Christian Bale as Ken Miles in ”Ford v Ferrari”, 2019 | Twentieth Century Fox
In Ford v Ferrari, based on a true story, Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby is first seen tearing up the track as he wins the 1959 Le Mans. But a heart condition is forcing him to retire and he channels all his energy and passion towards designing cars. Ken Miles (Christian Bale) is an English mechanic living in America and he might be the best driver Shelby has ever seen. The project that brings the two together, the GT40 programme, is an initiative by Ford Motors to design a car that would beat Ferrari at the world’s preeminent sports car race, the endurance 24 Hours of Le Mans.
More than an action car film, Ford v Ferrari (titled Le Mans ‘66 in some territories) is a character-driven drama, un underdog story that evokes the heyday of motorsport cars. A subject that is neither sequel, nor superhero blockbuster, but a good old-school, entertaining Hollywood movie grounded by a great piece of storytelling, something very rare these days. It feels liberating. With the car racing scenes shot in close-up and realistically, using hard-mounted cameras where the camera is actually vibrating in the car, the film conveys the sense of the race, the danger and passion that go into the sport, never losing sight of the human aspect.
Maverick driver Ken Miles and pioneering automotive designer Carroll Shelby (both Bale and Damon give the film spectacular horsepower) don’t share just a passion for cars, but a passion about something they want to do with their lives. When you see Christian Bale’s Ken Miles in a race car, he is emotionally connected to it – he is not into it for the thrill of winning, but for the thrill of cars and racing and because he wants to achieve something for himself, and that’s what makes him be himself – and you feel you are inside it, too. Because you can not win a car race without emotion. That’s what had differentiated Ferrari from Ford up until this point depicted in the film. Ferrari was not just a car manufacturer, but an artisan that created cars to win races. It takes technology, but most importantly, craftsmanship and passion, to do that. Just like a good movie does.
The atmosphere of the film is both thrilling and emotional, a layered drama with characters and cars equally in focus at all times, as the personal story in between the car racing is calling the attention just as much as the dazzling driving scenes. It is enticing and it is the result of not only the vision of director James Mangold, or the beautiful cinematography of Phedon Papamichael, shot in natural light as much as possible, but also because of a painstakingly detailed and authentic recreation of a 1960s world, and a very specific world at that, and of the rebel-vibe of the California car culture of that decade. From the cars to the Le Mans track that no longer exists in the way it did in the sixties, everything was manufactured or built/recreated on real location. Production designer François Audouy takes us behind the scenes and breaks down the process of crafting this world.
Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale in ”Ford v Ferrari”, 2019 | Twentieth Century Fox
What was your main challenge when setting out to create, or recreate, such a specific environment in Ford v Ferrari, not only a story set in the 1960s, but one that revolves around the legendary 24-hour endurance motorsport race held annually near the town of Le Mans, France?
Designing the world of Ford v Ferrari meant, in many instances, re-building places that no longer existed, for a story that spans a diversity of locations across Southern California, Michigan, Florida, Italy and France. The most challenging chapter of the story would be recreating the “Circuit de Sarthe,” which is an eight-and-a-half long circuit across the pristine French countryside surrounding the town of Le Mans. In 1966, these were country roads traversing dairy pastures and farmland, but the track today is a highly engineered course with enormous safety fencing and widened byways built for supercars driving 200 miles-an-hour. The circuit would need to be found somewhere in the US.
To add to this challenge, each chicane and straightaway of the course is steeped in legend and recognizable by die-hard racing fans: “The Dunlop Bridge,” the “Esses,” “Tertre Rouge,” the “Mulsanne Straight,” “Indianapolis,” and “Arnage.” We needed to find analogs for each of these stretches of road, which forced us to shoot the elaborate sequence across four locations in two states.
A mammoth 1,100-foot long three-story concrete bunker-type building anchored the start/finish line at Le Mans. This served as the pits for the 55 teams, with private VIP suites above, and viewing stands above that. A 600-foot long section of this structure was lovingly recreated on an airfield that was rented for the purpose, in Algua Dulce, California, as a fully practical interior/exterior contiguous space.
We also finished the rear of the set as staging for race mechanics and support vehicles. My art department output over 70 construction drawings for this 600-foot long, and also modeled the entire virtual Le Mans site, including accurate topography and hundreds of period-accurate signs, which proved invaluable to the visual effects team in post and helped blur the line between practical and synthetic.
Where did you start your research for all the details and artifacts that made this world so believable and authentic?
