Cannes 2015: For Steve McQueen, a posthumous French return

'Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans,' looks at the movie that nearly unraveled the actor

When Chad McQueen was a boy, his father, the actor Steve McQueen, wouldn’t get rattled by much in Hollywood, finessing filmmakers and executives to become one of the world’s first global celebrities.

But he came face-to-face with plenty of demons in trying to make an authentic-feeling movie about Le Mans, the classic 24-hour endurance auto race.

“He had the feeling he could be killed every day,” Chad McQueen said. “There were drivers who didn’t think of this as a movie, and the danger was real. And my dad knew that.”  Those pitfalls — not to mention battles with the studio and director over the shape of the movie — made 1971’s “Le Mans” one of the most troubled productions of its time, and it took a significant toll on its star. The actor would die, within the decade, at 50.

Chad McQueen was having breakfast Saturday in this coastal French town, talking about his father and the actor’s cinematic white whale. The younger McQueen was in town for the world premiere of  “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” a Cannes official selection that documents the actor’s life and the struggles in making the Hollywood film.

The younger McQueen, who is a featured voice in the movie, had made the trip from Los Angeles despite painful injuries he sustained in a racing accident nine years ago that makes it extremely difficult to travel. But it was worth it, he said, because his father would have appreciated what the premiere meant.

Directed by the British documentary veterans John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke, “The Man and Le Mans” uses archival material and talking head interviews — as well as newly found McQueen audio recordings and footage from the “Le Mans” shoot — to tell its story. It paints a picture of a flawed man who was at times brought low by his share of frailties, from infidelity to a headstrong quality that could make him his own worst enemy. (One of the film's touchstone quotes, from a former McQueen confidant, is that the actor identified with a line about Alexander the Great, who it was said conquered the world but not himself.)

But McQueen is portrayed as sticking to his artistic guns where “Le Mans” was concerned. The director, John Sturges, and the studio, a CBS unit called Cinema Center Films, both wanted a more dramatic piece, heavy with romance and conventional beats. McQueen, an avid racer, sought a more non-narrative, neo-vérité style that would use footage from the 1970 Le Mans race as the film’s backbone.

The result were fierce battles that saw Sturges, a longtime McQueen collaborator, exit production midstream. The scene on the French set would become almost circus-like at times, with no shooting script, writers flown in to try their hand at something that worked. At one point trailers were packed with scribes, all trying unsuccessfully to satisfy McQueen’s creative needs.  As one experts says in the movie, “Sometimes I had the feeling he wanted to leave his scratch marks on the history of filmmaking. He was always searching for something.”

In the end McQueen achieved much of what he wanted, but at a great toll to his health, according to several colleagues in the movie. Ditto for the film’s commercial prospects — “Le Mans” flopped at the box office.

Surprisingly, this was not the end of the story. McQueen turned out to be vindicated years later. The film was hailed as a cult classic, and its influence remains. Anyone who’s ever appreciated the textured historical realities of many modern pieces — from “Senna” to “Selma” — owe a debt of gratitude to what McQueen was trying to achieve with “Le Mans.”

“One of the things I hope comes across, said Clarke in an interview, “is how great a filmmaker he was. This wasn’t just someone holding the line for reasons of ego.”

“The Man and Le Mans” (it is seeking U.S. distribution in Cannes) will also intrigue anyone who’s observed Hollywood actors in the 21st century try to wrest more control of their careers by expanding their behind-the-camera roles. McQueen had more ambition in this regard than many stars of the era. But as so many modern celebrities know, material without money will only get you so far.

“He needed the studio to finance his dream,” McKenna said. “And once they didn’t share the dream, the trouble began.”

The movie’s coup de grace is footage from the production and some candid audio of McQueen from that era. It nearly didn't come to be —McKenna and Clarke had been on a massive quest for what they heard were millions of feet of film from the "Le Mans" set, chasing down tips from Russia to New Jersey before eventually unearthing it below a Hollywood sound stage.

Chad McQueen — now, at 54, four years older than Steve McQueen at the time of his death — lives in the Southland and concentrates on the racing car company he started. (Younger readers may know his son, Steven McQueen, a regular on the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.”) He has the sandy hair and rugged face of his father, which gives his presence something of an eerie overtone.

Chad McQueen noted that there’s something fitting about a McQueen in Cannes, a place Steve never brought a film but nonetheless part of a country where some of his great triumphs and crucibles occurred. Le Mans, about 600 miles north, still treats McQueen as an icon.

So does much of the world, which will become clear, despite his foibles, in the film, which among its virtues reminds viewers of how McQueen laid the tracks for Ryan Gosling and a host of modern stars.

“My dad was very human, and I want people to know that,” Chad McQueen said. “But he was also a visionary. I mean, there’s a reason it’s been 34 years since he died and he still resonates.”

@ZeitchikLAT

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