Ford v Ferrari – A triumphant yet bittersweet story straight out of history

Inspired by a true-life drama about a powerful friendship that forever changed racing history, Ford v Ferrari was a ten-year-journey from page to screen for filmmaker James Mangold, the masterful storyteller behind Walk the Line and Logan.

It’s one of the most legendary tales in the history of motorsports. Carroll Shelby, working closely with his spirited test driver Ken Miles, develops a revolutionary car that bests a fleet of vehicles built by Italian racing legend Enzo Ferrari at the 1966 running of the 24 Hours of LeMans. This is the story of a group of unconventional thinkers who overcome incredible odds to achieve something extraordinary through sheer inventiveness, determination and force of will.

Mangold was excited by the dual challenges the project offered: the opportunity to stage thrilling racing sequences that would essentially put the audience inside the cars with these fearless drivers, and the chance to chronicle the turbulent friendship between Shelby and Miles. Both had quite distinct, larger-than-life personalities—Shelby, tough yet eminently likable; Miles, prickly and unfiltered—but they were united by a passion for innovation and an abiding love for racing.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V. FERRARI.

Quite simply, Shelby and Miles were driven to excel, even if it meant putting their lives on the line every time they got behind the wheel. “They understood each other at the most profound level,” says Mangold. “When Shelby’s confronted with the fact that he can’t race anymore, he reinvents himself from a driver into a car salesman and designer, and Ken becomes a vessel for Shelby’s dreams. But Ken can’t quite filter himself or control himself in corporate situations or publicity situations. He just says whatever he thinks, so Shelby takes on this role of protector or spokesman for Ken. They have a very symbiotic relationship. One fills in where the other leaves off.”

Ford v Ferrari is the kind of movie that reminds me why I got into the movie business in the first place,” say producer Peter Chernin about what drew him to the project. “It’s a big, emotional, distinctive theatrical experience that embraces all of the reasons we want to sit in a movie theater. We want to be invested. We want to be moved, to cry to laugh… to be inspired. This movie is all of that and more.”

Christian Bale and James Mangold

Crafting The Screenplay

Jason Keller, who grew up watching the Indianapolis 500, wrote the first draft of the script back in 2009. Along the way, it attracted and lost two directors (Michael Mann and Joseph Kosinski) and two A-list stars (Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt). Originally, the story focused equally on the Ford and Ferrari teams, an unwieldy and expensive proposition. (The current iteration centers on Ford.)

In 2011, Mann asked screenwriting brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth to take a pass. Meanwhile, with each passing year, the appetite for racing movies seemed to diminish. (Hollywood’s last major attempt came in 2013 with Ron Howard’s Rush. It crashed at the box office.) There was also chatter about a rival Ferrari project at another studio. So Ford v Ferrari made an extended pit stop.

With the project in various stages of development for more than a decade, Mangold tweaked the story to focus on the relationship between former Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby (played by Damon) and Ken Miles, an eccentric British race car driver (played by the 45-year-old Bale). In the movie, Shelby recruits Miles to help Ford (Tracy Letts) run Ferrari (Remo Girone) off the road and claim the title for a U.S. automaker once and for all.

Coming off his last film, 2017’s effects-heavy Logan, Mangold was determined to bring a far more practical approach to Ferrari, forgoing CGI shortcuts in favor of full-scale sets and real stunt driving. (Of course, some movie magic came into play: The spectator stands are mostly computer-generated, and locations in California and Georgia stood in for Le Mans, France, where the actual race took place.)

The $97 million film was one of the last movies made entirely by 20th Century Fox before the studio was absorbed by Disney in March. It’s the sort of adult-aimed, mid-budgeted period piece that many (like Martin Scorsese in his recent New York Times op-ed) worry is going the way of the dinosaur.

“Obviously, movies like this are scary to studios,” Mangold says. Its material has no inherent IP or audience base other than perhaps the auto-racing world. Bale thinks the chaos and uncertainty that surrounded the Fox acquisition was probably fortuitous. “The unknown of what was about to happen and who would have a job invoked an attitude of ‘Let’s go out with a bang!’ ” he says. “That’s what finally got this movie made. It had been around for a while.”

