McQueen. One man and his movie

A film about a film? That’s the premise of a new documentary, but many tales about Steve McQueen and Le Mans had still to be told. The executive producer, formerly of Motor Sport, tells us how it all came together… eventually

Sometimes you have an idea floating around in your head for days, weeks or even months, but in the case of documentary film Steve McQueen – The Man & Le Mans it was more like years.  As a journalist and broadcaster for half a century I’ve had my fair share of story ideas, but rarely has any proved so tricky to bring to fruition. I suppose some would simply have given up – but this tale was simply too good for that. We got there in the end and the result should be in a cinema near you from November. 

You have to understand that the film industry is not my business. Many years ago I was Motor Sport’s assistant editor, after which I spent three decades in the sports marketing, sponsorship and PR business while enjoying a parallel career as both a television commentator and, later, producer.  I continue to work as a pit reporter for Fox Sports on the Tequila Patron Endurance series in the States as well as working for the same channel at Le Mans – which brings us back to the film.

My first Le Mans was in 1965 and I have worked at the race almost every year since, simply because of its electrifying atmosphere, ancestry and enormity. The event also captured the imagination of Steve McQueen, which is why he made his Le Mans film back in 1970/71. At the time McQueen was the highest-paid movie star in the world and had just forged a hugely lucrative production company deal.

Many elements of the story are told in Michael Keyser’s fine book A French Kiss with Death and re-reading this about five years ago set me thinking. I was in the middle of an ITV Sport project called When Playboys Ruled the World, about the careers of James Hunt and Barry Sheene, and working closely with award-winning sports documentary makers John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke. Thoughts turned to future ideas and I was soon writing a treatment for what became McQueen – The Man & Le Mans. I’d long been a fan of McQueen, although to be fair I preferred Bullitt to Le Mans, but like so many other enthusiasts I loved the Porsche 917 and had been privileged to watch them race.

A key to making what was, at the time, another television programme would be the ability to license some footage from the original film. This proved much more difficult than expected and, even when I tracked down the right company, my emails bounced around various executives on both sides of the Atlantic for many months. That was before I could get any costs from them and without that I didn’t even have a budget.

Meanwhile, director McKenna knew an Oscar-winning documentary producer who had asked for some ideas. So off we went to Soho and presented my Le Mans proposal. The answer was, “Work on the idea, find the wives, get Chad McQueen on your side and then come back to me.” Now it was possibly a film rather than a TV documentary. 

Tracking down Chad proved difficult.  Several contacts in the States thought they had his email, but there was no response. A couple of phone numbers didn’t ring out, but then I dialled another that was supposedly out of date – and Chad McQueen answered. That I name-dropped Derek Bell in the first sentence probably stopped him putting the phone down.  I am sure he thought I was some flaky enthusiast, but he put me on to an associate who handled such requests. A month or so later and after several conference calls to the States, we were back in Soho, full of dreams of becoming movie moguls, brandishing a revised draft and a budget of sorts. 

The answer was “No.”

It wasn’t quite as blunt as that, but the experience probably defined what the film would become. 

I can take absolutely no credit for what happened next. John and Gabriel knew a specialist film lawyer, who gave us a contact at Content Media – a Los Angeles and London company that acts as a worldwide film agent. We presented the idea to the boss and half an hour later we were back in the street with a worldwide distribution deal. You’d think we might have hit the pub, but we didn’t even celebrate. I think after the previous put-down we were too shell-shocked.

With independent films, an agent like Content takes the idea around film festivals and sells the theatrical, DVD and download rights to different territories. Distributors then put minimum guarantees on the table, which, in theory, fund the making of the film. As it takes months or even years for the money to filter through, however, you need to get the financing in place.

Again, John knew two successful internet entrepreneurs who loved the idea and, literally over a pint, agreed to fund the film. Suddenly we were up and running.

