Interview: ‘Ford v Ferrari’ production designer François Audouy
Production designer François Audouy has a way with monsters. His previous production designs include Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Wolverine, Dracula Untold, and Logan and he’s currently working on next year’s Ghostbusters, so it would seem easy to presume that Audouy might be comfortable in worlds that are dark or supernatural. And yet his current film, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, is neither dark nor ghostly. It is instead a vibrant and exciting period piece about very mortal humans and the machines they love. The only monsters here are the powerful engines beneath the shiny, bright paint of the beautiful classic cars that it was Audouy’s job to create and wrangle for this racing epic. I talked to Audouy about the challenges of re-creating vintage race cars and famous racetracks, and how he transported the audience to Le Mans in 1966 with zero special effects.
AW: I saw an early screening of the film and, during the Q&A with [director] James Mangold afterwards, the very first question was an older man who shot up his hand and all he wanted to know was where you found all those classic Ford Falcons from the assembly line scene. There was such amazement in his voice. Did you know the level of sentimentality and nostalgia you were tapping into with this film?
FA: I had a sense of it, because we spent a lot of time interviewing people who were there, and families of race car drivers. And I can sense, just in speaking to people, that there was a real love and nostalgia for the period. I don’t know if you know this, but we had several drivers who were the sons of the actual racecar drivers from Le Mans and Daytona. Being able to walk onto the set, can you imagine how it must have felt to walk through a time machine and boom, you’re back in 1966, at Le Mans and you get to see your father’s car that he drove. This was basically like re-creating the Apollo program for these people. It was a world that no one’s really re-created in cinema, so it was really special to be a part of that. We spoke a lot to Charlie Agapiou, who is a character in the movie—he’s like 19 in the movie. He was Ken Miles’ friend and one of his original employees at his garage, and then his key mechanic at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. He came by the set many times and it was a very emotional experience. He was really impressed and surprised at all the details we had re-created. It was taking him back 50 years.
AW: How did it feel for those sons of the racers to be getting into those cars? It must have been a trip.
FA: I think it was a trip. It must have been unexpected for them, to be able to have that opportunity. Because it’s the family legacy for each of these families. I couldn’t imagine being able to do something like that. You hear all the family stories around the dinner table at Thanksgiving and all of a sudden, it’s real and you’re putting your father’s suit on and getting into his car and you’re telling part of the family story and you’re able to be a part of that story.
AW: So where did you find all these classic cars? How many original classic cars are in the film?
FA: Let’s see…we had to build re-creations—very, very authentic replicas. We built 30 or so racecars from the ground up, some were static displays, where they wouldn’t have to drive, but some had to actually drive at high speeds, over 100 mph. We also rented some very authentic replicas. We partnered with a company down in Orange County called Superformance. They work with the original parts and you literally can’t tell the difference. Even the professionals, even the restorers had to look closely to find the differences between the cars. They were very authentic GT40 replicas. We built our GT40 replicas with a company in Michigan called Race Car Replicas (RCR) and then finished them in the shop here with all the details, graphics, stickers, interior dressing, gauges, seats and even seatbelts. We built like 34 cars in total.
There were a handful of actual cars. The problem is, some of these cars are worth $10, $20, $30 million each, so whenever they would show up, they were basically surrounded by velvet rope. In the Ferrari factory racing department, for example, we had about $40 million worth of cars just sitting there, and that was only for four Ferraris. The rest were replicas. We had an actual Ferrari that had raced in Le Mans that was there. Everybody who walked onto the set that day, their jaws just dropped to the floor, they were absolutely gorgeous. But I think it made our replica Ferraris look even more believable, being surrounded by reality. We built three Ferrari 330 P3s, those are the cars that we had to hand-apply hundreds of red rivets all over the cars. We built two Porsches. Those 21 Ford Falcons were actually real Ford Falcons that we bought from sellers all across the United States, then restored them. So, I couldn’t tell you exactly how many cars are in the movie total, it’s dozens and dozens and dozens, but we did build about 34 cars.
AW: So the ones that never had to move, a lot of them were the real thing that you borrowed?
