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“The Studios Don’t Really Make Movies Like This… We’re Like Dinosaurs”: DP Phedon Papamichael on Shooting Ford v Ferrari

Based on the real-life friendship between Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, Ford v Ferrari unfolds deeply within the racing culture of the mid-1960s. Egged on by future Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, Henry Ford commits to an expensive attempt to defeat the Ferrari racing team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Shelby, an engineer and former racer, works with Miles to develop and test the GT40.

Ford v Ferrari is the fifth collaboration between director James Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Christian Bale stars as Miles and Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby. Other performers include Tracy Letts (Henry Ford), Jon Bernthal (Lee Iacocca), and Josh Lucas (Leo Beebe). Papamichael is currently shooting The Trial of the Chicago 7 for writer and director Aaron Sorkin. Filmmaker spoke with Papamichael at Camerimage, the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography, held this year in Toruń, Poland.

Filmmaker: Did you and James Mangold consider Ford v Ferrari a change of pace from your previous work?

Papamichael: It’s Hollywood in the sense that it’s a big-budget period movie that can’t really be created easily anywhere else. And in a sense it’s an action movie because it has a lot of racing, but the heart of it should be the characters. We were inspired by movies like Grand Prix with James Garner, CinemaScope, shot on Kodak stock, and Le Mans with Steve McQueen. They’re mostly racing, not a lot of plot. But this one, with Mangold, he’s always very big on building characters, he’s very precise about performances.

This is very much old-school Hollywood. It was expensive to make this film — we had to build 30 race cars. The studios don’t really make movies like this, a drama with no superheroes, that isn’t effects-driven, for this budget. We’re like dinosaurs. The question is will they continue to make these kinds of movies?

Filmmaker: What was your visual approach? 

Papamichael: There is some really great footage of the Le Mans race, a documentary, some French 16mm footage. It’s a true story, we built the pits, they’re very authentic. The way the cars line up at the beginning of the race, all their colors are accurate. So a lot of the palette was a given, already dictated by the real events.

I didn’t want to do too much with colors or the lights or filtration or in the DI, I didn’t want to over-stylize it. I let the look come more from the design. A lot of natural light. I know a lot of it looks like it was lit for low sunset, but again it’s because I had short days. The sun would come over the set and I would set up and I was always rushing to end. So we had a lot of low light and flares. but it’s not so much by visual design.

Filmmaker: What about the camera and lenses?

Papamichael: I wanted large format partly because of the CinemaScope movies we were looking at, so I used the Alexa LF, which had just come out. I also wanted anamorphic. Dan Sasaki at Panavision said that these lenses didn’t cover the sensor, so I could expand them. So we went out with basically prototypes of expanded C series, B series and T series lenses. There’s a lot of natural vignetting and I liked the fall off, the way the edges were soft. I’m using them again on the movie I’m currently doing. Now he’s perfected them, they’re much more refined. But they were really prototypes, we went into day one with some weird aberrations in every lens. Nobody really knew the focal length. But we used mostly wides, 40mm, 50mm. The lens choices are very important to me. These lens in particular, I think they have a painterly quality. For my lighting, I always try to have some logic to it. Not everyone’s backlit, if they are backlit then the reverse is front-lit. I kind of have a simple, natural lighting approach.

Filmmaker: There are a lot of races in the movie. How did you approach shooting them? What’s the best way to depict speed?

Papamichael: We don’t preconceive much, we don’t really shotlist, we don’t do storyboards. There are exceptions in this movie. A sequence that lasts 25 minutes, like the 24-hour race, it has to be pre-vized just in order to budget it. Otherwise you can’t determine what elements you need, how many cars, what rigs, and so on. So that was pre-vized.

But we started just by discovering what works with the cars, by testing different rigs. A lot of conventional car rigs, like a pursuit vehicle with an arm, didn’t work. You can’t really track these cars at that speed with an arm, the G forces are too high. We tried elaborate rigs and wraparounds, but we abandoned all the fancy stuff. What we discovered early on was that the same way we approach actors, which is when we shoot close-ups we go closer with a wider lens, also works with the cars. In a way the cars are characters. So we kept low and very, very close to the cars. Just wide angle lenses, and close to the action, physically close.

The choreography is crucial, because you’re in a moving vehicle and you’re communicating with all the other drivers. It’s really this whole dance, it’s very intricate. These are not race cars, these are picture cars that we built, so they don’t perform like real race cars. We got up to 120 mph, but the real cars were doing 200 mph. But we’re still on the edge because it’s important that we maintain high speeds.

