Back to the Future with Framing John DeLorean

June 11, 2019
Ahead of its Australian premiere at the Revelation Film Festival in Perth. directors Sheena M. Joyce & Don Argott open up about their documentary on the duplicitous engineer, inventor and businessman, John DeLorean, whose name lives on in pop culture history through the Back to the Future movies.

I read in the film’s press notes that you had the idea for a documentary about John DeLorean way back in 2009. Did you write or film anything then?

Sheena M. Joyce: No. Originally, we were approached by our friends at XYZ Films about making a documentary companion piece to one of the two competing narrative films that were going to be made about him.

Don Argott: They introduced us to Tamir Ardon, the foremost DeLorean historian, who wanted to produce a documentary [and is a producer on Framing John DeLorean]. It was going to be a real-life story to go along with an XYZ narrative. It was supposed to be a pretty standard, by-the-numbers biopic with talking heads, that kind of stuff. It was not like what it turned into, which is obviously a lot more experimental. But our documentary and the competing narratives were never made.

I think I see why his story couldn’t be made as a narrative. Even though it had great movie elements – money, power, sex, politics, fast cars, crime, law enforcement, a high-profile trial, and a drug scandal – the most important stuff is the still-mysterious, undramatic, and un-filmable thoughts in John DeLorean’s head. Was that your conclusion too?

DA: I think so. Another possible reason why Hollywood films have not been made about John is that he was not the stereotypical, archetype lead character. When he’s under pressure, you want your lead character to show a lot of emotions. But even when everything fell apart around John, he remained even-keeled. When your lead gets arrested, you want him to freak the fuck out, like, “I’m being arrested for cocaine trafficking – my life is over!” But in the F.B.I. footage of his arrest, John was kind of emotionless. You’d need to call attention to that aspect of John’s personality, because it’s not normal.

So, you came back to making a DeLorean documentary seven years later. Did anybody approach you, or did you just say, “That’s still a good idea”?

SMJ: XYZ Films came back to us. They said that they had been having conversations with Universal Pictures about something else, and the idea of a John DeLorean film came up, and they said, “If we did it just as a doc this time, would you still have an interest in telling John’s story? And what would your take be if you could be as creative about it as you wanted to be?” So, we thought it would be fun to begin with the fact that the competing narrative films never got made and use that as our way into John’s story.

DA: We had that idea for how to approach the film, but I’m not going to say that we had all the answers. We thought, initially, it was just going to be like the documentary we might have made years before. But then we incorporated the narrative elements. It was very much like, “Oh, it would be cool if we did this.”

SMJ: And then we said, “Let’s also shoot behind the scenes.”

DA: Well, that really didn’t happen until Alec Bladwin came on board to do the re-enactments playing John. That really unlocked a whole new way to approach this. As soon as we got Alec and the rest of the cast, it was like, “We’re missing a huge opportunity to not go deeper with the actors.” And they were all game for it. That let us make the film that it became, a hybrid with archival footage, re-enactments, and behind-the-scenes interviews. All the pieces fell into place.

I see elements of Bernie Madoff and Donald Trump in John DeLorean – the sense of entitlement, the corruption, the lies, the financial cons, the false public image. Madoff was already around when you did The Art of the Steal. Trump’s emergence came a little later. Alec Baldwin, of course, plays Trump on Saturday Night Live, so was Trump – or Madoff – on your mind when you made this film?

DA: Unfortunately, Trump is always on our mind. In sad ways.

SMJ: But we weren’t trying to draw any direct comparisons. And whatever comparisons you can draw, I want to defend John a little bit in that he was a self-made man. John really did start from nothing and work his way up, and he was a brilliant engineer and innovator who redefined the auto industry by bringing in the youth culture – he was father of the GTO and all of that.

DA: He had talent.

And he was a brilliant visionary, but every shot of him in your film’s archival footage makes me cringe.

DA: You don’t like him at all? Wow, that’s really interesting. I don’t have that visceral reaction. Do you feel like he’s a fraud when you see him?

