Cannes: Steve McQueen Finally Makes His Festival Debut

'Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,' which screens in Cannes Classics, shows the creative conflicts between McQueen and Hollywood’s first-choice helmer, John Sturges.

Steve McQueen, still unquestionably cinema’s king of cool more than 30 years after his death, never had a single film in Cannes. Until now.

Billed almost too tantalizingly as Bullitt meets Senna,” the documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans captures our iconic antihero at a turning point in his life. Having become arguably the biggest name in the U.S. thanks to The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, reaching the sort of celebrity status never seen before, McQueen then went on† to create his passion project, 1971’s Le Mans, capturing the intensity of France’s legendary 24-hour endurance race.

The film would irrevocably change him, something that Gabriel Clarke — more commonly seen presenting for TV from the touchline at U.K. and European soccer matches — together with co-director John McKenna, set out to explore. “It’s a universal story,” says Clarke, the son of celebrated British director Alan Clarke. “[It’s] about how this obsession that he had drove him to want to create this vision for the big screen like no other film before it, but in doing so it led him into all sorts of di˜fficulties."

The doc, which screens in Cannes Classics, shows the creative conflicts between McQueen and Hollywood’s first-choice helmer, John Sturges, which would ultimately lead to the director quitting (he was replaced by Lee Katzin), alongside the turmoil going on in McQueen’s personal life: the breakdown of his marriage and discovery while shooting that his name was on Charles Manson’s “Death List.”

“His heightened sense of paranoia reached even more extreme levels,” says Clarke of McQueen. “He even asked for his gun to be sent over by his agent.”

In making the doc, the team managed to track down its “holy grail,” the rushes of the film that everyone presumed had been lost. “Steve filmed so many hours of racing while on set, partly because they were struggling with the script, so just to keep people busy, and also because you get the sense that getting the most authentic motor-racing experience behind the wheel is what he wanted to do,” says Clarke.

Everyone thought the unused footage had been incinerated, but the day before shooting on the doc began, a tip-off† came through from Los Angeles.

"Beneath a soundstage covered in dust, we found between 400 and 600 boxes of film, each with ‘Le Mans’ along its spine,” Clarke says. “It still gives me a little shiver.” Although Le Mans would go on to be a cult classic, the film was a rushed edit that had been compromised by the production issues and artistic clashes. “But we have those original rushes, so you can now try and do Steve’s vision justice in showing what he wanted to bring to the screen.”