Mangold’s moment to climb into the driver’s seat came in 2017. Fresh off the box office success of Logan, he was riding high at the studio along with its longtime president of production, Emma Watts, with whom he’d successfully collaborated since the 2005 Oscar-winning Walk the Line.

His pitch was eager but honest, and included the admission that he wasn’t a “car guy” but wanted to explore a world he didn’t know. Ultimately, he was most captivated by the dynamic between Miles and Shelby. “You have an aging, great driver with a smart mouth — Miles — who can’t get along with authority,” Mangold explains. “And then you have Shelby, who is a great race car driver who can’t drive anymore because of a heart condition, but who is very good at politics. I found their yin-yang relationship interesting.”

In February 2018, the studio gave the green light, on one condition: Mangold had to keep the budget under $100 million. Chernin Entertainment also agreed to produce. Mangold radically pared down the script and called up the Butterworth brothers for advice.

“Every time we worked on it, it was like meeting an old friend,” says Jez. “He wanted to reshape to make it much more about the two central characters, Shelby and Miles.” If the script feels authentic, that’s because some of the actual people depicted in the film weighed in. On their first pass, the Butterworths, who share script credit with Keller, met with Shelby just before his death in 2012; Bale, meanwhile, sat for hours with Shelby’s son, Peter, who appears as a young boy (Noah Jupe) in the film.

“I tried 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.”

After 10 long years, Ford v Ferrari was a go. But there was a hitch: Bale would need eight months to lose 70 pounds before principal photography could begin. The actor had gained much of the weight to play Dick Cheney in 2018’s Vice, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination. That pushed the start date to June 2018. When they finally gathered on set, Damon — whose own weight has also yo-yo’d for his various roles — asked Bale which diet he had relied on.

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.”

” We shaped the true story 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.”

Chernin was excited that director James Mangold was enlisted after several years of developing the script. Mangold was already experienced in telling emotionally satisfying stories about historical figures and dramatic tales about outsiders.

“He is always drawn to reluctant heroes, people who live by a strong moral code all their own, often idiosyncratic, sometimes less than law-abiding,” says Chernin. “The draw for him to make a gorgeous, huge-scope drama with high-stakes action was unmistakable. Nobody could’ve combined beauty and soul in this film in quite the way he did.”

“The challenge was how do we navigate this story so that audiences feel the love and camaraderie and energy of these drivers and designers and mechanics and pit crew, but it doesn’t depend upon a cliché kind of victory,” adds Mangold. “I felt that if we could get deep enough into these unique characters, the winning and the losing of the races would be secondary to the winning and the losing of their lives.”

The key to Mangold’s approach was to create a more naturalistic portrait of what life was like for Shelby and Miles. In a modern era when CG spectacle has come to define many blockbuster films, the director felt it was critical to take a grounded approach to the action in FORD v FERRARI to both more accurately depict the 1960s and to help the audience understand what these drivers experienced as they were pushing themselves, and their cars, to the limit.

“The goal to me, in an age of incredibly computer-enhanced action movies, was that there could be something profoundly analog and real and gritty about the film and the sexiness of these beasts, the cars, their engines, the danger,” Mangold says. “These characters are riding in a thin aluminum shell at 200 miles an hour around a track. The miracle that was their daring and their survival under these circumstances was something that I really wanted to try to convey.”

“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 says, “This movie is about characters striving for excellence, trying to push against the onset of corporate market-tested group-think. It’s an essential struggle in the 21st century in our country, the risk-taking and daring and leaps of instinct that were required to invent a lot of the things that define our country are things that we’re almost too frightened to do anymore.”

Adds Chernin: “We had always felt this could be an incredibly compelling film because it’s about the behind-the-scenes conflicts and choices of passionate, competitive, driven, larger-than-life people caught in the very moment the American landscape was changing from the optimism of the post war 1950s and early 1960s to the more cynical late 1960s and ’70s. It’s also the best kind of American underdog story, one filled with nostalgia.” 

