'Ford V Ferrari' Director James Mangold Explains How Too Much Research Can Hurt A Movie

James Mangold directs Matt Damon and Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari, a film known at Le Mans '66 in Europe and other regions where that famous endurance race is more religion than sport.  Damon plays Carroll Shelby, an ex-driver who has channeled his competitive edge into building cars. He asks a wild yet talented Brit named Ken Miles (Bale) to help him help the Ford Motor Company stick one to Enzo's famous red cars that are built in Maranello./Film's Chris Evangelista was mixed on the film, digging it even more than I did, but he's right that it feels like a missed opportunity, like something beautifully built that never quite sticks to the track despite Damon in particular bringing his A-game to the project. Some of the conversation following the film's World Premiere at TIFF speaks to why that may be the case, in that maybe some different passions, particularly for the sport being portrayed, may have lifted things up a bit more.The following has been edited for clarity and consistency.

Matt Damon on playing Carroll Shelby

Matt Damon: I'm not a car person, Jim Mangold's not a car person. The whole way in was to make it about people who collaborate and cooperate, to make something that's bigger than they are. That's kind of what we all spend our lives doing and so I could really relate to Carroll Shelby. Cars were really important to this guy, they don't really have that kind of meaning to me. But I do understand that feeling of wanting to build something with my friends and so that was how I really connected with the character.

What brought them to the story

James Mangold: I loved the variation in the characters. I loved that everyone was coming with a different agenda. I also loved the world of the cars as it was unfolding, discovering racing. I was never turned on by racing or sports shows, and other racing movies haven't turned me on, but I felt that the characters, when I read about them and researched them, made me interested. Every character in this story had a different agenda or a different need coming out of this world, very much like us when we make movies. With movies we all meet is at the nexus of all of our desires. Right off the line I was trying to make a movie for people don't give a s*** about racing.Matt Damon: I don't really care about the cars all that much, but I cared about these guys and their passion for what they were doing, about different they were from one another and that conflict and how that conflict fueled their innovation and their creations in this car.Christian Bale: Matt and I spoke after the first scene of the film and he apologized to me about the last scene we did, "I just didn't manage it" and I thought holy f***, you managed it! It was one of the most moving scenes ever and beautiful. Precisely because he's not caught up with the details of racing, he sees the ultimate meaning of it and I think Matt does such an amazing job in this film. 

Keeping the pace

James Mangold: You should have seen the three hour and fifteen minute version! [laughs]. This was about the limit I thought I could get away with. I had a very hard time cutting back at a certain time because these characters are so rich. Every time we cut back we were just taking away from moments and pieces that fulfill or complete them. I liked the circuitousness of the movie, that you're not quite sure where it's going and how it's going and how these people are going to intersect. I'm really tired of movies where you know exactly where it's going and audiences are very mixed about it. Sometimes, when a movie doesn't seem to know where it's going, you bitch about it, and you also bitch about the movies where you know exactly where it's going! The reality is that I'm much more of a fan of the movies where I'm feeling surprised and I'm not seeing just last year's movie maybe in blue with new people. One of the reasons this movie's very dear to me is that the studio took a big risk on the movie where there is no best-selling book, there is no super hero, there's nothing that compels an audience to come. I want to have a little sympathy for the studio execs and I think it would really speak to the Ford executives characters in this movie too. They get fired when s*** doesn't make money! I don't, I just go to another studio. The reality is that it's a really tough life, and when you make a movie where the only guarantee that you're going to maybe make a dollar on a movie is if we all really do a good job, and if we don't do a good job, you're up s*** creek. That is a really scary prospect for a studio and you're right to applaud them because this is a scary process.

Larger-than-life characters

Christian Bale: I was not familiar with Ken Miles previous to making this film. He was just extraordinary in his passion, and somebody who was a grumpy bastard, difficult and an a**hole at times. He's got a dream and that's really what it's all about. The first time tonight is when I've watched it with a big audience and it was the first time that I've been able to truly relate it to my own life and people who I know. That's really what film is all about. It happens to be told at 230 miles an hour, but it's really about the people that you love and have lost and the dreams and what you want in life.

On doing research

James Mangold: A whole lot of research can really get in your way. There can be as many versions of Lee Iacocca as you can find books. Speaking as a director of actors, I've seen overly researching get majorly in the way. You aren't playing the real person, you're playing the character in service of the story. You can't carry any more than they exhibited any attribute that ever had in their life in every day. When I was making Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix has one thing he always asked me to say. He'd come up every day and go "say that thing, say that thing", and I'd go, "You're not Johnny Cash". It was like a relief from the pressure as if he was having to do some kind of thesis, which is not the job of an actor. It's actually much easier to try to take essences and ideas of who that person was while serving the greater story. You can figure out an awful lot about who a person is from what they do, and the script features what they do. If you play what they do, you start to become them even if you don't know s*** about them. It's kind of basic.