Can you talk about what it was like to craft these characters?
James Mangold: I’m a big believer in hanging out. I am not a big believer in rehearsing. I do sometimes rehearse things, but with actors of this caliber, I find that the most important thing is that we are on the same page. When I teach film classes, somethings I am always shocked about is hearing the students ask, “why does my acting suck?” I’m like, “well, did you talk to them?” I don’t mean did you discuss the scene, I mean did you treat the actors like they’re plumbers, who you only talk when the drain is broken and then otherwise you stay away? Invariably the answer is always, “no, I didn’t talk to them.” It is very easy for film students to get cliquey with their own kind and not interact with actors. I love the geekdom, but I also love acting and actors, so what I do is I try to hang out and try to understand what they are thinking. Everyone has a completely different process, and I try to address it. This is the second movie I’ve made with Christian. He will write these beautiful stream of consciousness text that I will get at 3AM. It will be about the character or something he’s read or what he’s feeling, and it’s never it must be this. It’s more this kind of poetry of an actor thinking out loud in the middle of the night, typing some thoughts away. Because I’m not stupid, I read it and observe things that are really powerful and try and engage a dialogue with him about it. But sometimes it’s nothing more than me answering the text and then we don’t speak about it. Matt is very direct, very down to earth. I’ve known him since the mid ’90’s and the two know each other as well. Although they haven’t made a movie together for a long time, they share an agent and a world of mutual friends. I think that there was an ease that was very important. It is very important to me in every way in making a movie that everyone can do their best and be their best. Also that there is no toxic energy on set. I’ll be very quick to stomp on that very hard. There is nothing more damaging to creativity than people being frightened to experiment, offer something, or to play. Even on a large film, there has to be freedom to experiment, because there are moments that are not written, they just happen. When Christian sings H-A-P-P-Y, that just occurred to him on the day. We cleared that song from the set, because it just occurred to him. We fell a little bit behind that day, but stuff happens and I just want everyone to be free.
Jenno Topping: I’ve never worked with a director before who reads himself or herself with the actors in auditions. That was a very interesting process even before we got to the starting gate. The extent to which he lived with the scenes and the actors, regardless of whether they were cast or not, and kind of hearing what works and what’s cool was astonishing. The other thing I would say is that it’s incredible to have actors feel really safe and know that someone is really going to protect them, their performance, and the movie. And also be kind of hard on them in the sense that James was going for greatness. It allowed James to be open to the actors, because he was being so clear about the movie he was making and clear about the basic architecture and it allowed for enormous experimentation and being open in a way that’s incredibly neutral.
the movie looks like it is a race movie, but it’s actually a friendship movie.
Was there any collaboration with Ford in terms of clearance for script and production?
JT: We did not need anyone’s rights per se. Ford did see the script and see the movie and loved it, which is saying something since they are not always the heroes of the movie. So it wasn’t like a collaboration or a partnership. Christian did go up and spend some time with Ken’s son Peter. There was a lot of talk, but no formal partnership.
There is a version of this film where the race is the end of the film and then you get a card afterwards that gives us the trivia of Ken’s death. You guys chose to give us a couple of scenes after to really sunset the characters and their relationships. Could you talk about the decision to tell the story that way?
JM: That was an early decision that I made coming on. There were scripts that tried to end on the race, although it is not really a victory. I don’t think you could have ended that well with them walking off because the victory was sort of a tie that came out of Miles’s loss. I wouldn’t know what I’m saying with the end of the movie. It is really easy for me to make movies simple for myself. I think movies are essentially simple, and this is a movie about a friendship. So it isn’t a movie about a race. To me the fading out at the end of the race is a kind of lie that you could get away with, because the movie looks like it is a race movie, but it’s actually a friendship movie. The questions about the friendship are not completely resolved to me at the end of the race, and how could I even put up a card after the race fades out that says he died six weeks later? People would throw tomatoes at the screen! To me, we worked hard at the opening of the film to show Matt as a lonely figure with his heart disease and trying to find his way, and then meeting his best friend and recruiting him into this great purpose and they complete this task together. Though they were compromised, each of them knew that they had succeeded, and then one of them passes and leaves the other to go on, but in a way was forever changed because of this friendship. Shelby, who spoke with our screenwriters, also gave is input during the writing. Some people say he never let go of what happened at this race and his own regret from participating in asking Ken to slow down, since no one knew this would be the last time he raced professionally. It seems to me where you land a movie isn’t about making an audience happy or sad– I try to find a grace note that is thematically appropriate, that makes you think. I don’t think it’s my job to cheer you up or depress you. I think it’s my job to make you feel something and walk away with complex feelings at the end of the film… not to hand you either a lollipop or a turd. The movies to me that have resonance are like To Kill a Mockingbird: is it a happy movie or a sad movie? I don’t know but I never forget it. I could name a dozen where I don’t know if they are happy or sad. I also don’t do the bad guy good guy talk. I think all of that is turning all of our movies into comic book movies or worse. There are a lot of people who do bad things or make mistakes that are not evil and there are a lot of good people. The second you start thinking about your movie in happy endings with good people and bad people, you get very dopy movies in my opinion. For me I wanted to have the courage to take you past the race. I wanted to make clear to you that the movie was not about the race for me, and therefore, could not end just at the finish line, because it really wasn’t about the race, it was about something more.
Could you talk about the process of finding and using so many period piece cars in this film?
JM: From the beginning I had to figure out how to get the numbers to a certain place, and also to fulfill what we wanted to do with the film, not have it feel like one of those computer assisted films where everything was done at a workstation. So the goal was to put real cars on the road, but there are a million ways it can fare out. It was hell. It was very hard on the crew because they broke down. They did put us in a really good position of shooting something real. You are reacting and adjusting to the way the hair is moving, the way the light is hitting the body, the way the dirt looks when the tires kick it up. The great danger in the pre visualization of movies is that the actual primal moment where a director and their crew interact in the moment on set gets lost and becomes a sort of fulfillment of a plan that was made in an air conditioned office. You feel those movies. I feel them and I feel numb when I watch them. I would just as soon watch the pre-viz because I feel like the expensive actors acting out what was already made in a cartoon for the camera is sort of unfulfilling for me. So putting real cars on the road is impossible when you are talking about vintage cars that are worth 30 million dollars a piece. We had to put mockup cars on the road. No one who actually owns one of these cars will let us put it out on the road, let alone drive it. So there were a huge amount of challenges that we had to work out. We basically built a garage out in the San Fernando Valley. It had its own body shop wing to repair and repaint. One of the ways we got by with less cars was that as soon as a car was retired from a sequence, it was sent to the body shop and reborn as a new car. Also the cars themselves needed continuous maintenance because of the pounding we were giving them, which was similar to what would actually happen in a race.
JT: The reality of putting the guys in the cars when the cars themselves were really small and the guys are pretty big. For example, the scene with Tracy, Matt, Ford, and Shelby had them all in that tiny car, which they had not been in at those speeds before. They could not get out, so Jim talked to them through a mic. The reality of what they were going through and the kind of miracle of Tracy’s performance in that scene was that it happened in the moment. I think Matt was as startled and stunned as the rest of us to watch it unfold in that way.