Built For Speed

Phedon Papamichael ASC / Le Mans ‘66

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Built For Speed

Phedon Papamichael ASC / Le Mans ‘66

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Below is only a teaser, and the full interview can be found in the November 2019 issue (96) of British Cinematographer magazine.

If you purchase a year’s digital subscription from just £30, or a year’s all-inclusive subscription from just £64, you can read the interview in Issue 96 by clicking HERE. You will also receive access to the rest of our extensive back catalogue.

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As much as the success of Ford beating Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans 24-Hour Race relied on the partnership of car designer Carroll Shelby and racer Ken Miles, in many ways the same can be said about the collaboration between filmmaker James Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael ASC, with the duo teaming for a fifth time for the $98m production of Le Mans ’66 (also known as Ford v Ferrari in other territories).

“I’ve always admired how Jim is able to get the performances,” states Papamichael. “We have a similar taste in our visuals. It comes naturally. We like close-ups with a wider lens and little push ins.”

Most of the story takes place, and was consequently shot, in California, with other locations being New Orleans, Atlanta, Savannah, Statesboro, and Le Mans. “Carroll Shelby’s shop was in Venice, California where he was building and selling Cobras,” remarks Papamichael.

“Once he gets approached by Ford and accepts the offer to build the GT40, they moved into a hanger at LAX and were testing the cars on the runway after the last plane left for Tokyo at 1am. We shot that in Ontario Airport but made it LAX. We did go to Le Mans for a one-shoot day when they arrive in the old town of Le Mans and Christian Bale goes to the hotel. All of the pits were built at Agua Dulce, which is an airfield near Los Angeles. The deep backgrounds and crowd stands were created by VFX supervisor Olivier Dumont. The second unit went to Georgia for ten days to do the country road part of the race, but we covered the actors and that all integrates together.”

Phedon Papamichael ASC with director James Mangold
Phedon Papamichael ASC with director James Mangold

Ten weeks were devoted to preproduction. “I never get to spend much time with Jim because he’s working on the script and casting all the way to the end,” remarks Papamichael. “In his office there was a monitor running Grand Prix (1966, dir. John Frankenheimer, DP Lionel Lindon ASC) on a loop. I did look at the making of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans and several documentaries such as Go Like Hell, and one that dealt with the accidents in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to get a feel for the intensity and brutality of those races. The death toll was extremely high. It wasn’t until Ayrton Senna got killed when they started making these cars safer.”

For Le Mans ’66, Papamichael says it was important for the audience to be placed alongside the drivers. “You feel like you’re in the car with them and there are a lot of POVs out of the windshields. It’s less the swooping wraparound. There are no aerial shots. Just like when we shot Walk The Line (2005) when you have Joaquin Phoenix on stage, it was all about being on stage with him, being close to his face, and feeling the intensity of the performance.”

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Principal photography on Le Mans ’66 commenced on July 30, 2018. “Normally for a budget like this you would have 80 days,” states Papamichael. “We had 63. There’s a lot of cost that goes into building 30 replica cars and keeping them running. But all of the dramatic scenes are covered like a conventional Mangold movie. We rehearse, block the scene and pick the coverage right there on the day without any predesign or storyboards or shot lists.” The mandate was to shoot as much in camera as possible. “You need the previs to break it down into different rigs and speciality equipment. Even with the car scenes we always shoot the piece that was previs, but always roll additional footage. We’re always looking for little happy accidents that become useful in telling the story.”

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“We had four ARRI Alexa LF camera bodies and needed a lot of lenses because we had a lot of different mounts running simultaneously on the car,” explains Papamichael. “It was important for us to try to do as little as possible on stage and greenscreen with the exception of some specific beats that are extreme close-ups on Christian Bale during the final race. Everything else is hard mounted to the car. The car is sitting on a pod car, which is partially driven by Christian, except for the extreme situations driven by a stunt driver. Christian is being catapulted around with the actual G-forces of going into these curves and all of the interactive light. It helps with the performance but is also something you can’t fake. When we were doing regular dramatic scenes, it was usually two Alexa LF cameras.”

READ IT ALL

The full interview can be found in the November 2019 issue (96) of British Cinematographer magazine.

If you purchase a year’s digital subscription from just £30, or a year’s all-inclusive subscription from just £64, you can read the interview in Issue 96 by clicking HERE. You will also receive access to the rest of our extensive back catalogue.

CLICK TO BUY A DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION
CLICK TO BUY A PRINT & DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION