In an era when anything made by the studio system that's not a superhero movie, or sequel, has everyone involved in cold sweats about its box-office performance, director James Mangold seems quite comfortable.
Sitting relaxed on a couch in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Toronto, he's hours away from premiering his latest movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Ford v Ferrari," which is certainly not a sequel or superhero flick. It's also a movie made by Fox, which has had a weak release slate since Disney took over the studio.
In short: there's a lot riding on this movie.
But Mangold (coming off the success of his last movie, "Logan") couldn't be more enthusiastic about it. The story of two race-car drivers (played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale), who have been enlisted by the Ford Motor Company to build a car that will beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, is one he's been chasing for years. Now he's getting the full support of Disney, he says, to get it out to audiences (and likely some Oscar campaigning for the movie, too).
Mangold believes "Ford v Ferrari" (in theaters November 15) has what audiences are craving: A strong story about characters you'll be invested in with perfectly placed action. It's the kind of movie he says he plans to continue to make within the studio system, despite the conventional thought that these projects are all but extinct at the studios — especially Disney.
Business Insider spoke to Mangold about what got "Ford v Ferrari" made after years of false starts by others (even Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt), the need to have real cars in the race scenes instead of doing them in CGI, and why his dramatic-heavy movies are still a good fit at the studio level.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: So this is a movie that has quite a history, even Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt attached couldn't get it made.
James Mangold: People have been trying to tell this story for a while. And to make a movie about racing is to make an expensive movie.
Guerrasio: You can't do it on the cheap.
Mangold: If you're making a movie that's a period film about period cars and racing around period tracks, it's not going to be cheap. So instantly you have the burden of how expensive is this movie? And is there an audience to justify it? I was tracking this from before I even did the first Wolverine movie. It was actually before Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were involved.
Guerrasio: And what grabbed you about the story?
Mangold: The script was bouncing around and the story was voluminous. If you think our movie is epic now, it was even more epic then. It featured a lot more with Ferrari in Italy and the loss of his son. There were several more Le Mans races through the movie, not just at the end. One of the changes I made to the script, among many, was taking out one of the Le Mans races completely. That took $7 million off the budget right there. I think one of the things the studio ran into in the past with this project is they were always coming in at too high of a price. This movie was a three-digit budget. I had to get it under $100 million and we got it down to $90 million.
Guerrasio: Even with Matt Damon and Christian Bale attached?
Mangold: We got it down before they came on because we had to get it to something manageable. It worked out that I had just made a hit movie for Fox with "Logan" and the Patty Hearst movie I was working on had fallen apart.
Guerrasio: But what made you so determined to make this movie?
Mangold: If you're a film fan who got introduced to my work through the Wolverine movies I have made, you would think of me as maybe an action director. But I think my bread and butter are the movies I came up doing: "Walk the Line," "Girl, Interrupted," "3:10 to Yuma," which are essentially —
Guerrasio: Please, let's not leave out "Cop Land." That is getting the resurgence it so deserves.
Mangold: Yes. And what all these have in common is they are dramatic pictures. Part of what I bring to the movies I make, and it's also a lesson I've learned from people as diverse as Hitchcock or John Ford, is you don't need a lot of action, you just need the right action. Movies have tended recently, particularly summer movies or tentpole movies, to lean into the action as the only entrée. You are here for sensory overload.
Guerrasio: I couldn't agree more.
Mangold: So one of my ideas was these characters were so fabulous: Ken Miles (played by Christian Bale) is such a unique character, and the story of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), and even Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), searching for something to lift a slumping company. There's this rule I heard once that every seven minutes some big s–t has to go down in a script. I don't think an audience needs it to be action that's the big s–t. I think it can be dramatic. Things falling apart for a character in a scene.
Guerrasio: Or a scene of a dad sitting with his son on a runway strip and talking about the art of racing, which is a moving moment in this movie.
Mangold: Yes, but also the son is watching his father and is worried about losing him. It's loaded with this sense of foreboding in that what these men do is so dangerous that every moment they spend with their loved ones is so precious.
Guerrasio: However, there is a moment toward the end of this movie, and I'm not going to give it away, but a climactic moment that happens in a unique way that audiences don't usually see in an underdog-makes-good story. Did that scare you at all? That this moment might not live up to the the dramatic buildup you're doing?
Mangold: It was the only reason I made the movie. The only reason I chased this story was because I think audiences have gotten bored, frankly, with the kind of underdog, David-versus-Goliath story. What these characters are forced to live with is having to bend, having to move on and live the next chapter of their lives. It's incredible how much more powerful the action becomes when you're emotionally attached to the people in the action, and if there's anything I tried to bring to this material, it was trying to step back from the "car porn" as the main attraction of the movie and allow these really unique characters to step to the foreground.
Guerrasio: Well, speaking of "car porn," did you do the race scenes all CGI or use real cars?
Mangold: It was our desire to make something that felt like you were there and as un-CG as possible. The first goal was to lean into real cars. Out of the thousands of shots in the movie, there are maybe two where there is a digital car dropped in. And obviously we put in the crowds with digital effects. We couldn't afford 20,000 people for audience shots. That's what more of our effects budget was: set extensions and crowd filling. We wanted the car stuff to be real because no matter where we have gotten with technology, there's nothing more real than real.
For the few times we did stuff on a stage with this movie, we realized there was no way to make the car vibrate the way it does when you mount a camera on a car going 150 miles per hour. If you try to fake it, you spend more time trying to make it look real than you should.
Guerrasio: "Ford v Ferrari" was made at a studio that no longer is its own entity. When Fox was bought by Disney, did you feel you got lucky? I mean, do you think a movie like this gets made at a traditional studio looking at what is now left?
Mangold: I hope so. If you take everyone at their word, yes. And I will say, Disney loves this movie. They are supporting this movie hard. This is a great example of what they hope to see from Fox. It's the kind of movie Disney hasn't made so it does expand their portfolio.
When you make a movie like this as an executive there is tremendous upside but huge downside. When you make an original film and it doesn't work and someone says "Why did you make it?" you can only say, "Because I believed in the filmmaker." That's thin ice. So a lot of credit has to be given to Emma Watts at Fox.
Guerrasio: But the current landscape of the studio system, today, is it still attractive to you for the kind of stories you want to tell?
Mangold: I think so. There are either two things you can do as a filmmaker. You can try to expand the universe of the independent film, which many filmmakers are doing and it involves Netflix or other streaming services — other ways to devise financing. Or you have to find a way to get the system to work for you. Right now, and this is not because I have any wisdom but because I have a great relationship with the studios, that's the angle I'm playing. At the moment I find a wall, I'll go in another direction. The truth is I haven't found an interest yet in terms of a movie or a property to develop that Fox and the new Fox/Disney haven't been supportive of. So I think they are looking for new ideas. I think that a lot of it comes along with the fact that they trust me and that I have the audience in mind. The greatest fear for them is a filmmaker who has an ambivalence or hostility toward the audience. That you are making the movie for — [ Pause.]
Guerrasio: For you.
Mangold: Well, I am making it for me, but I am also a big believer that if you're only showing movies to the people who already agree with the point of view of the picture, you're not expanding any minds. I think the studio knows I think that way and it gives them a confidence that while I don't consider myself a sellout, or trying to cheapen my message, I am trying to reach people. I don't think there's any shame in that.