Contre La Montre
John Hodge was signed up to write the screenplay at somewhat short notice as Tim Bevan relates. “We said to John, here’s a big challenge. Basically you have four weeks to come up with the first draft. He went a little bit white and went away and came up with the first draft in four weeks.”
John Hodge for his part confesses that he was employed on something of an accidental basis. “Working Title were looking for a writer and another producer they were working with said John Hodge is really into cycling, which actually wasn’t the case at all - I cycle to and from work but that is the extent of it.” However Hodge was undaunted given that the story was about so much more than cycling, an idea he expands on. “It was immediately clear to me that here is a modern phenomenon that would be worth having a go at on the big screen. The elements of personal struggle, rise and fall, globalisation, the exploitation of media; so many aspects of modern sporting life and modern celebrity; and the wish fulfilment of a public that wants to invest in heroes and is then disappointed; That cycle that we are all a part of as consumers was something that I was interested in.”
Examining the icon that Lance became, Hodge outlines how the cyclist became the answer to everyone’s dreams. “To the outsider, he seemed like he was the perfect vessel for cycling in the nineties and 2000s at a time when the sport was expanding due to the internet, satellite and communications sweeping all around the world even more than before. There is this really charismatic, handsome, English speaking cancer survivor, who is going to spread the word to the whole world; who is going to transform a niche European working class man’s sport. And he is going to suddenly make it a sport that huge global corporations will want to invest in, Nike and so forth.” There was inevitably a postscript. “Of course the fact that he turned out to be false, as Walsh says at the end of the film, shouldn’t surprise any of us because that was bound to happen.”
In terms of material, Hodge started out with David Walsh, both through his book and in person. Hodge also worked through the many other tales of Armstrong mainly by cyclists. “They are all more or less recounting the same incidents from a different angle”, Hodge explains. “So it was interesting in a way to cross refer the various accounts. Then there were the affidavits that were sworn by many of the former US Postal cyclists [Armstrong’s team] when they were delivering their evidence to USADA [the US Anti-Doping Agency]. They were very helpful. And then various news articles... And of course one of the great things about making a modern sporting film is that YouTube makes everything continuously available. This is true of any sort of sporting hero nowadays; they live their life through social media and through YouTube. And that both helps them in terms of exploiting their celebrity but of course when it comes to things going wrong it works against them.”
When Tracey Seaward saw the early drafts of John’s scripts, she was stunned. “John’s immediate insight into that world was quite extraordinary”, she explains. “The professional consultants who had access to some of the earlier drafts thought it was amazing that he managed to get into the head of cyclists, in terms of that mindset. It’s quite a complicated story to tell with the two perspectives - you’ve got Walsh and Lance, you could say hero and anti-hero but there’s a quality of both of them being heroes and he found this amazing way of balancing that story.
Frears identifies Hodge as vital in managing to shape the film within the tight time constraints. “I’m not sure I knew what kind of film we were making at the beginning but it was clearly very interesting. We were lucky that we got John Hodge who picked his way through it so very delicately.” Seaward concurs. “He found this way of carefully constructing a rather neat thriller rather than making a history lesson in cycling.” Frears concludes that one of Hodge’s strengths is his ability to distil huge amounts of information and a time span of 20 years into a film of under two hours. “He is very elliptical; he covers an awful lot of things, and I guess they’re the most important things.”
The production’s cycling consultant David Millar agrees, “I was in awe that John Hodge was able to write that just from research, without actually knowing the people and without actually knowing the sport.”
Frears outlines how Millar came to join the production. “We were all learning as we went. I’d been told about David Millar’s book Racing Through the Dark so I spoke to David and he came to England and met with Tim Bevan and Amelia [Granger, Executive Producer] who were very taken by him.”
David Millar defines his role on the film. “I have everything to do with cycling and educating Stephen on the cycling world; from the bike riding, to the history of the sport, to the characters involved and the real life people.”
Bevan brought on board producer Kate Solomon, who had worked for Working Title on earlier titles including United 93. As an expert in researching fact-based material for fiction she was invaluable at this stage, as Bevan outlines. “She’s like a terrier. She went through everybody and anything that had anything to do with cycling and cheating and doping in cycling. And through that you arrive at what is a fiction but hopefully fiction that’s as close to the truth as possible.”
Given the intricacies of the subject matter, it was never going to be an easy project for Frears as he explains. “It was a crash course... I knew nothing, nothing about cycling; nothing about Lance. I had to learn everything; I’m still learning.” What’s more, his friends were obsessed by the detail of it. I remember Paul [Smith] saying well, I hope you’re going to get the bikes right or I hope you’re going to get the clothes right. So there was a lot to learn.” Frears’ friends went from being concerned about accuracy to hugely envious as the production managed to embed themselves with the most informative sources imaginable, as Frears outlines. “David Walsh said to me at one point, ‘well you’re a lot further inside than I ever got’. I was the guest of the Tour de France which meant that I saw things that journalists had never seen. I was in a car behind the front racers and I saw things they’d never seen; they were furious!”
Riding deep in the Tour with the UCI, the sport’s ruling body, gave Frears and his team a fantastic insight into their subject matter, as he tells: “I discovered the craziness that was going on behind the cyclists. The cyclists are like people in a bubble, going straight along. Behind them is all the organisation of the Tour. Also, you start to realise what a huge circus the whole thing is.”
David Walsh was very reassured by the detail that went into the preparation for the film. “When I watch a film about sport, I’m invariably disappointed. It always looks like film people don’t understand what sport looks like or somehow they haven’t been able to get it right.” However, in this film, he continues, “What you’re going to be looking at is going to be a pretty authentic portrayal of how the peloton moves and what happens inside the peloton. I was really cheered by that because the journalist always thinks, we’ve got to be accurate here. This has got to be authentic. I could see there was a fixation on getting this stuff right.