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Le Mans ’66 – Matt Damon on living vicariously through Carroll Shelby

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From Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker James Mangold, the masterful storyteller behind Walk the Line and Logan, comes a film inspired by a true-life drama about a powerful friendship that forever changed racing history. LE MANS ’66 is one of the most legendary tales in the history of motorsports and comes to Digital Download on 9th March and on 4k Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, DVD & VOD 23rd March. LE MANS ’66 took home two Academy Awards™ for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture.

Academy Award-winners Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in LE MANS ’66, based on the true story of the visionary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Damon) and the fearless British-born driver Ken Miles (Bale), who together battled corporate interference, the laws of physics, and their own personal demons to build a revolutionary race car for Ford Motor Company and take on the dominating race cars of Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France in 1966.

Starring alongside Matt Damon (THE MARTIAN) and Christian Bale (VICE) is Jon Bernthal (THE PUNISHER), Caitriona Balfe (OUTLANDER), Tracy Letts (LADY BIRD), Josh Lucas (J EDGAR), Noah Jupe (A QUIET PLACE), Remo Girone (HEAVEN), Ray McKinnon (THE BLIND SIDE).

LE MANS ’66 is directed by James Mangold (WALK THE LINE, LOGAN). Produced by Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping and James Mangold. Written by the critically acclaimed brothers Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (FAIR GAME) alongside Jason Keller (ESCAPE PLAN). Director of Photography is Phedon Papamichael (3:10 TO YUMA).

Ford v Ferrari

We get a great introduction to Carroll Shelby in Le Mans ’66 – him climbing out of his car on fire and demanding to be hosed down. What did you know about the man going into this?

Well, there had been different iterations of this [project] around for about 10 years, so I was familiar with the story. But it wasn’t until I read this version, with this group of people, like Jim and Christian, attached, that I got really sold. So, then I really started to watch documentaries about Shelby and reading about him. I also talked to a lot of people because many people knew him socially – he cut quite a figure out here in LA! And put it this way: he was described to me, by many people, as a man who could sell you anything.

What was different about this iteration of the story that made you sign on?

It’s such an amazing story, but none of the takes before distilled it down in the way that this one did, in a way that a lot of people will be able to relate to. There had been versions emphasising the whole group of drivers and engineers and there were other versions that I thought might have been told in a longer way, maybe over 10 episodes on TV. But for a feature film, two-and-a-half hours in three acts, I hadn’t seen a script that had quite captured the essence of this incredible story. And this distillation of the story down to the two guys, down to this friendship between Miles and Shelby, I thought was just the perfect way in. It was also really relatable because it showed the universality of this friendship. Theirs is a classic underdog story. These two guys were so different in some ways but cared about the same things – the most important things – so they formed this bond that allowed them to be better than the sum of their parts. They fought like brothers, could drive each other pretty crazy, drive each other up the wall – which is something I think a lot of people can relate to! – but they also came together to achieve real greatness.

You’ve played real-life icons before, of course…

I have played real people before, and it’s not always easy. I remember making the Rugby movie, Invictus, and meeting the guy I was playing, Francois Pienaar, who was six foot five and 250 pounds. He invited me to his house for dinner the night I got to South Africa. And I just remember, he opened the door for me, and I looked up and he was so massive… I just said, ‘I look much bigger on film…’

With Le Mans ’66, as in real life, Shelby is a man who stakes everything on a friend, backs him to the wire. How did you work together with Christian to build that same level of trust on screen?

Look, he’s one of the best actors I’ve ever seen. So, in some ways, it was very easy to relate to the way that Shelby felt about Miles, because Shelby felt that Miles was the best engineer and driver that he had ever seen. In that sense, it was easy. With Christian, there is a kind of monk-like dedication that he has to his work. For him, you didn’t need to know how hard he was working or what he was giving up or what the sacrifices were. That sums him up, really. Christian has this tremendous dedication to his work and Ken Miles was like that, too. Miles didn’t suffer fools; he was a very serious guy about what he did. Christian shares so many of those qualities. He’s a purist in many ways and very serious about what he does. In that sense, it didn’t require much acting from me at all!

James Mangold said a similar thing, that Bale loves the work, but hates all the “bullshit” around it…

Right! Christian and I were talking about that just yesterday because after Jim had sent Christian the script and Christian had read it, Jim had called him and he was debating whether or not he should do the film. Jim said, ‘Man, this is just you. Can you just get over it? It’s you!’ And Bale was like, ‘What do you mean? That I’m an asshole and nobody likes me?’ [Laughs] But it is a great quality and you see that quality played out in his characters in his movies all the time – people who will just not tolerate the bullshit. Whereas Shelby really understands the art of diplomacy, and that’s something everyone who knew him understood. He was such a salesman and would just figure out a way to finesse these situations, no matter how complicated they were. The two of them were kind of perfect for each other because as long as Shelby could keep Miles in check [laughs], enough that Miles didn’t piss anybody off, they were this perfect partnership.

