Nissan executive tells the real story behind the new Gran Turismo movie

Sony

One of the pleasant surprises of this summer’s movie selection is Gran Turismo, a film based on the real-life result of one of the Nissan Nismo GT Academy shootouts. It’s a solid, well-directed action flick that should please anyone who has the least bit of interest in sports car racing, or even sports cars in general.

The plot follows Jann Mardenborough, a Welsh lad who wins a Gran Turismo video-game competition. The win gives him a shot to race a Nissan GT-R (it was actually a Nissan Z in real life) against other winning gamers in a qualifying race. The winner, assuming they do well enough to earn a competition license, gets a contract to race for a season.

It follows his racing at a pretty accurate distance, though there are liberties. For starters, it’s made to seem as though Mardenborough is the first GT Academy winner, when in reality he’s actually the third: The first winner, Lucas Ordonez, has had a successful racing career.

After a particularly terrifying wreck, which actually happened, Mardenborough has to prove he’s ready to get behind the wheel again. He does, of course, and eventually gets a shot at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The movie’s biggest-name star is Orlando Bloom, who plays a character based on Darren Cox, the Nissan executive who invented GT Academy. Watching Bloom portray him in a film “was a bit surreal,” the first time he watched it, Cox told Hagerty. “The second time, I was picking out factual inaccuracies, and the third viewing, I just sat back and enjoyed the movie for what it is.”

The biggest inaccuracy? “Clearly—you know me—the character who portrays me is very, very corporate compared to how I am. In summary I’d say I’m a lot less corporate, and a lot less corporate jet, because I certainly don’t remember a private airplane with Nismo on the side.” Nissan is a big company but a relatively conservative one, and Cox’s budget would never have allowed for a private jet.

Naturally, too, some of the action is pure Hollywood. Mardenborough wins his qualifying race by a split-second photo finish (in reality he won by a comfortable eight seconds), and in the movie, Cox’s character pleads with a colleague to make the call not for Mardenborough, but for the driver he narrowly beat, because he’s “better on camera.”

“Never happened,” Cox said.

Gran Turismo Film Stills Jann Mardenborough played by Archie Madekwe
Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough in Gran Turismo. imdb.com/Sony

The real-life PlayStation Nissan GT Academy idea came to Cox after a publicity event at which multiple drivers were allowed to drive a 350Z in an autocross-type competition, with the quickest winning the car. Some of the drivers were Gran Turismo players. “You know,’ a driving instructor told me, ‘Some of the guys who are gamers can actually drive.’ That got me thinking,” Cox said. “In reality, it took me three years of blood, sweat, and tears, and putting my career on the line, to get Nissan to sign off on the idea. In the movie, that took like three minutes.”

Add in the fact that Cox was putting this program together back in 2008, when the financial crisis made the budget approval that much more difficult. “We took the program to places like the U.S., but also places where there wasn’t much in the way of motorsports like the Philippines, Thailand, India; we did it in Mexico, Australia, Russia, and Japan.”

Nissan promoted Cox to the head of Nissan’s motorsports program and to the head of Nismo, Nissan’s performance arm. “When I joined, Nissan was doing Japanese touring cars. By the time I left they were doing LMP3, LMP2, LMP1, we’d done the Deltawing, we did a global GT3 program, we were racing in Canada, in Australia, and we were winning. The 2015 season was probably the most successful motorsport year in Nissan history.

Nissan GT-R LM NISMO wide
Nissan

“Then you look at how it is after I left in 2015, and basically Nissan is just racing in Japan again and doing Formula E, and that’s only because Renault signed up for Formula E and Nissan took over the franchise.”

It’s a shame that the movie is such a great publicity vehicle for Nissan motorsports, an enterprise which in the context of its own rich racing history barely exists today.

As for Mardenborough, he’s still racing, doing some simulator work for teams, and a little stunt driving, including for the film.

Gran Turismo World Series 2023 Showdown
Jann Mardenborough (R) with Kazunori “Kaz” Yamauchi (L) CEO of Polyphony Digital, prior to the Gran Turismo World Series Showdown gaming competition on August 10, 2023 in Amsterdam. Clive Rose/Gran Turismo/Getty Images

Bottom line, Cox said, “I thought the movie was great. You look at the audience score on RottenTomatoes, and it’s 98 percent positive. Young kids, both boys and girls, have reached out to me and are quite inspired by the story. If that’s the outcome of the film, that’s great. But you can pull it apart about the timing, that certain tracks were used rather than the real tracks, but at the end of the day it’s an enjoyable film.”

Indeed, the reviews have been generally good. Roger Moore, a film critic since 1984, is notoriously hard to please, but he liked the movie: “My advice? See this in an enhanced, seat-shifting-and-shaking cinema, hold on to your beer (‘Champagne is for the PODIUM!’) and give yourself over to Gran Turismo, a celebration of a game for the ages, a great ‘true'(ish) underdog story and a surprisingly fun popcorn picture.”

gran turismo film photocall cannes film festival
Actors Maximilian Mundt, Geri Halliwell, Orlando Bloom and Archie Madekwe attend the Gran Turismo Photocall at the 76th annual Festival de Cannes on May 26, 2023 in Cannes, France. Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

“It puts racing and gaming in a good light, and yes, I would have liked to have had more involvement and for my character to have been more realistic,” Cox said, “but it’s a fun movie to watch and people are enjoying it.”

Cox is currently working on a project that involves the Formula 1 race in Las Vegas later this year, and he has two motorsports-related TV series that are under development. In his spare time he races classic Mini Coopers.

Looking back on his time at Nissan, “We’re lucky we had executives like Carlos Tavares, who is now running Stellantis, and Carlos Ghosn, who despite all of his failings supported us in the motorsport program because he saw the benefit to the brand. It was the heyday, really.”

 

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Comments

    It’s a beautifully shot, quick moving film though the racing scenes are a bit laughable: photo finishes are never so blurry, even when telemetrics would make them unnecessary; the leaders never all take the outside line so the amateur can pass them all at once on the inside; the starter doesn’t indicate “last lap” to the drivers by holding one finger over the track as the cars roar past; etc. I suppose production decisions to accentuate the drama for the masses. All in all a fun, uplifting movie with a satisfying ending.

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