Gran Turismo Academy creator isn’t a “d*ck” like Orlando Bloom’s character
Darren Cox isn’t a “d*ck” like Orlando Bloom’s Danny Moore, but the real-life founder of the Gran Turismo Academy doesn’t mind – “this is Hollywood.”
Cox’s energy was evident from the first words during our interview. “I’m walking around the meeting room at the moment. I’ve been sat down all day, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to walk around,” he said.
After all, how does one press the brakes on the man who founded the GT Academy, a landmark gamer-to-racer program that spawned real track champions, competed himself in the Silverstone 24HRS, launched the World’s Fastest Gamer initiative, managed Formula 1 esports teams, and recently began a new venture with DCC+CO?
Oh, and there’s the “big exclamation mark” above his whole career: the Gran Turismo movie, based on the “true story” of two impossible dreams: Jann Mardenborough’s eventual podium place at Le Mans, and the inception of the GT Academy. One of Cox’s colleagues said it best: “The film was great… but the reality was even better.”
Gran Turismo: Danny Moore isn’t Darren Cox
In the movie, Danny Moore is a peppy, idealistic Nissan motorsport executive who pitches the GT Academy to a stiff upper-lipped board of directors. While he’s inspired by Cox, the actual founder of the academy, the path to Bloom’s “characterization” of him was bumpy. In the beginning, they were nothing more than a female PA, but then the studio started talking to more actors as the script was redeveloped, and despite his wife telling him, “Don’t be stupid” upon hearing Bloom’s name in the mix, he eventually joined the cast.
Cox is keen to note some differences between himself and the character created for the film, as much as he’s appreciative of why they made Danny Moore a bit more… prickly, at times. “The character that’s in it is very much a lot more corporate than I was, and a lot more corporate jet,” he said.
In the movie, Danny can be seen in multiple scenes travelling in rather luxurious planes, but Cox was an EasyJet flyer for the most part. “That’s interesting to see that that’s been given the Hollywood touch with the private jet flying everywhere,” he said.
“But also, the scenes where it looks like I am a bit of a corporate d*ck – quote me on that – it just didn’t happen. I was the guy that was putting my career on the line to make this happen. So the bits in it that grate a little bit are the parts where I question whether Jann should win or the other guy. That absolutely didn’t happen. That wouldn’t have been my way of doing things.”
Danny definitely isn’t a villain in the movie; he’s portrayed as a genius who sees potential in gamers, with just a smidge of Ford v Ferrari’s Leo Beebe, especially when he’s trying to cheat Jann out of his deserved spot or dissuade him from driving the final laps of Le Mans “his way”, and importantly, unlike anyone else on the track.
“There was no real sort of human input into it and certainly I wouldn’t have pushed one driver in front of the other. So that’s nonsense. The bit at the end when I’m supposedly saying, ‘Don’t go for the podium, just hang back and finish’, that’s absolutely not me. I’m a racer at heart. I won Silverstone 24HRs as a driver myself,” he said.
But Cox stressed, it doesn’t actually bother him – these are just clarifications. “These things have to be done because it’s Hollywood, but my real character absolutely isn’t about just trying to save the moment,” he continued. Danny is an “approximation” of him, but “certainly not as rebellious and anti-establishment as I was and the program was back in the day.”
Darren Cox’s journey in Gran Turismo movie
Overall, Cox seems to be delighted by the movie (if you take a look at his X/Twitter page, he’s been bigging it up since its release). “Obviously, it’s weird, right? How many living human beings have had a movie about their life and a big project,” he said.
He was involved “quite a lot” at the beginning of the film’s development, having met with The Social Network and Fifty Shades producer Dana Brunetti. “At the time, their genre was for films like Captain Phillips; ordinary men doing extraordinary things. And that’s why they picked up the rights to this,” Cox explained.
There was one immediate problem. “The script was awful, and I told him that… and I reminded him of that when the film came out,” Cox said. As he pointed out, the movie has an extensive list of executive producers, as well as around five different scriptwriters having been attached to it, but it was all worth it. “It’s gone from being a generic no-name person in it, to being our story,” he added.
As for why Jann’s name remains unchanged but Cox was remolded into a new character, “Sony wanted this to be about Sony, right? They didn’t want my guy to be the star of it that made all of this happen… and I was the guy that made it happen. It was a program based on my idea that I drove through and the two corporations Nissan and Sony were part of it.”
Cox said it’s as simple as politics. “Sony is paying for the film… They want the star of the film to be Jann, and the star of the film to be the project and the products around it. And I completely get that,” he admitted.
Bloom met with Cox a few times and discussed “some stuff”, whether it was motorsport terminology or gaming, asking “what would be said here, how would I react to this? There was backwards and forwards, but yeah, in simple terms, it’s not a documentary and that’s not me.”
“But, you know, I’m happy enough to be represented 80% in Hollywood, filmed by an A-list celebrity – I’ve got nothing to complain about, really.”
The “amazing” timeline of the GT Academy
Cox had been inspired after a “random” event between Nissan and PlayStation in which 20 Gran Turismo fans were invited to launch the fourth game. The prize was a free car, but it “wasn’t the best gamers going head to head, it was just a one-of-a-kind competition you do as part of a product launch.”
