How 'Ford v Ferrari' Editors Brought a "Gunfight" to the Racetrack

Ford v Ferrari Still Le Mans - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

The adrenaline-pumping climax of James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari takes place, unsurprisingly, on the racetrack.

What is surprising is the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes work to not only re-create the iconic Le Mans race course as it existed 50 years ago, but to subtly layer a throughline of tension from the beginning of the film in order for it to pay off at the end.

Nominated for four Oscars including best picture and editing, Ford v Ferrari is the true story of American auto designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and English driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), who partner to build a car for the Ford Motor Co. that will challenge Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France in 1966.

The climax comes just shy of two hours into the $97 million movie, when Shelby and Miles return to France with an innovative car. The full sequence lasts about 30 minutes as Miles straps in for an epic marathon.

For Michael McCusker, a longtime Mangold collaborator who edited the film with Andrew Buckland, the success of the thrilling Le Mans race began with extensive previsualization — more than two months before the film started shooting.

McCusker tells THR the planning was imperative given that they had a short window to get that sequence just as they needed it, and especially since the Le Mans course looks quite different today than it did a half-century ago.

The race was lensed by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael across five different locations in Georgia. Shots at the start and finish line, and well as viewing stands and pits, took place in Southern California. In fact, each lap of the film's Le Mans layout features all the Georgia and California locations made to appear as if it were a single racetrack in France.

The race is all the more dramatic as it brings together all of the characters into what Mangold describes as almost like "a gunfight."

"Most [of the film's principals] were not in the presence of one another before this scene. The movie's been this giant, symphonic braid following all these characters, and at Le Mans, they're all there," Mangold explains.

Buckland adds that the culmination at Le Mans begins with the "dramatic track that we laid in the beginning of the film." This pays off for the climax, with tense scenes including discussions among Ford executives, Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) glaring at Ford exec Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) for the first time since they had a confrontation early in the movie and Ferrari locking eyes with Shelby and Miles for the first time.

"We know who these people are," Buckland says. "When we see Enzo Ferrari up in the stands, I know who he is. I have a sense of his passion, his emotion, the machinations of [Ford exec] Leo Beebe [Josh Lucas] on the sidelines trying to manipulate the race."

Mangold and his team additionally home in on Miles inside the car, often in moments of silence, as he commandeers the vehicle, almost like a dance. McCusker explains that they wanted to "make sure that you felt like you were in the space with the character."

Buckland adds: "Miles is connected with the car; he is pure racing. We had an understanding of that at the beginning of the movie, but we can viscerally experience it at the end. He becomes the race. All those elements, because of what we did at the beginning of the film, it really made that whole experience a lot more powerful."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.