The Grand Depart
The idea for The Program first came about when director Stephen Frears came across a book review which intrigued him, as he explains. “A man called Tyler Hamilton, who rode with Lance, wrote a rather good book called The Secret Race and I read a review of it. I thought it sounded fantastic.” He quickly approached Working Title, a company with which Frears had already made four films, including the one which launched both his career and that of producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, My Beautiful Launderette. Producer Tim Bevan picks up the story. “Stephen emailed me and said I haven’t asked you to buy anything for a long time, but I’m really interested in the Lance Armstrong story and there are several books coming out about it.”
Frears continues. “My two ‘advisors’ [journalist] Richard Williams and [designer] Paul Smith had told me about David Walsh. We read his book and met him.” Walsh had only written his book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong the previous year . Within weeks he had his first meeting with Bevan and Frears. Walsh explains, “It had been about the only story in my journalistic life of the previous 15 years. I started talking and had a sense from Stephen that he just couldn’t believe what he was hearing and he was intrigued. At that time he understood nothing about it but he had a huge desire to learn about it and he was fascinated by it. I knew that his enthusiasm would carry him through on this.”
Tim Bevan details the film’s focus. “The story of this movie is about two characters. It’s about Lance Armstrong, who in the early nineties was a champion cyclist from the United States who’d come to Europe to start cycling in the various European competitions and particularly the Tour de France.
And a journalist by the name of David Walsh; David at the time was a correspondent for an Irish newspaper, and continues to be a sports correspondent. In fact he’s a sports editor for The Sunday Times now. It wasn’t actually David Walsh who brought down Lance Armstrong, it was Lance Armstrong really who brought down Lance Armstrong, but David certainly contributed to it. But for the purposes of the film that’s what we do; we run these two guys’ stories in parallel.”
David Walsh first encountered Armstrong rather by chance when he had picked him out to interview in 1993. From this point on, Walsh’s professional life became entwined with Armstrong’s, and still is to this day. Fast-forwarding 20 years, Walsh had just written his book chronicling Armstrong’s too- good-to-be-true rise to the top of the cycling world amidst an endemic culture of performance enhancing drugs use.
From Tim Bevan’s perspective, this was a story which provided an excellent basis for a feature film, as he outlines. “The Lance Armstrong character and the whole idea of cheating, if you like, in sports and doping was something we thought was a really interesting arena. It’s about morality and it’s also a story about now, very much. Hopefully, if the film works, you can take out the cycling element and drop in politics or drop in tabloid journalism or drop in all of the other areas where this sort of moral questionability has gone in the past four, five years.”
Once the production team had settled on Walsh’s book as the basis of the film, the speed that it went into production was incredible, as producer Tracey Seaward explains. “From January  to the end of the year, the book had been read, the script had been commissioned, the film had been put together and cast, and we finished shooting right before Christmas.” Tim Bevan points out that given this was not just a recent tale but an ongoing and evolving story, they needed to work fast. “I realised that if we were going to get this film done we had to get it done quickly, because there’s no point being the second film about Lance Armstrong; you have to be the first film about Lance Armstrong.”