Robert Nagle’s phone rang. On the other end of the line was director Michael Mann.
“Get your backpack,” Mann told the Academy Award-winning stunt coordinator. “We’re leaving for Italy tomorrow.”
That was how Nagle, a longtime stunt driver, coordinator and double in Hollywood, began his involvement with Mann’s latest film, Ferrari. Starring Adam Driver, Penelope Cruz and Patrick Dempsey, the Enzo Ferrari biopic opened in theaters on Christmas Day.
Nagle, an Oscar recipient from when he shared the trophy for technical achievement in 2015, has a long list of credits. Directors he’s worked with include Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve, Edgar Wright, Damien Chazelle and Paul Thomas Anderson; titles in his filmography include The Dark Knight Rises, Baby Driver, the first two John Wick installments, several Marvel films, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Prisoners and the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth Fast & Furious movies. He’s worked with Mann before on Collateral, Miami Vice and Public Enemies; doubled for the likes of Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell and Tom Sizemore; and has a number of racing movies under his belt in Ford v Ferrari, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story, Herbie Fully Loaded and, most recently, Gran Turismo.
The following is an abridged version of Frontstretch‘s interview with Nagle, edited for length and clarity; the full version can be listened to in podcast version above.
Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: What was working on Ferrari like?
Robert Nagle: Michael’s been trying to make this film for over 20 years, and I’d been involved in and out of it as it progressed, so to see it finally come to fruition and really coalesce into just a beautiful piece, it’s just so rewarding. I’m just so humbled to be part of it.
Cheek: You’ve worked on so many different kinds of movies where stunts are involved. How do you approach a movie like Ferrari as opposed to an action film?
Nagle: For something like this, we want to be more grounded in reality, and we also want to enhance/parallel a storyline — or sometimes you want to contrast the storyline. For this particular film, what that entails is Michael and I sitting down, and me understanding his vision and going through it step by step — what he wants to see for the car action and how he’s going to incorporate that into his story. So it’s designing some of the action that looks fun, looks real and fits his mission.
Cheek: When you’re mapping out a crash scene, how do you approach destroying a car practically and setting up that process?
Nagle: In a film like Ferrari, we’re dealing with cars from the ’50s that had essentially no safety equipment — seat belts weren’t even a thing, [drivers would] rather be thrown from the vehicle. So it becomes this marriage in a tight conversation, between stunts doing it practically — how far can I take it safely with the person in the vehicle; special effects doing it practically without a person in the vehicle; and then visual effects to seamlessly stitch that all together. So it’s just it’s a huge cooperation of all those departments.
Cheek: What’s the furthest you’ve gone with a stunt, or what’s your limit?
Nagle: It’s per [situation]. We’ll talk through it and again — it’ll come down to what the director wants to see at the end of the day, and how much of that I can deliver for real. I’m all about giving 100% real anytime I can.
Cheek: You got to work with Adam Driver, Penelope Cruz and a huge cast on this movie. What was that like?
Nagle: Adam was fantastic to work with. Michael wanted to get him out on the track so he could understand and relate to racing. I spent a few days with him and he absolutely loved it. He’s very, very capable. … Getting the call for this was amazing, and it was literally a phone call from Michael asking, “get your backpack — we’re leaving for Italy tomorrow.”
Cheek: How did you become involved with stunt work in the first place?
Nagle: I got into this after I got bored with drag racing. I went on to road racing and IMSA, and I met some guys that were doing what I do currently. At one point, I got asked to come work for one of them to drive race cars on camera, because my mindset was the same as his — he wanted guys who could really drive.
I did that, and I was like, “wow, this is kind of cool.” So I slowly made the transition from racing to where the money is going the wrong direction [laughs] in film, and getting paid for doing this. What that also opened up for me was this creative side that I didn’t realize needed feeding for me — designing and creating this is so satisfying, from the choreography to the crashes to where we set the cameras and how do we make this look cool. I really, really love it.
Cheek: I rewatched all of the Mission: Impossible movies this summer ahead of the newest one, and there are some incredible stunts in Rogue Nation. How was that different than other films you’ve worked on?
Nagle: It was pretty precarious. I was heavily involved with the motorcycle chase. We had the biscuit rig on that, which had a crane-operated camera with a tow rig off the back of the motorcycle, and any person you see in close-up frame is on that rig, whether it was Tom [Cruise] or Rebecca [Ferguson] or one of our stunt players. We ran that thing across the Atlas Mountains up to 100 mph, with 2000-ft. drop offs. It looks precarious because it is, and it looks terrifying because it is. It absolutely looks real.
Cheek: How does your engineering background inform your craft?
Nagle: My engineering background plays in very well in so much as how to design a crash, how to design a piece of equipment safely, calculating the speeds and angles and whatnot to get the most out of it and keep it safe.
Cheek: What’s working with the biscuit rig like?
Nagle: It’s a complete gamechanger, essentially a blank palette for the director to come up with pretty much any shot he wants. There’s almost no limit, really, to what you can shoot with this rig. Sometimes, I’ll get a director who’s shaking his head, “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” As soon as you lay it on the table, like, “what do you want to shoot? We can shoot anything.” They’re a little dumbfounded, like, “oh, shit, what do I do now?”
Cheek: Patrick Dempsey has his own racing background. What was working with him like?
Nagle: Patrick was awesome. He was like a kid in a candy store. He’s like, “I get to drive these cars? What?!” He would bug me almost every day, like, “hey, are you testing today?” We did a lot of testing with the cars before we came out. So every opportunity he could, he’d come out with me to the track, and we’d put him in the cars and just let him go. He did an amazing job.
Cheek: With recent films like Ford v Ferrari, upcoming films like the Brad Pitt – Joseph Kosinski project and Michael Fassbender and Patrick Dempsey both doing real-life racing, is there a renewed interest in bringing auto racing to life on film?
Nagle: I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think Ford v Ferrari kind of opened that gate. Even though it was a car film, it wasn’t a car film, and it’s definitely one of the storylines where one doesn’t exist without the other — the racing doesn’t stand on its own and the narrative doesn’t stand on its own, but the marriage of the two together came together beautifully.
Cheek: Are there any stories you love to tell from your career?
Nagle: One, which is more current, is from Baby Driver. We used the biscuit rig on that as well. In the opening chase scene with the Subaru, anytime you’re inside the car and you’re seeing the cast being thrown around by the corners and the weaving, that’s all real. We’re doing the same thing you see in the wide shot with the biscuit rig.
But there was a shot that I had to do, where [Baby] goes against traffic onto the freeway, and he’s countering the cars coming towards them and throws a 180[-degree turn] to catch the other two red cars to blend in. That freeway runs right through the center of Atlanta, and we couldn’t shut that down.
What they did allow us to do was they stopped traffic for five minutes, we bled in our own traffic, and we had two takes. That was it, because of the reset time and they didn’t want to hold up traffic. No rehearsals, nothing, and we got it … and it looks great.
Cheek: How about any stories regarding anyone in particular you’ve worked with?
Nagle: I really had a great time working on Christian on Ford v Ferrari. He has an aptitude for [racing]. It’s amazing. We pushed him pretty hard, and part of it was that he used to do track days on a bike, so he had the sense of what to do. But I wanted to keep pushing him to his absolute limit, and I couldn’t find it. He did amazing, and he’s just a fantastic person to work with as well.
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.
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