A fleet of sleek, gull-wing DMC-12 DeLoreans revved up to New York’s SVA Theater for the recent premiere of Framing John DeLorean, and the sports cars even managed to upstage star Alec Baldwin—no easy feat. The film, about the sybarite and genius car designer, screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Alec Baldwin stars as DeLorean in this mesmerizing but wacky doc-biopic hybrid directed by Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott (The Art of the Steal). It’s the saga of the Icarus-like rise and fall of the GM executive and car designer in the early 1980s. Sex, money, politics, drugs, and fast cars are all in the mix.
Up to now, all narrative and documentary attempts to tell DeLorean’s story have failed to materialize. Part of the problem is it’s hard to get a fix on the man. Visionary, genius inventor, scam artist, crook? Joyce and Argott have managed to create a cinematic style that is totally in sync with the man’s myth and the reality.
The directors tell DeLorean’s story by weaving together archival footage with reenactments and narrative. Even more curious, the movie breaks the fourth wall as Baldwin ruminates and comments on DeLorean’s motivations and actions while he’s getting into costume and make-up artists apply make up, prosthetics and wig. It’s all very meta and loopy and works.
MovieMaker interviewed directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott at the Crosby Hotel in Manhattan. Here are the highlights from their interview.
Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why did you decide to tell John DeLorean’s story in this documentary-narrative hybrid style? If you don’t mind my saying, it’s wacky on so many levels.
Sheena M. Joyce (SMJ): People are going, Is this a biopic? Is this a doc? Like what are we watching? And we realize it’s a weird one but hopefully people are excited enough and intrigued enough to kind of peel back the layers and go along for the ride with us.
MM: How did the film come together?
SMJ: We first kind of came to the project when we were at the Toronto Film Festival with a film we had called The Art of the Steal, and we met the guys from XYZ Films, and at the time they had one of the DeLorean narrative films, a straight kind of biopic and had been speaking to us about doing a documentary companion piece, and that’s how we were kind on introduced to this world.
That didn’t happen just like the other competing narrative projects never happened, so a couple years ago XYZ came back to us and said, “Hey, what do you think about just doing a doc on John’s life?” We were having so many interesting conversations behind the scenes about why Hollywood is obsessed with the idea of making a John DeLorean film, and the idea of John as a hero and a main character but then nobody pulls it off, and why is that?
So we thought, well maybe it would be cool to incorporate some scripted stuff in the doc and then we got the idea to also shoot the behind scenes—the making of those narrative scenes—and fold that into it as well. We were just having such great conversations behind the scenes about choices that John was making and who he was and his different facets and how do you show that? We were just having this fun conversation about the idea of truth and can you ever really know someone and we just thought by shooting these conversations it would help inform the character.
MM: It’s very different from The Art of the Steal, which is a straightforward documentary. You use reenactments, a method which has pretty much discredited as a documentary device. Were you concerned about that and whether it come off being kind of cheesy?
Don Argott (DA): I think that’s one of the reasons why this approach of incorporating the making of these [scenes] I think adds an element that, I don’t want to say diffuses the idea of reenactments as cheesy because there’s a lot of reenactments, I think, that are done very tastefully and they work very well when done right and can really elevate a story. They are really kind of trying to highlight the cinematic nature of John’s life—why filmmakers have been obsessed with the story and what is it about this guy that would make such a great movie? And so we wanted to play with that, but then I think because we had Alec and Marina and Josh as our actors, that are so thoughtful, and when Alec’s digging into John as a character, really trying to unpack what John must have been going through, I mean that’s just a great opportunity to add more insight into John.
I think it just really opened it up. It gave us a lot of freedom and I think for us—we’ve been making docs for over 12, 13 years, 14 years—we’re always trying to push ourselves and challenge ourselves and not rely on what we did three years ago on a previous documentary. How can we take this story and how can we tell it in a more interesting way? And we didn’t just do it for the sake of doing it, I felt like it all served the greater story that we were trying to tell.
MM: What’s your co-directing process like?
SMJ: It’s a good question, one I’m not quite sure how to answer because we figure it out as we go, we really do. We don’t sit down ahead of time and say, “Okay, you’re gong to be in charge of this scene or you’re going to take this spot and then I’ll take this spot.” It’s kind of an organic thing with us. I think with the docs, you know Don’s a cinematographer by trade and has shot so much of our stuff that that is his skill set, I would never try and enter that world because I just don’t have the skills that he does. He’s so talented. And I think he sees things in a certain way and then I usually do the research and conduct the interviews, and so I come at scenes with a different perspective. And I think we just kind of marry that somehow in what we do. We take turns, we trade off, we try not to overwhelm the actors so only one of us will only ever talk at one time but the two of us will have our conversations kind of hidden behind the scenes.
MM: You must have a good relationship if you can do this together.
SMJ: I like to say it’s a beautiful nightmare, it’s the best and the worst all the time.
DA: I think one of the nice things, because there are definitely some advantages and disadvantages as Sheena said, for, like, having a singular voice when you’re directing something. But I think there’s also a comfort in working together… in a way, it could be a negative sometimes when people look at a scene and see it two different ways, but a lot of times when we approach the scene maybe somebody sees something a little different and that actually makes the scene better.
So I think by nature we’re all very collaborative, Demian Fenton who’s our editor, who’s been with us since our first film, Rock School, in 2004, and we all … there’s so many lines that get blurred when we’re putting a film together because we are such a tight knit group, it’s usually when it comes down to two or three people making the film and making the ultimate decisions on the film. So sometimes it’s nice to be able to say, “No, this is how we’re going to do it,” and put your foot down, but then other times there’s compromises. You know, Demian is a crucial component of that too. A lot of times he’ll say, “The way that you guys shot this is cool but this is cooler,” and he’ll show it to you and it’s like, “Oh, you’re right, that was way better than what we thought.”