FA: We had real Porsches, we had real Corvettes, but the static ones that didn’t move were the Ferraris at the factory in Italy. Those ones that were just sitting there were real cars. There are only about a half dozen cars in that scene.
AW: Let’s talk about that Le Mans set, the racetrack and the grandstand. What went into building those and re-creating the authentic look of the race?
FA: Well, that was the biggest challenge of the movie, because nothing from ’66 still exists. It was a bit of a surprise, as we were researching the movie. Jim, Phedon [Papamichael, cinematographer] and I drove the actual track in a scout van in France and it’s like a space-age racetrack now with perfect, wide backed chicanes and big, high fences all along—it doesn’t look anything like ’66. In ’66, the circuit was mostly country roads, going through cow pastures and across farmland in the countryside. So that certainly didn’t exist anymore. The actual stands and pits, that building had been demolished in the mid -80s, so none of those original structures still exist. So we had to stitch together a plan to re-create the 8 ½ mile circuit from scratch, and we did that over four or five locations in California and Georgia. It was an enormous undertaking, made more difficult by the fact that the final race is almost ½ hour long. It’s a very long sequence, and very intricate and contiguous. It doesn’t really cut around to other scenes in the movie. Jim calls the movie a reverse Saving Private Ryan, in that there’s a lot of drama in the beginning of the movie and then there’s this elaborate action sequence at the end.
The action sequence is the Le Mans race, which takes place over 24 hours. We had to spend a lot of time figuring out the continuity over that 24 hours, and that involved having to plan for the time of day, whether it was the first day, the first night, or the next day. Weather—it rains at night, so we had to figure that out. And then what became evident, too, through research, was that each chicane, turn and stretch of the race is very, very famous to racing fans. It’s probably the most famous race course in the world, right? For anybody who watches the Le Mans race, they can all tell you about the various famous parts of the course, like the Dunlop Bridge or the Mulsanne Straight. In a lot of race car movies or race sequences, you’ll notice it’s sort of generic racing, you’re not really tracking what’s happening along a chase. And a lot of times you don’t have to repeat the same turn or the same corner. Well, we had to. And we had to re-create those famous sequences: we re-created the White House Corner, we re-created the S’s, the Mulsanne Straight, the Dunlop Bridge, the Dunlop Corner, Indianapolis, all of those things.
So let’s add another layer of complication on top of that: we want to do everything on camera as much as possible, and not just kick it to visual effects. There’s only one real visual effect shot in the entire sequence, and it’s aerial. Everything else is in camera, so you’ve got cars and cameras going 150 feet per second, across practical scenery. We made over 6 miles of banners, signage, dressing. It was a major, major deal.
Of course, the grandstand was the biggest part of that. Back in the day, in ’66, it was a 1,000 foot long building, three stories tall, covered with literally thousands of signs. And hundreds of thousands of fans. We had the good fortune of being able to reproduce about 450 feet of that building to 1-to-1 scale. It was a three-story building, built in Agua Dulce, in California, just outside of L.A. We shut down the airfield there, which is a private airfield, for three months while we built the set. We built this very immersive, interior/exterior set that Jim and Phedon could just shoot to their heart’s content. Inside, outside, there was an ABC Sports live broadcast booth, print media newsroom that really features beautifully in the movie. There are grandstands and 15 pits, with the big hallway in the back…it was really a fun set to shoot in.
AW: You also had to re-create Los Angeles in the ‘60s. And there’s so many exterior shots, especially around the Miles home.
FA: L.A. is very challenging to shoot for 1966 because, quite frankly, not much of it exists anymore. Barbara Ling I think had the same challenge on Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Usually, what happens with a period shoot in L.A. is you set up a shot, and you go, “well, you can’t shoot to the left of this telephone pole or to the right of this street corner” and that’s it. But for a lot of these scenes, we had to create 360-degree sandboxes. For example, we found Ken Miles’ neighborhood in Highland Park. That involved turning a whole neighborhood into an imaginary version of where I thought Ken Miles would work and live, his house being geographically right across the street from his garage, which was a conceit, but one that was designed to serve the story, to make it more efficient for the storytelling. We scouted every single racetrack in Southern California. Willow Springs, a big character in the beginning of the movie, is an actual racetrack that was used in the 1960’s and remains fairly intact. We doubled Daytona at the Fontana Racetrack. We shot in downtown L.A., we were all over the place. We had so many locations, you couldn’t go to all of them in one day. I could only go to about half of the locations in one day. But it was an incredible opportunity to be here, because I think Southern California is the heart of the movie, and we wanted to really capture what that felt like in the early to mid ‘60s.
AW: Did any of the racetracks serve double duty, or were they each their own unique location?
FA: They were all unique locations, and the reason for that is they all had to be very distinct so the audience could really distinguish between the look and feel of the various tracks. In the movie, everything in Michigan is fairly new and clean, so we went to the Porsche Experience Center in Carson, which is a new, one-year old facility with brand new asphalt and tarmac. We built a little observation building on the knoll next to the track, so it’s got a very new, distinct clean, green look. We went out to the Honda test track which is way out in the desert—about halfway to Las Vegas, it felt like. That place was really wonderful because it is located right up against raw desert, and you could feel the expanse of the American West just beyond the track in really a poetic way.
AW: Talk a little bit about the challenges of putting the actors into the cars, because they had to be practical. James Mangold talked about the technology he used to film those race scenes being so different and unique, mounting the cameras on the cars, in the interiors of the cars. What were the challenges for you from your side of it that the interiors had to be accurate, to be able to put the actors inside?
FA: That’s a really good question. For the Hero GT40 and the GT40s that Ken Miles would have been racing, we had to build several cars and the camera positions were very much a part of that equation. One of the vehicles—we called it the pod—had an exterior driver up above the car that could drive the car and a camera would be behind the car, looking forward. So, imagine the front half of a car, the back would be sort of a cage for the cameraman and a cage on top for the driver. That was useful for a lot of the driving. We had another—I think we called it the Frankenstein rig—there were multiple camera cars that had to be built and it had to be done multiple times, with all the gauges and all the dressing and all of that, so it was a lot. But Jim really didn’t want to cheat the interiors much at all. The GT40 is called the GT40 because it’s only 40 inches high, from the ground to the top of the roof, which is very, very low. So, you have to sort of peel yourself into these cars. You only have about an inch of headroom when you’re inside the car. Tracy Letts said in Q & As that he could barely fit into the thing. You don’t really drive the car; you wear it more than anything. It’s quite a unique experience, trying to get into the car and it’s really cramped and we wanted to capture that feeling.
AW: What about the color palette? I loved all the primary colors, all the blues and the reds and the whites.
FA: The color palette was kind of my entry way into the look of the movie. You’re always looking for an angle as to what to do, visually. The inspiration came after I put all of the colors of the story up on the wall, in sequence. I was really caught by how beautiful the colors were. Not only the racecars, but the other cars. There was a color range and a chroma to 1960’s cars that’s very unique to the period and I really embraced that. We’re so afraid of vibrant colors in period movies these days, there’s sort of a statue grid of design to go sepia with period movies and Jim was ok with doing something a little different. I looked at some other period movies from the ‘60s and that sort of gave me some inspiration as well. Umbrellas of Cherbourg was one, and even The Red Balloon, the short film, from 1990 or whenever, where you have all the colorful balloons congregating at the end of the movie, it reminded me of the structure of this movie, where you have all the colorful racecars coming together at Le Mans at the end of the movie. The cars really drove the palette in many ways—no pun intended.
The other thing, parallel to that, is I wanted to give each world in the story a defined palette so that the audience subconsciously knew where they were. One thing I’m proud of as a production designer is there are no subtitles in the movie that tell you where you are. Yet, you just instinctually know where you are and that’s through signage and color and form language. When we’re in Dearborn and Michigan, we know we’re there, because of signage, but also because it has a defined palette of steely blues and lacquered woods. And a recta-linear language to the factory and the offices—it all feels like Ford. Same thing goes for Ferrari. Ferrari in Italy feels like Italy, it has a very distinctive earth tone sort of palette. Southern California feels like Southern California because of that palette. So yes, it was first being inspired by the cars, then secondly applying a rigid language to each cultural island.
Audouy was recently nominated by the Art Directors Guild (ADG) for his work on Ford v Ferrari, which is in theaters now from 20th Century Fox.