For director James Mangold, Le Mans ’66 is about “excellence, risk, having skin in the game, and the courage to stay in when it looks hopeless. These are things that mean a lot to me”
A restless, intelligent filmmaker, James Mangold has one of the most compelling and diverse filmographies of any director working today.
Le Mans ’66 feels a long way from Mangold’s first feature, the intimate independent film Heavy – which earned him the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995 – but he is still fascinated by many of the same themes, of unlikely heroes and what motivates individuals to transform their lives.
His last film was Logan, in which he effectively humanised the iconic superhero Wolverine, finding a heartfelt, character-driven story within a fantastical world (and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted screenplay, while the film grossed more than $600m worldwide).
He has previously worked with Le Mans ’66 star Christian Bale on his grounded western 3:10 To Yuma, which followed his garlanded Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line. Not a huge motor-racing fan, Mangold was drawn to the story of Le Mans ’66 because of the themes he saw within it – friendship, trust, desire and duty – and the parallels that this story of invention and risk has with filmmaking itself…
Rather than just being about racing, would you say this film is in some ways about the quest for perfection itself?
“Yeah. I love cars, I love the gear, but I find the world, the pursuit of perfection, fascinating. I think it’s a great allegory for almost anything in life and I love the sense of speed and the danger of it all.
I mean, you could even say this film is about the struggle to make great films. You know, the studio, the public, the fight for originality and to break barriers and to move things further – [the fight against] committee-think and over-think and marketing-think. It’s my hope that this film takes you back to a time – particularly in American life – when we were still figuring out who we are and how we can make excellent things. Now, we’ve become so corporate, liability-protected, averse to risk…
We have gotten so far from that kind of discovery and risk and having skin in the game and putting lives on the line and taking chances. The game is now so much more cautious and even sports themselves have become so much more corporate.
This was a moment where ‘Who could build the best car?’ was a question. Now, perfection has been reached in many ways. But in the ‘60s these cars were dawning-age beasts. It moves you to think about these daredevils and innovators at the edge of technology before there were computers, even calculators. They would sketch and tinker and try it out, and learn just from trial and error. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s also about these two particular, unique characters isn’t it?
“It’s a parable: Carroll [Matt Damon] was more the salesman, he could talk out of both sides of his mouth. Ken Miles [Christian Bale] was more of a straight-shooter, who gets himself in a lot of trouble, who isn’t capable of self-censoring, even when he knows he probably should. Everyone can identify with someone in this movie. Everyone, in some form or another, is sympathetic. I mean, even Henry Ford, you can feel for him at a certain point – like, what an insulated life he lives. When he says, ‘I wish my father could have seen this…’ [When Shelby takes him for a ride]… He’s both rattled and terrified and intimidated, but also moved that he actually just lived through something that – in a life that’s nothing but foie gras and offices and fancy rides – took him by his core and shook him up inside. And that’s exciting and moving and makes you feel something for someone you’d previously seen as nothing but a bellowing heavy.”
What was it about this story that hooked you in?
“What turned me on in this story was more the unique collection of characters. Movies have become such a commodity, and sometimes they feel like that. The efforts to affect you or excite you feel like pre-set buttons getting pressed on a synthesizer. I’m interested in making something come to life so it feels like, ‘I’m not sure where this thing is going…!’ That excitement of watching a film and not knowing how it’s going to play, that’s what I’m interested in.
I’m very interested in the muscularity and masculinity of Westerns. They have the ability to be tender in ways that action films in the modern-day don’t. [Modern] movies have become so orientated towards 14-year-olds.
But I don’t have a theme that I’m carrying up a hill. I’m not sure it’s healthy that I know why I’m attracted to projects. The most dangerous thing for a director is that they get boxed in. When I started, I felt bad that one director would be anointed The Voice Of Rural America, another would be The New Answer To Hitchcock, another would be The New Thriller Guy, or there would be The New Billy Wilder Guy, or whatever. Everyone figured out what you were and what slot in the record store your records went in. Are you Country or Rock ‘n’ Roll or Disco, you know? And I thought, ‘Oh, that [label] gets them a lot more press. As soon as people know what box to put them in, what stories to include them on, what round-ups to include them in…’ In my case, I did a big cop movie [Cop Land], an independent movie [Heavy], a movie about women in a mental institution [Girl, Interrupted]… And the press had no idea where to put me. The system doesn’t quite know how to deal with someone who moves around. Even though, Billy Wilder [who directed Some Like It Hot and The Apartment] didn’t make a comedy till his 13th movie! And I haven’t even made 11 movies yet! I’m really happy. It was a long path but now I turn around and I have the possibility of making a musical film, because I made Walk The Line, or I have the possibility of making a procedural because of Cop Land, or a Western because of 3:10 To Yuma or a comedy because of Kate & Leopold or Knight & Day. I have permission to drive in so many arenas. And it also allows me to take all the lessons I’ve learned from all these genres and synthesize them. Like, I really didn’t want Le Mans ’66 to be a ponderous, epic, with pretensions. I wanted to really feel like what it’s like being in the pit with these guys and to be one of them.”