SMJ: Yeah, we’re very collaborative and I think there’s, as Don said, a lot of overlap in all of our roles so as a couple, we have to divide and conquer. We have a five-year-old, we have different skill sets—you divide and conquer, you figure it out. It’s a mess but you figure it out. And the same is true for our work lives.
MM: Talk about casting Alec Baldwin as DeLorean, and his process in the reenactment scenes. The production notes say he was a fan of The Art of the Steal, which is how you got to know him. But talk about how much leeway you gave him in those scenes as he both portrays DeLorean and comments on DeLorean’s actions and motivations.
SMJ: Alec is genuinely so smart. He’s so thoughtful, he asks great questions. We felt like it would be foolish not to see him and use him as a resource. What he brought to the table was just so valuable, I think. The questions that he would ask and the insights that he would provide and trusting us to give us that kind of access and leeway… I wanted to know what he thought of John in that moment or, as we were approaching the scene and if he had an idea about it, you see that in the film about, “What if we shoot it this way?” and then we shoot it that way, just so we can see.
MM: He definitely guided things along, but were you concerned that now that he’s so closely tied to playing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live that when he’s shown putting on the grey wig viewers might be thinking of the president?
DA: I wasn’t worried… He’s very conscious of the fact… I don’t think he wants to be viewed as somebody who is an impressionist or a caricature.
SMJ: Certainly he didn’t want to make John DeLorean to be a caricature.
DA: Right. It took us a really long time to actually… He initially was interested but he basically said the stipulation was he’d only do it if he felt like he could pull it off in a way that he felt comfortable with. So that meant the prosthetics, getting the voice cadence down—all that kind of stuff.
It took a really long time and we did a lot of make-up tests. Luckily we’re friends with Jodi Mancuso and Louis Zakarian from SNL, and obviously Alec has a comfort level with them as well. They’re the key hair and make-up people at SNL and it was really quite a perfect arrangement because I think anybody else coming from the outside that we might know that he didn’t know, I don’t think Alec would have had the same amount of trust in. They already had his head sculpt at SNL. Louis is such a masterful make-up guy and once he did the chin and the nose and the eyebrows and then Jodi put the wig on, I remember that moment… We were actually at SNL and they kind of squeezed us in to do this make-up test before the rehearsal that night, and he looked in the mirror and we all looked at each other and it was like, “All right, I think I can do this, I think I can…”
MM: DeLorean’s ex-wife Cristina Ferrare is not interviewed, so I assume she didn’t want to be in the film?
DA: That’s correct.
SMJ: But she was certainly a friend to the production. She spoke to Morena [Baccarin, who portrays her in the film]. She spoke to Alec. And to Tamir [Ardon], the lead producer, the guy who spearheaded this whole thing… He’s the foremost DeLorean historian.
MM: This movie, I think, has a lot of resonance now because of Elon Musk—who probably won’t like the comparison—but both designed cars that have some of the same qualities—streamlined, efficient, sexy. When you were making the film, did you have that in mind?
DA: A lot of people made the Elon Musk connection to John, I mean…
MM: He’s not a crook, so far.
SMJ: I was going to say, I don’t know that Mr. Musk would like the comparison.
But John was an innovator and a brilliant engineer who created the American muscle car and the DeLorean and had all kinds of automotive innovations and should be respected and remembered for those contributions, certainly.
MM: What do you want audiences to take away from this film? DeLorean as visionary, creator, family man, crook, scam artist, misunderstood genius?
DA: It’s funny because I feel like the one thing we were able to accomplish in this film is to talk about a person, truly, not painting them with one brush, so to speak. He was all those things that people say. There are people that have been cheated by him and he was crook; there are people that…
SMJ: See him as a hero.
DA: See him as a hero, the people in Belfast [where the cars were produced] still look at him as like, “That was the best job that we ever had,” that moment in time during that really turbulent time in Ireland. You know, that was such a huge part of their lives and they look at him as the savior. And so he was all those things to all these different people and I think that’s the really… you’re left with, I think, as complete a picture that we can make of this man. And as truthful as we can make it.
SMJ: And leave it up to the viewers to decide, that’s kind of why we called it Framing John DeLorean. You look at all the frames that you view people through, you know?
MM: On another track, what life experience did you think is most essential before one has something to say as moviemaker?
DA: Wow, that’s a good question. I think it’s also a deceptively easy question to answer because I think anybody’s experience is valid based on where they are at their life, you know. I think there’s so many… look at any great filmmaker, you look at what films they’ve made in the early part of their career that defines a certain point in their career, how they view the world or whatever, and once they get older the work matures because they’re getting older. So I don’t know that there’s not a good time to make a film.
SMJ: No, but I think most good films have a sense of authenticity. And it’s not for me to say when someone is their most authentic in life or what threshold they have to cross. I think what Don was just saying… I mean, I was 25 when we first started, 26, and had our first film and I certainly see things differently now than I did then—now I’m a mother. But I don’t think that that invalidates my earlier work, you know? It’s hard to say.
DA: But I think this is a film we probably wouldn’t, couldn’t, have made earlier in our career.
SMJ: 100 percent.
DA: It’s too experimental. I think you have to have a bit more competence in how you approach material. We felt confident being able to pull it off, as opposed to, like, there are so many elements here that it could have went sideways if we didn’t have the experience of making ten movies up until…
SMJ: We’ve learnt so much with every film we’ve made. It starts to stack up and you take it with you.
MM: If DeLorean was here and you were having coffee with him what would you ask him?
SMJ: What he would do differently? What different decisions would you make? Was there a turning point that if you had the opportunity to go back, you know what, I’m gonna choose a different path. MM