford v Ferrari” is tight, taut, percussive, emotional, and commercial entertainment that puts audiences inside the real-life drama behind race car driver-turned-designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and gifted, tightly wound driver Ken Miles (Bale) as they build a radical race car (the GT-40) for Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) in order to beat the Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) racers at the brutal 24-hour Le Mans race in 1966.
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Mangold explains why he was compelled to direct this layered drama, which he admits is an endangered species in Hollywood.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview contains spoilers.
Anne Thompson: It’s like Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles are two aspects of yourself: the filmmaker trying to get your way with the studio suits.
James Mangold: That was what was attractive to me. That yin and yang of their friendship is opposite sides of the same coin: the artist in Shelby who can’t paint anymore, but is the best dealer in the world. [He is] living through the actions of Miles, who needs Shelby, who has no filter, who lives in truth, who doesn’t pursue victory. He’s trying to be himself. He has integrity.
That’s part of what’s so moving about that character. I felt the role was close to Bale [who starred in Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma”], and prayed he would do it. He’s a model to me of artistic perseverance and flexibility. He’ll text you with thoughts and free associations about the character. It’s all incredible food. He’s a wonderful father, loving husband, great friend. He’s not interested in being famous. He drives a pickup truck, he’s grounded in the world, he raced motorcycles but had to stop when he got hurt, when he had kids. There are so many parts of Ken in Christian, who’s a perfectionist. He’s trying to achieve something for himself. It’s magical to direct someone like that because they draw you into their own idealism. You feel that energy; it permeates the set.
And Matt Damon is a natural peacemaker. There’s a lot of him in Shelby. There is the racer, and there is also the guy interested in hearing every side and trying to bring everyone along. Carroll Shelby has been a movie star all his life, in the way he understands how much a smile and a bit of kindness in this moment will get you. That’s part of his connection to the role.
The quiet Miles father-son scenes center the movie.
They are the ones that make the movie unusual. The film is not a brain-twisting reinvention of the form of cinema, [but we] address the action and physicality of the movie and bring the tenderness with the same confidence. I miss these two things braided together in movies. There’s effort in the racing, but there’s no less effort in those tender scenes. You can’t previs an emotional scene.
It’s not so easy: action stuff can become boring.
They feed one another. The more you care about characters, the more the action is engrossing, because you give a damn about the people inside. You see super-skilled filmmakers fall into the trap: You feel like you’re making something thin, so in order to hold [the audience], you up the ante with the frequency of cuts and whoosh and gush. You’re not connected emotionally, so they have to hold you with sensory overload.
Where did Bale get the stuff he’s saying inside the race car?
Brummie-isms. Christian made a list from the [west Birmingham] neighborhood in the UK where Ken Miles is from. He’d carry a crumpled piece paper whenever we’d do the car scenes, and fumble through wondering what he has or hasn’t said, and toss these off. We didn’t write any of it.
He’s doing an accent?
Heathens would say he plays a Brit. He would say that to a Brit’s ears, the Brummie accent is as different from his normal neutral English accent as Texas would be from Brooklyn. We can’t hear it.
Did Shelby really take Henry Ford II for a wild ride?
Actually, Ken Miles took him for a ride. There’s no notation of [Ford] crying.
The two men needed to be different in order to collaborate.
I very much identified with Shelby and Miles and their fight to make a car. It’s like trying to make a movie, maneuvering around obstacles. I can charm and cajole and try to talk someone around their own rationality. There’s a lot of reasons not to make a movie like this, and sometimes I feel like a prick and get tired of it and want to throw my hat down: “Why do they make it so hard?” You need anger to do this, and also kindness and cajoling.
Making movies is the way I make friends. I started making movies with my Dad’s Super-8 camera when I was 12. We had moved a lot; it was my social life. And it’s really that way still. The kind of friendships you make working together is unlike anything else. I hadn’t seen Joaquin [Phoenix, star of “Walk the Line”] for six years when I ran into him when we were coming back from Venice and Telluride. We might have been away five minutes, because you’ve gone through something so deep together no one can take that beautiful experience from you. That’s the way I felt about those guys, and the way they felt about each other.
The movie is a kind of argument with myself. What I found early, on the subject of bending or compromising: Just because you thought of it doesn’t mean it’s pure. Just because it’s your original idea doesn’t mean it’s right. What happens naturally on the set with your actors might be different; that thing I dreamed of in my room that might not be the real thing. It might be happening in front of you. My Shelby side does try to say, “Is it my ego?” or, “Am I worrying about what a small group of Twitterverse people will say?” What really matters is the audience and my own vision for the movie. That’s the battle we all go through.
