Framing John DeLorean directors kick the tyres of the man and his iconic dream machine
Combining candid contemporary interviews with archive footage and absorbing dramatic recreations, Framing John DeLorean examines the life and times of the late motor industry maverick while pulling focus on the man behind the myths. David Roy spoke to directing team Sheena M Joyce and Don Argott about their Docs Ireland entry, which features Alec Baldwin as the creator of the gull-winged automotive icon
"IF YOU'RE going to build a time machine, why not do it with some style?" This was Back To The Future boffin Doc Brown's rationale for converting John Z DeLorean's Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed stainless steel DMC-12 roadster into a nuclear-powered fourth dimension-smashing scientific marvel.
It also probably helped that Doc would have been able to pick one up fairly cheaply: by the time DeLorean's gull-winged creation was immortalised onscreen in 1985's biggest blockbuster – just four years after the first DMC-12 rolled off the assembly line – the image of the car and its once feted creator had been irreparably dented.
A decade in the making, the excellent new documentary Framing John DeLorean does a great job of giving us the legend of 'John Z'; how the charismatic Detroit maverick cut a movie star-esque swathe through the staid corporate culture of 1960s car manufacturing, inventing the 'muscle car' at General Motors with his iconic Pontiac GTO before gambling big to set up on his own here in Northern Ireland in 1978 – a location selected primarily for the huge Labour government-paid subsidies on offer to new industries at the height of the Troubles.
Infamously, DeLorean then crashed and burned in spectacular style: the DMC-12 looked great when it emerged from the Dunmurry factory in 1981 but was plagued by build and reliability issues. Sales in the US target market were slow and Margaret Thatcher's Tory government refused further financing for the factory, leading to DeLorean's arrest in an legally suspect FBI drug sting as he attempted to secure enough cash to save his dream from hitting the wall.
Although DeLorean was acquitted during the subsequent trial in 1984 – hence the title of the new documentary – the Belfast factory was already closed and his reputation written off. Even the DMC-12's starring role in Back To The Future couldn't save that, though we do learn that DeLorean wrote to film-makers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis to thank them "for keeping my dream alive". He died in 2005, having never got another car company off the ground.
Putting another spin on that catchy title, directors Sheena M Joyce and Don Argott go at the human stories behind the John Z/DMC headlines, interviewing key auto industry personnel who helped him build his dream – including close allies then ruthlessly cast aside when no longer 'useful' – workers from the Dunmurry plant and DeLorean's children, Kathryn and Zach, who speak affectingly about the impact their father's meteoric rise and downfall had on their family life.
We also hear from a string of producers who had unsuccessfully attempted to get a movie version of DeLorean's dramatic rise and fall onto the big screen: it seems his many foibles were not Hollywood-friendly enough.
However, viewers may beg to differ once they've seen Alec Baldwin's compelling turn as John DeLorean in the doc's many dramatised scenes, which find him and a formidable pair of fake eyebrows playing alongside others including Morena Baccarin (Homeland, Gotham) as DeLorean's glamorous wife Cristina Ferrare and Josh Charles (The Good Wife) as his design man Bill Collins.
Fittingly, the new doc started life as a factual companion piece to one of these stalled feature projects back in 2009, as Don Argott explains.
"We met the guys behind one of the many competing DeLorean films at the Toronto Film Festival," he explains.
"They asked us if we'd be interested in doing very traditional documentary about John's story to coincide with the narrative film. Our producer Tamir [Ardon, who appears in the doc] had so much enthusiasm for the car, the man and the history that we said sure. It sounded cool."
Of course, the proposed feature never happened. Then, several years later, Universal Pictures expressed an interest in pursuing the documentary – provided the film-makers could come up with "a fresh angle".
"We started kicking around more unorthodox ways of approaching the story," Argott tells me. "There were some TV documentaries about DeLorean which kind of got the nuts and bolts of the story, but we felt like we needed to elevate it somehow. We hit on the idea of exploring why all these high profile movies had never got off the ground as a really interesting way of melding what we do as documentarians with the idea of John's life being ready-made for Hollywood."
Not only does Framing John DeLorean show Baldwin playing the titular enigma – whom at one point personally called to ask the actor to portray him on screen, he reveals – we are also privy to his actual transformation in the make-up chair: Baldwin and his fellow actors even share their thoughts about who they are portraying. It's a novel bit of meta business which actually serves the film's mission of getting a read on the 'real' John DeLorean.
"We identified moments in John's life we felt would be better represented through the narrative scenes," comments Sheena M Joyce.
"When we started to cut in the narrative scenes, we found that the behind-the-scenes footage we had of the actors having these great conversations about finding their characters was a neat way to weave the narrative and the documentary elements together while revealing more about John's different layers."
Indeed, Framing John DeLorean digs into several facets of his personality, including devoted father, brilliant engineer and high-powered businessman – the latter aspect seemingly fuelled by a healthy ego which apparently saw no problem with bending the rules/law in pursuit of success.
Luckily for John, the FBI were also so gung-ho about getting DeLorean as a big scalp in Ronald Reagan's newly minted 'war on drugs', they wrecked their own case by effectively entrapping him.
Today, the DMC-12 and its fantastically styled flaws still stands as a convenient stainless steel metaphor for its creator. Both the man and his machine have an enduring cult following, the latter to such an extent that you can still buy a 'new' DeLorean from a company in Texas which bought up all the unused parts from Dunmurry.
DeLorean's legend, and his dream machine, live on: but would the film-makers have a DMC-12 in their own garage?
"I'm more of a GTO gal," chuckles Joyce, while Argott says he might consider owning one "if I could afford to have one as a second car."
:: Framing John DeLorean, Friday June 14, Odeon Belfast, 6.45pm. Tickets and full Docs Ireland programme via Belfastfilmfestival.org. The film is available on digital download from July 29.