That very much comes across in the movie – it’s dangerous and thrilling but also playful and warm at its heart…
“It’s funnier, livelier, than I think some people might expect. Because I think everyone has this idea that if you’re going to make a movie like this it’s going to be a very sombre, self-important, pretentious history of whatever, and that’s all well and good. But, to me, these characters, because I’ve studied them, their energy, their fearlessness and the fact that sometimes they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, they were just doing it, that was the most important thing to communicate, because it was the most interesting part to me. That’s the most interesting part about making movies: that you don’t know.
The greatest mythology that we as directors sell, to our students and the press, everyone, is that we envisioned it all before we started. The truth is, the dirty secret of most of the good filmmakers I know, is that sometimes you can envision something when you start but the really good ones know what’s happening on the set, because that’s when the movie really reveals itself to you. You can go in with all these ideas about how you’re going to shoot it, but the second the movie comes to life, where movies really live or die – at least, to me – is a director’s ability to adjust their initial vision. The pull of cast is strong.”
Talking of your cast, Matt Damon says that what Christian Bale does here is extraordinary.
“I think it’s one of his best performances. I think it’s the one closest to him, having known him for a decade now. It’s closest to who he is. He’s really playing someone that is a really good, slightly exaggerated, version of Christian himself. Working class, not really caught up in the corporate game and the marketing game, really just about the craft, loves the craft, completely disinterested the second it becomes about selling or publicity or whatever. He just loves doing it. He’s an idealist – not always the most diplomatic person, but insatiably kind, but who just doesn’t know how to deal with bullshit, is almost allergic to it! And a really great father and a wonderful husband – all of these things were in this role.”
The trust between him and Damon on screen is incredible, isn’t it?
“Yes. You have to believe in people. And that’s like with making movies. It really is. I’m sunk if one of my lead actors sucks. I’m just done. There’s nothing I can do. But that’s the thrill of doing these things – if you can get the right people together and you trust and believe in each other then there’s… It’s not that you never have a bad day or that the scene doesn’t work, it’s: can you solve it together? And that, I think, just comes from confidence, of everyone being good. And they certainly were, Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, at doing what they did. They had a tremendous confidence of, ‘If anyone’s going to get me out of this ditch, it’s these minds’ and that’s absolutely how I felt [on this] too.”
The relationship between Miles and Shelby was a rare thing, wasn’t it?
“Absolutely. It makes you realise the true value of having friends like that. It really does. Because we’re all so isolated. It’s like how the Western informs so much of what I do. Because I think the Western is so much more than people in hats, giddy-up and all that. There’s an essence of how we learn from this life when technology hadn’t robbed us of our interdependence on each other. That so many movies begin to have a Western character when people’s lives are in each other’s hands – war pictures, cop movies, even superhero movies. It’s about family, survival, the way you have to learn to trust each other. That so interests me. That’s something we so miss in our current days. In so many ways we’re so safe. We never have to lean on anyone, except perhaps in a medical emergency, for our own survival – even then, it’s so litigious and cautious the way people help that we’ve lost some of that sense of immediacy.”
How did Matt and Christian enjoy the driving scenes in the movie?
“They loved it! Christian has been a mad biker – he loved motorcycle racing for years until he tore his arm up really bad and his family made him promise to not do it anymore. But it was a real seduction that he’d be behind the wheel of these rigs. He loves the speed. He loves the gear. He loves the whole thing. [On set] he went off racing with these cars and you can tell from the footage – he’s hurtling through space in these things! And Matt too. He’s driven more in his Bourne movies, but both of them are very stunt-aware, very good athletes. And I had a very good team – some of the greatest drivers in the world were on this show. Because a lot of what you need, when you have Christian hurtling down the road, is not what he’s doing but what the other cars are doing, what the other guys are doing around him. Every day you’re only shooting a couple of minutes of the movie, so you have to keep refocusing yourself on the day’s work. When it gets all cut together so fast, that’s the beauty of it. I can only conceive of, and deal with, what’s in front of me. The key is to just focus on that.”
This is obviously a sports movie that’s also an amazing story of underdogs trying to achieve the impossible. Was Rocky an influence on you in any way?
“Yes, I love that movie! It’s a great film and also a hugely influential one. And for this one it’s this interesting thing where a character decides to not pursue the thing they love because of their love of another. To compromise. To find a better way of life. You can’t fight everyone. You can’t fight City Hall every day. But, to me, the lesson of Rocky is also landing or finding an original thing to say with a sports movie. Instead of just being, ‘… And then the plucky guy won!’ or ‘They lost!’ or whatever. That’s what the audience expects. And, weirdly, it’s what they want, but they are also a little disappointed when [that victory] is so easy. Because life isn’t that easy. Sometimes, getting close is good enough.”
LE MANS ’66 is OUT NOW on Digital Download and on
4k Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, DVD & VOD 23rd March