During the event, “one of the instructors that was sitting next to the drivers said to me, ‘A couple of these lads can really drive.’ So, I went in, looked at the times on the game, looked at the times of the guys that were driving the track, and the guys that were at the top for both were the same.”
For Cox, this was the “1% inspiration that caused the 100% perspiration to try and make it happen. And that was the moment of, you know, the 1% inspiration that then, you know, caused that 100% perspiration to try and make it happen. I basically thought, ‘Hang on, if there could be some transition between the real world and the virtual world…’ it’s obvious, right?”
In the movie, Danny shuffles out after his pitch to Nissan and Polyphony expecting inevitable rejection, but the universe gives him a chance: within what seems like a week, Jann and other racers are trying to qualify for a place. Of course, the real timeline was… a bit different.
“It doesn’t show it in the film of course, because you have to shorten everything, but I came up with the idea in 2005 and we launched in 2008,” he said.
“So it took me three years to get it agreed, and lots of heartache, blood, sweat, and tears to get people to believe that this was something that was worth taking the risk on. And it was a risk because no one had done it before.”
We asked Cox to give us a summary of those three years, but his pause told us more than he could ever say: a lot. On one occasion, they flew to Japan for a meeting, only for one of the bosses to fall asleep and to be told to go home, because a more senior member decided to present it on Cox’s behalf. When he checked his emails, he’d been told they weren’t progressing with the pitch, but the proposal was never taken to the committee in the first place.
“There were just blockers all over the place,” Cox said, but the back-and-forth resulted in a decorated program. Lucas Ordóñez was its first winner, followed by Jordan Tresson and Jann Mardenborough. There were 19 further GT Academy winners through to 2016. Cox had left Nissan the year prior, and soon enough, the academy was closed.
“I can be honest now… basically, it was seen internally as my project, so people called it DC Academy, as in Darren Cox Academy, because I was so invested in it and it only worked because I was there, so as soon as I left… there’s no reason for them to carry it on,” he said.
“They weren’t going to get any glory for keeping going with a project that I picked off and championed. So it was killed, but it also shows within big organizations, you have to have a committed group of people and maybe, sometimes, one person willing to take risks to make things happen and to innovate… the answer to your question is big company politics again.”
Gran Turismo Academy creator addresses Nürburgring controversy
At no time does Gran Turismo feel like a documentary approach to the story, but one moment has been especially contentious: Mardenborough’s crash at the Nürburgring which resulted in the death of a spectator after his vehicle took flight on the Flugplatz, meaning airfield.
The incident is showcased in almost all of its terrifying truth, apart from its timing: in real life, this accident rocked the track in 2015 – two years after he came third at Le Mans. In the movie, it comes before the rousing finale and rocks Mardenborough’s confidence before he’s forced to overcome his guilt and get behind the wheel again for the final race.
Critics have accused the film of exploiting a tragedy to give the story more weight. But Cox thinks the way it was handled in the movie was “as good as it could be… I think it’s important that the story is told, and the only artistic license is in the timing.”
“Certainly, if you look at the original source video, it’s very close in terms of the action to what happened, and unfortunately I lived through it. Yes, there’s artistic license on the timing side of things, and unfortunately, just like my character not being perfect for me and being a bit of a d*ck… it’s one of those things.”
Some have also suggested that the movie should have chronicled the story of Ordóñez, but he “had a very different background” to Mardenborough. “He came from a privileged background. His brother raced. You know, he was from a sort-of racing family in effect,” Cox said.
“I think that, again, in terms of accuracies, that was as close as you’re gonna get. Now, I’m not gonna go through with a fine tooth comb the inaccuracies in Ford v Ferrari, there are some. But it didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the film.”
So, what’s next for gaming and racing?
Another gear-shift is coming, at least in Cox’s eyes: esports may have taken off during the pandemic, but people now “crave real events in the flesh… if you look at the numbers, esports is dipping in most areas.”
When it comes to esports racing, there’s an overwhelming amount of championships, so much so that it’s due to force a “moment of reckoning… I think key players have to get their heads together and work out how to make it as big as it was during COVID.”
Esports may have a challenge, but motorsport and racing gaming are doing just fine. “More and more people are playing the F1 game, picking up accessible games, and then progressing onto things like Assetto Corsa or another simulation. Platforms are a factor. So I think gaming and racing are growing and will continue to grow over the next 10 years,” he said.
“And I think the bit in the middle, the professional gaming, is going to have a really hard look at itself and see what it is and how it continues to grow.”
Considering the stigma towards gamers setting foot on the track, it’s quite a corner that’s been turned; just look at Max Verstappen, the current F1 world champion who’s also an experienced and frequent sim racer. “Part of his skillset has been credited with him being a gamer, in terms of some of the lines he takes and how quickly he can be on the pace,” Cox said.
Now, compared to all the scepticism in the academy’s earliest days, the worlds have merged. “The gamers were stigmatized and there were concerns about their safety, but now that absolutely has gone. It’s completely accepted that gamers have, in some ways, an unfair advantage over people that don’t game,” he said.
Cox recalled a blog that described the GT Academy as “the greatest co-promotion or the stupidest idea ever.” But as the end of Gran Turismo says, it changed the world of motorsport forever – something that’s worth remembering if anyone ever tells you that gaming is a waste of time.
The actual Nissan GT-R from the Gran Turismo movie is going on sale soon, which you can find out more about here. You can also check out our other coverage below: