When Nigel Sinclair first recruited David Gelb to make a film about the Ford Mustang, timed to the 50th anniversary of the iconic American car, he passed along a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs to him for inspiration.
“That was incredibly helpful because if you look at especially the iPhone, it’s an incredible piece of technology, but because of the way [Jobs] packaged it with the phone plans, almost anybody could afford it,” said Gelb, whose film “A Faster Horse” looks at the Mustang’s place in American culture. “So when you’re able to bring an aspirational item down to an affordable price, it can really change the world.”
“A Faster Horse,” which allows an unprecedented look into the development of 2015 Mustang, is itself a fine model of form, function and accessibility. As in Gelb’s previous film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” Gelb compassionately chronicles the rigors of pursuing perfection, albeit moving the action from a single man making maki to a crew of hundreds poring over every detail of a car that has such a cherished place in the minds of its admirers. With the Mustang redesigned just five times over its 50-year history, the film finds Chief Program Engineer Dave Pericak and Vehicle Engineering Manager Tom Barnes taking on the unenviable task of honoring the legacy started by Lee Iacocca in fashioning a flashy yet consumer-friendly automobile while reenvisioning it to expand its considerable fan base into a new generation.
Gelb follows the production team from the Ford Factory in Dearborn, Michigan to the company’s proving grounds in Wittman, Arizona, poring over every detail of the Mustang, going as far as testing 50 different kinds of exhausts to make sure the engine gives off the same sound as when Steve McQueen drove it in “Bullitt.” What emerges is another portrait from the filmmaker of the elevation of work into art, celebrating the human touch that can turn a product into something that captures the heart and mind. Shortly after the film made a triumphant debut at Tribeca in no less than an outdoor “Drive-in” screening, Gelb and Sinclair, the film’s producer, spoke about how they were able to get a rare peek into such a secretive process, Gelb’s continuing fascination with grace under pressure and how the similarities between carmaking and filmmaking helped make “A Faster Horse” what it is.
Nigel Sinclair: A very good friend of mine works for the Ford Global Brand office in Los Angeles, liaising with movie industry to place cars [in films]. He said, “I have this idea: the Mustang is an extraordinary piece of American iconography and it’s having a 50th anniversary. They’re building this actual car for it and I’m thinking there’s a story there.” So I went and chatted with David, who we’re lucky enough to know, and he bit on it.
David Gelb: Immediately, I was a bit intimidated because it’s such a huge story. My last film was about a group of men in the basement of a subway station making sushi. On the way home from the meeting, I just saw Mustangs everywhere and I thought about my father, who would take me on his business trips and he would drive me around in a Mustang GT convertible. So I thought I have an emotional attachment to the Mustang and everybody that I talked to about the possibility of this project had a Mustang story, so there really is something here.
We visited Ford headquarters in Dearborn and they were gracious enough to really allow us backstage. We were allowed to go into the development rooms where the designs were happening. I thought it was an extraordinary story. There’s some really inspirational characters like Dave Pericak and Tom Barnes, who I thought, “Wow, these guys have a huge responsibility on their shoulders with 50 years of history of this car.” The Mustang is an idea in the hearts of a lot of people that’s something that is beautifully designed and an aspirational vehicle that you can own and isn’t expensive like a Ferrari. It’s really a populace vehicle but is beautiful and that had never been done before, so continuing that tradition [made me think] there was an incredible story there with some real human stakes.
Did you figure out the structure as it went along or was it obvious from the start that there would be these three tracks of the making of the car, the legacy and then the fans with this 50th Anniversary coming up?
Nigel Sinclair: When we started talking about this film, we realized that because it’s an icon, it attracts all this energy people have. It’s been in great movies with Steve McQueen. Dave Pericak actually proposed to his wife in a Mustang — it looked like we made that up for the film but it’s true. It sucks so many themes towards it, once you have something that is both functional and iconic, we fell into the structure.
