Director James Mangold On ‘Ford v Ferrari,‘ Why Martin Scorsese Is Right, And Why ‘Logan’ Is The Exception To The Rule

When talking to James Mangold about his brilliant new film, Ford v Ferrari, the subject of Martin Scorsese’s New York Times op-ed on Marvel movies wasn’t really on my mind. But, it turns out, it certainly was on Mangold’s mind. Which makes a lot of sense when you consider that a lot of what Scorsese was saying was the, at least, perceived lack of freedom that filmmakers have when making those blockbuster films.

But that wasn’t Mangiold’s experience with Logan, a movie that wasn’t beholden to a shared universe. Mangold had complete freedom over it, and certainly had stakes when we take into consideration how that movie ends. But, at the same time, Mangold completely agrees with what has Scorsese has to say, but wishes Scorsese had seen more examples (namely Logan) and cast a wider net than just “Marvel movies.”

The thing is, in a way Ford v Ferrari is itself about filmmaking. Yes, it’s about Ford Motor Company wanting to beat Ferrari at 24 Hours of Le Mans, and it’s about Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) being tapped to build a car that could do that, and it’s about Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who could drive that car. But it’s also about bureaucracy, and being able to navigate through all of it to get the end product that’s going to be the best version of the artist’s vision. Which, yes, is a big part of what Scorsese is trying to say. And what Mangold is trying to say here, and in the film, is that it’s the responsibility of directors to push back, no matter what the genre.

When Mangold called, the studio publicist who connected us asked if I was ready, to which I joked, “I was born ready.” Only she had patched me through to Mangold right as I delivered that line, so that’s literally the first thing he heard — me for some reason telling him I was born ready.

James Mangold: You were was born ready?

I was born ready, yes.

I was not born ready.

I don’t know what else to say when I’m asked if I’m ready.

Well, though, sometimes people say I’m not ready because my electronic recording devices are not up to speed, or I’m walking my dog presently, but you’re ready.

I’m ready.

Not only are you born ready, but you’re actually ready right now?

It’s the spirit of this movie that made me ready, so I’m ready.

It made you so ready?

In the spirit of being ready, here’s what I’ve been thinking: Christian Bale is great in this movie and he’s going to get a lot of accolades, but I think Matt Damon has the harder job. You have to know everything about him by just looking at him.

I think it’s difficult to do. I think, also, Matt is a super subtle actor, so he plays on a really fine palate and it’s part of what makes him and Christian magical together. Christian’s kind of Tigger, if you will. And so Matt ends up playing more like a rabbit. I’m trying to think of the appropriate Winnie the Pooh character. I think my analogy ran into a wall.

Well, there’s Eeyore?

But I don’t think Matt or Christian is playing Eeyore.

I don’t either.

But yes, I hear you. But maybe he’s Christopher Robin. I’m sure Matt would be thrilled with this entire analogy.

Put that on a poster and see what happens.

Real sexy. But the point is, I think the difference in energy is part of what makes their relationship in the movie so dynamic. I do think that Christian’s role is more bouncy and dynamic and that in a way attracts attention. But, in a sense, what you’re talking about is award stuff and what I’m talking about is movie stuff. Meaning what’s great to me is that they work great together. And who’s emerging from the pack for whatever you’re talking about is not.

Well, honestly, I wasn’t really talking about awards stuff. I just mean like in conversations I’ve had. Everyone’s just like, “Man, Bale is awesome.” Which he is…

He is. Christian has got a really spectacular role. And what makes me so happy is that it’s the closest I’ve seen him in a movie to who he is.

That’s interesting.

The joy, the family man, the kind of passion, the perfectionist, the art maker, the instinctual character ⁠— somebody who’s not necessarily built to be a movie star or to be doing endless press, but is kind of brilliant at the job. And has this kind unworldly focus when he’s in character and focused on him. And it was interesting, Kathleen Kennedy saw the movie a couple of months ago and mentioned to me when she saw it she felt like she was watching the Christian she knew from Empire of the Sun. That this was the movie where she saw the boy again, and I agree with her. I see exactly what she means.

This movie is almost as much about dealing with corporate bureaucracy as it is winning a car race. So how much of this movie is actually about the process of filmmaking?

All of it. I mean, it was definitely a way in for me. I mean, to me, car racing is a background. Like, to me, Walk the Line isn’t a movie about country music. It’s a movie about falling in love and finding your balance. This is a movie about friendship and the kind of friendships we make when we do things with our hands, fight for things, build things. It’s a team effort: the guys in the pit, the engineers, the drivers, everything. So that’s what the movie’s about. And in that sense, you’re absolutely right. You’d probably be better off calling the movie Ford v Ford for two-thirds of it, because the reality is that the effort to get the car on the road, with the drivers and the team they want working on, it is a kind of battle that’s a very art versus commerce kind of battle that filmmakers certainly have, yeah.

