Steve McQueen: American Icon… and Then Some

Dan Goforth speaks with Jon Erwin about this unique odyssey centered around one of the world’s most iconic movie stars: Steve McQueen.


What if you, quite literally, “had it all”? Fame. Fortune. Movie star good looks. Daredevil skill. Incredible attractiveness to the opposite sex. What if the world saw you as “The King of Cool”? What more could you want? Wouldn’t that be enough? Wouldn’t it be more than enough?

What if you were Steve McQueen? You’d have had all that.

There will always be movie stars. But on rare occasions, someone comes along whose image transcends that of just “Movie Star”. They become a Superstar. The epitome of cool. That was Steve McQueen. For a time, he was the highest paid movie star in the world. He was a motorcycle and race car enthusiast who performed most of his own stunts. He formed and ran his own movie production.

Steve McQueen starred in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Getaway, Papillon – film titles readily familiar to any real movie buff. He starred and drove in what many consider the greatest car chase movie of all time: Bullit. Many of his films have been selected to the National Film Registry, which is tasked with selecting the movies that epitomize America’s film heritage.

Steve McQueen had it all.

And then he dropped out of sight. Until his death at age 50. Why?

Producer Greg Laurie

 

This was the question that sent Greg Laurie in search of an answer. An avid fan of the actor, Laurie hit the road in his mint replica of McQueen’s Bullit Mustang, traveling the country to find the true, untold story of McQueen’s final chapter. Like McQueen, Laurie had grown up in a troubled home, suffering through a tortuous childhood.  In his travels, he would discover an even deeper bond shared by them both.

 

To document this quest, Greg Laurie turned to the veteran directing team of The Erwin Brothers. Although known primarily for their feature films (October Baby, Moms’ Night Out, Woodlawn, and the upcoming I Can Only Imagine), Jon and Andy Erwin are no strangers to documentary filming. The Cross and the Towers followed seven lives in the aftermath of 9/11. The Mysterious Islands took them to the far reaches of the world, the islands and waters of the Galapagos Islands.

 

Script Magazine’s Dan Goforth spoke with Jon Erwin about this unique odyssey centered around one of the world’s most iconic movie stars: Steve McQueen.

Dan: What was it about this project that made it special enough to take a break from feature films?

Jon: I’ve found the entertainment business is storytelling. You just have to be taken by the story. Sometimes the best ideas come at the worst possible time. That’s what happened with Steve McQueen. We were literally in prep with I Can Only Imagine (feature film opening later this year). Great friend and mentor, Greg Laurie, started telling me about this project. And I was actually at an event with him and Mel Gibson when he was working on Hacksaw Ridge. The three of us were standing around, he starts telling me and Mel this story about McQueen, walks away and comes back. Mel was the one who was, “Finish the McQueen story!” I was right there with him and I was just hooked! When we got I Can Only Imagine in the can, and Andy was editing it, I doubled back to co-direct this documentary. An incredible story!

Greg Laurie in his replica “Bullit” Mustang

Jon: A lot of times, I think documentaries are harder than films because you really have to discover the story.  You can’t fabricate it. You have to walk into a documentary with a wide-eyed sense of wonder and discovery.

Jon talks about finding the people who became part of the narrative.

Steve McQueen’s wife, Barbara Minty McQueen

Jon: Mel Gibson was really very gracious to be involved in it and give this actor-on actor interview. He was ready to speak very eloquently to the cost of fame. Things we don’t think about. The death of anonymity and what it does to you over time. And then the great Gary Sinese got the voice over. And Barbara McQueen got involved. So many people that were in McQueen’s life. I’m very grateful that we were able to tell McQueen’s story.

You needed to have Barbara (McQueen) talking. It needed to be first person. It needed to be direct. You need to look into these people’s eyes to see if they’re telling the truth.  To have the modern equivalents like Mel Gibson commenting on it all. We tried to give it a cinematic pace. I love documentaries, but sometimes they’re naturally slower in their form, and we wanted to make this one accessible to a broad audience. We tried to give it a faster pace and a cinematic tone.It’s a beautiful film.

We’re a story first company. What’s the story we’re passionate about. And what’s the best way to tell the story. Not all stories are feature films. I’m not in the movie business, I’m in the event business. So you can really only tell those stories that can be events, theatrically now. So there are some stories that you’re passionate about that are much more naturally suited to a documentary. There are some that are much more suited to a television series. But it’s really just about loving the story. And then you saying, “What’s the best way to tell this story?” With McQueen, it was absolutely a documentary.

What does a writer need to consider with a film like this?

Jon: I grew up watching The Great Escape. One of the things every writer should think about. Great films ask the big question and kind of examines that question from all sides. The question of Steve McQueen is, “What really makes you happy”? Where does life’s fulfillment really exist and how do you find it? And here’s a guy that had everything but had nothing. He had everything that culture would say makes you happy. All the women. All the money. All the fame. And yet he was missing something. And that’s a profound question and something we all deal with. I think that’s one of the best tools in the writer’s arsenal, to say: “What question does this film pose? And how can I hit that question from every angle of thesis and antithesis, and fully examine all sides of the question?”

Steve McQueen: American Icon will be available on DVD in February, 2018.

Photos courtesy of Icon Media.

More articles by Dan Goforth

Writing the Documentary Online Course

REGISTER NOW!

COMMENT