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“There is so much there that we could also have made other films about it”

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Stephen Frears • Director


- In his new film, The Program, award-winning British filmmaker Stephen Frears unfurls a gripping drama about idols, cheating and the role of the media

Stephen Frears  • Director

At the 11th Zurich Film Festival, acclaimed British director Stephen Frears (Philomena [+see also:
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, The Queen [+see also:
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, High Fidelity) presented the European premiere of his Tour de France thriller The Program [+see also:
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, which focuses on one of the biggest scandals in modern-day sport. The film is about people who are willing to risk everything for their career, turn lies into truth and even sell their souls. In The Program, Ben Foster plays sevenfold Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, while Chris O’Dowd steps into the shoes of Sunday Times journalist David Walsh. Based on Walsh’s novel Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the movie is produced by Working Title Films founders Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner as well as Tracey Seaward and Kate Solomon. Cineuropa spoke to Frears at Zurich.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Cineuropa: What does The Program tell us about society?
Stephen Frears:
First of all, you are in the city of Sepp Blatter right now, so nothing that happens in this film will come as a shock, because 500 yards away, Sepp Blatter is doing exactly the same thing. Where there is money, there is corruption.

Is Lance Armstrong really responsible for what he did, or is he just a cog in a big machine?
Well, I don’t know how deliberate it was. Maybe the first time he won the Tour it was more of an accident, and then he realised that if he did this he would win again.

How did you come up with the idea of making a film about this case?
I thought it was really interesting because it is a spectacular crime. First of all, we tried to buy the book The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton, who rode and doped with Lance. Then everyone recommended that I read David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins, which has a conflict within it. It is a real story.

What kind of research did you do for The Program?
We talked to cyclist Floyd Landis and to Bob Hamman in Texas, an insurer for the US Postal team, who had doubts as to whether Lance was entitled to the $5 million bonus that he was owed for his Tour triumphs.

Did you come to any conclusions that you didn’t show on screen?
I think the corruption is probably more extensive than we show in the film. In the end, there was a federal prosecutor who was about to bring the case, and it was dropped, and that is why Travis T Tygart’s US Anti-Doping Agency took over. There is so much there that we could also have made other films about it.

Has Lance Armstrong seen your movie yet?
I don’t know. The Tour and the US Anti-Doping Agency have seen it. They are very pleased. 

How difficult was it to film the Tour de France bicycle races, technically?
It was quite tough. We shot in the French Alps, where we filmed two or three stages of the race. We also shot in Belgium, where they also race on the cobbles. The Tour de France is a huge event. The TV coverage is not terribly enthralling, so you have to work out how to make it interesting. 

What kind of training did Ben Foster have to do for his part?
He spent about six weeks on a bike. He was trained at a camp in Colorado. As an actor, he had never used clipless pedals, and so he fell off quite a lot. But he just got on with it, and eventually, he was able to coordinate the brakes and his feet. 

Did you have cyclists as advisers on the set as well?
We were surrounded by professional cyclists – you take them into account and try to listen to what they have to say. We were trying to do both things at once. It was a new set of challenges, but there are challenges in every film. 

What will be your next movie?
I have made Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, which is a film about the worst singer who ever sang in Carnegie Hall. It is the true story of a New York heiress who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great opera singer.

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