Fall 2019

The Need for Speed

James Mangold and DP Phedon Papamichael tackle the racing world with the same unified vision while swerving away from stock solutions

By David Heuring

Director James Mangold, right, and DP Phedon Papamichael. (Photo: Merrick Morton)

James Mangold and Phedon Papamichael have combined their talents on five feature films and one pilot, including a psychological thriller (Identity), a music biopic (Walk the Line), a Western (3:10 to Yuma) and an action-comedy (Knight and Day). Their latest, Ford v Ferrari, takes viewers into the auto racing world, recounting the late-1960s dominance of Le Mans by the Ford Shelby GT. Across a wide array of stories and subcultures, the duo has demonstrated a subtle mastery of tone and character. That versatility indicates a sure command of the medium and recalls memorable duos of the studio era like Frank Capra and Joseph Walker, or John Ford and Joseph August.

In a recent conversation at Mangold's offices on the 20th Century Fox lot, the pair talked about the evolution of their partnership and why it continues to work for them.

Mangold and Papamichael on the set for Ford v Ferrari (Photo: John Sant/Twitter)

DGAQ: Your first film together was Identity, released in 2003. Do you recall any specific realization that your working relationship was clicking?

JAMES MANGOLD: I very quickly realized that I was more relaxed or comfortable shooting with Phedon than I had ever been—mainly due to the fact that it can get so exhausting when any key collaborator sees things through an entirely different prism. Phedon and I see things the same way. He loves classical filmmaking, as I do. He appreciates and comes from independent filmmaking, as I do. There's a synthesis of the desire to see life in the film, and not be so confined by formal ambitions that the life of the movie is beaten to death. And at the same time, our admiration for classical films means we don't want to just shoot a handheld vérité film. We're trying to find our own kind of balance between formal aspirations and allowing the movie room to breathe.
PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL: We have the same influences embedded in us. We love the same filmmakers. We love Ozu, and the Italian neorealists, and the French New Wave, and John Ford Westerns, so we're speaking the same language. But more specifically, we have very similar compositional instincts and aesthetics. It's almost eerie how often I'll be telling the operator to boom down a few inches, and I hear Jim saying the same thing from his monitor. I noticed that early on, on our first collaboration, and it continues to happen, including just this morning.
JM: Yeah, this morning Phedon was concerned about a few shots in the DI timing of Ford v Ferrari. Before he finished the sentence, I said, "Don't worry, I took care of them already." In a movie with roughly 2,500 shots, we both noticed the same three problems. We're both very sensitive to the same things. Everyone can be talented, but that talent can take you on different agendas, and put you at cross-purposes. What makes it work is when you see the goals of the film in roughly the same way

DGAQ: In the heat of battle, do you respond to pressure in similar ways?

PP: We complement each other. When he's aggravated, I try to be a calming force. When I feel he's too relaxed about something happening, I tend to get aggravated. We always try to keep each other focused on the essence of the shot and its value in the narrative. We instinctively recognize that finding these little gems of human behavior and capturing them in the right frame is the hardest part of making movies.
JM: And the most important. Nothing is the enemy of artistic discovery on a set more than toxic personalities or a stressed-out atmosphere. Phedon is an actor's DP and a director as well. He brings playful, positive energy to the set. Within the world of Hollywood filmmaking, people can get very turfy. They can get very protective, sharp-elbowed, defensive or ass-covering. And the only way to blow through that is to evangelically, forcefully, passionately keep pushing against these pre-set default responses, which sometimes people can hold onto quite dearly. Phedon is equally intolerant of generic, stale choices. There are a lot of "professional" behaviors that both of us get really exhausted with. Sometimes these behaviors are helpful, but often they are just a kind of innate resistance to change or risk. Some of our most proud moments in movies have come when we've extended ourselves and embraced choices that run counter to prevailing professional wisdom. The easiest examples I can offer are sound recordists worrying that a performance is too quiet to record, when asking the actor to raise their voice will destroy the scene. Or a camera operator who is nervously anticipating the movements of the actor so as not to let them get too edgy in frame, when that anticipation can take the life out of the performance. And it is our shared core philosophy, which comes from all of the things we've discussed already, that makes me feel like I always have an ally.

DGAQ: Can you give me a specific example of how your avoidance of generic norms reveals itself in Ford v Ferrari?

JM: In prep, one producer said to me, "Well, there's really only a few ways you can cover a car: chasing it, following it or panning with it." See? That's another professional assumption to a default setting. Of course, there are lots of other ways, and the challenge is not just to be original but, because our purposes—dramatic and character-based—are different than race coverage on a TV event, we needed different strategies. Aside from a couple stiff, low-res, wireless plant cameras on Wide World of Sports, you don't really get to feel what it is really like to live in that small cubicle moving at high speed.
PP: One thing we learned is why car racing never looks fast on television. They're just panning things with long lenses, which negates the speed. You've got to be close to the object that's moving. You've got to be low, and preferably on a wide lens. The same with the faces; we exposed Christian (Bale, who plays Shelby driver Ken Miles) to all the g-forces, the actual interactive light and reflections. We didn't use dampeners on the cameras. We embraced the vibrations. It's like a little box of metal with a huge engine and a bunch of fuel doing 200 miles an hour. That fed into how we would shoot it.
JM: We're dealing with race car drivers and these metallic boxes, vibrating and loud. We thought we should be right in there, in those death traps, alone with the character and his thoughts.

