Over a long career that stretches back 25 years, stuntman and stunt coordinator-turned-second-unit-director and actor Darrin Prescott has choreographed many a spectacular car chase and race in such testosterone-fueled movies as “Drive,” “Deadpool 2,” “Baby Driver” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which won him a Screen Actors Guild award as part of the stunt ensemble.
But when director James Mangold called him up to play famous racer Bob Bondurant and supervise the second-unit action crew for “Ford v Ferrari,” he knew it’d be a special job.
“He loved what we’d done on ‘Baby Driver,’ and when I asked him how we were going to handle all the classic race cars on this, he just said, ‘We’re going to build ‘em,’” Prescott says.
This was music to Prescott’s ears, as “Ford v Ferrari” chronicles the story of race car legends Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and culminates in the historic showdown between the Ford Motor Co. and legendary Ferrari at the grueling 1966 24-hour Le Mans race in France. Those cars are now priceless museum pieces, so high-performance replicas had to be built.
“We rarely get the opportunity to build cars like these,” Prescott says. “Usually, when I get a call like this, they always have big eyes. They always tell you there’s going to be McLarens and Lamborghinis, and ultimately you end up with Corvettes and some sort of product placement. But they actually pulled it off and delivered this time.”
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Coupled with Mangold’s determination to use real cars was his plan to re-create and shoot the famous Le Mans race “all in camera, rather than using CGI,” says Prescott. “That presented quite a few big challenges. The first and biggest was that the original Le Mans course doesn’t exist anymore — or at least, nothing like it used to be.”
The filmmakers used several locations in Georgia to double for Le Mans in the film’s climactic sequence, which lasts some 40 minutes. “So we had to tie all those locations together to make it all as seamless as possible,” he says. “And then Jim wanted to make sure we maintained an authentic camera style. He didn’t want any big swooping camera moves and any hint of the beauty shot approach you see in all the car commercials. And because the cars were exact period replicas, there was very little room to mount cameras and roll cages in them.”
With all the restrictions, Prescott and his core team, which included stunt coordinators Robert Nagle and Jeremy Fry (also a driver), focused on sheer speed and storytelling. “Every shot had a purpose, and sometimes on second unit and with action it’s easy to forget all that,” he says. “But Jim was adamant about that, more so than anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”
Prescott shot wide-angle anamorphic for eight weeks using a team of a dozen professional drivers, “some of whom had actually won Le Mans,” he says. “With the anamorphic lenses, we had to cram the cars right up into the lens — maybe just six inches from camera, which you can only achieve with drivers of that caliber. On top of that, the cars are so close to each other and they’d be doing 140 mph with the camera car inches off their nose. But the truth is, they actually had to dumb it down. It was nothing to these guys as they’re used to going 200 mph.”
But few crew members were used to racing in the sweltering heat and humidity of a Georgia summer. “They had to wear these special, iced cool suits, as the track pavement temperature was 140 degrees,” Prescott says. “That was almost the hardest part of the whole shoot.”