Steve McQueen helped finance and appeared in the Oscar-nominated On Any Sunday, which remains the preeminent motorcycle documentary to this day. He had something similar in mind for Le Mans. However, the rest of the cast and crew thought they were making a dramatic narrative. Those are what are generally termed creative differences. There were quite a few going on behind-the-scenes of the 1971 film. The difficult production process as well as the eternally cool actor’s passion for the sport are chronicled in John McKenna & Gabriel Clarke’ Steve McQueen: the Man and Le Mans (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Le Mans is the oldest endurance contest in car racing—twenty-four hours circling the picturesque French village. As McQueen envisioned it, Le Mans would give viewers a vivid, tactile sense of what it was like to drive the course at speeds over 200 miles per hour. Like Paul Newman (who finished second at Le Mans in 1979), McQueen was a legit racer in his own right, but for insurance reasons, he was not allowed to compete in the actual race. However, much of what driver Jonathan Williams’ camera car recorded during that year’s Le Mans was incorporated into the film. They had the authenticity nailed down, but they lacked a script.
It quickly becomes apparent from the rediscovered “making of” footage and interviews with the surviving participants, Le Mans could be considered something like McQueen’s Apocalypse Now. It ballooned way over budget and severed several of McQueen’s professional relationships. During the chaotic shoot, McQueen’s marriage to cabaret-musical theater performer Neile Adams also collapsed. However, causal fans might be most surprised to learn McQueen was already under stress following revelations the Manson Family had specifically targeted him. In fact, he was expected to join his friend Jason Sebring at Sharon Tate’s home on that horrific night.
For a film about the need for speed, Man and Le Mans is surprisingly calm and contemplative, even with McQueen’s son Chad doing his best to liven things up with attitude and enthusiasm. Still, McKenna & Clarke include plenty of ironic anecdotes and fully capture a holistic sense of the actor, the race, and the challenging film. They even score a pretty significant scoop, vouched for by McQueen’s former personal assistant Mario Iscovich (a great interview) and Louise Edlind, the sort of lead actress, who would later be elected to Sweden’s parliament.