Inside the quest to make 'Ford v Ferrari' an authentic racing classic

Matt Damon was surrounded. As one of the world's most recognizable movie stars, he is surrounded a lot. But on this day, May 26, 2019, the Academy Award winner was enveloped among more than 300,000 people, and he was likely the most famous person among them.

"How's everyone doing?" he said to the others crammed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway elevator with him. They all nodded. The actor's eyes darted to the laminated cards hanging around their necks and realized he was packed into the space with a gaggle of gray-haired motorsports writers. "So ... how many of you knew Carroll Shelby?" Everyone nodded again.

"Well, damn," Damon said, breaking out into his trademark toothy smile, "after you see the movie, let me know if I got it right." The elevator doors opened, and the honorary starter of that afternoon's Indy 500, a distinction he would share with fellow actor Christian Bale, stepped out of the lift -- but then turned back just as the doors began to close. "Actually, if I got him wrong, I'm probably going to hope I never see you guys again."

In that moment, Damon absolutely got it right. It was a very Carroll Shelby thing to do and say. All that was missing was the legendary car builder's black cowboy hat and northeast Texas growl. In the new film "Ford v Ferrari," opening Friday, Damon utilizes both as he portrays Shelby during the most intense period of the racer's life, charged by Ford Motor Company to invent and race a sports car aimed at beating Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Bale, a legendarily meticulous method actor, goes even deeper to conjure up his portrayal of the quirky but kind Ken Miles, the British racer that Shelby leaned on to test and race the Ford GT40. From the sometimes unintelligible cockney accent to his hot tea sipped from an old-school metal shop mug, Bale does everything short of donning a prosthetic nose to depict Miles and his mood swings.

By May 2019, the film was already shot. But that didn't stop Bale from doing the same as Damon, spending his time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway asking if any of the older racers around him had known Miles. If they said yes, he also carefully and politely addressed the issue of "let me know if I got it right."

"As mythological as some people are, especially people like Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, who risked their lives every minute of just doing their jobs, they were still real people," Bale said at Indy. "The only way to honor who they were and what they accomplished is to take the time to get the little things right. We owe them that attention to detail, don't we? You miss with that, the people will let you know that you missed it. Not because they are harsh people, but because they have a real passion for motor racing and the people in it. They care that much about it."

Sometimes race fans can care a little too much, especially when it comes to holding filmmakers' feet to the fires of auto racing accuracy. In their defense, that fan base has become understandably jaded about such things. The list of truly great motorsports films is limited to Steve McQueen's "Le Mans," Paul Newman's "Winning" and the first 15 minutes of James Garner's "Grand Prix." All of those movies were made from 1966 to 1971. Past that, it's a parade of comedies ("Talladega Nights"), animation ("Cars"), atrocities (Sly Stallone's "Driven," currently at 14% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a handful of Elvis musicals.

The genre's most well-known film is still "Days of Thunder" almost 30 years after its release. And if you ever want to start a fight in a bar near a racetrack, open up a discussion about the greatness -- or lack thereof -- of that Tom Cruise stock car thriller.

That's why these two actors were so dedicated to making, in the words of Damon, "a realistic and respectful film about this sport." That mission was handed down to them by producer Peter Chernin, who had worked on the "Ford V Ferrari" project for years before finally sculpting a script with British screenwriter brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth ("Fair Game," "Edge of Tomorrow," "Spectre") and Jason Keller. No, not the longtime NASCAR driver, but the Jason Keller who wrote "Mirror, Mirror," a "Snow White" reimagining that starred Julia Roberts. But the coup was landing director James Mangold, who brought to life Johnny Cash in "Walk The Line" and brought to death the Wolverine in "Logan."

Mangold immediately promised to keep the computer-generated imagery to a minimum and let the race cars do the heavy lifting.

"The goal to me, in an age of incredibly computer-enhanced action movies, was that there could be something profoundly analog and real and gritty about the film and the sexiness of these beasts, the cars, their engines, the danger," Mangold said. "These characters are riding in a thin aluminum shell at 200 miles an hour around a track. The miracle that was their daring and their survival under these circumstances was something that I really wanted to try to convey."

That meant rounding up real cars. A lot of real cars. For example, there is a scene set in 1963, when Henry Ford II -- "The Deuce" -- commands the attention of those working the assembly line at the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan, building '62 Ford Falcons. That famous factory known as The Rouge was recreated in an abandoned Los Angeles steel mill. Every car and part on every step of the assembly line is made up of real '63 Falcon parts, procured from collectors, auctions and websites. The same for the red racing machines lining the reconstruction of Enzo Ferraris in Pomona, California. Authentic Shelby Cobras -- including Shelby's own personal ride -- and Ford GT40s line the warehouse and airplane hangar in Los Angeles and Ontario, California, that stood in for the two headquarters of Shelby American.

