Le Mans ’66: ‘If the sponsors are staying away, we’ve done something right’

Le Mans ’66 director James Mangold on Scorsese, the Marvel controversy and the state of film

I'm not sure they make directors like James Mangold anymore. Now a fit-looking 55, he has been working steadily since making his debut with the indie drama Heavy in 1995. Girl, Interrupted helped Angelina Jolie to her first Oscar. Walk the Line told the story of Johnny Cash with great economy. He got his own Oscar nomination for writing up-market X-Men flick Logan in 2017. He makes all kinds of films. He is rarely unemployed. There is no box to put him in.

“I don’t know if there’s a trick,” he says. “But it helps that I also write. I can fix any script problems myself. But if there is a secret it may be that I have always been a wanderer between genres. Maybe it was a problem at the beginning. Folks like you didn’t know what box to put me in. It’s easier to write a film about the horror film maker or the romantic comedy guy or whatever.”

This week he's the racing car guy. The old-school, sprawling, oil-stained Le Mans '66 tells the story of efforts by the Ford Motor Company to win the eponymous 24-hour race in the eponymous year. Matt Damon is automotive engineer Carroll Shelby. Christian Bale is Brummie driver Ken Miles. Let's clear up one tedious detail first. In the US the film is called Ford v Ferrari. What's up? Such title confusion happens rarely in the age of globalisation.

“It’s simple. We couldn’t have that title in Britain without the permission of the owner of the trademarks,” he says. “As it happens, Disney was happy to change it because they felt Le Mans meant more in Europe. Calling it Le Mans ‘66 in the US would be tricky because maybe one in 20 people know what that means. Titles are really hard. Particularly for bigger movies.”


At any rate, Le Mans 66 is – as we will shortly discuss – the sort of film that rarely makes it into cinemas these days. Unashamedly testosterone-charged, it encourages Miles and Shelby to tease the stuffed-shirts in Ford something rotten. They're the mavericks, the wild cards, the rough riders. The final race is deafening. Our own Catriona Balfe does above-average "wife work" as Bale's better half. What more could you want on a gloomy bank holiday afternoon? But who would be on Ford's side? Ferrari has the glamour still. Right?

"I agree with you. I don't think Ford would agree that taking the chairman out and making him cry is making them look glamorous," he says, referencing a key scene featuring Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II. "The heroes don't care about Ford. The truth is they are fighting Ford as much as they are fighting Ferrari. It's not really about Ford versus Ferrari. This is a movie about two little guys at the end of their careers."

So what did the current version of Ford think of the film?

“A couple of Ford executives saw it and said: ‘Um, this is a really good movie,’” he says. “But they didn’t want to align themselves with it. That was fine by me. With Logan I had Gillette aligning themselves with us. And I ended up with embarrassing razor commercials. I am totally happy this doesn’t have a corporate sponsor. If they are staying away that means we’ve done something right.”

Mainstream Hollywood has always had an equivocal relationship with competing big businesses. It loves to celebrate the outsider. It has little interest in office life. But Big Cinema rarely gets too critical of the capitalist system. Disney didn't become what it us under a Maoist regime.

“I do think the film is a brand enhancement for both companies,” Mangold says. “It shows how long they’ve been around. It shows their historical significance. We reveal that Ford were makers of working-class vehicles who wanted to capture the glamour of Ferrari. At first, in the most typical of American ways, by a takeover – by just trying to buy the bastard. When that failed…”

Mangold notices that I am making smug spluttering noises. The irony is unavoidable. Le Mans '66 was among the last films made by 20th Century Fox before the Walt Disney Empire engulfed that venerable company.

'I loved putting on a show as a kid. I acted. I wanted to become a puppeteer'

“Ha ha ha! While we were shooting we were swallowed by a bigger company. Yeah, yeah…”

Mangold is the right man to chew over the current crises convulsing the industry. He's done it all. Raised as the child of two respected artists – Robert Mangold and Sylvia Plimack Mangold are still with us – he pottered with cameras as a teenager and ended up studying at California Institute of the Arts and Columbia University.

