With the 24 Hours of Le Mans taking place this week, the story behind Steve McQueen’s iconic involvement in motorsport’s most famous race is ever more prevalent. Coinciding with the DVD release of ‘Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans’, the film’s Executive Producer Andrew Marriott tells us how an idea that had been at the back of his head for years became a movie that premiered at The Cannes Film Festival.
TV Producer , journalist , broadcaster, media officer, rally driver and a few other job titles besides – but I never really thought of myself as a film producer. That was until I hooked up with a couple of guys at ITV, John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke.
We worked together on a TV programme called ‘When Playboys Ruled the World’, a film about Barry Sheene and James Hunt. The film was well received, and they asked if I had any other ideas.
Well, I had had this idea about a TV programme based on how Hollywood legend and sometime racing driver Steve McQueen made his iconic Le Mans film, not knowing at the time that his son Chad had done something similar already. But neither did John or Gabriel! It turned out that Chad’s film was 30 minutes long, and we were looking to make something longer and all the more embracing.
Gabriel and John had at this point set up their own company and, by now, the pair had a BAFTA award-winning reputation for sports documentaries. Importantly, they had been approached by a well-known Oscar-winning film director for ideas. To cut a long story short, I worked up ‘the treatment’ and found out a lot of fascinating stuff along the way. Initially, the treatment was rejected, but we found a U.S. distributor who liked it and said he would take it on as long as we could find the budget.
Amazingly, John had a mate – Barry Smith – whose high-tech internet business had taken off spectacularly but, because he knew him rather well, John was reluctant to ask him, at least formally, to invest. However, as John was relating the problems of finding the cash quite literally over a pint in a local pub, interest in the project intensified and, suddenly, we had not one but two investors. ‘Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans’ was a reality.
As any documentary film maker with a story like this knows, making a film like this comes with a dilemma. You want to tell it like it is, warts and all. But if you have the family involved, they may veto some of the more interesting and even salacious material. If you go the unauthorised route, then you don’t get access to the family members, exclusive footage and other archives.
With this in mind, we came down firmly on the side of working with the family, and it was my task to talk to Steve’s only son, Chad.
I had never met him, but was aware he had been seriously injured in a testing accident at Daytona about eight years previously. Indeed, finding him proved to be something of a challenge. Numbers just rang out or didn’t ring at all. Someone said he had moved from Hollywood to the Palm Desert, and was effectively reclusive. Finally, I think it was Derek Bell’s son Justin who said, “I think this number is out of date. But try it, it might work.”
It did. And suddenly I had Chad on the line, wondering who the hell this mad Englishman on the end of the phone was. Some quick name-dropping helped – ”Speak to my man Dave”, he said.
A month later, Gabriel, John and myself were on a plane heading to Los Angeles to meet with Chad at a secret location, via our new intermediary Dave. “Meet me at this coffee shop on the Pacific Coast Highway”, were about the only instructions. We then followed Dave a few miles, past movie star houses and on to the fabulous Malibu home where Steve had once lived.
Then followed a bizarre meeting interrupted by two large dogs, which kept barking and leaping around, with Chad shouting at them whilst the Pacific waves crashed just outside the house. Despite all this, Chad was delightful, helpful and even said that he would get his mother (Steve McQueen’s first wife Neile Adams-McQueen) involved too. He said that we were, “authentic guys”. And we liked that. Needless to say, money subsequently changed hands.
One thing that was still troubling us was that no one knew where all the footage that hadn’t been used had disappeared to – the raw footage that is otherwise known in the business as ‘the rushes’. Apparently, it hadn’t been seen for 40 years. Chad thought it had all gone in a “dumpster”, which wasn’t encouraging.
Enter stage left, a man called Richard Wiseman, the ‘go-to’ person if you want to find old motorsports footage – officially, our archivist. Richard was convinced that he could find those rushes and, amazingly, he did just that, under a sound stage in Hollywood where they had lain untouched for those 40 years. He didn’t physically find them, he actually did it over the phone by badgering people he had never met.
We were already well into the editing process by then. We had interviews with racing drivers Derek Bell, David Piper and the now late Jonathan Williams. We had extensive interviews with Chad, who had been at Le Mans when the film was being shot, with Neile, with various movie moguls, as well as with two of the key actors in the film, Siegfried Rauch – who played arch rival Eric Stahler – and Louise Edlund.
We had sourced an array of archive footage and located a long death-bed interview that McQueen had given to a U.S. journalist who just happened to have recorded it on a Dictaphone some time ago. He hadn’t even listened to it in 40 years. We also – at a substantial cost – had access to clips from the original film. However ‘our’ movie was turning out to be much more than about the making of the Le Mans racing film, but was encompassing other aspects of McQueen’s business and personal life at that time. This even included a story of him narrowly missing out on being a victim of mass murderer Charles Manson and his notorious gang.
So we had all the elements of an interesting documentary, but the discovery of the missing footage really did add extra sparkle. Unfortunately, although we found the list film canisters, we didn’t own them, so using it came at a cost too, such is the nature of the business.
The end product was more than we could even have hoped for. John and Gabriel crafted everything into a film of such a high standard that it was accepted for the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, one of only two British films that year.
However, we were still new boys at the film business, and what followed admittedly caught us by surprise, with certain contracts not being fulfilled and other business practices we hadn’t expected. That is why the film is only just becoming available to the general public in the United Kingdom, and we feel it appropriate that the British re-launch started with a special showing at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall in May.
Will we make another motorsport themed feature film? Well, let’s just say there are a few scripts on our desks and Richard Wiseman is trying to find something else that has been lost for many years.
‘Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans’ is available now on Amazon Prime in the U.K. as a Blu-Ray, DVD or download. The cover features the famous image from the film where McQueen gives his German rival Eric Stahler a two-fingered salute.