"I think when you work on a film like this, you just come in assuming there's going to be green screens and computers everywhere," said Josh Lucas, the guy from "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Glory Road" who plays Ford executive Leo Beebe. "But when you walked onto these sets, it was old-school filmmaking. Real locations with real race cars that were being wheeled by real race car drivers. When we got to the Le Mans set, which was built at a private airport in Santa Clarita [California], I had already been watching classic Le Mans film and 'Wide World of Sports' broadcasts online. It was like we had gone back in time to 1966. I mean, you expected Steve McQueen to walk up at any moment. It was amazing."

The real stars were the cars. Those machines we see rolling around pit road are actual pieces from the era, loaned from France's Automobile Club de l'Ouest, including a super-rare CD SP66 Peugeot. Only three of those rides are in existence. A Daytona Coupe that sits on the floor of the Shelby American shop cost a whopping $30,000 to rent for the film.

"My goal around those cars every day was simple," said Lucas, who drives a Ford F-150 with an Airstream in tow. "Don't lean on them. Don't scratch them. Keep my damn hands to myself."

When it came time to shoot racing footage, no one was going to risk breaking a Ford GT40 Mk I to shoot a cool testing scene or try to squeeze 1966 race-winning speeds out of any of original cars that are now our grandparents' age or break the back of a movie star doing all of the above. So Mangold and his team enlisted the help of multiple groups who specialize in building high-performance classic replicas and continuation cars.

There were 34 cars built for the movie. And those cars got a workout.

Picture car coordinator Rick Collins, a veteran of the "Fast & Furious" franchise, oversaw the car building and collecting. Mangold and director of photography Phedon Papamichael watched "Grand Prix" and "Le Mans" over and over again, deciding those movies would inspire the racing-sequence shooting style that they would emulate. And then they recruited the man who helped invent an entirely new style of shooting race cars to help them: Stunt driver-turned-camera-car specialist Allan Padelford has worked on the "Fast & Furious" movies and "Baby Driver" and has overseen car-chase sequences in multiple Marvel films. But Padelford's big break came when he was on the crew of "Days of Thunder." While people might debate the reality level of that movie, no one can dispute its impact on how cars and speed have been portrayed in film ever since, whether they're in in blockbuster movies or car commercials. Meanwhile, stunt coordinator Robert Nagle, himself a former Sports Car Club of America racer, recruited an all-star team of drivers.

American racing driver Dan Gurney is portrayed by his son, Alex, who came to the set with a box of vintage stickers that he noticed were missing from the replica of his father's car. He was joined by fellow legacies Jeff Bucknum, son of former GT40 racer Ronnie Bucknum, and F1 champ Phil Hill's son Derek, along with Team Corvette Le Mans veteran Kelly Collins and a pair of drifting legends in Samuel Hubinette and American "Top Gear" co-host Tanner Foust.

They found some country roads in rural Georgia that passed for stretches at Le Mans, as well as corners on existing domestic road courses (the famed Dunlop Bridge looks very comfortable at Road Atlanta). Then they raced. Padelford's Oscar-winning camera cars commenced to chasing Collins' custom-built race cars, while Papamichael and Mangold filled those cars with additional cameras for cramped interior shots. All at 150 mph.

Later, the stars were placed in those cars and shot as they were slung around as much as the laws of physics -- and the parade of vehicles -- would allow.

"It was very difficult to shoot our cast going at correct race speeds," Papamichael said. "We couldn't always travel at actual race speed, and we didn't want to apply too much digital help. We tried to do as much in camera as we could, with hard mounts on the actual race cars. It just generates a much more realistic experience, as well as for the actors, who go through the G-forces and all the vibrations involved, which makes it so much easier to perform."

There's an already-famous scene from the "Ford v Ferrari" trailer when Shelby gives Ford a ride in his new GT40, sliding and screeching its way around an airport runway. The experience so moves The Deuce that the stoic businessman begins to weep. (In the film, it's actually a lengthier, much more moving scene about Ford and his father.)

When Bale and Damon watch that scene now, it feels eerily familiar.

"What a filmgoer sees is me or Christian strapped into a race car and going fast and it's amazing to watch," Damon said in May. "But what we both know is that it took hundreds of people working for months to make that scene happen. It is no different than what we will see out here at the Indy 500. Someone is going to win the race and he will have his face all over the world on Monday. And he's a hero. But the team is what put him that position. The heroes behind the hero. I hope we give the crews -- the pit crews and our film crew -- the performance and recognition they deserve."