No one expected Jann Mardenborough to be a success story in the racing world. The idea of taking a gamer and teaching him how to become a professional racecar driver was never supposed to work. Video games aren’t the real world and car simulation games like Gran Turismo can’t replicate driving at world-record speeds. At least that’s what countless people told Mardenborough. But just because something isn’t your reality doesn’t mean it can’t be someone else’s reality.
Mardenborough has always been a racing fan. As a working-class kid, he obsessively plays the Gran Turismo video game to experience a simulation of racing, but imagines he’ll never feel the thrill of what it’s really like to put his foot down in a high-performance car… until he competes in a Gran Turismo competition against the best of the best for a chance to win a spot on Nissan’s GT Academy race team. This ordinary Brit is plucked from thousands by a wild-eyed marketing executive, put under the tutelage of a cynical, washed-up former driver, and given the controls of one of the fastest machines ever devised by humankind – going on to race for Nissan in their high-performance vehicles in such famous races as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Gran Turismo is the ultimate wish fulfillment movie. Gran Turismo is not a video game movie but the true story of how Mardenborough became a real-life driver, revolutionized how society views gamers and continues to inspire dreamers to break the rules and use their skills to become whatever they want to be.
In celebration of Gran Turismo’s release and Mardenborough’s unbelievable life, The Koalition spoke to Mardenborough about his journey, the importance of the movie, the next generation of gamers and more.
Gran Turismo has all the qualities of a great underdog sports story and it all started with a simple question, ‘Why do people love this game?’ For ‘Gran Turismo, most of us will never in our lives put our foot down in a racecar or take a chicane at Le Mans, but the game puts you in the driver’s seat. That was what this movie accomplishes in two ways – first, against all odds, Mardenborough got a chance to experience it all in real life, and to tell the story, Neill Blomkamp has made the most thrilling, most realistic racing movie.
“I hope after people watch [this] movie they can say, ‘Okay, maybe I want to take this direction in gaming more seriously.’ Right now, today is the best time in the gaming industry ever. It’s the most lucrative, it has the most eyes on the industry, there’s so many sponsors [and] manufacturing companies. Big multinational companies are involved in gaming, [so] you can make a career and support yourself financially by having an audience, whether that’s between live streaming your content through gaming or being associated with brands. It’s never been a better time to be involved in the industry. Whether people go and watch the movie and they go, ‘Okay now I’m gonna take this seriously,’ it’s the best time for you to be able to do that. If somebody wanted to do that, all credit to them. Even with Motorsports, Esports is getting more popular. 12 years ago, Esports and motorsports weren’t really a thing at all, whereas now there are many race teams that have teams of Esports drivers earning money to support themselves and that’s before your own audience. I think it’s great.”
Like a lot of young adults, Mardenborough was more interested in playing videogames than with making something of his life, until he’s given a chance to play for real. Jann is playing Gran Turismo in his parents’ house when all of a sudden – after years – he sees the option for GT Academy. Only then did he learn how to drive proper cars – how to hit an apex and exit a corner – everything he’d done intuitively inside the game but had never been taught.
Despite his success, Mardenborough doesn’t consider himself to be an innovator. I hope [this movie] shows kids who look like me they can trust themselves and can go after what they love” [but] I don’t look at myself [as an innovator]. That’s for other people to decide for me. I just race my racing car as fast as I can, and I still do this to this day. That’s where my love is. My passion, my purpose is to do that. If people want to associate me with [being an innovator], fine, but I’ll let them decide that.”
Gran Turismo is a movie that puts audiences in the driver’s seat and lets them imagine what it would be like to strap themselves into a 200-mile-per-hour rocket ship for the first time. Blomkamp’s direction brings a visceral, blood pumping feel to the movie that Mardenborough experiences every time he steps into a racecar. There are actual cars, drivers and tracks. The actors are really doing pit tire changes and gassing up the cars in real-time with other drivers blazing around the track at 200mph. It all plays into the intensity of the experience—which is critical to making a film about people having a very intense experience, risking everything for what they love.