The Screenwriters

JASON KELLER’s feature work has attracted top tier talent and filmmakers, establishing him as a go-to scribe for character-driven projects infused with spectacle, grit and wide appeal.

Keller’s screenwriting credits include the emotional action-thriller Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler (300, Law Abiding Citizen) and directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace); Mirror Mirror, the wildly original re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale Snow White, starring Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, and Armie Hammer; and the action thriller Escape Plan, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Keller’s projects share a through line of suspense, action and unique perspective that were integral in attracting talent and studio support. It was, in fact, Keller’s original screenplay of the fact-based Machine Gun Preacher that enticed Butler to join the film, and it was his re-imagining Snow White that attracted Julia Roberts to that project.

Prior to his current success as a screenwriter, Keller worked in almost every capacity of film production, including as a grip, a gaffer, an assistant, and countless other jobs that gave the aspiring writer the tools to better understand the mechanics of filmmaking.

Keller attended Ball University in Indiana during which time he was recommended for a year-long theater and film studies program at Regents College in London. After writing, directing, and studying classic cinema in London, Keller moved to Los Angeles to pursue a filmmaking career with a focus on screenwriting.

JEZ BUTTERWORTH was born in London, in 1969. His first play, Mojo (Royal Court Theatre, 1995), won seven major awards, including the Olivier for Best Comedy. Other plays for the Court include The Night Heron (2002), The Winterling, (2009) and Jerusalem (2009). Jerusalem transferred to the West End, breaking box office records for a new play. It won Best Play at the Evening Standard Awards 2010, the UK Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play 2010, before travelling to Broadway where it won Best Foreign Play at the 2011 New York Critics Circle Awards. It received six Tony nominations, winning two, including Best Actor for Mark Rylance. The River (Royal Court, 2012), transferred to Broadway in 2014, starring Hugh Jackman. Other plays include Parlour Song (Atlantic Theatre, 2008/Almieda Theatre, 2009).

Butterworth’s sixth play for the Royal Court, The Ferryman, directed by Sam Mendes, was extended during its time in the West End in London and opened on Broadway in New York. It received 15 five-star reviews in the UK daily and national papers and won Best Play and Best Director at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2017, the Critics Circle Award for Best Play, and 3 Olivier Awards for Best Director, Best Play and Best Actress in 2018.

His screenwriting credits include Fair Game (winner of the Paul Selvin Award, 2010), Get on Up (2014), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Black Mass (2015) and Spectre (2015). In 2007, Butterworth won the E.M Forster award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

JOHN-HENRY BUTTERWORTH is a British screenwriter who has written films with his brother Jez Butterworth. Together they won the Writers Guild of America’s 2011 Paul Selvin Award for their screenplay for the 2010 film Fair Game. His other credits include Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Get on Up (2014) and French language cult movie Malgre Le Nuit (2015). Recently he co-wrote upcoming Fox release Lucy in the Sky (dir. Noah Hawley). He’s currently developing TV series “Warlord” with Tom Hardy for Hardy Baker and collaborating with Noah Hawley again on a top-secret project.

JAMES MANGOLDis a writer and director known for making sophisticated ensemble films in a wide range of genres while keeping constant the powerful themes, original characterizations, sterling performances and striking imagery that have come to define and unify his work. His ten feature films to date includes the award-winning 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, The Wolverine, Girl, Interrupted, and Logan.

The son of renowned painters Robert Mangold and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Mangold was raised in New York’s Hudson Valley. He graduated in film and acting from California Institute of the Arts and, after a few years of working in Hollywood, decided to go to Columbia University’s film school. He began writing the film Heavy while studying under Oscar®-winning director Milos Forman, which went on to win the Director’s Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and was selected to represent the United States at Director’s Fortnight in the Cannes Film Festival.

Recently, Mangold directed Logan, the final installment of the Wolverine trilogy, which he also co-wrote with screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green. The film received much critical acclaim, becoming the best-reviewed film of the whole X-Men franchise, as well as one of the highest grossing films of 2017. Mangold is attached to direct an adaptation of the Don Winslow novel The Force, which centers around corrupt NYPD officers, for 20th Century Fox.