Photo Credit: Merrick Morton. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

How Ford v Ferrari Stunt Coordinator Kept Christian Bale Safe at 140 Miles an Hour

“Christian Bale is hands down the best actor I’ve ever trained,” says stunt coordinator Dan Nagle, and for a guy who’s worked on Baby Driver, The Fate of the Furious and John Wick: Chapter 2, that’s saying a lot. A former racer himself, Nagle prepped Bale to portray Ken Miles, the hot-tempered driver who in 1966 competed in the 24 Hours Le Mans against the previously indomitable Italian racing team masterminded by Enzo Ferrari. Ford v Ferrari (opening November 15) co-stars Matt Damon as the brilliant engineer who teams with Bale as Miles to push the limits of a souped-up GT40 on behalf of the Ford Motor Company.

To get Bale in shape for the film’s climactic Le Mans race, which was actually shot in California and Georgia, Nagle spent a week training the famously intense Oscar-winning actor at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix, Arizona. “Driving at this level is like playing a chess game at 150 miles an hour, where you’re constantly trying to out-think your competitors as well staying physically on top of it,” says Nagle. “On the last day we put Christian in a formula Mazda and I tried every trick in the book to disrupt his focus, coming within a few inches of his car, nosing in front of him. Christian never bobbled, even once. In all the movies I’ve done working with actors, it’s the first time that’s ever happened.”

Nagle, who got into drag racing as a youth, then earned a degree in mechanical engineering before competing in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) events, emphasizes the absolute focus required to succeed on the track. “I guess there is some fear at the back of your mind, but it’s more about having this sense of calm,” he explains. “Nothing else in the world exists at that moment in time. Everything else is shut off. You’re taking the car into the corner, through the corner and off the corner so it becomes like a ballet of braking and throttle and steering input. If you listen to what the car is telling you, it all ties together.”

Photo Credit:Merrick Morton. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios
L to R: Matt Damon, James Mangold and Christian Bale on the set of Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit:Merrick Morton. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

During Ford v Ferrari pre-production in Georgia, Nagle teamed with second unit director Darrin Prescott on finding locations that would mimic the Le Mans course in France. “The most challenging aspect of this shoot had to do with the sheer logistics of putting everything together this 24-hour race in four or five locations, where all the pieces have to stitch together seamlessly,” Nagle says. “We broke the track up into sections and found replacements of these iconic parts of the LeMans course, like the Mulsanne straight, the Dunlop Bridge and the ‘S’ curves. Once we figured out those pieces of the puzzle, we then had to keep track of the cars.”

To assure continuity between sequences filmed on different days in different parts of the state, Nagle created a document detailing exactly where each car was positioned from one turn to the next. He says, “We referred to it like a road map so that at any given point we could see for example ‘Ken’s car has just taken over the number 30 car but the cars he hasn’t quite caught yet are in the foreground and these other cars in the background.’ That’s the only way it would work.”

On the backroads of Georgia, Nagle surrounded Bale with some of the best drivers in the business including Derek Hill, the son of racer Phil Hill, Top Gear personalities Ben Collins and Tanner Foust, and Jeff Buckram, whose father Ronnie drove alongside Miles 53 years earlier. “There was a lot of familial history that came together in this movie so for me, that was a cool backstory,” Nagle says. “I also had a couple of guys I called the crash-test dummies, who knew how to make the car crash exactly where we’d placed the cameras. Because if you can’t hit the mark, then it’s all for naught.

Bale himself sped around the track at 140 miles an hour in a GT40 perched atop a drivable camera rig known as “Biscuit Junior.” Invented by Nagle and Allan Padelford and named after the Sea Biscuit movie that deployed an earlier version of the vehicle platform, Biscuit Junior, winner of an Academy 2015 Technical Achievement Award, put Bale in the thick of the action while a pro-driver handled the actual turns. “Christian’s physically right there in the car attached to our rig, which is driven by the same speeds as all the cars around us. Because of his training, Christian knew exactly how much he should be turning the wheel, whether he should be shifting up or shifting down. He completely sells it.”

Christian Bale and Noah Jupe in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit:Merrick Morton. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios
Christian Bale and Noah Jupe in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit:Merrick Morton. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

Bale, Biscuit Junior, and the all-star driving talents enabled Ford v Ferrari to present live-action racing without relying on CGI effects. Nagle says, “Christian said he’d take the Biscuit rig over sitting in front of a green screen any day of the week. The physics are real, the vibrations are real and there are all these layers of the experience you just can’t replicate with CGI. When you cut from real racing to a soundstage where the actor’s up against a green screen, and then you cut back to the real stuff? To me, your eye knows instantly it’s just not right. The way we shot this movie, you’re engaged the whole time in the story.”

Featured image: Christian Bale in Twentieth Century Fox’s FORD V FERRARI. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton. Courtesy 20th Century Fox/Walt Disney Studios

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.