As smartly named as it is executed, FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN, takes hybrid documentary filmmaking to a grand level, in its operating design to tell a true story, using fictional elements to reenact a would-be bio pic, inspired by its innovative and enigmatic subject: John DeLorean; an American engineer, inventor, and business executive, who, by the late 70s, was intent on building a sleek singular sports car that would both “conquer the world” and silence all of his doubters — particularly those at his former GM company. The doomed car, with a chic wingspan, playboy vibe, and requiring over $17 million (supported by foreign investment), came to life as a fantasy machine, reaching the consumer market in 1981; and popularized as automotive sci-fi art to the mainstream in 1985’s Back to the Future. Inventive filmmakers, Sheena Joyce and Don Argot (The Art of the Steal) take a compelling, clear-eyed look at this incredible American Dream tale fueled by: scandal, money, power, class, vanity, testosterone, family, drugs, court trials, politics — and luxury cars.
With its highs, lows and sideways curves, John DeLorean’s story is the “stuff of a Hollywood screenwriter’s dreams” — yet the documentary filmmakers are tasked with finding out: who is the “real” John DeLorean? Director Argot shares, “There are very few people that are all one thing, and really what’s interesting is someone who keeps you guessing about the person they are.” It is this hop-scotching journey that FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN superbly charts.
Serendipitously for Joyce and Argot, they had the opportunity to collaborate with powerhouse, chameleon actor Alec Baldwin, whom they reached out to, to star in vignettes as the controversial auto magnate, DeLorean himself. Their work with him is interwoven with an exceptional treasure trove of archival footage and real life interviews with those whose lives were closely impacted by DeLorean’s boom and bust complicated legacy — including a rival, burned business colleagues, and his own deeply impacted children. The filmmakers dive into the past to go back to the futuristic ‘80s, with an uncannily relatable DeLorean avatar, realized in Alec Baldwin, to articulate the film’s great complexity. Director Joyce offers, “Perhaps exploring John Delorean with our "John DeLorean" would allow us to crack the code on this enigmatic man.” The inspired filmmakers are clearly on to something…
The absorbing seven-layer cake of a film, FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN makes its world premiere at TFF19 — soon to be in select theaters and available on VOD. We’re here for it. All of it!
By Lisa Collins
LISA COLLINS: Such a keen approach to its storytelling — to go beyond reenactments, and shift fictionalized scenes into behind-the-scenes vignettes, allowing audiences to live in the moment of the filmmaking process! What was your inspiration for executing John Delorean’s story with this hybrid framework?
DON ARGOTT: Thank you! We have been doing docs for a long time and are always looking to push ourselves and our approach to storytelling. When we were discussing interesting angles to tell this story, we really honed in on the idea of these failed or stalled Hollywood DeLorean biopics. It opened up the possibility for re-enactments, but we still felt that we could make it even more interesting. Once Alec came on board, we knew that filming the process and preparation of him exploring John’s character was going to open up the film in a really exciting way.
SHEENA JOYCE: Even before we had Alec as a partner, we knew incorporating the idea of these competing Hollywood biopics would give us an interesting angle into the story. What was it about this guy that made him such an attractive leading man, but why could no one crack the code? When doing a little digging into John’s story, we learned that each of these projects was aligned with a different person from John’s life — a different family member, business partner, co-worker, etc. Everyone claimed to know the “real” John and to have the “real” story, so which one was it? How could so many people claim to have been close to someone, and have such wildly differing views on the man? Who was the “real” John DeLorean? Could anyone really know — and isn’t this true of everyone?
SJ: The conversations, we were having internally, were so interesting to us, that we thought it would be fun to incorporate these behind-the-scenes questions into the film. What if we not only incorporated narrative scenes, or dramatic re-enactments, but what if we also explored the character by asking these questions on-camera with our lead actor? Perhaps exploring John Delorean with our "John DeLorean" would allow us to crack the code on this enigmatic man.
LC: You featured such rich archival materials. Can you talk about some gems that didn’t make it into the film and/or your process of gathering?
DA: Well, it wasn’t archival, but one narrative scene that we’re really upset we couldn’t include in its entirety was when Cristina gets the phone call that John was arrested. We had originally based the scene on Zach DeLorean’s recollection of what happened, but when Morena spoke to Cristina to prepare for the scene, Cristina had a very different account. We thought it would be great to include both versions, as it plays with the idea of memory and truth.
SJ: It was potentially another great way to deconstruct what really happened, to deconstruct the “truth” behind the headlines.
DA: Zach’s recollection was that his mother absolutely broke down when she got the news — literally collapsing to the floor. Morena is such an incredible actress, and she really delivered on that moment. Cristina’s recollection was that she totally held it together for her family at that moment. Ultimately, because of where we were in the film, in felt like it was taking away from John’s moment, so we had to really scale the scene back.
SJ: Understandably, for both Zach and Cristina, it was a life-changing moment in their lives. Zach, especially, remembers it in such visceral, shattering terms, and it was absolutely a kid’s account of the event. It speaks to how the event made each of them feel; and how it defined the next few years for each of them. What it didn’t do, though, was tell us more about John in that moment — what kind of a state he was in. Ultimately, that’s why it had to go.