David Gelb: [I thought] if we’re going to put ourselves in Dave’s perspective, what is he dealing with? He’s dealing with the incredible history of this car and the legacy that he grew up admiring, so that’s the historical story. Then you have these fans who he has to create a vehicle that they’ll like and still take the car to the future, so those are the [twin] pressures on both of his shoulders and he has to deliver something that’s true to his own dreams and aspirations. It’s a lot of pressure for one guy, and it’s naturally how the movie found its way. In the auto world, I likened it to making a new “Star Wars,” The expectations couldn’t be higher and it’s a high stress situation, but in the auto world, Mustang is one of the most important vehicles, if not the most important vehicle.
When you arrived at Ford did the human stories start coming out immediately or did you have to work to find them?
David Gelb: There are so many people involved in this car from marketing to the managers to the engineers themselves, so I was attracted to who was the most stressed out. It’s all on the shoulders of the chief engineer to execute this vehicle and Dave immediately was captivating as both an engineer but also as a leader [who was in charge of] this massive team, so it was pretty quick I figured out who the main character of the movie should be.
That came from a lesson that I learned on “Jiro” because I thought the movie was going to be about the art of sushi from the perspectives of four or five different chefs, and it was only through the act of starting to shoot it that I began to realize that it really needs to be from a main character’s perspective. This is a much bigger team than what “Jiro” has, so there are certainly more characters, but I knew immediately we needed to go at it from a personal experience, mainly from Dave Pericak and Tom Barnes.
Nigel Sinclair: And then you always have discoveries, like that lady in the car park that says she doesn’t like the Mustang to the chief program engineer. You couldn’t make that up. She has absolutely no reserve about that and then [you see] the guy in the street that says that’s a good looking car. If you would cover as much ground as these guys did, you eventually get those wonderful individual people saying something and you think, “Oh that’s a moment, that’s got to be in the film.”
David Gelb: You never know what the most important moments in the movie are going to be and we cast a wide net. And it’s a big testament to our editing team as well for helping us find those important moments in the massive amount of footage that we capture.
In the film, the creation of a new vehicle is described as a five-year process from conception to completion called “Job 1.” Did you come in for the last year of that?
David Gelb: Yeah, the project was largely underway before we got there — they were in the engineering process — so the designs were largely completed, but they’re constantly designing new models, so we’re able to get a glimpse of that part of the process. But the bulk of the film is really about Dave and Tom doing the engineering of the car, which was happening in real-time while we were filming it, at the most critical stage.
Was it tricky to get your head around all the moving pieces in this process?
David Gelb: I was floored by how complicated it is. People don’t really realize how much intensity and work goes into building a car. There are over 2,000 parts in the case of this car, which was a complete top to bottom redesign. That’s 2,000 parts that have to individually be designed, tested, and then implemented on a mass production scale, so they can all be there on the assembly line at the same time. Hau Thai-Tang, a former chief engineer of the car, says in the film says it’s a billion dollar investment and it’s just staggering the amount of work that goes into it.
Nigel Sinclair: That’s just the R&D, the billion dollars. That’s not the cost of making the car.
David Gelb: The amazing thing that Nigel and our producers were able to secure for us was convincing Ford to let us in on the secret, so we became part of it. We were filming and locking down our hard drives. Everything was incredibly well protected, but they put a tremendous amount of faith in our team.
Nigel Sinclair: When you walk into a room of people with the most senior guy, two things happen. The first is, nobody argues. Secondly, there’s like an elephant in the room. People keep saying we’re talking about the fuel line leak or something, and “There’s a camera in the room.”
David Gelb: Yeah, in the beginning it was certainly like that. But it’s really a testament to Dave walking us in the room, telling people, “We have to keep working.” Eventually, they just forgot the cameras, so we’re in the corner of every meeting and they don’t have time to worry about us. They’re just focusing and doing their thing and we’re capturing it all.
