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‘Ford v Ferrari’: James Mangold on How to Avoid the Pitfalls Destroying Franchise Action Films

Mangold steered clear of the drama-less, green screen, sensory overload that he believes has hollowed out big-budget commercial filmmaking.

Christian Bale in "Ford v Ferrari"

Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari”

Twentieth Century Fox

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“Ford v Ferrari” has been called a throwback, one that harks back to a classical Hollywood filmmaking that we have seen increasingly less of over the past two decades. When director James Mangold was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit, he admitted that there was an element of reaching back into Hollywood’s past in “Ford v Ferrari,” but it was more about avoiding what he saw as the pitfalls of today’s big-budget franchise films.

“I feel like we’ve gotten almost segregated, where action pictures, big or muscular movies, have gotten to where they operate almost without drama, or not much drama at all,” said Mangold. “The characters, there’s so many of them often, that they only have three or four minutes of screen time to set up their ‘problem’ and resolve it, and on top of that, the movies themselves operate on such a sensory overload that you can’t almost get into an intimate space with the actors because you’ve been too bludgeoned to be able to.”

The script for “Ford v Ferrari” was one that had been floating around Fox for a while, with other directors attached. Mangold had long been a fan of the script, but when he finally got a crack at it, he quickly set out to do a rewrite that aligned it with his action-drama goals.

Caitriona Balfe and Christian Bale in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

Caitriona Balfe and Christian Bale “Ford v Ferrari”

Merrick Morton

“What I did when it came my way after ‘Logan’ was immediately set to work with [screenwriters] Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, at trying to get the script, which I thought was quite promising, but to get it more into the character-vein and less racing,” said Mangold. “I want the film, if you didn’t see the action, to be as good as any drama. I want the film’s in-between parts to be as good as any movie. Because it’s what I miss.”

“Ford v Ferrari” features three big race scenes. While Mangold and his long-time team of collaborators wanted the racing to be visceral and feel both dangerous and exciting, he was equally careful to not bombard or overload the audience with sound and visuals.

“We’re looking to put you there [in the race], but I also don’t want to ring you dry,” said Mangold. “Meaning there’s a kind of exhaustion that I know I have with movies that are loud and assaultive.”

Mangold joked that he has a narcoleptic response to films when they get too loud or busy with visual spectacle, comparing himself to Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” with eyes being forced open to watch the screen.

Matt Damon, James Mangold and Christian Bale on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI.

Matt Damon, James Mangold and Christian Bale on the set of “Ford v Ferrari”

Merrick Morton

“Movies have this threshold by which, at a certain point, the saturation of noise and music pumping, you’re no longer living through the characters. It’s sensory overload,” said Mangold. “I want you to feel it, but there is a romance to movies and in many ways I think we’ve lost it a little, because one of the ways that bigger budget movies try to lift their preview scores essentially, when the narrative isn’t working, when the story isn’t working, is just to beat the shit out of the audience with sound and image, and hope that if the camera is flying [on] the wings of a fly and into the keyhole of a door, and the sound is coming from 19 channels at 100 decibels, that you’re going to feel like that’s drama, but the problem is drama is not level, drama is conflict and emotion.”

Mangold believes today’s big-budget filmmaking’s reliance on sensory overload stems from insecurity — filmmakers and distributors pushing so hard to prove their films with sound and fury, that, according to Mangold, they “trample on something more delicate that’s happening inside the frame.”

On “Ford v Ferrari,” Mangold and his team worked hard in pre-production on figuring out how to stage and shoot racing scenes where the cars and camera reached near-racing speeds — never the 200mph that the real-life cars and drivers the film was based on reached, but getting up into the 140 to 170 mph range when necessary. The reason for this was as much about the performances, specifically Christian Bale’s, as it was about achieving the visceral practical action Mangold loves.

“Acting for movies is such a delicate thing. Acting for the stage, you never get six inches from the nose of the actor. We’re so close in movies, we’re invading the soul through the eyes,” said Mangold. “That level of invasion requires the actor not only to act, but to feel. And I really feel that by sending them through space, hurdling through space, there’s a different performance happening than if they were sitting in a green room getting bounced by a grip with a two-by-four in a static car.”

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One of the key reasons Mangold felt it was important to achieve and capture real speed was to avoid green screens, which he views as being just as big of a problem as a lack of drama in big franchise films.

“The danger in the green screen film is that everything is perfect and in a way that’s one of the unique beauties of live action filmmaking is the battle against elements, things pushing against you, and you have to adapt to find the film,” said Mangold. “It’s the fact that the unpredictable things are happening. The sun might not be exactly where you want it. There might be a flare that looks messy, but it adds a realism.”

The lack of realism, also leads to a deadening of the filmmakers’ creativity, according to Mangold: “The danger now when what is evolving into the kind of pure green screen film is that there is no having to adapt, you can [get] any shot [and] in many ways limitations are sometimes where the real creativity happens. When you have no limitations, in a way, it deadens one of the interactive elements of directing a movie.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud, and Google Play MusicThe music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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