(Clockwise from top left) Identity; Walk the LineKnight and Day3:10 to Yuma. (Photos: (Clockwise from top left) Alamy; Photofest; Alamy; Lionsgate)

DGAQ: How did your simpatico translate on an action-comedy like Knight and Day?

PP: Neither of us had really done an action movie on that scale. I remember saying, "Wow, look at all this!" It seemed kind of alien to us. But what works for us generally is also what worked in that movie. Tom Cruise's character, his relationship with Cameron Diaz's character, and the little moments and absurd situations in which they find themselves. It's not just about the spectacle, although that was also necessary. It's about their relationship, their humor, their connection. In the comedies we like—Stranger Than Paradise, Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, Billy Wilder—the audience is allowed to find the moments and see the body language.
JM: On Knight and Day, I was fascinated with the comic mechanism of taking a supreme action star and portraying him as someone who, while he is physically capable of overcoming almost any obstacle, was incapable of being intimate with a woman. Is someone living on adrenaline ever really capable of hanging out and eating a slice of pizza? So the pressure was on us to deliver both dynamic, muscular action and improvisational comedic moments. Those goals sometimes ran in contradiction, and it was something we worked very hard to figure out. Comedy sometimes wants the threat to be a little less explicit. But that can run counter to a lot of people's expectations of what is considered "high stakes" action.
PP: Having directed a few films since I started shooting for Jim, I definitely learned some important lessons from him. When you try to reduce your coverage, you need really great performances, great actors. Even then, a "one-er " might work nicely within a specific scene, but within the structure of the film it doesn't work. On the day, on the set, you might feel that it's great. You walk away very satisfied, thinking that you've been very clever in the blocking. Then you get to the editing room months later and wonder, "Why is this so hard? Why can't I tighten this up?"
JM: The fashionable quest to produce the cut-less movie can sometimes produce wondrous results, but in less agile hands sometimes strikes me as a bit humorous.
PP: With many other filmmakers I work with, it's all about designing the shot from the beginning of the scene to the end. And I'm always saying, "But that shot is never going to live like this. It doesn't need to go that far." Jim recognizes the parts of each setup that are going to live in the cut.
JM: If you are making all these discoveries of what your movie really is in the cutting room—that's where I get deeply unsatisfied, because by cutting heads and tails off of long shots, you no longer have beautiful transitions. You have all these kind of aborted and mutilated shots as opposed to shots that were composed.
PP: Well, you have to recognize the sweet spot of the shot. Obviously, we often run the shot beyond the in and out of our sweet spot, but we know exactly where the shot is really playing. The other great pleasure we get is through staging and layers of our set. And that's why we like the widescreen format. It's nice to see a shot months later and see how the actors are positioned perfectly in a dramatic way. It happens all the time—maybe an actor turns and creates a close-up or gives us a quarter-camera. We'll both be saying, "Oh! Oh! Stop! Rack to him!" It's the stuff you find, but you need somebody who can also see that. When I hear (Mangold) from the monitor saying, "Whoa! Look at that! It's fantastic!" I think to myself, "OK, I have a partner who is seeing the things I see."
JM: It's also a recognition that our jobs are overlapping. I'm seeing things in the photography, and he is seeing things in performance, and they're one and the same. Sometimes the actor does something radically brilliant, but those decisions can look a little scary at first. And I look at Phedon. If he likes it, that gives me the courage to go with it. If he was looking critical, I might lose my faith. My collaborators have tremendous power, but it's also that shared taste for pushing against the default settings that can make your movie look like everyone else's.

DGAQ: And that atmosphere of searching together extends to the actors? Is there a performative aspect to your collaboration?

PP: We're just trying to find those moments that they also struggle for internally. It's a symbiosis. Matt Damon and Christian Bale, for example, they get it. Matt knows we're looking for the essential moment that could dramatically improve his scene. And we'll find it. And Matt is also thinking about it and offering his opinion. It's a process.
JM: Imagine you've just finished acting in an intimate scene and you hear someone yell, "Cut." A bunch of people are by a monitor whispering. I've seen this on other sets—the actors are standing there wondering what's going on, whether the honchos in the tent are pleased or frustrated, rewriting the scene or just on their phones texting. It produces feelings of loneliness, anxiety or paranoia, all of which can be toxic. It's almost like some horrible kind of Hunger Games where everyone's waiting for people to hold up cards saying who lives or who dies. It's never that way for us. We're after the same thing. We're certainly privileged to be making movies, so our methodology and process should reflect that.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

More from this issue
The latest DGA Quarterly is the Conversations issue, featuring discussions about filmmaking history and craft between directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, Pamela Fryman and Mark Cendrowski, Kasi Lemmons and Ed Zwick and Bo Burnham and Olivia Wilde.