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In the making of Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold ventured into new territory, having never made a film set in the world of car racing before – but there was one element of the larger narrative that was familiar. Having previously made the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, he was already familiar with the challenges inherent in making a movie based on a true story, and lessons from that experience were an asset in the making of his latest feature.
I had the opportunity to sit down with James Mangold for an interview last week during the Los Angeles press day for Ford v Ferrari, and after discussing the vital filmmaking techniques needed to create the cinematic illusion of speed, I asked him about his approach to the story in the sense that it is based on true events.
The filmmaker acquiesced that there were certain elements of the story that needed to be changed for the big screen adaptation, as there was a certain rule that he followed during the Ford v Ferrari’s development. Said Mangold,
The approach is you try and do everything as it happened with the limit that you can't be boring. So if it actually took three hours for something to happen, I'm not going to make the audience sit for three hours and watch a couple of guys waiting in a waiting room. There's a level where I'm responsible to the audience to deliver an entertainment.
Basically, it’s the same reason why it’s rare for a movie to feature a protagonist taking a break from the story’s action to use the bathroom – despite the fact that it’s a necessary bodily function. Filmmakers write around those kinds of realities, even when it may wind up betraying the factual truth of what transpired during the real events.
Of course, the ultimate goal is generally to minimize those kinds of betrayals whenever possible, and that was certainly the case in the making of Ford v Ferrari. James Mangold understood the responsibility that came with telling the story on the big screen. At the same time, the film was created to stand on its own apart from reality, and anyone curious about the differences can do the research. The director explained,
I'm responsible to get the facts right. And that's kind of it. But the real thing, if you want facts, if you want bullet points, if you want numbers and dates, get a book. The reality is what we're here to do is to create another kind of history, which is a kind of, I think you put your finger on it, it's like an emotional history – a tone, a sense of the tone of the time, a sense of the place that you can't get from any of those other sources because we're filling in the holes in all those stories.
So where did Walk The Line enter into the equation? Well, James Mangold summed up his feelings with a story from behind the scenes of that film – noting in the process that sometimes it can be the exploration of the emotional truth of a certain circumstance that actually winds up leading to a deeper factual truth.
Employing an excellent Johnny Cash impression as part of the telling, Mangold recounted a time during the making of Walk The Line that he got a call from the central figure of his film with concerns about a particular aspect:
I had June [Carter] and John [Cash]'s cooperation while I was making the film, but what happened was that... John would call me, he called me one day from the green room of the Larry King Show, and he was like, 'It's not romantic enough. June agrees with me.' He meant his love story with June in the movie. And I was like, 'Well, of course it's not, John, because you guys aren't telling me anything about your courtship because you were married to other people and you don't want to talk about what happened between you.'
Given the circumstances bluntly explained by the filmmaker, it was reasonable that Johnny Cash and June Carter wanted to keep certain details of their lives a secret – also notably because they had actually previously lied in books and interviews about that time in their relationship. Mangold’s digging, though, and Cash and Carter’s desire to see their romance authentically depicted, led to some major revelations:
He said he'd call me back later, and a week later, him and June invited me to Hendersonville, and they admitted that they had had these run-ins/romantic affairs while married, and of course that was hard for them. And they had published several autobiographies and books where they had denied anything that ever happened between them. So in a sense, sometimes when you're trying to get to and excavate the truth in a dramatic film, you actually force things out in the open because people do lie and leave things out of their biographies that are not things they want to necessarily memorialize.
In the aftermath, fans don’t respect Johnny Cash and June Carter any less, and the pop culture world is better for having a more accurate depiction of their lives in Walk The Line. With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why James Mangold had the confidence he did tackling the story of Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby in Ford v Ferrari.
You can watch the filmmaker discuss his thoughts on factual vs. emotional truth, and his experiences behind the scenes of Walk The Line, by clicking play on the video below!
Starring Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Jon Bernthal, and Tracy Letts, Ford v Ferrari tells the true story of how the Ford Motor Company teamed up with one of the industry’s greatest innovators and personality-filled drivers to compete against the legendary vehicles of Ferrari during the grueling 1966 La Mans race.