San Sebastian: John McKenna on ‘Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans’

The movie proved his nemesis and lasting legacy to his visionary talents as a filmmaker

Man & Le Mans
Courtesy of Content Media Corp.

SAN SEBASTIAN – “Racing is life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting,” Steve McQueen muses in the 1971’s “Le Mans.” But while McQueen had a deep passion for road racing and a sincere admiration for his fellow drivers, it is his character in the film who is talking. A FilmRise pick-up for the U.S., which racked up healthy pre-sales and is now rolling out more territories, the Content Media-sold “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” directed by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna of Noah Films and produced by McKenna, paints a more complex picture. Fresh off “The Thomas Crown Affair,” the film suggests, McQueen imagined building a film empire andx taking control of his career as a filmmaker, not just Hollywood star, in the line of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. His first step would be “Le Mans,” the definitive racing movie. Starring McQueen as a 1970 Porsche 911 driver in the 24-hour Le Mans auto race in France,  the shoot was to prove his nemesis, the film, and lost footage, a lasting legacy  to his talents as a filmmaker way ahead oif his time. Variety chatted to McKenna at the San Sebastian Festival, where “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” was an early highlight of fest’s action sports Savage Cinema sidebar.

“Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” turns on a man, maybe the biggest Hollywood star of his time, who tries to make a film, one kind of film, while his producer-financier and the studio wants another kind of film. If there was no screenplay it was because McQueen rejected ideas or versions…

Whether they were ever allowed to make a complete package of what the film would be, I doubt, because I would imagine they got through a few pages and it was thrown away.

You have a dialogue where somebody asks Steve: “Well, if she says ‘hello,’ what would you say? Would you say hello?’ And McQueen says: “Not necessarily.”

I think that was part of the problem, probably the essence of the problem. I don’t think McQueen knew what he wanted. I think you could also say that. I think he struggled to convey what he wanted to get on screen. I think he felt it, he knew it, but he couldn’t quite…I would imagine he didn’t give very good directions to his screenwriters about what he wanted…

Was this the tragedy of someone who grew up without a formal education that would have enabled him to have the confidence or the articulateness to convey what he wanted?

Possibly. He wasn’t a Hollywood storyteller in the traditional sense. He wasn’t a director. He hadn’t gone through that education. He fought his way into that world and he fought his way to the top. And that power allowed him to try and do what he wanted to do and maybe he didn’t have the skill-set to get it on paper, to get it down there, to put on paper what was in his head.

There is a devastating interview with Alan Trustman, where Trustman claims that he basically tells McQueen what kind of character he should be. And McQueen follows that brilliantly, says Trustman…

I think Trustman took from McQueen and defined that character. Trustman helped refine McQueen rather than making him who he was.

You talk about a film, “Le Mans,” that didn’t have a defined screenplay. Your film is very defined. It’s a three-act story. Following the second act downward trajectory, there is a third act which emerges and – though you don’t really push the envelope on any of this – suggests the film that was made was in some stretches – the racing sequences – very good indeed and today enjoys a cult following. And quite a lot of the people who worked with McQueen on camera at least describe him as a far more sympathetic character than he has come to be regarded.

“We spoke to 17 people about what was a huge event in all their lives. One lost his career, another his leg, Neile Adams McQueen her marriage. They were very honest about him, didn’t look at him through rose-tinted glasses when they talked about what happened on set in 1970. However, I think working with him, and at that time, had such an impact on all their lives that, for better or for worse, they look back on it and him with affection. I think that’s genuine. I think he put them all through a lot, and maybe at the time it wasn’t that much fun, But I think it did change their lives. I thought it would be much more difficult to get people to talk about this film than it was.

The documentary entailed an immense work of recuperation, of people and of lost footage, the latter an incredible journey for us. We had to find the right people, we had to find the footage, we had to show an honest story in terms of what the people brought to the interviews, and we had to try and show an honest story of what they tried to do back in 1970 with that footage. It was two journeys: Finding the right people, and getting them to contribute honestly, and finding the footage.

How much footage was found?