I kept picturing you as being Carroll Shelby and being told by a studio, “Yep, we’re going to give you full rein. Do whatever you want.” And then you say, “I want this actor.” and they say, “Nope. You have to use this person.” Just all those battles.

Yes. It all happened like that. And not only that, but you have to imagine, I see both Christian and Matt as kind of my yins and yangs. I have the wheeler-dealer side ⁠— the compromiser, the kind of guy who’s looking to even agree to something that I could try and fly out of later. That’s one side of me. And then the other side of me is the guy who’s been making movies since he was 12 with a Super 8 camera who just wants to be left alone and do what I do and is probably a little more politically self-destructive if I don’t kind of take a hold of myself. Both of those guys are in me.

I feel like your dream scene is the scene where Matt Damon takes Tracy Letts, who plays Henry Ford II, out and in the car and how often you’ve wanted to do something similar to a studio exec while saying, “Do you know how difficult this is to do?”

No, right, it is. Well, I’ve seen it when movies come off the rails for other productions. And you suddenly hear the executives are flying out to the location to kind of supervise some movie that’s come off the rails and their lives come to a stop trying to kind of marshal actors, script, and money’s flying out the window every day. It’s a lot to manage. And yes, they’re very glad to see the wheel. But, also, I find that scene isn’t just kind of spiteful or revenge with Matt. What I love about that scene with Tracy Letts is that it’s so revealing of Henry Ford’s loneliness that the audience, whenever you watch it with an audience, everyone gets lulled in the laughing at him for the first half of the scene. The second half of the scene, they suddenly stop and realize there’s a real human being in there who’s been living in a bubble, who yearns to feel things just like anyone else.

So this movie started as a Fox movie but is now a Disney movie. I can’t help but think you finished up what you wanted to say with Wolverine in Logan at the perfect time. If you had waited a bit longer, the sale happens and it might not happen. Was that just luck or did you know it was time to end it while you still could?

Yeah, well that was such a beautiful nexus of things. One is I’m really close to Hugh Jackman and the two of us kind of both decided this was going to be the end. But we also decided how we wanted to end, which was with a film that…it was the condition that I didn’t want to make another film that kind of was focused on fitting in a universe. I wanted to make a film as if I was not beholden to anyone, even fans, in the sense that I feel like the amount of pressure on those franchise movies to kind of fulfill preexisting expectations of universe building are impossible to make a good film and do that at the same time. I wanted to throw them all aside and just make a film about this character. For me, the rating, it was the biggest test because it wasn’t just about being more violent or using blue language. It was about the fact that with an R rating the studio gave up on kids under 13. And the second they give up on that, I can write a scene that’s eight minutes long with two characters talking.

I bet a kid under 13 wound up seeing that movie.

Yes, but they’re not allowed to market to them. I mean, it’s not even a question of propriety. It’s actually, I think, an MPA requirement. You just can’t be gearing your advertising. You can’t even be taking out spots on places that are geared toward kids. So it changes and obviously toy companies, action figures, all of it drops away. That’s why we had to make it for less money. That, to me, was all part of trying to free the movie from those constraints. It’s so interesting, Marty [Scorsese] brought that whole thing up in his op-ed. But I think that the point is less about whether the source is a comic book or not and much more salient is just the freedom the filmmaker has in whatever creative arena there is, because I certainly had 100 percent freedom in Logan. I mean exactly what we wanted to make.

That’s a really great point because Scorsese also says a big problem is there doesn’t seem to be stakes, because you kind of know the hero’s going to live at the end. But that’s not what you did.

Clearly he hasn’t watched that many of them. That’s the only tragic part of his dissertation. But the reality is that what he’s saying, it couldn’t be more true. It just doesn’t have to only be true for that specific stripe of film. It’s true across the boards. I see shitty comedies made by the numbers. I see shitty romantic films made by the numbers. I see gobs of adventure films made by the numbers. And you know they’ve been tested through the wazoo and re-shot and extra ending and an extra coat and an extra cherry on top. That isn’t just the province of comic book movies. That’s the province of mainstream corporate filmmaking all around, and it’s up to folks like him — or me to the degree I can do it — and others to push back against it in any genre.

I wish he wouldn’t have said Marvel and would’ve said more what you just said, because that seems more accurate?

It’s not as sexy.

That’s fair.

It doesn’t get as much press. Yeah, there you go.

‘Ford v Ferrari’ opens this week in theaters everywhere. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.