Yes, and not just in business. I find him creepy. Do you think he was a good man who did bad things? Or a bad man who did good things?  

DA: It depends on who you ask.

SMJ: I think he’s both. That’s the question that we liked to play around with and explore in the film. “Are you a hero or villain? Can’t you be both? Don’t you have both inside of you?” I think it’s disingenuous to paint anyone with one brush. Using John as an example, we can ask if any of us is either a hero or a villain, or neither, or both.

DA: When you’re talking about a man who’s no longer here and can’t tell his story, what you’re left with is all the people that he effected, right? His wife, his kids, his business associates, his friends. We were intrigued by there being so many different versions of this person. A documentary gets good when you get the really personal stuff, and in our film you see that from DeLorean’s two adult children, Zach and Kathryn. You might hate him when you see him on screen, but when the kids are talking about him…

SMJ: …he comes across as a loving and supportive dad. Who you are depends on who you’re with or the situation. Think back to when you were a kid and how you weren’t the same way with your friends at school as you were at home with your parents. But you were no less you in each situation.

So, when doing research for your film and then shooting and assembling it, did you think you’d get to know John DeLorean completely?  Or 75%?  Or 50%?

DA: I think 75%. We did 55 interviews for this film and the interesting part about talking to so many people in his life is that we got so many different versions of John. If you are doing a scripted film, you must keep in mind that if one of John’s best friends is the one telling you the story, they’re going to tell you a version of him that might not be the most authentic.

In your Director’s Statement, you said your approach of combining archival footage, re-enactments and the actors talking about their characters and motivations, “would allow us to dig further into the subject with our cast, and further blur the line between fact and fiction, truth and reality.” But do you want to blur the line between truth and reality rather than distinguish between fact and fiction?  

 SM: I think, ultimately, you’re searching for truth and by blurring the line you get to a deeper truth.

Of the two kids, Kathryn is much more in denial of the truth than Zach, although he too clings to his best memories of his father.

DA: Yeah. When their father was arrested on drug smuggling charges, Zach and Kathryn were extremely affected. It changed their lives and broke up the family. Zach was so damaged by this one event that he’s not in a great place after all these years.

You interviewed Zach and Kathryn separately. Do they ever get together?

DA: Yes. I think they live very separate lives, very far away from each other, but over the years they’ve kind of intersected.

SMJ: I wouldn’t call them close, but they’re family and love each other. Families are messy, you know.

I don’t think the kids who loved their father so much ever fully comprehended what their father did, especially since their mother, Cristina, stood by his side during the trial as he insisted he was framed and was innocent. But she understood what he did and left him right after he was acquitted. Do you think he was blindsided, as he claimed?

SMJ: Yeah, he was 100% blindsided.

Do you think that was 100% payback for her being 100% blindsided by his criminality?

DA: (laughing) Probably.

SMJ: I don’t want to speak for someone else, but if I tried to put myself in her shoes as a mother, she was doing what she had to do to get her kids through that time when their father was disgraced and standing trial. After she had gotten them through that by standing by John’s side during the trial, she felt she had to now think about what the next few years of their life was going to be like. She took the steps that she thought were the best for the kids’ future, to protect them.

Tamir Ardon, Morena Baccarin, Josh Charles (who plays Bill Collins in the film), Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce and Alec Baldwin at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of the film

Alec Baldwin says on screen that he tried without much success to figure out the pivotal moment when DeLorean changed from being a man of integrity to a conman. The telephone conversation DeLorean has with Bill Collins, who quits because DeLorean is partnering with Colin Chapman, the unscrupulous founder of Lotus Cars, seems to be the pivotal moment. Do you see it that way?

SMJ: That is a pivotal moment, for sure.

DA: John was at a crossroads when he had that conversation with Bill Collins about his new deal with Chapman.

SMJ: You’re not going to meet a more stand-up guy than Bill Collins…

He is the conscience of your movie.

SMJ: Correct. And then when he’s gone and John is more aligned with Colin Chapman, that’s when stuff starts to go really wrong.

Did Bill Collins ever warn DeLorean what he was getting into with Chapman, including setting up a shell company to divert money into their pockets?

