The Dubai Autodrome was where Jann Mardenborough first proved his mettle as a professional racing driver.
A 19-year-old with no previous experience in motorsport, Mardenborough took part in GT Academy, a Gran Turismo video game competition, in 2011. He beat 90,000 competitors, earning him the chance to graduate from a virtual racetrack to the sweltering adrenalin-charged cockpit of a race-ready Nissan GTR. He drove in the Dubai 24 Hour Race in 2012 and scored third in his class. Mardenborough had become a real-life racing driver.
The incredible journey has now become the basis of the Gran Turismo film, which will be released in UAE cinemas on Thursday. The film is directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) and stars Archie Madekwe as Mardenborough, as well as Orlando Bloom, David Harbour, Darren Barnet, Geri Halliwell Horner and Djimon Hounsou.
Production made its way to Dubai last year to film where Mardenborough made his debut in motorsport. The Dubai Autodrome was replete with supercars, including Nissans and Lamborghinis, which had been decked out with cameras and pod rigs, allowing them to be driven from the roof as actors were filmed in the cockpit.
Speaking to The National on the sidelines of the shoot, Mardenborough, who is also a co-producer in Gran Turismo as well as a stunt double for his character, says the first time he came to Dubai was for the 24 Hour Race. The city, for him, had been a dream destination.
“Growing up, I wanted to go to three places: America, Japan and Dubai,” he says. “I’ve managed to race in all three.”
The Dubai 24 Hour Race was initially meant to be a one-off opportunity as a racing driver, he says. The experience was the prize for the winner of GT Academy, but it did not guarantee a career in motorsport.
“I was 19 at the time, and I knew what was at stake,” he says. He recalls his instructors asking him what he was planning to do if he didn’t win or if he was knocked out of the race.
“I said I don’t know, all my eggs are in one basket,” he says. “I was all in. I didn’t want to think about winning. I didn’t want to think about going home. Cars were my first interest and really the only thing that holds my attention. I feel like I’m put on this earth to race cars.”
Luckily, Mardenborough’s passion manifested real results on the racetrack.
“Nissan spoke to me a few weeks later, in February 2012, and [offered me] a contract for another racing series,” he says.
In 2014, he returned to Dubai and took part in the 24 Hour Race again. By then, he had already competed at Le Mans and the FIA Formula 3 European Championship.
“I like Dubai. I like the circuit. Being back here to film a film about my life, and this particular race, is very surreal,” he says.
Mardenborough met Madekwe soon after the British actor was cast in the lead of Gran Turismo.
“We spoke very quickly after he was cast,” he says. “I was talking to him on FaceTime at an airport. He was gassed. His energy was really positive. He wanted to know a lot about myself and the industry.”
The two met in person a few weeks after their initial conversation. Mardenborough found out that Madekwe had never been on a racetrack before and invited him to the Silverstone Circuit in England, where he was practising ahead of a race.
“He got out of the taxi and he stood up, and he was tall,” Mardenborough chuckles. “It was cool for him to see that environment because he saw where I did the training for GT Academy at Silverstone.”
When Madekwe took on the role, not only had he never been on a racetrack, but he also didn’t even know how to drive a car.
“I passed my driving test two weeks before I started this film,” Madekwe says. “My poor driving instructor, I got in the car and told her I have to pass in two weeks.”
The actor, known for his roles in the Jason Momoa series See and the folk horror film Midsommar, was shooting another film at the time, and would go each evening after filming to learn how to drive.
“I think I maybe had some six lessons,” he says. “But I passed.”
Madekwe says he was not particularly drawn to the world of racing or gaming, but after working on Gran Turismo, and being saturated in the environment, he has developed an affinity for it.
“I think the first time I really said to myself I am a car person was when I actually drove a Porsche GT3,” he says.
Madekwe also had to learn to be a proficient Gran Turismo player, engrossing himself in the car simulation game for hours at a time until he was good enough to win the advance AI.
“If we put it in easy mode all the GT drivers and fans would know that it was too easy,” he says.
Among the things that fascinate Madekwe about the motorsport world is how social the community is and how dedicated and fit the racers have to be.
“We’ve been [filming] in every location, every climate, we’ve been training, and I’ve had a personal trainer throughout this,” he says. “I didn’t realise just how much of a full-body experience this is, how dangerous it is to be in a car going at racing speeds.”
Madekwe had to endure the challenges of a real racing driver, as filming for Gran Turismo involved shooting real race sequences, with cars going at speeds above 200km/h. Of course, they could’ve been shot in green screen boxes, as other racing films usually are, but the film’s producers and director opted to depict the experience as faithfully as they could.
Filming took place at multiple race tracks around the world, including in Japan and Hungary.
“I didn’t realise how much of this I was going to be doing myself,” Madekwe says. “I remember the first day we [began filming on] the track, the stunt safety guy said, ‘The things we're attempting on this movie have never been attempted before in a film. We’ve done Fast and Furious. We’ve done James Bond. No one has ever attempted this.’ And everyone’s applauding and patting me on my back, and I thought I didn’t really get the memo on this one.”
Among the things that Madekwe wasn’t prepared for was the searing temperatures in the driver’s seat of a car going full rev.
“We’re going at racing speeds, wearing fireproof suits. It’s boiling hot in those cars. I’ve got to be honest; I’ve hated every minute of being in the car. You’re either built for it or you’re not. I’m truly not built for it. I love to watch. To do has been an exhausting experience but a really worthwhile one.”
Orlando Bloom plays Danny Moore, a motorsport marketing executive at Nissan based on Darren Cox, founder of GT Academy. The English actor says he is no stranger to Dubai, having first visited the city on holiday 30 years ago when he was 15 years old. Returning to film in the city “has been great”, he says.
What drew Bloom to participate in Gran Turismo was partly working with Blomkamp. Bloom describes the District 9 director as “a real visionary” and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him. Another thing that attracted him was the role of Danny itself.
“Danny is a dreamer,” he says. “He’s a passionate ideas man. He envisions this idea into a reality. It’s fun to get to play passion. It was just an opportunity to come in and kind of shine a little bit with a character like this.
“Gran Turismo is obviously a big gaming title so there’s already a built-in audience, but the actual story, the script, is well-crafted and grounded in the true story of Jann Mardenborough.”
David Harbour, meanwhile, takes on the role of Mardenborough's trainer, Jack Salter. The Stranger Things star says his character is an amalgamation of many real-life figures in Mardenborough’s life.
“He’s a coach who has been through his own trajectory on the racing circuit,” Harbour says. “He has a bit of a dark past, in a sense. His connection to Jann is not only professional but gets really personal.
“I think at its essence, it's a feel-good sports movie more than it’s a video game movie. We’re not trying to tell the story of GT [the video game], but there’s a narrative within this of a kid playing a video game and then that translating into life.”
Gran Turismo is released in UAE cinemas on Thursday