The vast majority of the film was shot on location rather than in a studio. The cycling scenes were shot at iconic French mountain locations that included Col du Galbier, La Grave, which stood in for Sestriere and probably the most mythical peak of the Tour, L’Alpe d’Huez. The production also used Charleville, Maing, which stood in for the flat landscape of Northern France whilst the town of Bouillon in Belgium was the setting for the early Fleche-Wallone race.
The Alps were always going to prove a concern for the production as Seaward explains, “We arrived in the beginning of October to rehearse and there was incredible snowfall, which really made us confront the reality of our location.”
David Millar stresses the tight frame, “The biggest hurdle was getting it all together before winter arrived, if we wanted to film in the Alps and get the cycling stuff done. Also, it needed to be the end of the season where we could use pros; even I couldn’t be there until October as I was racing. It became very much a race against time. In some ways it was a hindrance but it actually benefited us as we had to be very focused and nail it.”
In spite of such practical concerns, Danny Cohen insists that, “Location over studio offers up certain veracity, cinematographically.” Frears particularly favours shooting on location, a practice that Cohen supports. “Watching a film is about trying to make something real in front of the camera. Real light in a hotel room or a house instantly offers you something to work with; whereas if you’re working in a studio, it is a little bit more restrictive. In a weird way, if you are presented with something that is concrete you then work within those restrictions. Inevitably there are always limitations in a studio. Location work frees you up as you are instantly presented with something you can either work with or work against, which is an interesting way of doing stuff.”
To create the effects whilst capturing the action shots, Cohen employed complex kit and methods, including a camera tracking vehicle leading the peloton, buggies on the side, plus cameras on the bikes. “Hopefully in watching the film you will notice none of that”, Cohen offers. “That’s the beauty of it. The technology, all the equipment, all the different bits of camera and other stuff that comes with making this sort of film, that gets chucked to one side. What’s interesting is the images that help drive the story along. You need to do whatever you can to make interesting pictures stand out and make the technology irrelevant. So we used a ton of different sorts of cameras and different sorts of rigs but weirdly none of that is important if what you’re producing is interesting picture wise.”
Having sourced the kit required for the design, McDonald’s next concern was even more challenging. “The second issue is how you stage the races with very little money, portraying a world that is enormous; the scale of the Tour de France is enormous; the scale of the peloton is 50-200 cyclists.
But there was a very clever working out with Danny Cohen and with Stephen and the costume team and how we were able to portray a scale with minimal resources.”
Seaward interjects that one of the immense tasks faced by Costume Designer, Jane Petrie was to outfit the cycling cast over the lengthy time scale. “Jane had to create 200 different teams all in all for the different years that we were showing in the Tour.”
“The starts and finishes of races particularly in cities, were the particular challenge”, says McDonald. “These are enormous in terms of spectators and the caravan. We watched the finish in Mont Ventoux: you’ve got 250,000 people there - when it gets to Alpe d’Huez it goes up to 500-750,000 people so we had to obviously condense our frames to maintain the impressions of the scale. So it’s smoke and mirrors; it’s illusion. And the illusion has paid off.”
The necessity to replicate the vast scale of the Tour is echoed by Seaward: “You can’t have 50,000 spectators; you can’t have that cavalcade, so you have to have a really delicate mix between archive and our material. We’re blending that, and it’s working really effectively which just shows how well Danny Cohen has shot it and how brilliant Ben and the other guys are, because you have to be able to, rather seamlessly, intercut our material with the archive. We’ll be using lot of news footage from the time as well.”
Bonelli found the archive footage an immense resource, as he explains. “For my work, every time I have a problem I go into the archives, I go into the real footage and I always find a sound bite from a commentator or journalist who unblocks my problems and everything makes sense. It’s just incredible because the reality of what happened is stronger than any fiction or film, in a way.”
As well as the action scenes, McDonald points out that there were also the interiors to consider. “The other contrast is dealing with the huge landscape and then going into tiny hotel rooms. There’s this beautiful contrast between huge spaces and claustrophobic spaces. Understanding how the cyclists live when they’re on the Tour during the racing season was fascinating to me. So the contrast in scale was also very interesting. It’s all about putting Lance and a lot of the characters in the film in little boxes that contrast with the big landscapes; the enormous contrasting to the claustrophobic.”
And the film doesn’t just cover Armstrong’s life on the Tour, as McDonald reminds us. “Then of course we have Lance’s house and suddenly we were able to dramatically and simply illustrate the wealth that he generated and the scale and lavishness that this young man achieved from a very humble background. So the contrast in scales often implies economic notions.”
The look of the film was also guided by McDonald’s observations of the cycling world. “The two things that struck out: one was that we were dealing with huge landscapes - naturalistic, organic colour; and another was the imposed plastic colour. The bicycles, the outfits, the hotel rooms, the interiors were a complete contrast to the landscape. I relished the challenge of working with really bright, garish colours because of that juxtaposition. . When we went into the interiors I was keen to introduce as much as I could of organic materials, there’s a lot of wood in the interiors, and there’s a bit of marble and stone so it was trying to integrate the two worlds, the organic and the naturalistic with the plastic colour.” McDonald concludes, “Plastic, garish colour is always something I have avoided in my job so I relished the chance.”