Interviews · Movies

‘Ford v Ferrari’ Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Discusses His Exhilarating Collaboration With James Mangold

We get into the nitty-gritty of shooting practically, why ‘Ford v Ferrari’ feels so thrilling, and what’s lost when superhero movies dominate action cinema.
Ford V Ferrari
By  · Published on November 16th, 2019

“There’s a point at 7,000 RPMs where everything fades.
The machine becomes weightless. It disappears.
All that’s left, a body moving through space, and time.
At 7,000 RPM, that’s where you meet it. That’s where it waits for you.”

As the film’s opening informs us, James Mangold‘s Ford v Ferrari is an experiment in capturing a feeling of pure, sublime exhilaration. And indeed, it succeeds. The film chronicles the true story of automotive designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they take on the best of the best in an attempt to win the Le Mans race for the Ford Motor Company in 1966. To take on Ferrari’s winning team, Shelby and Miles work to build a Ford that can compete. It’s a buddy comedy, an underdog story, and home to some of the most thrilling sequences you’ll see this year.

Ahead of the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with the film’s director of photography to discuss how he and Mangold crafted these breathtaking race scenes. Ford v Ferrari marks Phedon Papamichael‘s fifth time working with the director, a collaboration that has included Walk The Line and 3:10 To Yuma, among others. Papamichael also frequently collaborates with Alexander Payne and picked up a well deserved Oscar nomination for his work on 2013’s Nebraska. During my conversation with the accomplished cinematographer, he broke down the process of crafting the film and offered a considerate and informed take on the topic du jour: Disney’s cultural domination. Read on for the full conversation.

One of the things that stood out to me was the number of sequences that take place at sunrise or sunset. I can imagine there’s a small window of time during which you can film those scenes. Was that a challenge? And how did you accomplish it?

When you do the exteriors, it’s very important to lay out the shooting order. I do embrace natural light for exteriors, so a lot of it is my experience, planning out the day, saying, “We’ll start here; we’ll do coverage here; we’ll hold those shots for later.” One example where everything worked out really well was Ken’s final drive at the end of the movie. It was a location way out in the Mojave desert on a Honda test track. That’s an important scene and we had one day and so many beats to account for. When the sun started setting, we realized we had time for one run in that light. We could do one run around the track. So, we jumped in the camera car and we’re following the car and talking to the driver. You’re just sort of grabbing these moments where you can find them. It’s all in the light and getting the dust clouds right. In the interiors as well, there are light flares from the sun, it’s super beautiful. When you’re shooting in the desert, you gotta work with what’s available to you, the elements and the natural light. I don’t do much with digital effects or filters. I try to maneuver through the day working with what’s actually happening.

Yeah, it feels real in a more substantial way.

I should also say, the majority of interiors in the car, the actors are in moving cars. In those close-ups, they’re in pod cars, they’re experiencing movement. It also helps with performances. I mean, you can have spectacular race stuff, but the only way it actually connects to the audience is if you equally understand the human aspect. It’s about being in the car and staying with your protagonist through it all, being in there with Christian Bale and seeing the POV from Ken’s perspective. There aren’t fancy wrap around shots. It’s hard-mounted cameras where the camera is actually vibrating in the car because he’s actually being moved around on the track. We’re getting all this light interacting at night as he goes by different lighting setups, it’s not created on blue screen, all of that is stuff that can’t really be duplicated.

Yeah, it has a different look.

We realized it was something we could never fake. Also, the scene where he takes Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) out for a spin to show him how the car moves, Tracy gave a real reaction, I don’t think he expected that velocity. It all helps the performance.

There are all of these scenes in the desert and a few where it’s raining. You’re working with all these natural elements. Was that a challenge?

The rain was actually a great element to convey the speed! It did rain historically at Le Mans during the race. The way to do it was to wet down the road, we had a vehicle ahead of the cars that was spraying water and we could pick up all the spray off of the tires. It helps because you can see it whipping across the headlights and through the beams of light. That really helps us create a sense of the speed they’re traveling at. One of the decisions I made early on was to give the Ferraris the yellow headlights and the Fords have white light, so you can immediately identify the cars. That way the audience can track the cars in the rain and in the dark.

For the Le Mans race, did you look at footage from the race? How much did you try to recreate it?

Yeah, we did try to recreate a lot. All of the pit lanes, that’s a practical location. When you see the drivers run to the cars, that’s all real. We constructed all of that. There’s no CG work in that. The only CG is a little bit with the crowds, but not the race itself. For that, we looked at some nice 16mm documentary footage from that year. That was what we pulled for inspiration. This is really old school filmmaking. It’s great because this is a movie that has action scenes and it’s very exciting, but it’s not a superhero movie made for teenagers. This is about good, solid characters. It’s a buddy movie about characters who are working outside of a dominant corporation, going against the system. It’s nice. It’d be nice if this finds an audience and shows studios that in the current environment of cinema, there is room for something like this.

Yeah, this feels original precisely because it feels old school. This isn’t at all what is dominating film now.

Yeah, it’s kind of sad now. I’ll often watch films… like, on an airplane I’ll switch between a few and they all become hard to distinguish. They’re all the same.

Are CG work and blue screen and all of that something that you try to avoid?

Oh, yeah. I pick projects so that, so far, I’ve avoided going to Atlanta and working on a stage for a whole movie [laughs]. But it’s rarer and rarer to get those opportunities. My next movie is The Trial of the Chicago 7 with Aaron Sorkin. Again, this isn’t something that comes along very often and I try to take these films when I can find them. But Ford is a good example of a big studio movie that’s costly — it’s not cheap to make a period racecar movie. We built over 30 cars. There’s a lot of logistics involved. But it would be great to make a movie like this, at this budget level, and have it be successful.

It sounds like you do feel that concern about the way that film is heading, what’s becoming dominant.

Yeah, for sure. I grew up — and same with Mangold; we’re the same generation — with these certain influences, films made for adults. My movies with Alexander Payne, Sideways, The Descendents, Nebraska, were successful but they felt like a rarity. Now with the Disney takeover, the middle-range movie is like a dinosaur. I do feel concerned because this new stuff doesn’t inspire me. I’m inspired by great characters, realistic settings, real drama. I’m really concerned when I talk to film students, how many of them have never seen a Kurosawa film or a Godard film or a Truffaut film. It stops these new students from being interested in making films like that. They lose that inspiration. They’re losing those references that I talk about with Mangold and we share that, but those are lost to so many people.

I think it’s also a problem with Disney putting Fox films in the vault, we’re losing repertory screenings of films that are made for the big screen.

Yeah, for me that’s a problem. My film education came from going to movie theaters. I was lucky because when I moved to LA in ’84, there was the Vista, the New Beverly, which Quentin [Tarantino] now owns, the Nuart. I would go and watch a double feature of two Tarkovsky movies, or two Pasolini movies, you know? The access to that experience, it’s disappearing for younger filmmakers.

Ford v Ferrari is now in theaters.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.