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“Ford v Ferrari” crossed the finish line first on opening weekend, a reminder that character-driven stories can hold their own against more blockbuster-themed fare. Coming in first also requires a director like James Mangold and his long-time editors, Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, who made the emotional conflict between main characters Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles every bit
as exciting as the spectacular recreations of the Daytona 500 and Le Mans.

On one level, the movie is the story of Henry Ford II’s rivalry with Enzo Ferrari, founder of the famed Italian car company. The latter insults the “suits” behind Ford Motor Co.’s buyout offer, igniting Ford’s desire to build a car that can beat Ferrari at its game. He brings in car-design legend Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and his friend, the talented, unorthodox, hot-headed driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), to win Le Mans.

McCusker has edited five of Mangold’s films, with Buckland tapped for three before “Ford  v Ferrari.”  Mangold’s regular team of collaborators includes his editors and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. McCusker believes a tight team promotes an environment of openness to new ideas and respectful advice: “As a group, everyone trusts each other, and this comes through. We’re all talking about each other’s discipline and how to make things better,” he says.

Directors work with favorite creatives on multiple projects to provide that level of trust and comfort. A tight team also delivers when facing new challenges, since Mangold has chosen to work in diverse genres, each with very different requirements.

Mangold’s ethos delivers for his trademark looser, character-driven approach within today’s technology-centric production. That might seem problematic at first. After all, it takes controlled staging and editing to re-create the 1960s era Le Mans racetrack in Southern California, or even that of Daytona. Success comes from the interplay of Mangold’s storyboard planning with a willingness to re-think his approach on set.

“Jim likes to be in the place between planning and discovery,” says McCusker. “If you over-plan, you risk the movie being stale. The way Jim attacks scenes is through looking at the character and the character experience. What is that character feeling? That’s what guides his choices. And, sometimes, he changes the plan. Sometimes, he doesn’t like to rehearse a lot. He wants to see what the actors bring to the scene and respond to that in the moment. The shooting is a discovery process.”

For Mangold, characters are the story. That’s why one of the unique aspects of “Ford v Ferrari” is the abundance of characters — IMDb lists 76 actors — that need to be introduced in the first act beyond the main protagonists. Once the supporting parts are established, Mangold focuses on Shelby and Miles. Shelby would seem the natural lead; the fast-talking Texan provides the opening and closing narration of the movie. But this isn’t the Carroll Shelby story. Instead, the movie artfully transitions the theme-bearing responsibility to driver Ken Miles.

“The game we play,” McCusker says, “is a little bit of sleight-of-hand, because sometimes we’re just with Carroll and sometimes just Miles, but both men are after the same goal. The smart thing Jim did was to have Miles embody the spiritual journey. What Carroll learns from Miles is to be in touch with that. Carroll’s appreciation of his friend is that he’s pure. And the bookending of Carroll’s brief narration is contemplative. The movie shows you how he came up with those words.” In short, it asks the question, “What kind  of person are you?”

While the characters make the audience care, Mangold still needed to deliver a big entertainment picture with fast driving and edge of your seat moments. Los Angeles-based Halon handled the previsualization, while the period recreations of two major racetracks were created in CGI by Method Studios, the Yard VFX and other houses.

But even here, Mangold likes the close interaction of his core creative team. Rather than wait for full sequences from Halon, for example, the previz team under supervisor Clint Regan moved down the hall from the cutting room.

This way, shots could be given to McCusker and Buckman more quickly. Months before shooting began, McCusker was included in the storyboarding discussions, which helped create a consistent creative through-line from preproduction to delivery.

Even with a trusted team, storytelling isn’t tamed in one pass; both the first act and last moment of the movie required re-thinking. The challenge was the lack of a ready three-act structure: After a triumphant win at Le Mans in the third act, Ken Miles is cheated out of full acknowledgment of his record-breaking performance. A few months later, he dies in an accident during a test-driving run. This otherwise upbeat story of two different men with a shared passion for racing and a feel-good theme must overcome a real-life double tragedy, all in the last few minutes of the movie.

Remarkably, Mangold pulls this off, but the solution wasn’t found until the movie was being edited.  “One of the biggest challenges is the epilogue after Miles’ death,” says McCusker. “We had to do a little bit of re-shooting to get a scene that really helped us. What was happening is that people are very much enjoying the movie, but then surprised when Miles dies, and we go directly to the scene with Miles’ son meeting Carroll. That seemed abrupt. Not pacing abrupt, but emotionally abrupt. We weren’t doing a good job letting the audience feel his loss. We did a lot of  versions of the end before coming up with a new scene. Jim wanted to feel Carroll missing his friend.”

For all the gorgeous Detroit sheet metal and heroic turns, “Ford v Ferrari” is not powered by action or record-breaking lap times. Instead, the real impact is far from the track — in all the quiet scenes and that final twist of Miles’ son’s heartbreak. This is a movie fueled by empathy, not octane.