Then we hard-mounted all these cameras to cars. On the initial race at Willow Springs, we had four Alexas mounted to Christian’s Cobra, which was incredible, a whole array of cameras. It’s an open car, so we had a profile camera, a 3/4, a frontal, and an opposite 3/4. Then we would just send him out. All the stunts are designed to play off of his close-ups, so the whole choreography of the moving cars was based on how the cameras were placed on his Cobra. You see a car come up close and it cuts him and goes spinning off into the dirt, and that’s all off his close-up. At times we’re tracking car to car, but so much of the action plays off Christian, seeing past his car. That’s because we wanted to tie Christian into all the action, so the stunts were not just things happening in the background. Because he’s also doing all these amazing things. It’s not scripted, but he was constantly talking. We’d be watching on the monitor thinking, what is he saying, what is he doing? He’s like, “Giddyup, giddyup go,” or singing. 

Everything you’re seeing is really happening, there’s nothing composited. There’s literally no green screen in the movie, and only one CG car for one shot. It’s all real driving, real mechanical effects. The proximity of the cars is all real, we had to be inches, centimeters away at times going at high speeds going around the curves.

Filmmaker: Did you lose any equipment?

Papamichael: Surprisingly enough, no. When the second unit was shooting near Atlanta, they had ten days there, I think they clipped one matte box and lost a filter. But we had no accidents, no one got hurt.

Filmmaker: You have an amazing variety of shots during the races. How hard was it to find fresh ways to shoot?

Papamichael: Well today, I did notice this one shot, and I wondered, did we use it twice? It’s hard to keep it fresh. With car action shots, it’s hard not to be conventional, repetitive. We see so many incredible car commercials and so many movies with chases, the Bourne movies, Fast and Furious, Baby Driver. In a way we wanted not to get too fancy, not to have pursuit vehicles craning up and wrapping around or helicopter shots, drone shots, aerials. Really the most fascinating part watching those old movies was the faces of the drivers. Back then they did mount these huge Panavision cameras on these open car Formula One cars and Grand Prix cars.

With Mangold, Mangold’s not really a car guy anyway. Of course we want to do a good job with racing stuff, but we also care about Ford, Shelby, Beebe, Lee Iacocca, great pieces to carve out. It’s pretty traditional, nothing super groundbreaking. The dialogue’s like, “The brakes are running hot!”

Filmmaker: There are superb performances, Bale and Damon but also Tracy Letts as Henry Ford.

Papamichael: That scene where Shelby takes Henry Ford out in the car, that was take one. Tracy had no idea what he was getting into. We mounted the camera, said get in the car and pulled out. We were looking at the monitor and he’s going through that thing and we were like wow, one take for sure. They’re great actors, but it helps when you’re actually experiencing that feeling of speed.

And he’s so great in the scene in Ford’s office where he says, “Expand” to Shelby. He doesn’t even make eye contact, he plays it all in a profile. That’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about when I say we don’t plan shots. With Mangold, we’re really fast discovering things. Seeing that Tracy’s never even looking over at Matt, we’ll shoot him where he’s in profile, really static. One guy asked me earlier, why do you do these static shots. We like composing things and having foreground faces and figures in the back and these layers. In a way it’s similar with Alexander Payne, we don’t design shots, we see what the actors do, how they play it, and then we identify those moments.

With an actor like Christian, you make sure you’re there, you make sure you cover all his moments. Because he’s going to react to things that happen around him. That’s what a great actor does. Same as Bruce Dern in Nebraska, we told him, you do your thing, and we’ll find it. Don’t do something for a camera, do your thing, don’t worry about it. Our challenge is to recognize when it happens. Great actors give you little gems, and you have to kind of catch them, find them, identify them, get in there, not distract them, not get too technical, not design a huge shot around it. 

That’s why our shots are often simple, because we’re looking for these little things, something Christian will do in the car. It’s almost like you put out a fishing line and then you wait for them to give you something great. You can’t really sit there months before a movie and go this is what we’re going to get. I mean you can, I guess some people do it.

Filmmaker: Do you have to adjust much for each director? 

Papamichael: I don’t try to impose my styles, I really try to serve the director. Wim Wenders has a specific language, Alexander, again completely different. So I try to always be a bit of a chameleon. But I do keep my natural lighting approach. I come from still photography, so compositions are very important. That’s why we don’t necessarily move the camera so much.

I guess there is some consistent style throughout my movies, but I like that people aren’t able to say, “Oh, Phedon shot that, it’s obvious, he always does hard light bouncing off the table.” Maybe I have a more natural approach in general because I came from low-budget movies. I never had a lot of equipment. I was inspired by Robby Müller, not that my work looks like his, just that whole school of cinematography.

Now I’m working with Aaron Sorkin, who is a writer. He’s not so involved in the visual storytelling. So it’s a different challenge, it’s putting images to the words, it’s all about the words. So it’s a completely new task, a new game every time. We have 36 days, it’s 170 pages, a courtroom drama, so I’m using three cameras. It really makes sense, otherwise it would be impossible to get through it. And if you think about it, the defendants are always sitting in the same spot, so is the judge, and whoever is in the witness box. We need a lot of reaction shots, so the three cameras make sense.

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