LC: There are several reasons that the casting of Alec Baldwin is such a terrific fit! Which of those stand out to you most? How did he come on as a collaborator?
DA: We were so incredibly lucky that Alec agreed to do this. He was a fan of one of our previous films, The Art of the Steal, and he had hosted a screening of it in the Hamptons in 2009. When we had the idea of doing these cinematic re-creations, we knew that it was going to live or die based on who we could cast to play John. We had a very short list of actors that we discussed and reached out to Alec, knowing it was going to be a really big long shot. To our surprise, he was really intrigued and we had an initial call with him to discuss our approach. He also had an incredible connection to John, which I don’t want to ruin here. Once he finally came on board, we knew that we were going to miss a big opportunity if we didn’t include Alec’s insight and process into the film, so that’s really where the concept really crystallized and became the film we ultimately made.
SJ: When we decided that at the very least, narrative scenes had to be a part of the film, we talked about how they would live or die by whomever was portraying John. John was an indelible character who lived his life in a big way. There was nothing subtle about ‘the public John DeLorean’. Whoever was going to play John had to match his persona to really pull it off. Alec is truly such a smart, thoughtful, creative man, we love the way his mind works, and knew even just the questions he would ask about John — what were John’s motivations, what was John thinking in a particular moment — would open up the character for us and lead to some amazing insights. We could not have pulled off this approach with anyone other than Alec.
LC: You’re careful not to vilify the controversial John DeLorean — almost treating him with a certain grace. What in him, or about him, did you feel was more important to present, beyond his divisive persona?
DA: Thanks for picking up on that. It was important to show someone who was really complex and dimensional, and we feel that Alec really helps with that as well. People are complicated, and when you are constructing a character study about someone who is no longer with us, we feel you have a responsibility to be honest, but also sensitive. There are very few people that are all one thing, and really what’s interesting is someone who keeps you guessing about the person they are.
SJ: From what we learned, John was also a very even-keeled guy on the surface — very flat, very compartmentalized, a cool customer. He never got crazy emotional in any direction. He was very controlled. It would have been easy to portray him as a twirling-his-mustache-in-a-darkened-corner kind of guy, but it would not have been true. As Don said, and what we kept going back to, was that no person is only one thing, only hero or only villain, and we do everyone a disservice buy dramatically categorizing them as one way or another.
LC: Per your filming, what’s it like to be in the presence of an actual DELOREAN? Can you speak to its design for us?
SJ: Tamir Ardon, resident DeLorean Historian and fellow-producer, is the best person to answer this question. The easy answer is it’s a great analogy for John— cool, slick, silver, innovative, futuristic, ahead-of-its-time, etc. It’s better on the surface than it is under the hood— that looks can be deceiving, that sometimes something looks perfect on the outside but can be a mess behind-the-scenes.
LC: Interviewing John DeLorean’s children added such a great layer to the story. Your thoughts on including them and/or other interviewees, whom you feel helped to articulate a key dimension of John DeLorean's life, or career, or business practices?
SJ: We are very grateful to John's children for giving us such amazing access into their lives, especially since we were focusing on one of the most traumatic moments of their lives. We tried to be as respectful as we could, and it was important to us to allow them the space to present their truth. We also think their inclusion, specifically their recollections of their father, was a necessary way to show a side of John that isn’t normally spoken of— that he was a truly loving, devoted father. He adored his children and they adored him. Yet they were shattered by the choices he made.
LC: It’s pretty stirring to watch…
SJ: We also feel like including Bill Collins, for example, was equally important in telling John’s story. Bill was a crucial part of John’s success, and never really gets the credit he deserves. He also was treated very poorly by John— some might argue that he was betrayed by John. That relationship also tells an important part of John’s story, giving us more insight into John’s character. We tried to paint a complete picture and let the viewer decide.
LC: Interesting times that we’re in, to release a film profile a controversial business man, with obsessive ego, and reality issues — would you care to comment on the timeliness of this story?
DA: It was not an accident to tell this kind of story, for all of the reasons you just touched upon, at this point in time. There are parallels to be drawn, for sure. It’s also interesting to have Alec portray John at a time when he’s known for portraying another famous man. One depiction is satire, though, of a true villain, and the other is an earnest attempt to get portray an accurate account of John DeLorean.
LC: Though the DeLorean Motor Company venture was founded in 1975, do you feel that the DeLorean sports car is a bit of a symbol of the 1980s? A symptom? Neither? Both? How so?
SJ: I guess it’s not a stretch to see the car as a symbol of the ‘80s — the promise, the money, the excess, the predictable reckoning and downfall…
LC: Were you as surprised to discover that following John DeLorean’s story led you to Belfast – and during such turbulent times?
SJ: No, but it’s an important aspect to the story. It meant so much to the workers and the town, and it’s truly a tragedy that the plant closed.
LC: World Premiering this year at Tribeca Film Festival — congrats! — how does that feel for you guys?
DA: We love Tribeca. This is our second film premiering there and the festival has been so supportive of our work. It’s also a bonus that we filmed the narrative scenes in New York and New Jersey and our cast is all based in the area, so we’re thrilled that they’ll all get to experience the screening in a great setting with an amazing audience.
SJ: John also lived in New York, and some of his best times were spent there. We think it’s the perfect place to premiere the film, and we couldn’t be more excited!
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