Steve McQueen's biographer on the man, the movie and the motorbikes

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A new Steve McQueen biopic¹s in the works, based on Marshall Terrill¹s best-selling biography, Portrait of and American Rebel, and set to star Brad Pitt or Daniel Craig according to industry rumours.

MCN spoke to Terrill to find out why the king of cool holds such a powerful fascination, and why 2010¹s set to be massive for the On Any Sunday star.

How did your book get picked up for the biopic project?

I’ve had several offers throughout the years but I only wanted to work with a producer who had the same vision that I did, and that was to go the way of ‘the hero’s story.’ 

McQueen was a guy who had to overcome a lot of things in his life to reach the top: he was born five months after the Great Depression to two alcoholic parents who abandoned him in his youth; dyslexia; a stint in reform school and a ninth-grade education.

Statistically speaking, he should have either been a drunk/addict, in prison or in an institution by the time he turned 18. But he overcame all of those odds by his sheer inner strength and will.

Regardless of some of the negative things he did in his life, this man is a hero because he was a fighter who didn’t know the word ‘quit.’ 

He was an original on film and in life and we’ll never see the likes of his kind again. That is the story I want to see get made.

How financially significant is a deal like this?

It’s financially significant to everyone involved because of the amount of money involved in the movie industry.

It’s completely different than the book business, which pays almost nothing unless you are selling millions of books. 

Let’s just say that I will earn enough to make me happy but not enough to retire on. But there might be enough left over for me to fly to England and take the entire staff of Motorcycle News out for fish and chips and a pint of Guinness!

How excited were you by the news?

It was controlled excitement. You never want to set yourself up for something that may or may not happen because anything is liable to happen in the movie industry. I’ve read the horror stories about movies being thrown into ‘turnaround hell.’ 

For example, it took almost 20 years for ‘The Bodyguard’ to get made. I have to live my life and in order to do so, I cannot sit around hoping and praying and wishing my movie will get made.

Otherwise, I’d go crazy.  So I must wake up every morning, put on my clothes, go to work and live a normal life, and if the movie gets made, then great. If it doesn’t, I still have my life, which is great by the way.  I live by the credo: hope for the best, expect the worst and that way you’ll never be disappointed.

How is production on the biopic progressing?

The first draft of the screenplay is near completion. Jesse Wigutow, one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, is adapting the book. A lot of names have been thrown around as to who should play McQueen, but perhaps it’s best if I didn’t say because if I state my preference and the producer goes with someone else, the actor might have me tossed off the set!

What drew you to become such an authority on McQueen?

I don’t think I set out to become the authority, I was just tired of other biographers focusing on the bad-boy stuff and not his incredible acting skills. 

McQueen practically invented a genre of acting and that has been completely overlooked. Marlon Brando has been credited as the first ‘Method Actor’ but McQueen, who was a reactor, is far more emulated in Hollywood today than any other actor. Ask any actor who they’d like to be, and most of them will tell you McQueen.

How much of the story of McQueen’s life and personality is the story of his life with bikes?

I have not seen the script but you have to have his life with the bikes because it is what balanced him as a human being. Most actors wait for the phone to ring. McQueen never did because he had his family and his bikes.

He acted for a living but didn’t live to act. Acting was a means to an end. But when he did act, boy, he was something special.

What gives you faith the production team behind the biopic will do the great man justice?

As a former reporter, you learn to judge people by their actions, not their words. Brian Oliver of Arthaus Pictures (‘Autofocus’, ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘The Game’ and ‘Sleepers’) who is co-producing the movie is one of the few producers in Hollywood I respect because he makes quality movies with great story lines.

It seems as if movies today fall into two categories: the blockbuster and the independent film. Brian’s movies remind me of the mainstream films of the 1960s and 1970s like ‘The Graduate’, ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ because they rely on a smart script, not special effects or supposed big stars with no talent.

When you have a good script, everything else will follow. Brian has the ability to lure huge stars to his projects because he invests in great scripts.

How big a year do you think 2010 will be for McQueen?

I believe 2010 will be huge for several reasons. It is the 30th anniversary of his death and what would have been his 80th birthday; then there’s the movie and my tribute book. That’s a pretty big year for anyone who hasn’t taken a breath in three decades.

McQueen’s biker mates reveal why the bikes mattered most to the Great Escape star, only in MCN on 5 August.

Guy Procter

By Guy Procter