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Frank Marshall on 'Destroyed Friendship' With Lance Armstrong

Damon Armstrong Marshall - H 2013
Courtesy of Frank Marshall
From left: Damon, in 2003 on the set of "The Bourne Supremacy," was set to star in a biopic of Armstrong, produced by Marshall.

While shooting the new doc "The Armstrong Lie," director Alex Gibney fought to pursue a doping angle long before Marshall, the producer, was ready: "I believed a beautiful lie."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Producers Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach knew they wanted a strong director for what was to be an inspirational documentary about Lance Armstrong's comeback to compete in the 2009 Tour de France. But after they hired Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2007 doc Taxi to the Dark Side, they found themselves engaged in a struggle with their chosen filmmaker.

Gibney had signed on hoping the project, Lance Armstrong: The Road Back, would be a pleasant respite from his previous explorations of topics like sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But well before the reality of Armstrong's doping was confirmed, Gibney began to see the cyclist through an increasingly dark lens. "I kept leaning on [the doping] issue in ways that Frank and Matt felt were too out of step with the film we were making," Gibney tells THR. "They were saying, 'How come we're spending so much time on this old story when there's so much material about the Tour?' "

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Marshall was zealously protective of longtime friend Armstrong, whom he met at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Tolmach, who is such a "weekend warrior" cyclist that he shaves his legs, was a bit more skeptical but had responded with enthusiasm years earlier when Marshall approached him with a pitch for a biopic based on Armstrong's 2000 book It's Not About the Bike. At the time, Tolmach was president of Columbia Pictures, and the studio developed the feature idea with Matt Damon at one point set to play the lead. But by fall 2008, Marshall and Tolmach agreed instead to make a documentary chronicling Armstrong's comeback bid. (Tolmach transitioned to being a producer on the project after he exited his job at Columbia in October 2010. Damon was set to narrate.)

Gibney insisted at the start that the film would acknowledge the prevalent but still-unproved allegations against Armstrong. But as he immersed himself in the cyclist's world, he came to feel the doping angle deserved much more than a nod.

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The conflict came to a climax Nov. 21, 2010, as Tolmach and Marshall sat with Gibney in an editing room on the Sony lot. "There were raised voices," allows Tolmach. Gibney says he didn't explicitly threaten to take his name off the film, though he considered it. "I said: 'You guys own the movie; you can do what you want. You don't need me for that.' " Tolmach says the message was clear: "It was, 'If this is an Alex Gibney movie, this is what it's going to say.' "

As more facts about Armstrong doping became public, the story changed so much that the documentary -- a seven-figure project that was ready for release -- was shelved. Gibney then returned to the story to create the version heading to theaters Nov. 8, titled The Armstrong Lie. The impact of the revelations on Marshall's relationship with Armstrong was inevitable. "It essentially destroyed my friendship," he says. "There's nothing left. I mean, we're cordial, but the friendship is really over."

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Marshall says Armstrong has not seen the film, but his reps saw it in Denver after the Telluride Film Festival. "It was two hours of agony for me," says Marshall, who is a friend of Armstrong's attorney and agent, Bill Stapleton. "Because they couldn't deny any of it. … They just sat there and took it and watched this epic downfall." It's clear the loss is painful for Marshall. "I believed a beautiful lie," he adds. "It was the greatest sports story ever, the greatest human story ever -- and I wanted to believe."