One of the early discoveries was that most of the characters who had witnessed these events over five decades ago had sadly passed on, so we were left with testimonies relayed to journalists and historians.
My researcher Ozzy Inguanzo scoured all the usual suspects in print media and online archives, but also conducted in-depth interviews with Ken Miles’ son, Peter, and his friend and Crew Chief Charlie Agapiou. He was first hired by Ken as an 18-year-old mechanic at Ken’s foreign car garage in the early 60s, and then promoted to his Crew Chief at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. Charlie was a goldmine of details, and a humble raconteur of “war stories” that Ozzy digested into notes that would be forwarded to Jim so he could fold these details into the script.
The Fox Research Library helped us by assembling visual imagery from the period which, along with archival footage, we uploaded onto a secure website that served as a visual database of information for anyone on the production needing to get up to speed quickly. Our research collection continued to grow throughout prep to include rare archival imagery and design research from the Henry Ford Museum and many other sources.
We also gained access to the Ford archives at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, as well as the Le Mans museum, which provided us with exclusive film footage of the 1966 race.
The story is set in many different locations, from the Ford offices and factory, and a Los Angeles neighborhood, to the Daytona and Willow Springs racetracks, the Ferrari headquarters and, of course, the Le Mans race track. Did you recreate all the sets?
Yes! At the heart of this story was Ken Miles’ neighborhood, which Jim Mangold envisioned as a contiguous space with the Miles home overlooking Ken’s garage. We found this location in a quiet corner of Eagle Rock. We gutted and remodeled a two-bedroom house overlooking a small auto shop on a corner lot, with a fantastic period strip mall in the background.
The Shelby story also required similar attention, and presented a story arc starting with the Texan’s cozy but bustling Cobra shop in Venice (recreated in South LA), which then snowballed in size after Ford’s sizable investment. After Venice, Shelby-America moved into two giant aircraft hangars at LAX, which would be yet another challenge to recreate. While developing the GT-40, Shelby continued building GT350 Mustangs, Daytonas and Cobras, so the operation was sizable. One of the legendary stories was that Shelby and Ken Miles would test GT-40s on the LAX runway after the last flight departed to Tokyo.
Our LAX ended up being a runway and hangar at Ontario airport – the managers of which were gracious enough to allow us to control a working runway of their busy international airport, swarming with the constant freight traffic of UPS and FedEx jumbo jets. We built Shelby’s office into a large empty hangar, grounded by built piece of architecture I imagined had been repurposed from Southern California’s aerospace past. We also rented a defunct Boeing 727 stored at the airport and updated its livery to look like a TWA transporter. After dozens of Shelby Cobras, Daytonas, and Mustangs were dressed into place, the illusion was complete.
We found another airport location at Fox Field in Palmdale. This became our stand-in for Santa Monica’s Cloverfield Airport where Ford unveiled the brand-new Ford Mustang in 1964. An aluminum Beech 18 aircraft buzzed the crowd gathered around a stage adorned with giant F-O-R-D letters and flags. The roar of the aircraft’s twin Pratt & Whitneys growled like angry lions, screaming overhead.
Near Fox Field, in nearby Lancaster, was Willow Springs raceway which served as the canvas for the film’s opening race, pitting mid-century Porsches, Corvettes and Cobras that raced at ground-zero of this exciting new motor sport. Dozens of period-accurate signs were created to line the track, with hundreds of half-tires buried into the sand as makeshift “safety bumpers.”
We selected several locations to recreate the mid-century rectilinear world of Ford HQ in Michigan. Henry Ford II’s inner sanctum came to life inside a wood-paneled executive suite at the LA Times building downtown. A reproduction oil painting of Henry Ford overlooked his sweeping office. We provided the requisite well-stocked bar, executive desk with built-in phone, and lush seating area with nickel-plated floating shelves.
In the nearby warehouse district, a sprawling industrial space became Ford’s River Rouge Assembly Plant, the largest assembly line in the world during the 1960s. 21 Ford Falcons were restored and dressed to portray the various stages of automobile assembly. Extras were trained to install windshields, wheels and body panels, and paint parts in a practical spray booth.
We found the final piece of the Ford puzzle at the lustrous Porsche Experience Center in Carson where a Neutra-esque control building was built on a small hill overlooking the test track. We also built a period-correct dynamometer lab, where engineers would birth Ford’s next generation gigantic V8 engine—surely too big for any Gran Turismo racer.