Obviously you’ve had plenty of experience with driving in movies, but don’t get to do much of that here, with Shelby running the pits and Miles doing all the driving. Was that frustrating, to see Bale out there on the track? Or did it help you to get into the mindset of Shelby?

It absolutely helped me to do that, sure. It was painful for Shelby to sit there and watch everyone else doing the thing that he loved so much. And I think Jim did a great job of capturing that in the movie. I can’t imagine being told suddenly, as he was in 1960, when he’s not done with his career, that he’s got to give up the thing he loves the most. What’s at stake for both these characters is so huge because Miles was really at the end of his driving career; he was getting older as well and he’d never risen quite to the levels that he could rise to because his personality had got in the way. This was a last chance for him, and at the same time it was a chance for Shelby to pivot into something else, into what he eventually did, which was to become the preeminent name in cars in America and build this whole company, this whole brand, around his name. So, both these guys had everything at stake in creating this amazing story together. What they achieved together was incredible, but that was far from a foregone conclusion then. For Shelby, who is a man whose cars are still hugely well-known today, back then he was really on the cusp of fading into oblivion and just being another guy hustling to sell cars to people. This opportunity was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for both of them.

How much did you know about this period of racing going into Le Mans ‘66? Did doing this movie give you a newfound respect for the dangers these guys pushed themselves to back then?

Absolutely. That was a shock to me because I wasn’t actually a huge fan of car racing, so I didn’t know all that much about it. And at this stage of it, at the time these guys were doing it, was a completely unmonitored, unprotected sport. I mean, completely unmonitored [laughs]. It’s incredible what they did. I mean, in the GT40, the fuel tanks were in the doors! These guys were basically sitting on bombs. They were surrounded by gasoline and putting the biggest engine in the lightest things they could. And the weakest part of all these cars were the brakes! Nowadays, the brakes are so staunch. Any car that you get in, you can max down the accelerator and if you hit the brake at the same time the brake will overwhelm your engine and stop the car. But with these guys, it was the opposite. They were sitting on these rockets and they weren’t sure they could stop them. The brakes would heat up and melt out and these guys were coming down the Mulsanne Straight on the Le Mans track at 230mph, and eventually, they had to stop and make a turn. I genuinely can’t imagine doing that and not being totally sure [laughs] that you’re going to be able to stop. It’s remarkable, the courage that took. It was a very serious business.

Thinking of ‘back then’, the world is in a bit of a state at the moment. Was there something rather wonderful in going back to the relative togetherness and purity of the ‘60s, for this?

[Laughs] It was certainly nice to unplug and go back to the ‘60s for 14 hours a day, for sure. But that’s one of the great things about this job. Selfishly, I’ve always been about that. I’m always living in the story I’m telling, as a way to kind of escape what’s going on in the world for a little while. Stories are important. They’re the most important thing, I think, for building empathy. We’ve been doing it since we were drawing on the walls of caves, trying to let each other know how we feel about things and what our lives are like. I think the more we can do that, that’s our way out of all this stuff. The more we can see each other and hear each other and appreciate each other’s stories the better it will be for all of us.

How would you pitch this movie to someone who doesn’t like ‘motor-racing movies’?

Well, I’d say, ‘I wasn’t interested in motor-racing movies either!’ That’s not why I did this. I think this story is so relatable. It’s about these underdogs who did this thing together, this incredible thing, despite being very different people and having this very colourful relationship and friendship. They came together and achieved the impossible. I have always loved movies like that and when I read it, this one just jumped off the page – that’s why I did it.

One of the movie’s key themes is of art vs commerce, gut instinct vs data, which speaks as much to the movie industry as it does to the motor-racing one, right?

Yeah, I mean, it’s just a one-to-one correlation, everywhere. So much of this movie is about these guys who are kind of eccentric gearheads getting funding from the corporate world in Dearborn Michigan, the Ford world. It’s the commerce and the creatives kind of coming together to do something. And that’s literally the world we live in, in the movie business. So, there was a lot of joking around on set about that. Because there are a lot of undeniable similarities.

Where do you stand on those metrics, personally – of trusting your gut as opposed to going with the numbers? Which comes into play more when you’re choosing a role?