Meanwhile a man called Richard Wiseman came on board as our researcher/archive expert. You go to Richard for old motor sports footage. The makers of Rush used him, as did we for the Sheene/Hunt documentary, but no one was prepared for what he actually discovered.

While Richard was seeking footage, John, Gabriel and I headed off to Los Angeles to meet Chad McQueen and his associate Dave Reeder at Chad’s Malibu home. It was a somewhat bizarre meeting, because Chad’s two large dogs joined in with constant barking, which is not what you really need when you are discussing contract clauses involving large sums. 

But Chad agreed that he and his mother Neile Adams (to whom Steve was married for 16 years) would work closely with us, and paid us the compliment that it was because we were “authentic”. We wanted to know what happened to all the rushes from the original film and he was sure it had been destroyed many years earlier.

Disappointed with that but otherwise elated, we met with a number of Hollywood film professionals who had been involved with the original making of Le Mans. We didn’t want the film to feature ‘talking heads’ – so-called personalities saying they remember watching the film and loved it etc – we were only interested in people who were actually part of it, old actors, studio heads, producers, personal assistants and, of course, drivers.

The drivers were easy; more than 40 professionals drove in film scenes back in 1970. We chose Derek Bell, David Piper and the late Jonathan Williams, in what turned out to be the last interview he ever gave. We interviewed actors Sigi Rauch (Steve’s Ferrari-driving
rival Eric Stahler), Swede Louise Edling (team manager’s wife Mrs Anna Ritter) and highly amusing English bit-part actor called Hal Hamilton.

Edling, who went on to become a Swedish politician, revealed a previously untold and at times hilarious story of McQueen rolling a Peugeot in which they were travelling. We caught up with nearly all the key behind-the-camera people, too, including McQueen’s main scriptwriter Alan Trustman and now-late business partner Bob Relyea, both of whom fell out with the actor during the film’s creation. 

Everything was coming together well. Archivist Richard found a wonderful recorded interview that McQueen gave to a journalist in 1980, just a few days before he died in Mexico from a rare form of lung cancer. We also had a copy of a film that had been made about Steve attending Le Mans in 1970 – he had originally intended to race, until his insurance company got in the way – plus a short film promoting
the actual movie. 

Richard had unearthed some great archive material of McQueen discussing his early movie career (he claims to have been “just a guy who came from the gutter”) as well some footage of him racing to second place in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours. We add to that some spine-chilling footage of Charles Manson, the mass murderer who had Steve McQueen’s name on his hit list. Indeed we learned that McQueen so nearly went to the party where Manson committed his atrocities.

John had nicknamed the missing rushes, presumably destroyed, ‘The Holy Grail’. Somehow, after countless phone calls to Hollywood, Richard charmed someone to poke around and look in unlikely places. Incredibly, after 44 years, all the film reels were found. But after so long were they still usable? Film can be volatile and degrade in time, but in this case the footage had remained in remarkably good condition. Once transferred to a digital format, it was a matter of which sections to use – in truth we could have made a 10-hour film. Sadly the separate audio reels had gone missing, but a wizard at a sound desk brilliantly married up audio he had of 917s blasting down the Mulsanne with the long-lost shots. 

There were some interesting discussions with Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and eventually it was agreed that we could film at the 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours and also the Le Mans Classic. For the Classic we flew Chad in from Los Angeles and even filmed him at the chateau where he stayed when we was just eight years old. He rather graphically described how the owner’s daughter took an axe and cut off a chicken’s head… 

Now, more than 18 months and a few bumps and contract conference calls later, the film is finished and was accepted in the Classics section for the Cannes Film Festival, quite an accolade. Ironically no Steve McQueen film was ever selected for this extraordinary event.

It has been something of a roller-coaster ride and very much a team effort, with John and Gabriel spending hours in the editing suite, line producer Victoria Wood looking after all the paperwork and me regularly rushing to the bank to pay yet another American invoice. 

We are pretty confident we have made a film that Motor Sport readers will like, but we hope we also show the wider public a documentary about one of the greatest film actors of his generation.