Oscar-nominated British director Stephen Frears, whose film The Program about Lance Armstrong has its world premiere this weekend, says he was attracted to the subject because he wanted to make a crime movie, not a biopic.
Starring Ben Foster as the disgraced cyclist, the movie will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this Sunday, and hits UK cinemas on 16 October.
Ahead of its first public screening, Frears told The Hollywood Reporter why, despite not being a cycling fan, he felt compelled to make a story about the seven-time Tour de France champion who was stripped of those titles in 2012, and later confessed to having cheated his way to those victories.
“Because I wasn't interested in making a biopic, was interested in making a crime film,” said Frears, whose previous credits include The Queen, for which Dame Helen Mirren won a Best Actress Oscar, and High Fidelity, based on the Nick Hornby novel.
“In January, Armstrong did an interview with the BBC where he was much more straightforward and used the word ‘criminal’ for the first time,” he continued. “I think this is a modern crime story. It's a very American tragedy.
“Yes, he raised millions for cancer. And he cheated, he lied and he bullied. … I don't know him, so I'm reluctant to pin the term ‘psychotic’ on Lance, but his behaviour was definitely very, very odd.
“And cheating is only part of it. Even just a year ago, I think people wouldn't accept that he did what he did. On the surface, he was the classical American hero.
Asked about why he chose Foster, best known for the 2013 film Lone Survivor, for the lead role, he said: “Leo Davis, who casts all my films, suggested him. When I met Ben, he didn't know what the project was about.
“When I told him, he leapt onto the couch and went into one of Lance's poses, underneath his seven yellow Tour de France winner's jerseys. It was incredible. And then he did enormous training to make himself physically like Lance — pro cyclists are so incredibly skinny. He was phenomenally disciplined.”
The Hollywood Reporter pointed out that there is an ongoing lawsuit against Armstrong involving the US Department of Justice, which joined the whistleblower case originally brought by his former team mate, Floyd Landis, himself stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for doping.
While that is a civil and not criminal action, albeit a potentially ruinous one for Armstrong, the website asked Frears if he believed the former US Postal rider should be in prison.
“I don't know,” said Frears, before drawing parallels with Tony Blair, around whom his 2003 film The Deal was centred.
“You know, he [Armstrong] had an incredible capacity to deceive himself,” he said. “We had a prime minister who behaved a similar way. I dread to imagine what he thinks at night.
“David Walsh [on whose book, Seven Deadly Sins, The Program is based] recently met a French rider [Christophe Bassons] who had been regularly bullied by Lance.
“He said: ‘Lance used to look you straight in the eye. Now his head is down.’
“It can't be easy, to fall from such a great height,” added Frears.
“The strange thing is, in the end, the French were right. When he won his first Tour de France, the French — and Walsh — said, ‘Oh, he's doping.’
“No one wanted to believe it, but they were right all along.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.