A cinematographer’s lifelong passion for cars supercharges Ford v Ferrari, out November 15.
In the mid-1960s, Ford and Ferrari, two companies whose products, leadership, and philosophies were separated quite literally by an ocean, embarked on the greatest motorsport rivalry of all time.
Riding a five-year winning streak into the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours, Ferrari would be challenged by a Ford skunkworks team led by Carroll Shelby, a chicken farmer-turned-racing mogul from Texas, and Ken Miles, a gifted if short-tempered driver from England. The resulting battles and breakthroughs are dramatized in Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon as Shelby and Christian Bale as Miles.
Reviews are glowing: At press time the film commanded an 89 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Notwithstanding the star power of Damon and Bale, the production surely didn’t suffer for having a certifiable car nut behind the camera.
“I have a lot of old cars, unfortunately,” says Phedon Papamichael, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer on Ford v Ferrari and other notable productions from director James Mangold, including the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, the Western 3:10 to Yuma, and the X-Men spinoff Logan.
In fairness, Papamichael isn’t the kind of obsessive who maintains a climate-controlled, 20,000-square-foot garage in Burbank. But it takes a certain madness—albeit an aesthetically enlightened strain of it—to keep such notoriously temperamental machines as a 1972 BMW 3.0 CSi, a ‘72 Alfa Romeo Spider and a ‘72 Pininfarina Peugeot 304 in running order.
“I also have a 2002 BMW Z8, and that’s basically my daily driver,” Papamichael says. “The others I … drive when I can.”
Such a tightly curated collection speaks of a man who wouldn’t drive something just because it’s fashionable. That quality also distinguishes Papamichael’s lens work on Ford v Ferrari, which favors classic, wide-angle closeups as well as fast, puckeringly tight cuts between the bumpers. “This is old-school Hollywood filmmaking,” he says, “really no different from what they used on Grand Prix [in 1966] with James Garner.”
There is refreshing revivalism at work in Ford v Ferrari, the kind that you wouldn’t expect to encounter at the multiplex—least of all during the bombast-heavy holidays. “To have a $100- million movie that doesn’t involve Marvel comics or extensive C.G.I., it’s almost impossible these days,” Papamichael says, “but we did it.”
Racing movies often prize frenetic camera movement over character development. Ford v Ferrari is “primarily a buddy movie, like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,” Papamichael says. As such, his camera serves the story first—going close on Bale as he explains the finer points of racing to his moon-eyed son—which ultimately heightens the drama of the race sequences throughout the film. “If you’re not connecting with the people on the screen,” he says, “it’s boring.”
Papamichael was raised in a clan of high-achieving car buffs. Uncle Nikos won the Acropolis Rally in his native Greece in 1953 behind the wheel of a Jaguar XK120. Papamichael’s father occasionally turned a wheel in anger on Greek rally circuits as well. So when the cinematographer runs late for this interview, it’s not surprising that the explanation he provides—aside from a veal-heavy lunch with Janusz Kamiński, the longtime cinematographer of Steven Spielberg—was wanting to catch the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix on TV.
“Boring,” Papamichael says of the world’s most-watched motorsport series. “You have all these drone shots and camera positions where you never really get a sense of the speed.”
In contrast, the races in Ford v Ferrari feel as visceral as title fights in a great boxing movie. Ford GT40s run wheel to wheel against Ferrari 330 P3s, their tires spinning so fast you expect them to skid across your lap. “In the end, we’re conveying a sense of what it’s like to do those speeds,” Papamichael says. “The cameras are vibrating because our rigs didn’t have any damping; they’re just hard-mounted to the car. We keep it low and close, inches away from the asphalt, and the bumpers just cut right through the frame.”
The filmmakers relied on a variety of sources to get their facts straight, including 16-millimeter archival race footage. Papamichael also shouts out The 24 Hour War, a documentary from 2016 that covered the Ford-Ferrari rivalry from every angle. But to create the look and feel for their film, Mangold and Papamichael were more free-associative.
“I was familiar with the story—the GT40s and the Ferraris and the aesthetics that went with them—so preparing for the film, I was more collecting images for color references and our palette,” Papamichael says. “On my mood board were Brigitte Bardot, a Riva boat, airplanes, and some other things, like watches. I’m 98 percent sure there was a Rolex Daytona.”
Might someone so discriminating in his cars and shot selection be a watch enthusiast, too? You might as well wonder if Scorsese’s characters ever utter bad words.
“I have some old Omegas, an IWC,” Papamichael says. “I have some Bell & Ross—not the square but the older, round one. I like watches, but I don’t go crazy.”
Mad, maybe, but not crazy.