Nigel Sinclair: One of the things I agree was impressive is how they completely left us alone. Neither of us knew very much about this storied American corporation that goes back to 1895 where the family name is still on the company [as far as their corporate attitude]. You would think that they’d say “Now, could we see that, please?” They left us to it. There was not a single corporate, political note about the film you saw at all, which is impressive.
Nigel, since you’ve produced a few documentaries over the years in addition to your narrative features, do you find it involves different skills?
Nigel Sinclair: There is and there isn’t. You’ve got to tell a story. You got to have an emotional arc for the viewer and you try and hit a peak. I remember when I worked on “No Direction Home,” Martin Scorsese saying you need to hit a peak every seven minutes because then you’re going to give the viewer information and then just as they’ve started to have had enough, you’ve got to give them another emotional peak. Now whether that actually works or not, it’s a good way of looking at it.
The other thing when you’re making a film about something powerful, whether it’s The Beatles or Bob Dylan or the Mustang, you have a relationship with the people that run it and that’s about building trust, which David did to the Nth degree. They can come in and tell you what the film is, but it’s got to be authored otherwise you’re making a promotion and you’ve got to convince them that you’re going to make a wonderful film. This was an authored film by a great director.
Were there any roads that this took you down that you were surprised by?
David Gelb: Yeah, I was most surprised by how personally our engineers take it. They grew up loving this car and they just feel an incredible sense of responsibility. I was really excited by how much the process emotionally affects them but they still have to keep this sturdy exterior because they just have to keep moving. These guys are not only engineers but they’re poets and I was really impressed by how well they were able to articulate it. There was one scene in particular where Tom Barnes talks about how you just have to keep moving forward and you have to keep pushing it to its ultimate limit. It’s such a marathon for them.
It was also surprising how I found certain parallels to filmmaking there, although what they’re doing is a much longer term thing. It’s much more expensive and there are many more people working on it, but Dave is very much the director of this vehicle and Tom, as his technical engineer, is almost like the cinematographer and Prakash, the program manager is like the producer. So we found these parallels and it actually helped us communicate between myself and Dave. I’m asking him questions on how to lead a team just as if I’m asking for advice and he was interested in what we were doing just as much as we were interested what he was doing.
Nigel Sinclair: The other thing that we were all amazed by was [considering] what happened in 2006 and 2007. The automotive industry is somewhat of a black box to us, we think it’s screwed up, we don’t really understand it. But you see these people, they’re so impressive. They’ve got leadership, they’ve got systems, they work hard, they seem to like each other and the work they do is good, so I don’t know whether the other car companies are like that but I was thinking these people could run the government.
David Gelb: Yeah, because Detroit had fallen on really hard times, they felt a great deal of pride in doing everything they could to burnish this brand of Detroit. To them, the Mustang is really a symbol of resurgence of the American car industry. Dave [Pericak] himself says regardless of what company you’re at in Detroit, they all want to see the American cars do well because this is where mass production of cars began and they really want it to stay as a center of it.
Nigel Sinclair: And this is the ultimate example. The car you drive is who you are, and this is the ultimate example of the car as a statement about yourself — these people are building a car that is emotionally a statement about who they are.
Near the end of the Job 1 process, the engineering team finds a problem with the instability of the gear shift. How big an issue was that when it happened?
David Gelb: It was a pretty big deal. And they had so many problems. The program is so large that it’s hard to pinpoint just one thing, but that was one major outstanding issue that we were able to capture. But it’s so mind-bogglingly complicated. There are two very cool things about that though. One is that we were allowed to present these problems in the film, which if you were making a film inside of a major corporation you’d be afraid they’d try to silence you. But they did not. They allowed us to present the problems in the film as they actually happened. Second, it’s a testament to Dave’s leadership the way that he openly confronts the problems immediately because people’s lives are on the line every time they get inside of a vehicle. Dave has an incredibly open leadership style where people are encouraged to speak up, voice the issues and challenge them. That’s one of the reasons why the Mustang is an incredible vehicle.
“A Faster Horse” will be released on October 8th in select theaters and October 9th on Vimeo.