DA: I think so. Although warning is probably too strong a word. Maybe it wasn’t so overt.

SMJ: Yeah, it wasn’t as dramatic as that, but Bill Collins had concerns when he read the contract. He saw inconsistencies and red flags and he pointed them out to John. But his concerns were dismissed.

Actors typically play villains as people who think wrongly that they’re doing the right thing. However, in that telephone scene, I think DeLorean knows he’s doing the wrong thing going into business with Colin Chapman. He knows he’ll be stealing money to help finance his new car company in Ireland.

SMJ: I agree. We’ll never know for sure, but I think John knew.

DA: There were so many things could have sunk John. But there’s usually one event that a person can’t come back from. And when it all comes down to it, I think that one moment of John was when it was irrefutable that he stole money. That was the money that, from all accounts, “could have saved the DeLorean Motor Company.”

I see this film as being about someone who loses himself and sells his soul, and I do think that phone conversation is the pivotal moment in your movie when DeLorean goes totally in the wrong moral direction. But in the film’s opening scene, when he’s hooked up to a lie detector, DeLorean talks about cheating on his wife. So, his duplicity goes back years before when we start saying, “Hey, he’s changing now.” He kept a lot of things from Cristina for years.  

DA: He talks about having committed “light adultery.” A scene like that is usually found later, at a place that you build to in the film. Usually you don’t start right out of the gate with, “Have you cheated with anyone before? Have you screwed anybody over?” And he’s like, “Yep, yep, yep, yep.”

Once again, he’s casual about bad things. In the press notes, Sheena says, “Automakers are largely engineers, and there’s a mechanical element to their personalities, as well.” I don’t know if it was your direction or what Alec Baldwin came up with on his own, but for the only time ever in a film performance, Baldwin doesn’t move his arms as this unexcitable man.

SMJ: That was John.

DA: One of the things that was great about working with Alec, including watching archival footage of John DeLorean with him, is that our format allowed us to really get into such granular stuff. It was cool working with somebody that approaches a character by really looking at him. Alec would say, “You get the mannerisms first. Like: does he move his hands, or does he not move his hands?” It wasn’t something we noticed right off the bat, but John had a lot of facial tics. Alec was looking at footage and saying, “See, he has a little facial tic right there. You see that?” Then we started to break it down even further and asking, “What’s going on? Do those tics happen when he’s lying? Do they happen when he’s under pressure?”

In an interview I watched that you did to promote Atomic States of America, Don said this about your process when making a documentary: “The most important thing is asking questions.” My guess is that this statement applied to this film as well.

DA: I think that’s all we do. One of the things that we loved about the idea of working with actors is to have the capacity to watch their process. Alec, Morena Baccarin, and Josh Charles do what they do for a living, so they don’t think it’s all that interesting. For them it’s “Oh, I read a script and then I did some research for my role.” But Sheena and I think that’s fascinating, and we got inquisitive and asked them, “Why are you doing this?” and “How do you do this?” Our asking those kinds of questions drives us in all our work. For the types of projects we like to do, it is essential to ask questions, and then be careful to not come to too many strong conclusions. That’s what we did here.

What would each of you ask John DeLorean if you could ask him one question?

SMJ: I’d ask him, “What would you do differently?”

Alec Baldwin said that in the press notes, too. I thought you’d all ask, “Why did you do what you did?

DA: I understand why he did it. I mean, I understand why as somebody who makes films for a living. I think one of the reasons Hollywood filmmakers have been so intrigued by this story is they see themselves in John. They think making a film is akin to his starting his own car company. And so, to me, the film is about fulfilling such big dreams. It’s about how far people like John will go to realise their dreams – and at what cost.

I actually don’t think that creating a successful DeLorean Motor Company was his ultimate dream. He was still young enough to want to do something even bigger afterward. I think he was looking to the future..

SMJ: I don’t think making the car was his ultimate dream either. I think it was a step on a path he never got to take.

Framing John DeLorean is screening at the Revelation Film Festival in Perth, July 4 – 17, 2019

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