As a counterpoint to Ford, the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy, had to be recreated. Ferrari’s famous red-brick gates were replicated in an existing courtyard at the Lanterman Facility in Pomona, with Enzo Ferrari’s office built with a picture window overlooking a courtyard overflowing with olive trees, palms and lavender. At an Edison Substation in Eagle Rock, Ferrari’s racing department told a different story to that of Ford’s – the cars here were each hand-assembled by meticulous craftsmen. Details included custom aluminum Ferrari engines, three bespoke Ferrari 330 P3s, three Ferrari F-1 “cigar” racers and the rental of several priceless Ferraris.
Another challenge was recreating Florida’s Daytona International Raceway, at the two-mile long oval Auto Club Raceway in Fontana. 1,000 feet of pits was dressed with dozens of elevated gas tanks, flags, tires, dressing and support vehicles. We also painted the walls around the track with thousands of feet of chevrons and large DAYTONA letters.
Christian Bale and Noah Jupe in ”Ford v Ferrari”, 2019 | Twentieth Century Fox
The name of any of these multiple locations never appears on screen when the story moves from one place to another. The film is so beautifully executed that the viewer is only informed visually that the location has changed. What were the most important elements you employed to create this visual language?
Each specific setting was carefully designed to not only convey the proper tone for the scenes, but also follow a set color palette and architectural language. The reason for this is that I wanted the audience to instinctually know where they were geographically without having to resort to subtitles. There was a lot of planning that went into the design of the location so that there would be a clear design language to each chapter in the story. For example, the world of Ford was rectilinear with steely blues and lacquered woods. In contrast, Ferrari’s factory was textural earth tones, with lipstick red accents. And in contrast to that, Southern California’s color story was a very vibrant sun-kissed palette echoing research from the period.
Before watching the film, I was hoping for it to be a nod to the good action films of the 1960s and 1970s and after I saw it I was so glad that it had surpassed these expectations. Did you use any films from that period as reference?
Of course, I looked at all the period racing films, from Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) to Le Mans (1971), but was most inspired by the design work and bold choices of Godard’s Contempt (1963) and Tati’s Playtime (1967).
Production design is first and foremost meant to create a detailed fictional world that would help the characters inhabit that world. For example, the props. Many of them remain in the background, subtly complementing, not distracting from the story being told, and many of them are hardly noticed by the audience although they may be of paramount importance for helping the actors get into a certain setting and atmosphere, into character. Were there any particular little things, period props that you used to help define the image of the protagonists?
The details in the set dressing and props are sometimes just as important as the backgrounds, especially when they convey details about character back stories, or add to the texture or emotion of specific scenes. I love the slot car track that Peter plays with early in the film, and how the Dunlop Bridge was made from an old air filter from his father’s garage.
My decorator Peter Lando found a vintage WWII-era BSA motorcycle for Ken Miles’ garage, which hinted at Ken’s lifelong love of English motorcycles, and this piece of dressing ended up in an unscripted, wonderful moment of Ken arriving to Shelby’s hangar at LAX as the sun set over the tarmac.
The race cars were also each peppered with dozens of details, and I remember staying up late one night with my art directors, hand-applying hundreds of faux rivets to the bodies of the three Ferrari 330 P3s. It was a detail that we felt we just had to have, so that they would feel authentic!
Were all the racing cars that appear in the film specifically built for the production?
Central characters in our story were the cars, and recreating them proved to be an enormous challenge, as they could take several months each to manufacture. We ultimately built 34 period race cars for the film, most of them built to be able to perform at high speeds by the team of stunt drivers.
This is the 1960s. There was a car-based culture in the US at the time. Apart from the race cars, how did you recreate this rebel-vibe of the California car culture?
Southern California was the heart of the movie, and in the early 60s, the Southland was a very exciting, vibrant place to be. We wanted to capture what was essential, the birth of a new sporting culture, and the energy of young men taking these Corvettes, Porsches and Cobras out to the desert to race them around sandy, sun-baked race courses. It helped to capture the realism of this by shooting at the real Willow Springs Raceway in the Mojave Desert, and the hundreds of extras working in 110º temperatures also added to the realism. This was the first week of the shoot, and looking around at the completely immersive surroundings with those extras and picture cars was transportive. In many ways, most of the locations in the film felt like time capsules to an early time, imbued with as much detail, layering, and scope as possible to recreate this world that no longer exists.
Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ‘66) is out in cinemas worldwide now.