James Mangold accelerates character driven action

November 20, 2019 Jeff Goldsmith

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with the director of Ford v FerrariJames Mangold from Issue 39 of Backstory.


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Current Cinema
Ford v Ferrari
By Claude Chung

A glance at James Mangold’s filmography reveals an impressive diversity of movies spanning many genres: western (3:10 to Yuma), thriller (Identity) and drama (Girl, Interrupted), among others. His foray into comic-book superhero territory culminated with 2017’s Logan, Hugh Jackman’s swan song as the mutant Wolverine. That film earned Mangold, along with Logan co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green, an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, largely because they were able to transcend the genre by exploring the characters in a way earlier attempts had not. Now Mangold continues his character-driven genre hopping in Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon as race-car designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale as acerbic driver Ken Miles, whose partnership led to a historic 1966 win for Ford’s upstart GT40 muscle car over the previously dominant Ferrari “prancing horse” speedster at the world-renowned 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The project was spinning its wheels in development at 20th Century Fox for years—with directors Michael Mann and Joseph Kosinski each attached at one point—before Mangold, having brought critical and commercial success to the studio with Logan, finally got it going. While not exactly a racing enthusiast per se, the filmmaker knew this movie would dig deep into the legendary rivalry percolating at the time between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari ever since Ford failed in its attempt to buy the Italian sportscar company in 1963. And in addition to that seething competition, he could go places with a movie that televised auto races, with the endless shots of vehicles going in circles, typically could not. “The car is a uniquely cinematic contraption,” he says. “I recognize the dynamism and the visuals that racing represents.” But Mangold understood that what would truly make or break the movie was not the action but the people. “The secrets hidden underneath the helmets and inside the chassis are what I had to bring through.”

As such, he focused on finding the nuances for each player, from the protagonists to the Ford executives. “It’s not this binary thing of good artists and bad corporations,” Mangold says. “The story was a sophisticated tale of people motivated in one way or another by their own ego or psychological damage. Everyone’s coming with baggage, and that to me was really interesting.” As a filmmaker working within the studio system, he identified with both Shelby and Miles, as they pursued their goal while dealing with pressure and interference from Ford executives, including company CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). For Mangold, the American Shelby, who himself steered an Aston Martin to glory in the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans and spent his years after attempting to design the perfect race car, personified the kind of balancing act he has to deal with during the filmmaking process. “Managing a movie is managing a lot of different personalities, all of which are passionate and unique, yet driving the process toward a singular goal. And using a car race as a sexier metaphor for that effort is really interesting to me.” British racing hotshot Miles was the epitome of the irresistible, uncompromising individualist, but Mangold knew the character wouldn’t be complete onscreen without showing his devoted, grounding relationships with his wife, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), and his son, Peter (Noah Jupe). Including a family life element helped Mangold balance Miles’ belligerent wild side on the track, and yet it also mirrored Bale’s personality in many ways. “As I was working on [the film], I was trying to work it toward my actors,” says Mangold, who directed Bale in 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma. “Christian is passionate and eccentric and driven and a perfectionist, but he’s also deeply dedicated to his role as a father and husband.”

A big reason why Mangold succeeded in getting this film made after multiple failed attempts was that he wanted to hone in on the relationship between Shelby and Miles and not necessarily spread the wealth of characters the way the earlier, more sprawling versions of the Ford-Ferrari script had. “I felt that part of what had held the movie up was that the scope was so large and therefore expensive,” the director says. He fully acknowledges that grown-ups don’t go the theater as they once did, so a movie like Ford v Ferrari, which is geared toward adults, represents a real financial risk to a studio. Not surprisingly, he approached this issue the way he approaches his films in general. “The secret to reducing cost is character.” For example, previous drafts of the script fully depicted Ford’s first trip to compete at Le Mans, where Shelby leaves Miles behind on Ford’s orders. Mangold instead chose to stay home with Miles, who has to follow the race on the radio. “It served several masters. I thought it’d be best to save Le Mans for the third act and that, almost counterintuitively, it would be more cinematic to listen to a race and feel Ken’s pain by denying the audience a chance to experience it as well.” This storytelling choice not only saved money, but it allowed valuable character moments between Miles and his family while staying true to his overall arc.

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