At first it was up to the makeup department and voice coaches to make Matt Damon and Christian Bale look and sound like auto racing pioneer (and longtime Las Vegas resident) Carroll Shelby and his test driver, Ken Miles, in the critically acclaimed movie “Ford v Ferrari.”
Then Robert Nagle and Tony Hunt finished the job by putting the hammer down.
Nagle was stunt director for the movie, nominated for Best Picture at Sunday’s 92nd Academy Awards. Hunt was one of the professional drivers who doubled for Damon and Bale.
Both were on hand at Saturday’s Perfect Lap Tour at the Shelby Heritage Center in Las Vegas. They were grinning as if they were the ones who had personally combined to defeat Enzo Ferrari in the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans.
“The story had been around for 10 years,” Nagle said of the Ford Motor Company’s rags-to-riches effort of conquering international sports car racing, and the idea to make it into a movie. “When I heard it coming back around, I got a phone call from James Mangold, the director, on a Saturday morning. He asked me to meet him on Monday. I pinched myself all weekend — did this really happen?”
As a former sports car racer, Nagle was well familiar with Shelby and the Herculean task bestowed upon him by the suits in Detroit. He knew the story, if told right, would captivate auto racing enthusiasts as well as those who wouldn’t know a camshaft from an elevator shaft.
Hunt, who came up through the formula ranks and drove midgets and sprint cars before becoming a stunt driver, also was feeling pride in having contributed to the movie’s success. But he said that would have been the case even had “Ford v Ferrari” not become the first auto racing movie nominated for Best Picture.
“Every day was pretty emotional,” he said about strapping into the Ford GT40 movie cars that were capable of 180-mph speeds and drove much like the prototypes that hurtled across the French countryside. “You get in the these cars, you put on the period appropriate clothing, you play the part.
“In relation to racing … when the director says ‘Action!’ it’s very similar to when they drop the green flag. You’re engaged, you’re focused, the adrenaline is running. You realize the element of danger. It’s very similar to racing where you have to hit your spot and be mindful of what car you’re driving and what it’s capable of.”
Hunt still was wearing period clothing — a 1960s windbreaker adorned with racing stripes and patches that was a garage sale find — at the Perfect Lap Tour, so named for one of Ken Miles’ recurring movie lines. Hunt and Nagle mimicked Matt Damon and Christian Bale’s poses in the “Ford v Ferrari” promotional poster.
People toting cameras pressed down hard on the shutter as if it were an accelerator pedal.
Fast track to success
Nagle said putting together a team of stunt drivers for “Ford v Ferrari” was almost like assembling a team to contest the race itself. Alex Gurney, Derek Hill and Jeff Bucknum, sons of racing legends Dan Gurney; Phil Hill and Ronnie Bucknum, were among those who donned the faded blue driving coveralls of that era.
“We were able to cast Alex Gurney to play his father (Dan Gurney teamed with A.J. Foyt to bring Ford another victory at LeMans in 1967) … it gave me a lot of joy to be able to do that for him,” Nagle said. “And then Jeff Bucknum — his father, Ronnie, drove the gold GT40 (in the 1966 race). I put Jeff as much as I could into his father’s car.”
But Nagle said Christian Bale’s desire to learn how to drive a race car was just as impressive as the talent that came naturally to the sons of the famous racers.
“To that end, he’s the best actor I’ve ever trained,” Nagle said. “I think he walked away with a great appreciation for who these guys were.”
Bale said as much during an interview before the movie’s release.
“I don’t know if I had to learn all of that, but I really wanted to learn all of that,” he said after joining Nagle for a week of training at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance driving in Phoenix. “That gives you the absolute adrenaline rush of racing at (what were) high speeds for me.
“Ken Miles would have been looking backward having a sandwich. But for me, it was so exciting.”
Racing for the Oscar
“Ford v Ferrari” is the first movie with an auto racing theme nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Other racing movies that have resonated with critics:
■ “Grand Prix” (1966, Formula One). Won Academy Award for Best Sound Effects, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. John Frankenheimer nominated for Outstanding Directing by the Directors Guild of America.
■ “Bobby Deerfield” (1977, Formula One). Al Pacino (Bobby Deerfield) nominated for Golden Globe Award, Best Actor Motion Picture Drama.
■ “Days of Thunder (1990, NASCAR). Nominated for Academy Award for Best Sound.
■ “Senna” (2010, Formula One). Won Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Audience Award: Documentary; Won British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Documentary.
■ “Rush” (2013, Formula One). Nominated for Golden Globe Award, Best Motion Picture Drama; Daniel Bruhl (Niki Lauda), nominated for Golden Globe Award, Best Supporting Actor.