×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Doc ‘Steve McQueen’ Digs Into Troubled ‘Le Mans’ Production

In the documentary “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” about the making of McQueen’s passion project “Le Mans” — a dynamically filmed but dramatically inert racing saga released in 1971 to tepid reviews and middling business — the actor-producer is likened to Icarus, the mythical figure with wax wings who flies too close to the sun.

It’s the kind of hubris suffered by many superstars over the course of Hollywood history, including McQueen’s contemporary, Marlon Brando, whose 1961 Western that he directed and his company produced, “One-Eyed Jacks,” which, like “Le Mans,” went over schedule and over budget, and sunk the method actor’s designs to be a filmmaker in charge of his own projects; while McQueen’s spiritual offspring, Kevin Costner, suffered his own Waterloo with “Waterworld,” the 1995 flop he produced that was also plagued by cost overruns and filming setbacks.

Like Costner at the time of “Waterworld,” McQueen in the late ’60s was riding high from such hits as “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt,” the latter of which brought a fresh level of gritty realism and action to the detective film, and marked a considerable step forward for McQueen’s Solar Productions.

With “Le Mans,” the actor-producer was not only determined to make a movie about a subject near and dear to his heart, but he wanted to control every aspect of production. For this he managed to recruit some of the best in the business, including some of Formula One’s leading lights as extras in the movie, but also the director who helped make him a star with “The Great Escape” and “The Magnificent Seven,” John Sturges.

According to Clark, the director and star had discussed making “the ultimate racing film” for five or six years. But the tables had turned on this latest project, and their chemistry together had changed for the worse.

“There was a shift around this period of time because he was allowed to be more than just the actor,” says John McKenna, who co-directed “The Man & Le Mans” with Gabriel Clark. “I suppose there was an increased ego, an increased power. Steve was very strong-willed, very stubborn, very, very keen to make sure that the part was right for him.”

Unfortunately for McQueen, having a finished script going into production on “Le Mans” was the least of his concerns.

According to Clark, the budget for “Le Mans” was about $6 million dollars, the most that Solar’s production partner, Cinema Center Films, ever worked with. “They went about one and a half million over budget,” says Clark. “essentially because they didn’t have a story. So they were filming a lot of racing scenes that were very costly, and different versions of scenes almost to cover themselves for all eventualities that might be written down by scriptwriters. Essentially the tail was wagging the dog. Steve was clearly incapable of putting down his own vision on paper in terms of a three-act story. That’s not what he wanted.”

What McQueen wanted might have been sabotaged by his inability to compete in the actual Le Mans race that was being filmed in 1970 for the movie, which the project’s insurers would not allow (McQueen had finished second in the 12-hour race at Sebring earlier in the year, bested only by Mario Andretti, so his racing bona fides were legit).

“That was the plan,” explains McKenna, “to be on the actual start line of that race. I think maybe he would have had the documentary material to do what he wanted to do and the studio would have realized that this is something extraordinary.”

As teams of screenwriters came and went during the course of production, McQueen’s intractability eventually sunk the project. Sturges would quit in frustration. And when Cinema Center took over the film, McQueen considered it a betrayal by his Solar production partner Robert Relyea, with whom he never spoke again, along with Sturges. His serial womanizing while making the movie certainly didn’t help matters.

Despite the film’s poor reception, it does have its champions, especially among the racing community.

“When you watch ‘Le Mans’ now, especially the first 35 minutes, it’s essentially a documentary and is in many way ahead of its time,” says Clark. “That’s really the vision McQueen had for (the entire movie).

“McQueen was very much a visionary; he was a very mechanical man, a very technical man. He designed these rigs onto which they put cameras onto the cars. These were ahead of their time, bringing you the sense of speed and exhilaration, and the drug of being behind the wheel…You have to balance the negatives with the positives of what he did achieve on film.”

More Film

  • Kenneth Branagh's 'All Is True' Opening

    Kenneth Branagh's 'All Is True' Opening Palm Springs Film Festival

    The 30th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival will open on Jan. 3 with historical drama “All Is True,” starring Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Ian McKellen. Branagh, who will be in attendance at the opening night screening, directed from Ben Elton’s script about the little-known period in the final years of William Shakespeare. Branagh [...]

  • Actor and Activist Rodney Kageyama Dies

    Actor and Activist Rodney Kageyama Dies at 77

    Actor, activist and influentials member of the Japanese American community, Rodney Kageyama, died in his sleep Dec. 9. He was 77. The SAG member was known for roles in “Karate Kid IV” with Hillary Swank, Ron Howard’s film “Gung Ho” and the spinoff sitcom, and the TV movie “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes” with Max [...]

  • Most Popular Films 2018: The Best

    9 Holiday Gift Ideas Inspired by This Year's Most Popular Films

    From superheroes to super nannies, 2018 was a year full of memorable characters — and memorable movies. Whether you’re a big film buff, an avid follower of a popular franchise, or have a couple movie fans in your life, here are nine gifts that capture the fun of some of this year’s biggest films. 1. [...]

  • Gravitas Ventures Acquires Irish Film ‘Lost

    Gravitas Ventures Acquires Irish Comedy ‘Lost & Found’

    Irish writer/director Liam O Mochain’s third feature film, “Lost & Found,” has been picked up by Gravitas Ventures for all rights worldwide, excluding Ireland, U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The film was recently acquired by Rialto Film Distribution for Australia and New Zealand, Film 4 and High Fliers for the U.K., and RTE TV in [...]

  • Nicole KidmanWarner Bros. Pictures World Premiere

    How James Wan Convinced Nicole Kidman to Star in 'Aquaman'

    While some actors dream of playing a superhero, that wasn’t the case for the cast of “Aquaman.” “I knew nothing about this,” Amber Heard, who plays Mera in the James Wan-directed action film, told Variety at the movie’s Los Angeles premiere. “I knew nothing about comic books in general. I didn’t know anything about this [...]

  • Anonymous Content Adds Meredith Rothman to

    Anonymous Content Adds Meredith Rothman to Management Division (EXCLUSIVE)

    Anonymous Content has added Meredith Rothman to its management division, Variety has learned. She joins the company from Mosaic, where she spent the last five years as a talent and literary manager. Rothman started her career working for casting director Francine Maisler and later worked as an assistant at Independent Talent Group in London. She [...]

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

    Box Office: 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' Could Tangle Up to $40 Million in Debut

    “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is dominating the domestic box office as it heads for up to $40 million in its opening weekend at 3,813 North American locations, early estimates showed on Friday. Clint Eastwood’s drug-runner drama “The Mule” should finish second with about $18 million at 2,558 venues, at the high end of expectations. MRC-Universal’s [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content