No, no. There’s no way of looking at any metric about what’s going to work when you’re making a movie. And anybody who tells you there is, they’re going to lose their money in the movie business. The truth is, it makes more sense to put your money in Treasury bills – it always has! If you’re in this business, you should be in this business because you love making movies and that’s it.

How did you find working with James Mangold? Obviously Christian had worked with him before – did you find it easy to get on their wavelength?

I absolutely loved it. I’ve known Jim for more than 20 years, having visited one of his sets – for Girl, Interrupted – about 20 years ago. And I’ve wanted to work with him ever since. He’s always made wonderful movies but now he’s got so much experience that he really knows exactly why he’s shooting what he’s shooting. He knows exactly what he needs because he’s spent so many hundreds of hours in an editing room. So, he’ll storyboard everything out, while allowing room for what he might need later. It’s that difference between someone who says, ‘I’m using every single shot we’re doing today, and then I’m getting these couple of extra because I might need them.’ That kind of experience is great. You finish the day knowing you got everything you needed and you’re talking to an editor at the same time as you’re talking to a director, so you’re getting different notes based on not only what he needs but on how he’s going to cut. That’s invaluable. Over the years, I’ve been keeping my eye on him. I have a shortlist – okay, a maybe-not-so-short-list – of people whose work I keep abreast of and who I’m hoping will call. He was right at the top of that list, so I was delighted when he did.

On one level, this movie is about the quest for perfection. When have you come closest to achieving perfection? Or is trying to the fastest route to madness?

I don’t think it’s the fastest route to madness. I actually think it’s the fastest route to happiness. I think wanting to find those little edges and new information and techniques and tactics to try to improve what you’re doing is the hallmark of someone who takes what they do really seriously. I actually had dinner with Tom Brady (top US football player) a few weeks ago. At dinner he said he was still trying to throw the perfect spiral. It’s laughable on the face of it, because this is someone who has thrown thousands upon thousands of perfect spirals, in the most important and critical situations. But it’s not about our perception of it – it’s about his perception of it. For him, there’s always something he can tweak, and do a little better. I think that’s a beautiful thing. And that’s an idea that this whole film speaks to. It’s that purist in Christian’s character, in Miles, who is looking for every possible way that they can find that advantage, for every possible way to achieve greatness in this thing that they love to do. And, of course, it’s unachievable, right? You’ve got to be someone like Brady, who’s in his forties now and still feels like he can still throw a more perfect spiral. For the rest of us, that can seem like madness. But the pursuit of that brings him pure joy. And that’s beautiful.

How does that manifest itself with you? Do you go back and re-watch what you’ve done before, to try to find a way to refine what you do?

No, look, if I come across a scene I did like 20 years ago, it’s cringe-inducing. I know so much more now than I did then. And I think that is the route to madness – trying to go back to things that you can’t fix. It’s about attainment of wisdom, that’s what it is. It’s hard-won. And anyway, when you do something that’s artistic in its nature, I think perfection is impossible – and that’s a beautiful thing, too. It’s not something to surrender to, but at the same time don’t beat yourself up because that would drive you insane. I’m still in search of the perfect movie. And I still love doing it. And, you know, my life is a lot different now from when I first started out, so I have a lot of other really wonderful priorities now, and that’s great. There’s no masterplan, professionally. I’m still making things that, career-wise, are just one-offs, just trying to make a great movie each time out. And that is so hard to do. It’s so hard to make a good movie, let alone a great one. And it’s really, really easy to make a bad one. I’m not thinking about anything anymore grand than that. Appreciating that journey and trying and caring that much and attaining more wisdom about that thing you love so much… I mean, I think that’s the whole point of it all. At least it is for me, anyway.

On that note, are you proud about what this movie is going to do – that it’s going to give Ken Miles, in particular, his long-overdue time in the spotlight?

I hope so. When you talk to the people who were there with him at the time, they still feel a sense of injury around the fact that his achievement isn’t known by the world. And the way people talk about him, he really did deserve his due, and I do believe that this will give it to him a bit.

This movie also boasts among its ranks some of the sons of the real-life drivers who were there, back in ’66. Did you get to hang out with those guys much?

Yeah, a lot of them were hanging out in the pits. I think that for them making this was definitely a period where they were having a very special time, commiserating with their dads, being with them again in that way, you know? Just to get do that… I mean, I lost my dad 18 months ago and I can’t imagine… To get to suit up and play your dad in a movie… It seemed like those guys were really appreciating that. Appreciating having the chance to do that. It was very special to watch.

LE MANS ’66 is OUT NOW on Digital Download and on 4k Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, DVD & VOD 23rd March.

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