“Bohemian? Yes. Exciting? I don’t know,” he says of his parents. “The zen-like existence of them just making breakfast and going to their studios and then painting all day seemed a little too zen for me. I loved putting on a show as a kid. I acted. I wanted to become a puppeteer.”

Heavy won best director at Sundance in 1995. Mangold was away. He followed that film with the undervalued Cop Land, featuring Sylvester Stallone in an unusually restrained dramatic role. Ever since, he's demonstrated a canny ability to stay at or near the top table.

“There’s a right way to fight for what you believe,” he says. “If you believe the studios are just evil vipers then… Well, nobody likes to be made to feel like a villain in a cheap movie. These suits didn’t get involved in movies because they hate movies. They got involved because they fucking love movies. But they are stuck in a world with board members and statistics about what audiences don’t want. You have to fight each of those battles with patience. You have to understand they’re in a bind.”

This reminds me of something the great editor Thelma Schoonmaker said to me some years ago. She contrasted the attitude of Michael Powell, her late husband, and Martin Scorsese, her most frequent collaborator, to the money men. Powell treated them with something like contempt. Scorsese has always got on with the studios. He understands they're not bad people.

“I was lucky enough to meet both men,” Mangold says. “Powell’s movies were of course way ahead of the time. Marty and I were lucky enough to live in a time when the director was respected. In Powell’s time the director was an on-the-ground manager of a theatrical confection. It was harder.”

So, Martin Scorsese… Let’s go there. As the man who directed Logan – a Marvel film in the style of Shane – Mangold is surely in a position to comment on Scorsese’s ongoing squabble with the comics giant.

“I try when doing interviews to not make wild generalisations,” he says. “But I take his point. I don’t think it’s just about Marvel movies. When a movie is about promoting a merchandising line – or even other movies – it stops being a self-contained piece of cinema. I don’t believe that’s true for all Marvel movies. Studios were incredibly nervous about what we were doing with Logan.”

Since Mangold and I spoke, Scorsese has returned to the theme several times. He has done no backtracking. But he has stressed that the biggest concern is not the existence of machines like the Marvel projects, but their near-total dominance of the marketplace. James and I muse for a while on growing up with films like The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone. Maybe Le Mans 66 is in that wheelhouse.

“It’s now unheard of,” he says. “When they greenlit Le Mans ‘66 my agent said: ‘Enjoy this. It’s probably the last one you’ll make.’ The business is in a hangover. Whether or not this film is a success will decide whether films on this scale that don’t have a comic book tie-in or another similar connection will have a chance.”

We do some more mutual shrugging and make a few more middle-aged-grump sounds.

“We wanted to make a brawny action movie for adults,” he says. “What I am describing here could not, just 20 years ago, be a more mainstream aspiration. Now we are some kind of outlier. A mainstream film made for people over a certain age. It’s absurd.”

'The most loyal consumers of theatrical movies are teenagers. Why would studios not organise their businesses around their most loyal consumers?'

How on earth did this happen? We're not demanding that Yemeni films about dying camels gets a chance in the multiplex. We're arguing for a film in which Batman and Jason Bourne race fast motorcars.

“Things have been redefined by the fact that adults don’t go to the movies,” Mangold says. “We talk about them. We jabber about them. We make awards lists. But those people often wait until they arrive on video to actually see them. The most loyal consumers of theatrical movies are teenagers. Why would studios not organise their businesses around their most loyal consumers?”

It’s hard to argue with that. We live in the real world (annoyingly). If anyone can find a way to make popular films for grown-ups then it is probably James Mangold. An adaptation of Don Winslow’s great cop novel The Force is, he acknowledges, still on the table, but nothing certain has been decided. Whatever else may happen, he appears committed to a career that settles on no genre. That is, after all, what’s kept him where he is.

"Howard Hawks didn't make just one type of film," he says. "Billy Wilder didn't make many comedies until the fifties. He'd made maybe 30 films by then. Maybe I haven't even begun to discover my true genre."

Le Mans '66 is released on Friday, November 15th