Adult dramas are hard to get made.
After “Logan,” the idea was to make a movie that wasn’t attached to a pre-existing IP or trademarked story. What broke this out of the sports-movie mold — it wasn’t just, “Can these underdogs make it?” — is the movie unravels and unwinds in a way that is right and true and not what you would expect. That makes it feel real. It’s a little subdued. It’s not about victory, but how well we live our lives.
Making an original true-life film was really exciting, and also making an action film. My memory growing up on those movies is they were geared to adults. We find now that the most exciting, spectacular films of scope are mostly geared to 13-year-olds. Once in a while, we have a movie made for grown-ups. This was hugely liberating.
When you’re not directing an original motion picture, you’re not casting it. The look and the storyline are predetermined. There’s a bible of how to shoot it. It’s like episode six of an ongoing series. Your directorial freedom is very limited. [However], having made a “comic book movie,” that just refers to the source material. There can be a grownup movie. It’s what you do with it. Is it geared to selling happy meals and the next movie? Or using your brain or heart to go to someplace new?
All sorts of movies aim low. It’s not about one bad genre. It’s about everyone aiming too damn low with all sorts of genres. It does not exclusively happen in that one sliver of filmmaking.
I love the way these men talk the insider lingo of building and racing cars. I imagine you and your writers communicating the same way.
My first love isn’t motorsports. I was curious about learning about it, but I came into this movie partly because this world and its language is so interesting. You don’t have to know what a 427 is, or a Harley carb. You can enjoy it, in the same way you watch medical shows when you don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. The biggest thing is having to figure out the real-life story with so many characters: what to focus on and steer away from.
With multiple story threads, you can cut back and forth.
I think of when I was kid watching a talk show with those guys that spin the plates on sticks. My job is to spin that plate, move over to that one, keep that one spinning, and hope you haven’t forgotten the first plate when we get back to it.
Sometimes when you’re connecting the dots in a screenplay, you run up against the bullshit people tell each other. As you do the analysis trying to make dots line up, you see they’re full of shit. Everyone told the self-centered narcissistic version of what happened. When I was working on the script for “Walk the Line” a couple of years before we shot the picture, Johnny Cash called me from the green room of “The Larry King Show.” He says he read the latest draft: “It’s not romantic enough.” [I told him], “That’s because you won’t tell me anything. You just pretend you guys never touched or got together for the 10 years when you were onstage together,” which was in all the books, this chaste existence while they were each married to someone else. He invites me to come out and see him and June: They decided to tell me they got together before they got together.
The biggest cheat in this movie: Ferrari never showed up at Le Mans. I insistently put him there. I couldn’t stand the idea of cutting to the kid and mom and Ferrari on the phone or on radios, I couldn’t do it. Sorry, history!
How close did you hew to the true story?
We’re close, but we’re shaping it for a narrative. There were more races than we could track. Growing up watching sports movies, I didn’t want to have to montage my way through seven or eight races as opposed to really landing in one. The thing that transported me was the idea of a 24-hour race. It’s easy to say the words, but when you actually watch it, holy shit! It’s a hard thing on the vehicle and the men. The only way to communicate that is to not do the 24-hour race in 11 minutes. We’re making “Saving Private Ryan” in reverse. We watch 90 minutes of drama, then go to war. The race itself is almost an hour, an immersion.
Did Fox pressure you to cut it?
Luckily, I’ve worked with the people at this studio for years. We previewed the movie. The audience didn’t have an issue. Movies are events; people are binge-watching long-form series at home. Fox and Disney’s Bob Iger saw the film, and the general feeling was wanting to support it. All these questions about making this kind of movie at Disney or anywhere? The reality is the drama is struggling in the independent world, and in in the studio world it hardly exists. It was so important for me to deliver something that works. If you don’t, you’re further cementing the extinction of the form.
Is the ending true, the finish of the race?
There’s photos of the three racers crossing the finish line, and due to a technicality, despite being minutes ahead of the other car, Ken Miles was ruled as second place. And he died in a freak accident on the track a couple of months later. You can’t make that shit up.
Bale made me cry at the end. Something about his creativity, masculinity, and rebellious spirit.
And something about his disappointment, losing the race. Romantic characters like that don’t ever seem to win, completely. He did win in a sense. The balance I was trying to find at the tail of the film was he didn’t win in the sports-movie sense, and he didn’t win in the history book sense — he wasn’t a famous figure in racing — but he did win in the life sense.