IT’S A TAXING ISSUE. How do you put a Hollywood megastar behind the wheel of an incredibly powerful car on a film set without blowing the entire production budget on insurance? That was just one of the problems that faced the producers of the Oscar-nominated Ford v Ferrari. Letting Christian Bale race wheel to wheel in a period racing car with drum brakes was never on the cards but the solution to this problem is, if anything, even madder.
Enter Robert Nagle’s ‘Biscuit Jr’. Nagle is an ex-racing driver who operates the rig, developed by Allan Padelford Camera Cars. The setup was created to generate realistic g-forces and a convincing impression of speed on camera. The car with Bale in it was placed on the rig, which has its own driver-control pod that can be set up in various positions out of frame.
Power for Biscuit Jr, so-called because its predecessor was first used to film Seabiscuit, comes courtesy of a GM 32-valve Northstar V8 with 4-speed automatic transmission. Air suspension offers both ride quality and height adjustability and the pod where the rig’s driver sits can be demounted and positioned at the front, back or sides. Oh, and it’s front wheel drive.
Also used in Drive, Star Trek, The Book of Eli, Thor, Total Recall and The Hangover, the rig can even drift. “You can drive over 100 miles an hour with it, we can high-speed through traffic, we can slide it, we can spin it. It’s heavy. Not super responsive, but it handles extremely well. It’s very fast,” says Nagle. “It’s not like a sports car. It is heavy, but most people walk away quite amazed at how well it gets around,” he adds. Driving a 298kW front-drive platform from the rear takes a bit of getting used to though. “All the sensation and everything you feel is completely off from what you are used to. I acclimate to it pretty quickly because I have done it so much, but it’s definitely an odd sensation,” Nagle told Filmmaker magazine.
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The deck height of the platform is 356mm, which presents about the only clue that the stunt car is actually sitting on a deck. That’s okay if you’re filming relatively high car like Ryan Gosling’s Ford Mustang in Driven but the GT40 hero car in Ford v Ferrari is famous for being just 40 inches high. Adding another 14 inches to its ride height raises the driving position by 35 percent. It would look wrong.
Therefore, Nagle used a different rig for those scenes where the ride height was apparent. “We had to modify different versions of that. In the most used version, we took the shell of a GT40 and the shell of a P3 Ferrari, and we mounted it in a manner that the rear wheels of the car were on the ground. Meaning you could be outside the vehicle and look at Christian in the GT40. Then there was another version which was kind of a modified pod car, and it was just the front half of the GT40. They allowed us to bring the other cars up alongside in the middle of the race and really get in the middle of the action, and I think that really helped sell that.”
The producers booked out California’s Agua Dulce airstrip for three months and recreated a section of Le Mans there. A road in rural Georgia was used for the Mulsanne Straight while the defunct Grand Prize of America circuit in Savannah Georgia (Google it, it’s now a public road) was also used to recreate some bends of La Sarthe.
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Christian Bale and Matt Damon did do some of the lower speed driving, and Bale was instructed by race legend Bob Bondurant, who was a close friend of Ken Miles, the driver Bale portrays in the movie. Bondurant was able to talk Bale through Mile’s many tics and idiosyncrasies, as well as give Bale an insight into the demands of high-speed circuit driving. He was also part of the original Ford GT40 team. "Christian was hands-down the best actor I've ever trained to drive," Nagle said. "He did an amazing, amazing job.”
All of the scenes in Ford v Ferrari where Miles comes screaming into the pits and jump out of the car, or jumps into the car merge into traffic that's going 100, 150 miles an hour involve Bale at the wheel. "That's Christian," Nagle said. "You can't fake that."