“When I got into a GTR for the first time at Silverstone, I did a few laps with an instructor and when I got out of the car, I thought I cannot live with myself not experiencing that ever again. It was used as a fear. It’s like I cannot go home after this and then not experience that ever again and it’s been like that ever since. What I do is bliss for me. Racing is the best thing in the world. It was back then, and it still is to this day. It’s very powerful.”
“In the Gran Turismo game with a steering wheel and pedals, all you have is the sensation, the feel of your hands. In real life, you have this third sensation which is your body feeling the car, the vibrations that you feel through your back and on your backside. It’s tuning into that extra sensation with what you see with your eyes and what you’re feeling through your hands that takes time. It takes a long time to match the senses.”
Blomkamp’s whole approach to the film was to try to make this true story in the most credible and authentic way possible. It was important the audience have a vicarious experience of being a racecar driver, feel the sense of speed and the thrills that come along with driving at high speed. Therefore, he wanted the real cars, driven by former race car drivers, to simulate the racing experience.
But it wasn’t enough to have the right cars and real racetracks. The film also had to look and feel real. And to achieve that, Blomkamp involved two visual components. One component is the experimental: how do you make the audience feel like they’re there as much as possible? This was achieved through camera choices. For example, in television coverage of real-life racing, productions often employ cinematic drones, which allow for beautiful, sweeping shots, and Blomkamp does here as well, but also Blomkamp uses first-person-view drones – more often used by drone racers – to keep up with the racecars and give points of view rarely, if ever, seen before.
Blomkamp was one of the first directors to employ the Sony Venice 2 camera with the Rialto extension. Because the Rialto allows the filmmaker to separate the sensor from the camera body, Blomkamp could place his camera in tiny, previously unreachable places inside and outside the car. The second way Blomkamp made the film feel real was through its lighting, photography, and production design. If you hit pause on the film and you look at a single frame, it should never feel synthetic, or overly lit, or overly saturated, or fake. Everything is derived from reality. The production design is real. The photography style is real. The color choices are real.
And in the driver’s seat, Blomkamp captured what this was like for Mardenborough behind the wheel by using the racecar driver himself, who served as the film’s stunt driver for the character of Jann. While the story is based on him, actor Archie Madekwe portrays him, and Mardenborough is the stunt driver who drives Archie’s car as the character based on him. It’s a very meta moment. “It’s so surreal,” says Mardenborough. “The last time I was in Hungary, the track was packed with trucks for a race. This time, it was packed with trucks for a film being made about me. That blew my mind.”
“I was heavily involved in the script. I had every script that came through. Sony was great with that because they’re [putting] out something that represents me. I’m someone who loves racing films in general, so to have racing be part of that creative process to make the racing look as authentic as possible is what I wanted to do, it’s what Neil the director wanted. It was great.”
The transformation from sim racer to real racer mirrors a change in character as well. He’s confident with his friends but starts out pretty shy, maybe a little introverted – someone who doesn’t know the power of his own skill and talent. Ironically, the more time he spends in that tiny car, the bigger his confidence grows and the more he becomes the person he was always supposed to be.
“Back then, if you told me to jump, I would have asked you, “How high?” Because if it’s going to help me become a better racing driver, I would have done it and it’s still the same to this day. If you want to be successful, you have to put in time and effort and you have to be dedicated to it. It’s the same in any industry. If you want to be successful in the gaming realm, whether that be live streaming or just being competent in the game being the best, you have to put in hours. You have to look at yourself. You have to evaluate [your weaknesses and your strengths].”
“That’s also the same for myself as a racing driver. In reality, I look at myself the same way. I want to be the best I can be, and you have to look at your weak areas and look at your strong points and improve them. It’s a sport. That’s why it’s called Esports. It’s the best of the best [and] if you want to be the best, you want to put in the hours and dedicate yourself to asking yourself questions [and] improve.”
To learn more about the making of Gran Turismo, Mardenborough’s career, his goals for the future and more, check out the full interview in the video above.