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Heisting Nixon: Mark Steven Johnson on Finding Steve McQueen

Finding 01

By Jake Rutkowski.

The 1972 United California Bank robbery and the gang that pulled it off don’t occupy a lot of space in the popular American bank heist imagination. The story has been covered in some true crime television documentaries here and there, but it doesn’t quite have the flashiness of your James Gangs, Dillingers, and North Hollywood shootouts to carry it into a sordid media pantheon. The heist was nonviolent, it didn’t culminate in any dramatic stand-off, and it was ultimately overshadowed by the news of the day. However, this last point provides the most intriguing bit of back-drop. Though it remains the largest bank score in the nation’s history, the real novelty of the story lies in the fact that the money belonged to then-president Richard Nixon and served as his bribery slush fund. Finding Steve McQueen (2019) dramatizes this crime oddity, vacillating between a play-by-play of the robbery and the last free day of getaway driver Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel).

Mark Steven Johnson has often looked to the past, finding broad comedy (Grumpy Old Men [1993], Big Bully [1996], writer) and tragedies both personal (Simon Birch [1998], writer/director, Jack Frost [1998], writer) and metaphysical (Ghost Rider [2007], writer/director). In this latest directorial endeavor, he found a past creeping into the present for characters and audience alike. We recently talked Nixon, cars, and history (ie more Nixon).

What draws you to a given project, and what drew you to this project in particular?

For me, it is always about a story I have never seen before. Something unusual, different characters that are unlike any I have seen before. This one really grabbed me because it was a heist film, but it was a heist film like I had never seen. Most heist films are about the actual heist, and the drama comes out of will they get away with it or not? This one is very different – it opens up eight years after the heist and you see Harry sitting down with his girlfriend in a diner with he says “I’m not who you think I am” and you realize oh, this isn’t about are they going to get away with it, they have already gotten away with it. This is about a love story. This is about will she forgive him? Will they run away together? And that, I thought, was really interesting. For me, looking for something different, a story told in a different way, that’s what this is. It also is on several different timelines, so we tell the story like a puzzle piece that the audience has to fit together, which I thought was very interesting and a very unique challenge to the film.

Also, it is a true story that I had never heard of and a lot of people, I think, have never heard of this story. It really is a fascinating footnote in American history that these guys from Youngstown, Ohio set out to rob the President of the United States. I thought that was amazing and, of course, in a time where you keep hearing about Nixon and Watergate every day on the news it felt like it was in the zeitgeist. We’ve never lived in times like we are right now since Watergate, and we are living in history. This movie was made, and coming out, in a very timely manner. I think it is incredibly topical and that also is what drew me to it.

The film offers some pointed (and well-argued) critiques of Nixon, making hay from his corrupt financial practices in particular. I have to imagine there’s a reason you wanted this movie made now, given current headlines. There’s an indicted Trump official with a tattoo of Nixon’s face on his back, as if the parallels weren’t obvious enough. Did today’s political landscape play a role in your approach to the film?

JohnsonAbsolutely, I feel like making this film as we were shooting the movie was a bit surreal because as we were making the film we were also checking the news. We’re constantly hearing about Watergate, about Nixon, about conspiracies, and about illegal campaign contributions. Like everybody else, I am constantly on the edge of my seat to see what happens next. You can’t compete with what’s going on right now in the White House for drama. It’s an unbelievably bizarre historic time right now and I tell my kids that all of the time – “I know you’re sick of hearing about it, but pay attention, because this is history going on right now.” We were very aware as we were making this film that we were making something, even though it was set in 1972, extremely topical. Hopefully, we will learn from our mistakes of the past, but that bears to be seen. It’s a fascinating time and I think it is a really good time for this film to come out.

I see visual nods to some French crime films like Breathless (1960) and Rififi (1955) here. Was that something you knew you wanted to incorporate going into filming?

