TIFF: Stephen Frears' 'The Program' Is a Crime Film, "A Very American Tragedy" (Q&A)

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Stephen Frears

The British helmer discusses why his drama is not a sports biopic, and why 'The Program' didn't premiere in Cannes, as others expected.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Stephen Frears is one of the highest-profile international directors working, but his oeuvre — which includes a royalist drama (The Queen), a record-store comedy (High Fidelity), a film noir (The Grifters), a cynical French sex drama (Dangerous Liaisons) and much, much more — defies categorization. The two-time Oscar nominee has tried his hand at virtually ever film genre out there, science fiction excepted.

So that Frears would pick the story of disgraced American cycling hero Lance Armstrong for his latest project — The Program, starring Ben Foster, which has its world premiere Sept. 13 in Toronto — is as surprising as it is expected. (On Sept. 12, Paramount nabbed Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep as an opera singer, after promo footage screened at TIFF.)

Ahead of The Program’s bow, Frears, 74, spoke to THR about cycling, doping and how history will judge Armstrong.

You’re not actually a cycling fan. Why did you want to make a movie about Armstrong?

The American cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who was a teammate of Armstrong’s, wrote a book about doping and the tour (The Secret Race), and I read a review of the book. It sounded interesting and much bigger than just cycling. We hired Trainspotting writer John Hodge, and we started going to school, learning about the tour. We eventually met David Walsh, an Irish journalist who had followed Armstrong’s career from the start and had written several books about him [including the one on which The Program is based].

Sport plays a huge part in my life — not cycling, but English soccer and cricket — but I never saw this as a sporting biopic. In January, Armstrong did an interview with the BBC, where he was much more straightforward and used the word criminal for the first time. I think this is a modern crime story, it’s got a bit of everything. It’s a very American story, a very American tragedy.

The film shows Armstrong’s doping program in great detail, but we also see his struggle to overcome cancer and his charity work.

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 behavior 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 classic American hero.

How did you pick Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings) for the role?

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 leaped 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. We had to make it believable when you see Ben on the bike.

You shot most of the film on location and very quickly (from October to December in 2013). Why did you do it that way?

Because I live in a Third World country [England], at least compared to filmmaking in the U.S., I didn’t have the resources to shoot it differently — in the studio — so we had to go there to do it. And it was difficult. The Tour de France, it’s such a monumental event, you couldn’t stage a day of it to the actual scale, it would be impossible.

A lot of people expected this film to screen in Cannes. Why has it taken so long to premiere?

We just finished the film two, three weeks ago. There wasn’t anything sinister about it. We had to do a couple more shots with Ben, and we had to wait for his schedule to open up and then for him to get into the right shape again. And I didn’t want to rush this.  I usually don’t develop my own projects; normally I get hired to direct what already exists. I developed this one on my own. I wanted to take the time to get it right.

Do you think Armstrong belongs behind bars?

I don’t know. You know, he had an incredible capacity to deceive himself — we had a prime minister who behaved a similar way (Tony Blair, the subject of Frears’ 2003 feature, The Deal). I dread to imagine what he thinks at night. David Walsh recently met a French rider 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.

The strange thing about this whole story is, in the end, the French were right. When Armstrong 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.

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