John DeLorean’s Life Provides Hybrid Storytelling Vehicle for Documentarians


(l-r) Alec Baldwin, Morena Baccarin and Josh Charles in FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN. ©IFC Films.

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Before it gained notoriety as a souped-up time machine in “Back to the Future,” the DeLorean was a unique sports car dreamed up by an unconventional visionary and auto industry veteran who gave the ill-fated product his name. With its gull-wing doors and stainless steel body frame, the DeLorean was like no other vehicle on the road when it was introduced in the early 1980s. Its creator was John DeLorean, whose life story is so fascinating and bizarre, you’d think it was made up by Hollywood.

It seems only fitting that the maverick businessman is the latest subject for renowned filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce. The duo, who previously delved into diverse subjects as music (“Rock School”) the art world (“The Art of the Steal”) and nuclear power (“The Atomic States of America”), have now taken a suitably unconventional approach in recounting DeLorean’s rise and fall in “Framing John DeLorean.”

The film traces the Detroit native’s rise as a General Motors executive and his quest to build a sports car that would wow the automotive world, followed by his downfall when he is caught in an FBI sting, charged with cocaine trafficking and then, after an exoneration, being sued again for misappropriating millions of dollars in company funds. During the heyday of his success, DeLorean was married to supermodel Cristina Ferrare, which made him even more of a celebrity during the rockin’ ‘80s.

Instead of going the conventional route in telling DeLorean’s story with archival footage and interviews with family and business associates, Argott and Joyce decided to combine those documentary staples with reenactment footage, with Alec Baldwin playing DeLorean, Morena Baccarin (“Deadpool” films) playing his wife and Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”) playing DeLorean’s right hand man William “Bill” Collins. The filmmakers break the “fourth wall” as they include Baldwin, once hand-picked by DeLorean to portray him in a biopic, commenting on his character’s actions as he gets into makeup for the role. The filmmakers also interview other documentarians and filmmakers who have successfully and unsuccessfully delved into the DeLorean story.

Argott and Joyce spoke by phone about their unique ride through DeLorean’s life in making “Framing John DeLorean.”

Q: Why did you decide to make this a hybrid documentary?

Argott: We were trying to shake things up and challenge ourselves. We’ve been making films for a number of years and we try to approach each film differently, and know what are some of the elements we have to work with and how can we make this different or better than we did on the last film. Certainly, some films don’t require this approach but the angle we had going into it was the idea of these competing Hollywood biopics and the fact that John’s story is “made for Hollywood.” It’s a story with all these amazing ins and outs so we felt embracing that aspect of it would serve the story best.

Once we had the idea about how to pull it off, we kicked around (casting) certain actors and doing these scripted reenactments and we thought about whether we should cast unknown actors who simply look like the characters or do we cast well-known actors. We had a short-list of people to approach. Alec (Baldwin) was a fan of a previous film we did called “Art of the Steal.” We reached out to him about what we were looking to do and he was intrigued by it, and obviously knew John’s story because he lived through that time. He was probably in L.A. during the ‘80s while the trial was going on. He knew a lot more about the story than a lot of other actors that we would have approached. It came down to him doing it and feeling that he could pull it off and get the look right and get the makeup and the prosthetics. So, we went down that road and he decided he was comfortable enough with the way the makeup was coming together to sign on. Ultimately, once we had him, we felt it would be a wasted opportunity to not do more somehow with him. All the discussions we were having about getting prepared for the role and sending him footage to look at and study, and having conversations about that. We thought, “Wow, we’re missing a huge opportunity to not make this, somehow, a part of the film. That’s where the idea of filming “the making of” narrative scenes came into play. We had these great, amazing elements to work with to create a more complete picture of John DeLorean, the character.

Q: It’s interesting that Alec Baldwin had been contacted about playing John DeLorean himself years ago.

Joyce: Yeah, John called him himself. When we first contacted Alec about playing this role, he told us about that and hadn’t told anyone about (that call) from John, and that he already had a little history with the story. That blew Don and I away. It felt meant to be and we wanted to make sure we got Alec telling that story on camera so we could fold it into the film.

Q: While there have been a couple of small films made about DeLorean, why do you suppose it’s been difficult to get a major Hollywood film made about his life?

