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'Framing John DeLorean': How Theme Can Drive a Documentary to Success

June 7, 2019
5 min read time

When most film buffs think of John DeLorean, they think of Back to the Future.

Marty McFly: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute Doc, uh, are you telling me you built a time machine…out of a DeLorean?”

Doc: “The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

When I began watching Framing John DeLorean, I was anticipating an opening (and closing, for that matter) of the famous DeLorean time machine car speeding off into the sunset, leaving only tread marks and smoke behind — similar to how the real John DeLorean left us.

Instead, it opened with a poorly recorded video of John DeLorean on a polygraph machine, recounting his life. In fact, Back to the Future receives a total of approximately five minutes of air time throughout the one hour and 40 minute documentary.

And that’s exactly how the directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce planned it — and it works brilliantly.

“Spending too much time on Back to The Future would do a disservice to the John DeLorean legacy. He was so much more, he was a visionary,” says Argott. Had DeLorean kept it together, his legacy would be much more than a fictional movie about time travel.

And that’s why this documentary works. Back to The Future is not what epitomizes John DeLorean. DeLorean chased the American dream, and more importantly, he got it. But it just wasn’t enough.

Co-directors Joyce and Argott took on a real person that even Hollywood’s best screenwriters couldn’t create. DeLorean was all things Hollywood: sideburns, plastic surgery, super models, fast cars, and cocaine.

While there are people in his league today, both Joyce and Sheena allude to the fact that there is only one DeLorean, and there will never be another one. “Elon Musk, maybe,” says Argott. “But that’s not even accurate. They were both innovators who made a lot of money. But John came from a different time period. He was one of a kind.”

As I watched this fascinating (and at times heartbreaking) documentary, I came to the conclusion that no one can quite explain why John DeLorean did what he did. Yes, some of it had to do with greed and drive, but there’s so much more.

Both directors immersed themselves in his story for such a long period of time, it’s probably they have an inkling as to what John would think of General Motors today. After all, John and General Motors have a lot in common: bankruptcy. Fortunately for General Motors, they got an $80.7 billion bailout after losing one million jobs.

“What would John say today? I told you so. That, and small cars would sell. He’d be vindicated, but also sad,” says Joyce.

Like most people who rise to fame too quickly, DeLorean’s head began to swell, and the documentary takes us right along with him on his titillating rise and fall. Everything from creating the muscle car at GM, marrying the top super model at the time, to watching the chilling actual footage of DeLorean making a deal with Colombian drug traffickers.

Joyce and Argott did something typically unconventional in documentaries by adding a fourth angle: interviewing the actual person doing the reenactment while they were in wardrobe, make-up, and waiting to be lit — namely Alec Baldwin.

“We wanted to add another element, playing with the different lenses and devices.  We wanted a deeper understanding of who John was; a different perspective,” says Sheena. While Baldwin only made up 15% of the film, his purpose plays a huge role in the success of the film through the insight he adds.

“Reenactments weren’t always the best use of Alec. We wanted to peek behind the process. Research. It was about adding another element by talking to Alec directly,” said Don.

So far, the documentary has received glowing reviews and the general takeaway is a deeper understanding of who DeLorean was as a person. Maybe it’s the screenwriter in me, but I saw it differently. The recurring theme I found to be was: can failure be noble?  After all, John created arguably the greatest muscle car of all at General Motors, but that wasn’t enough for him. He went on to found DeLorean Motor Company, which ultimately crippled his career, family and life.

That’s, for me where I drew the parallel between DeLorean and screenwriters. How many times do we work on a script for weeks, months, even years, and the story just isn’t working? Producers and agents aren’t biting. There’s something about it that’s not working. You send it in for coverage and get low marks. Your friends and family can’t even connect to the story. But as screenwriters, we are stubborn, and we don’t know when to put a project away and start on a new one.

John was a magician at GM. Everyone knew it. Even those who fired him knew it. He created something that is still with us today. But when he created his own company and pushed his own car, it just didn’t work. His closest friends told him. Investors told him. The media told him — get out while you’re on top. Noble failure.

But not for John, he just kept on pushing. But why?

 “The lesson is to know when to stop; not quit — there’s a difference. It’s important to know when to not force some vision…” says Joyce. She kept using the word “courageous” as she spoke about filmmakers and writers knowing when to push a project and knowing when to put it aside. It takes a special kind of courage to recognize when a project isn’t sprouting legs.

She also adds, ”John is certainly a great example of someone who got one thing, but didn’t stick to his lane.”

I agree. I think filmmakers can learn something from DeLorean about sticking to one lane. How many times do we see an actor, or producer, or screenwriter find some success, then quickly try to wear every single hat on their next project? I often see screenwriters on social media who categorize themselves as a writer, producer, art director, singer, songwriter, juggler, musician, editor…

I challenge those who watch this documentary to view it from a filmmaker/screenwriter perspective. Mirror DeLorean’s drive and ambition. His creativity and style. But when something just isn’t working, try working on something else for a while and clear your head. That’s not giving up, it’s called being a professional.

The screenwriters on Framing John DeLorean were professional, doing their due-diligence working through 55 interviews, tons of source material, and diving into John’s life like no one else has before.

“We pulled so much from the actual archive, like the DEA sting, so it was important to get the words right and follow the actual transcript,” says Argott.

“We brought on some screenwriters to create scenes from first-hand accounts. I would say with documentaries it’s about collaborating. We sat in a room, plowed through the work… it was great!” says Joyce.

Just like the opening wasn’t what I had anticipated, the ending wasn’t either. But this was no happy accident.

One of the most haunting parts of the entire documentary is when DeLorean’s son, Zack, who lives in a run-down apartment in Jersey, speaks. While many filmmakers have tried to make a biopic of his father’s life, he fears Hollywood would screw it up. Zack believes Hollywood would end it on a happy note. Zack knows all too well that’s not how his father’s life ended.

“John never stopped, all the signs said he needed to stop,” conclude the directors. And that’s exactly how his son felt. So, they ended the movie exactly how Zack envisioned it.

There is a lot to admire about John, let’s not forget. And this movie does a wonderful job illuminating his many powerful qualities. Both Argott and Joyce did a great job setting the groundwork for any filmmaker bold enough to finally produce a biopic on John DeLorean. He’s not a hero. He’s not an antagonist. He’s an anti-hero without a happy ending. But can Hollywood make a biopic where the “hero” loses at the end, but leaves us all with a powerful message? I think so.  But is Hollywood up to the challenge?

Framing John DeLorean premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is set to release in select theatres this Friday by Sundance Selects.

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