Damon, Bale on being the driving forces of Ford v Ferrari
Academy Award winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in Ford v Ferrari, based on the remarkable true story of the visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and the fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Bale), who together battled corporate interference, the laws of physics and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966.
Directed by James Mangold (Logan, The Wolverine, Walk The Line), it opens here Nov 14.
At the heart this classic story of bravery, trust and sheer risk in the pursuit of perfection is a pairing for the ages - the complementary driving forces of Damon, 49, and Bale, 45.
This is a fascinating story of an unlikely friendship – of great highs and lows and being there for each other. What did you know of the story and your characters before going in?
BALE: I knew nothing about him, and I think I’m probably in the same boat as most people on that. He’s very much an unsung hero of motor-racing. He was a very English man, from the Midlands in Britain. Before racing, he was a military man, served in a tank unit. He was there, I think, D-Day plus two or three days after, then went across Europe. He was there when they liberated (Nazi concentration camp) Belsen. Then he became an absolute, pure, racer’s racer, very strong-minded, incredibly passionate about what he did. Within the motor-racing circuit, you hear many stories about him, about that race in ’66, but they were all new to me.
DAMON: There had been different iterations of this around for about 10 years, so I was familiar with the story. But it wasn’t until I read this version, with this group of people, like James and Christian, attached that I got really sold. So then I really started to watch documentaries about Shelby and reading about him. I also talked to a lot of people because a lot of people knew him socially – he cut quite a figure out here in Los Angeles. And put it this way: He was described to me, by many people, as a man who could sell you anything.
Shelby stakes everything on a friend. How did you work together to build that same level of trust on screen?
DAMON: Look, he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. So, in some ways, it was very easy to relate to the way that Shelby felt about Miles, because Shelby felt that Miles was the best engineer and driver that he had ever seen. With Christian, there is a kind of monk-like dedication that he has to his work. You didn’t need to know how hard he was working or what he was giving up or what the sacrifices were. And Ken Miles was like that too. He didn’t suffer fools; he was a very serious guy about what he did. Christian shares so many of those qualities. He’s a purist in many ways and very serious about what he does. In that sense, it didn’t require much acting from me at all!
BALE: I’ve been doing this for, like, 30 years, and I’m still none the wiser. I don’t know how it’s done exactly. Sometimes it just works and sometimes it doesn’t. And I feel that this time it did. Matt is a great actor. And he’s also got such a great understanding of the cameras, the lenses. He has a totally different approach to me. Probably a more comprehensive and intelligent approach. I think he’ll make a really good director at some point. Our approach to acting is similar to the differences between our characters as well. Shelby is one hell of a racer, but is more strategic and understanding of the bigger picture, versus Miles, who’s just sort of doing his thing and often burning bridges and creating scorched earth because that’s the only way he knows how to do it.
Christian, James Mangold says he saw a lot of similarities between you and Miles, specifically in that you love the work, but are “allergic” to all the bullshit around it. Do you see some of yourself in Miles?
BALE: He and I have worked together before, and we’ve known each other for more than a decade. Look, I don’t ever try to compare myself with characters I play, or think that way, but, yeah, it happened fairly quickly. He went, ‘You do know it’s just you, right?’
Did your research give you respect for the limits these drivers pushed themselves to in the ‘60s?
BALE: Absolutely. And then there’s obviously the question of, ‘Why are they doing that? What kind of person is it who wants to do that?’ These guys were sitting on bombs. Literally, the doors in these cars were full of gas – the gas tanks were right there! That was a big danger, burning. And back then, there were no real ambulance crews. There were many horrendous stories of people dying on the side of the road, from incidents that would be solved in 20 seconds nowadays. The safety just wasn’t there. And back then there was also an attitude of, ‘If you’re worried about safety, you shouldn’t be a racer’.
The huge difference nowadays is that pretty much any vehicle you get into, the strongest part of the car are the brakes. Whereas at that time, that wasn’t the case at all. These cars were rocket-ships going down the Mulsanne Straight at 230mph. Without good brakes! Not knowing if this bloody thing was going to stop! You know, it was, ‘Are the brakes going to overheat and just melt?’ The difference back then was the not knowing if they could stop, at the almost unfathomable speed of 230mph. That’s just mind-blowing.
Christian, a lot of the drivers you trained with for this movie, as well as the stunt coordinator Robert Nagle, say you’re the best actor they’ve ever seen behind the wheel. Did you feel like you had something to prove to these guys on the track?
BALE: No, because I knew that if I felt that way then I would very quickly end up in the hay bales and wreck these cars! In fact, every day on set, I would say quietly to myself, ‘You’ve got nothing to prove to them. Don’t try and keep up. Don’t ever do it. It will never happen. You are here to pretend to know what you’re doing... And, just to be clear, you really don’t know what you’re doing!’
I had a lot of fun, but did I ever feel like I was ever anything more than an absolute beginner? No. Those guys are being incredibly generous with their comments about all of that. It was so much bloody fun though. Some of that fun is on camera, a lot of it is off. And Nagle is fantastic. We’ve worked together before. I’ve hung off the side of a 1930s car, racing through Wisconsin, hanging on by a strap with him driving. I didn’t want a harness in case the car rolled – I wanted to be able to jump off. Nagle was at the wheel, flying through the middle of the night. It was brilliant. He is brilliant.
And then there were the absolutely poignant moments of standing on the line with some of the sons of the original racers (from the actual ’66 Le Mans), like Alex Gurney and Derrick Hill, who were driving on this movie. We’d be looking at photographs, going, ‘Oh, there’s your dad. And there’s your dad’. And then we’d all get to reproduce that, to tear around Willow Springs in the Cobras, getting used to how they slide around. Oh man, I loved it to bits. It’s addictive out there. But to take it to their level is not something I’m going to kid myself that I can do. That would end in disaster! And they were twitchy as hell, these cars, these toys that they built. You come around a bend and all of a sudden you are, as they say it, joining the 180-degrees club.
How would you pitch Ford v Ferrari to someone who doesn’t like motor-racing movies?
DAMON: Well, I’d say, ‘I wasn’t interested in motor-racing movies either!’. That’s not why I did this. I think this story is so relatable. It’s about these underdogs who did this incredible thing together, despite being very different people and having this very colourful relationship and friendship. They came together and achieved the impossible. I have always loved movies like that and when I read it, this one just jumped off the page.