Not so much. What inspired this film was really some of my favorite heist films, but also movies like True Romance – I’m a big fan of that movie. I think there’s an element of that love story with Clarence and Alabama that is kind of Harry and Molly, in a way. What really inspired this film as far as everything else goes is that it is a love letter to movies. It is all the classic films – it’s Bullitt and it’s all the Steven McQueen films. It’s constantly referenced through the film – the magic of movies. Even with Harry’s character living on top of an old theater. He and Molly bonding in the theater one night together and putting it back together and refurbishing the old movie house. It’s a huge theme of the film, those classic films, and it really inspired this in a lot of ways. The magic of the movies we all grew up watching and the King of Cool and Steve McQueen – that had more influence on this than Breathless or anything else.

To that point, this is in some way a movie about embracing media influence. Who and what are some of your favorites? Do you have a “Steve McQueen”-equivalent that you idolize?

Oh man, do I have a Steve McQueen? Mine are all superheroes, so they’re not real people [Laughing]. There’s no one that I idoliz,e like Harry does Steve McQueen, but there are filmmakers I idolize. I met Steven Spielberg when I first broke into the business after Grumpy Old Men came out, and to me, he was like my version of Steve McQueen. Being able to sit for a few minutes with him and have a meeting and talk movies. That, to me, was probably the most exciting moment of my career. That was me meeting my legend, my hero.

Harry engages in a fair bit of stunt driving and motorhead talk. Given the period, were you thinking of any of those classic 70s car chase movies (Vanishing Point [1971], Smokey and the Bandit [1977]) leading up to this film? What’s the stunt choreography process like?

We definitely were obsessed with watching the big chase scene from Bullitt. In fact, there’s a moment, for all the real Steve McQueen fans – there’s a Volkswagen Bug in that famous car scene called The Magic Bug. By that I mean when you see Steve McQueen driving up and down the hills of San Francisco, you see this Volkswagen Bug and he continues in the chase, turns a corner, and sees it again and you realize that they just had to reuse the same car a couple of times. We did the same thing. We had a Volkswagen Bug and Harry is driving around Youngstown pretending he’s Steve McQueen. That shows up a couple of times. That was a big influence on us. This movie was made on a shoestring budget, so there’s only so much you can do. We’d love to have had the Mustang from Bullitt, but we couldn’t afford it. We got two GTOs – one kept breaking down. When you’re making an independent film like this for five million dollars you need to be very careful with your cars. Your stunt process is basically make it look cool and don’t crash the car, or we are going to get shut down.

If I’m not mistaken, this is your first time working with real-world subjects. Did that prove to be different for you in any way?

Finding 03Yes, you want to be respectful to the true story and to the real people involved – for me that was Harry. We changed names and places of the other characters because we didn’t have the rights to their stories. We had the rights to Harry’s story. There are so many different versions of this story that you can’t quite tell who did what, so we told the love story aspect. We told Harry’s story, and for that we were very respectful. There were certain things Harry asked for – for instance, there was a scene of Harry with his mother and Harry asked us not to show his mother in the movie. He asked us not to use the real name of his girlfriend in the movie, so we changed the names and some of the places. When it came to the big points of the film, they’re all very factual. All of the most incredible parts of the story that would seem to be made up were actually true.

Nostalgia and reflection on the past seem to be thematic links across a lot of the films you’ve worked on. Is there something about memory or history that captures your attention and imagination?

I think it does for everyone. We’re all who we are because of where we’ve come from. Looking back at a period when I was a little kid, in the early ‘70s, I remember Watergate, I remember Nixon, I remember my dad trying to explain it to me. Again, history is the best teacher. Now we’re in the same situation and I’m trying to explain to my kids what’s going on with our President, whether it’s a witch hunt or if it’s going to be his undoing. This is very timely and what’s happening right now is a good teacher. I think looking in the past is always beneficial and fascinating. It always helps to find out where you are and where you’re going. It’s also a fun to do period. It’s expensive – clothes and cars and songs cost money, which is tough to do in a little film like this, but there’s something very nostalgic and very rewarding when you get it right.

Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity and is a contributor to the forthcoming collection David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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