Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in a fast-paced, character-driven action-drama — which earned four Oscar noms, including best picture — that in today's movie climate feels like "the last of its kind," says Jenno Topping.
Producer Jenno Topping's definitive moment while working on Ford v Ferrari came six weeks out from shooting. Topping, director James Mangold and the rest of the team were having a meeting — toy cars and cardboard cutouts in hand — to figure out how to shoot one of the film's many races. Then, in a bemused tone, Mangold announced to the room, "You know, I am not really much of a car guy."
After getting over her initial shock from this admission, Topping realized that it was exactly what made Mangold perfect for the project. "He's enough of a car guy to really care about how those scenes were shot and what cars meant in the movie, but that's not what the movie was about to him," says Topping. "And that's why it works."
The film, nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, tells the true story of how the Ford Motor Co. defeated the seemingly unbeatable Ferrari team at the 1966 24 Hours at Le Mans race in France while also exploring the complex friendship between car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and rebel driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).
Topping, whose banner Chernin Entertainment announced its exit from Fox on Jan. 17, spoke with THR about the Fox-Disney merger's effect on the film, the "grim" future for character-driven movies and the lack of nominations for female directors.
You have been with this film for years. What's it like to finally see it land on the awards circuit?
JENNO TOPPING Sometimes projects take a really long time to get made and go through a bunch of obstacles and challenges. There is a reason everything came together the way it did. I just think the timing was right in other ways, having to do with what was happening in the life of the studio. Who knows why these things come together when and how they do? But we definitely had a lot of wind at our back because of a constellation of elements that came together.
How did the Fox-Disney merger affect you as a producer?
I have to give [Fox vice chairman and head of production] Emma Watts a ton of credit. The merger was happening, but she set her sights on this movie and backed it and Jim [Mangold]. We were above the fray; we made the movie while all the brouhaha was going on. To Disney's credit, the second they saw the movie, they embraced it and increased the momentum. They were amazing partners. Somehow it was one of those lucky things that we just kind of threaded the needle, especially given that it is a kind of movie that isn't made anymore.
What is your takeaway, as a producer, about box office numbers and their effect on a film?
All of us felt like we were making the last of its kind, in the sense that it was a big, classy, expensive, gorgeous movie that felt like a classic in many ways. The marketplace is so mercurial, and nobody knows what is going to work. The only North Star, so to speak, is finding material that you love and trying to build it in a way that you think will resonate with people. In terms of the future potential of this kind of movie, I have no idea. It looks grim on the horizon. I wouldn't know what to make if I were running a studio today, because it's so difficult to take bets on things when we're consistently proved wrong. The only two constants are superhero movies — people in tights — and genre movies, and everything in between is a crapshoot.
Were you surprised by Ford v Ferrari's box office success?
I wasn't surprised, because I feel like making movies, in a funny way, is like having a relationship or falling in love. You're so convinced that you can't believe that anybody would see it any other way. But, yes, I always breathe a sigh of relief when it finds its people. And the thing that really pleased me about this movie is that women didn't necessarily know it was for them. And yet, they loved the movie so much. And we experienced that in the preview and screening process. And it was true, after the movie was released, with kids, too. It actually plays as an all-audience movie, an intergenerational movie in a way that was really gratifying and hard to predict.
Were there any conversations around making Caitriona Balfe's role not fall into the "wife waiting by the phone" category?
I think one of the really moving things about Christian's character is that he had a real partnership with his wife. It was an unconventional portrayal of a marriage in that era. I think it was important to Jim to be true to the story, and the story was about the two guys, but to have that aspect of Miles' life fleshed out in a nuanced and interesting way. Yes, there were conversations about [Caitriona's role]. It's not like, in terms of real estate, she occupies a ton of screen time, but she does have a pretty big impact in terms of the way people perceive his character and his choices. And she is such a great actress. Honestly, it's hard figuring out who can go toe-to-toe with Christian Bale in a scene. There were much more veteran actresses who [Mangold] might have chosen for that role, but she's so watchable and engaging and had a little bit of a surprising spark. She really held her own with him.
What are some of the best reactions you've gotten to the film?
Well, the film was very emotional to me. I still cry at the end, every time. But you never know how that is going to impact other people. I was thrilled, surprised and ecstatic that people were so on the edge of their seats during that final race — because that's a long time to ask people to stay with a single event. I have seen the movie in a theater with people so many times now, and it happens every time. You look back at the whole theater and people [have] their hands over their mouths or their eyes or they are gasping, and you feel like you are in a very different type of movie. I love how much humor people found in the film. When you see it with big groups of people, there is a lot of laughter. On a personal note, I feel like we are in such an ugly moment politically, socially, culturally; even though the '60s were not exactly a peaceful time, this movie in particular depicts people who care so much about what they are doing and one another that I found it really personally moving. I think part of it is the contrast in terms of what we are surrounded by right now.
As someone with a long history of working with female directors, what are your thoughts on the all-male directing nominees this year?
I mean, it sucks. A journalist told me the other day that I've produced more movies with women directors than any other producer working in Hollywood. I have no idea if that is true or not, but it's a huge value for me. Of course, I want more representation, and everybody has to just keep working at it. It indicates that something is a little bit screwy — this is the second film I've had that the director didn't get nominated but the movie did. So the pain Greta [Gerwig], Lulu [Wang] and various other people are feeling is real, but it's also the pain Jim is feeling.
What other nominated film or performance did you admire?
I, like everybody else, thought Parasite was just insanely good. I really loved it and admired it. I just saw The Two Popes, and I thought that was great. All of them. I think it's a really strong year. It's weird how that happens. There are years when it seems it's a desert, and there are years where there's just so much good work being done.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.