‘Ford v Ferrari’ Writers Explain Their Policy: ‘Stick to the Truth, Not the Facts’

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “You do as much diligent research as you can, and then forget about it,” says Jez Butterworth of the approach he and John-Henry Butterworth took on the auto-racing drama

ford v ferrari
'Ford v Ferrari' / 20th Century Fox

A version of this story about “Ford v Ferrari” first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

When Michael Mann came to them with the idea for a movie about the Ford Motor Company’s attempt to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1966, brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth knew nothing about auto racing or about designer Carroll Shelby or driver Ken Miles, the lead characters in what became “Ford v Ferrari.”

“We went out to the Willow Springs track and we raced cars,” Jez Butterworth said. “It was terrifying and exciting and thrilling. And then we sat down with Carroll Shelby. By the time we finished the meeting with Carroll, it was obvious it was a great story for a movie.”

The film stars Matt Damon as Shelby and Christian Bale as Miles, who teamed up to make Ford a major player in auto racing in the mid 1960s while clashing with the company’s corporate culture. After they did extensive research, Jez said, they faced the challenge of deciding when to stick to the facts and when to use creative license.

“I think that’s the ballgame,” he said. “It’s really a case-by-case sense of what will work and won’t offend anyone who was there. In anything I’ve written about people based on reality, it really is a case of using your sense of not letting down anyone involved in it. You do as much diligent research as you can, and then forget about it.”

Sometimes, John-Henry Butterworth added, that can mean creating composite characters. “You’ve got to try to stick to the truth rather than the facts,” he said. “You can present facts in any order or in an edited form and end up with the wrong truth. So you’ve got to not just cleave to the facts but come up with something that as a whole represents the truth. And sometimes that means the characters are amalgamations of real characters. We might take what happened to four people and put it on one actor — not because we’re trying to misrepresent anyone, but to give you access to the primary truth.”

The problem, Jez added, is that even when you have participants and eyewitnesses, you get differing stories. “The second anything happens in life,” he said, “there are two or three different opinions about what went on.”

John-Henry added, “You can’t say at any stage that you’re God’s dictaphone.”

The character of Ford executive Leo Beebe, who is played by Josh Lucas, is in some ways an illustration of their willingness to use composite characters, they said. Some of those close to Beebe, who died in 2001, say the depiction of him as an obstinate corporate suit is unfair, and Jez concedes that point to a degree.

“In drama, you need a villain,” he said. “He’s an amalgamation. He did express a tremendous amount of the attitude that we have him saying in the movie. He had a dislike of Ken Miles from the moment that they met. At the same time, yes, he does represent an attitude within Ford — one that he fully shared in, that we don’t show him sharing with 19 other characters.”

The screenplay, on which the Butterworths share credit with Jason Keller, evolved over several years and some stops and starts. “We wrote early versions of the script that included dozens of races,” John-Henry said. “They got whittled down and amalgamated, because in real life there was an awful lot more auto racing in these men’s lives. It’s in the nature of racing that it’s repetitive, but that is not the nature of drama.”

To read more of the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.

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