Joyce: There hasn’t been one yet. That’s not to say there won’t be. I wonder if our film will pique some interest again in John’s story. John was a complicated guy who was not just one thing. He had an epic rise and fall and career. It’s hard to pick one version of John, probably, to tell his story. You’re going to have to either make him the hero or the villain. It’s pretty challenging to make a straight biopic where you have as many facets as John had. I wonder if that’s one of the stumbling blocks.

Argott: It’s a tough one to pull off in two hours as a straight biopic because there’s so much ground to cover. So, as Sheena said, you have to commit to a version of John that plays a certain way, and potentially only use an element of his story—obviously, the drug trial would be the most obvious one to drill down on—but it’s a lot of ground to cover. The other thing that’s difficult is that although John’s story is incredible—people say he was larger than life and charismatic—he also had this quietness about him, which is challenging for a lead protagonist in a role. To be that mild mannered, nothing fazes him kind of guy is challenging in a film to pull off when you’re supposed to be rooting for or against somebody in the span of a feature film.

Q: You captured the very divergent opinions of him by his children. His daughter so admires him and yet his son still appears to bear emotional scars from his childhood. How easy or difficult was it to get their cooperation?

Joyce: We were lucky to have Tamir Ardon as our partner in this. He’s the foremost DeLorean historian and produced the film with us. He spent two decades almost in documenting, through his website, John’s life story. He reached out while John was still alive and knew him. Because of that, he knew the family as well. Tamir had earned their trust over many years, and so that gave us access and we were trusted almost by default. Tamir trusted us and knew that we would be respectful and do the best we could to tell an honest story. There weren’t any limitations or restrictions put on us. It was a big risk that the kids talked to us and we did our best to include their side of the story. We’ve talked to Kathyn (DeLorean) since making the film and she’s really pleased with it and feels like it was a pretty honest portrayal of her dad. Also, the people John burned along the way say we got it right, too, so if people from these different facets of his life say we got it right then I guess we did something right.

Q: Aside from the shady financial dealings, DeLorean was clearly a visionary. Do you see some similarities to other automotive geniuses like Elon Musk and Preston Tucker?

Argott: Yeah, what we love more than anything and what the film is about is it’s about dreams. One of the reasons Hollywood producers were so drawn to John is because they see so much of themselves in him. What’s harder than starting your own car company? Making a film? There are a lot of similarities and they were drawn to John’s spirit and energy. Against all odds, you’re going to stick with it and make it happen even though everyone around you is saying, “You’re crazy,” and “It can’t be done.” Those stories are always inspiring. To me, the interesting part of these stories is finding out what these people are really like and what are the things behind-the-scenes that happen. On the surface, they’re visionaries and geniuses, but there’s always the other side or multiple sides of these men and women who take these incredible chances and incredible risks. We love stories like that. As (producer) Bob Gale says at the end, “You print the legend.” We like to canonize these people so much—to a fault, sometimes—that we do a disservice by trying to saying somebody’s all these. Just because they’ve done great things and have made incredible strides in innovation and engineering, they can’t have anything bad said about them.

Joyce: Or vice versa. They can be both.

Q: What happened with the $17.5 million that disappeared from the DeLorean company’s bank account?

Argott: He basically settled. He had to pay as much as he could back. That was really the thing that sunk him. He was just in debt the rest of his life paying off all these legal battles. They took their toll.

Q: You’ve explored the art world, nuclear power, music, John DeLorean. What’s next?

Argott: Our interest is always in great stories. That’s one constant that runs through our work is stories that haven’t been told before.

Joyce: Or hidden in plain sight.

Argott: We gravitate towards stories that keep you guessing and have lots of twists and turns in it, because those are the most rewarding types of films to watch. Especially with documentaries, truth is always stranger than fiction. You get into these stories that people think they know but then when you dive into them, they just keep giving and giving. So, we’re always on the hunt for great stories. We have a few things in development but nothing solidified. We love being in the music space. We’ve made a number of music films and we have a few (more) on the horizon.

Joyce: And the art space.

Argott: That’s one of the most rewarding things about the career we’ve had. We’ve been able to make a lot of different types of films. We don’t feel like we’re stuck in one genre or can only do one thing. The excitement about doing documentaries is the discovery of great stories. Once you get into any one of these worlds, there’s so much more to learn. The thrill of that is what keeps us going.

Framing John DeLorean” is available on VOD. It also is in select theaters in New York and arriving in Los Angeles theaters Friday, June 14.