We spoke to an editor, who said ‘No it’s been destroyed. We asked where they’d cut, he told us the facility, we rang the facility. They said: ‘Send us an email.’ We did that. Two days later we got an email back saying we’ve got between 400 and 600 boxes of film, the off-cuts, all negatives.

Of the racing sequences, were some from the lost footage?

Almost all of them.

The quality of color, camera work and sense of movement in the racing sequences is extraordinary.

There are weaknesses and strengths in the original “Le Mans” film. The weaknesses: script, story: You could say at some point acting, maybe, because I don’t think certain people’s hearts were in it in terms of the story, the dialogue that was being delivered. But the strength in the story was, how they captured that in the footage was amazing, it was groundbreaking. The film was ahead of its time and the attention to a detail they put into it, the sound of every engine shift, gear-change, every cornered sound was correct, they got it right. It was so accurate. And that’s why people who are into motor-sport love this film. And that’s why my, and Gabriel’s, sense, that we had to get this right. The lost material allowed us to put longer shots, that they got at the time but never made the film – beautiful long takes that we were allowed to put into our documentary. And then we had to get the sound right. There are flaws in the original film, but the accuracy in the way they treat the motor-sport is perfect And we had to tell our story, which isn’t a motor-sport story, it’s a human story, but we had to treat the motor-sport really carefully. And we had people involved in our production who know that sport inside out, and their brief was if there’s anything wrong here we’re doing, you jump on us, because we can’t get this wrong.  

“Making Le Mans,” McQueen lost a wife, he might have lost his life, did he lose money? Did he have skin in the game?

He lost his opportunity to become the film producer mogul…

The Redford-Newman model?

Correct. He lost the opportunity. John Klawitter, the producer of the behind-the-scenes documentary at the time, talked about Steve being not Hercules, but Icarus. But he also says that while Steve went on to make great films, he acted in them. Le Mans was going to be more than that. So he lost that opportunity to put more than just Steve McQueen the movie star on screen…

What he wanted was control, as one commentator claims. The film is basically about a person, but it’s also about a film, but I think you have both of those together, and it’s also a slightly revisionist view of McQueen. The third act is a happier one. At least you suggest that the film he made was ahead of its time, a sometimes great film, although it wasn’t all seen by the public.

I agree. We found out more about Steve McQueen than we knew in making this film. I didn’t know he was trying to be a filmmaker, and I think that’s new. Having gone through the process we went through in making this film, when I watched “Le Mans” again in the process I’ve looked at it through with completely different eyes, because I think you then see that in 2015 you take for granted a camera on a car going at 250 miles an hour, and you’re so used to seeing it on CGI, on the screen. Back then, that was ground-breaking, that was revolutionary. What they were doing was so far ahead of its time, and it was Steve pushing it. Yeah, so I think the third act is vindication in a way. It’s not a perfect film, “Le Mans.” It’s a bit of everything, it’s Steve’s ideas and dreams watered down, but still with John Sturges’ brilliant directing. Then Lee Katzin came in and did a good job, he got the film made. Without Lee Katzin and the studio, we’d probably still be filming now.  But I think David Piper’s accident had an effect on him as well. Probably the penny dropped and he thought: “If we keep doing this, people are going to die” – because he did care about the drivers.

“Everest” seems to me rather like your film in that “Le Mans” is the near-tragedy of people who try to turn their passion into a career.

Hindsight’s a great thing. But do you not think that if they had let him do what he wanted to do it possibly would have been a better film which would now still be looked on as a great film by a wider group of people than it is?  All you can do is present what you find, and he is a fascinating character, a fascinating man. That was what got us into it. Gabriel and I, we knew there would be cars that were beautiful, with a superstar who was a very beautiful person, but what we wanted to do was to try and show what it’s like to live in that almost unimaginable position that he was in. Trustman said that. He said: When you have that much power, with people telling you that you’re great every single day of your life, how can it be normal? It’s not normal.

McQueen said he read a book about Alexander the Great, who said: ‘I conquered the world, but I did not conquer myself.’ I don’t think he had an idea of the kind of person he wanted to be.

How many people do? I think no matter what position you’re in, you always want more and something different, don’t you? Our film show McQueen as a human being. It’s in the title of the film: “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans.” The King of Cool is not reality. I like him better for the fact that he had a go.