Frankly My Dear talks to Writer John Hodge about THE PROGRAM
One film causing quite a stir at the 59th BFI London Film Festival is THE PROGRAM, a biographical drama about infamous pro cyclist Lance Armstrong who came back from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France seven times before finally confessing to using performance-enhancing drugs.
We caught up with writer John Hodge at the BFI London Film Festival gala premiere of THE PROGRAM to ask him about his part in the project.
Frankly My Dear (FMD): Hi John, thanks for stopping to talk to us. THE PROGRAM is quite an ambitious project and there is a lot of material involved. How do you start to make sense of that and condense it into a script?
John Hodge: First of all, I tried to read around it. I talked to David Walsh [journalist], talked to other cyclists and talked to David Miller [cyclist] who introduced me to other cyclists who were very candid about their experience, so that was very helpful. I read accounts from other athletes and really just tried to soak up as much factual information. One of the great things about Lance, or any modern celebrity, is that they live most of their life on YouTube now which is kind of strange because if you think of doing this 20 years ago or even 10 years ago, it would have been very difficult to get any access to what really happened. It’s not so much what was said but looking at his body language. I think Ben [Foster] captured that and brought it to life. Those are very valuable sources for shaping your thoughts. Then you try and find a structure and you think, should I just tell a moment? But I think this is a story from beginning to end because it’s a character arch, it’s a rise and fall. It’s an ordinary lucky young athlete from Texas, he’s going to be a winner but he gets cancer and then he turns into superman and I think to understand the fall, you have to watch the rise.
FMD: Did your perceptions of Lance Armstrong change once you’d started the project?
John: Yeah, I think I started off thinking the guy’s a cheat but then of course, very few people are all evil. When I look at Lance Armstrong I don’t see someone who’s just a cheat, I see someone who’s worked very hard and who’s obviously a great athlete in his own right. If he’d stuck to triathlon he probably could have been a champion triathlete, he was obviously a great swimmer and runner and so on. I think the closer you get to people the more you give them the benefit of the doubt in my experience and yes the guy’s a cheat but it was just cycle racing and other people have done much worse things I think. When the Volkswagen scandal broke, it’s all just the same, it’s the unfortunate side of human nature and it’s a reminder to all of us just to be slightly cynical and if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. That’s the unfortunate lesson I keep having to relearn and I don’t think I’m the only one.
FMD: From what you’ve read and researched about Lance Armstrong is Ben Foster’s portrayal exactly what you had in mind?
John: I think it’s great. I know people who know Lance, or people who have been in his team and they have said they think he’s got it perfectly, they really saw Lance on screen which is fantastic. Not just physically, it’s about the behaviour and just how he is with people. I think Ben has done a great job and brought him to life.
FMD: As a screenwriter, is it more difficult to write a fiction story than a real-life story?
John: I think a real-life is more difficult because there are more constraints. On the one hand legally, but also more responsibility. Whereas with fiction, if you want someone to do something bad, they just do it, there’s no question. Fictional characters can’t complain so with real-life, it’s definitely trickier. Real life stories also don’t quite fit as neatly as fiction, it’s slightly messier. If it was fiction, David Walsh wouldn’t have been successfully sued, he would have brought Lance down but the truth isn’t like that. In real life, Walsh lost his law suit and had to pay thousands of pounds and it was a team mate Floyd Landis who got fed up and blew the whistle. In a way, it’s more intriguing because its real but it doesn’t quite fit into a normal, easy-to-tell dramatic story.
FMD: Did you feel there were any parts you had to tip-toe around?
John: Definitely, there are some characters in real-life who one thinks must have known something but there is no evidence that they did so in that case I can’t really depict that character as knowing something, partly for the moral responsibility but also legally. You have to be very careful.
FMD: What’s next in the pipeline for you personally?
John: As a scriptwriter, I’m working on endless scripts most of which never get made [laughs] but I don’t know, Danny Boyle recently said we were making Trainspotting 2 so if he says it, it must be true. We’ll find out.
THE PROGRAM made its gala premiere at the 59th BFI London Film Festival on 10 October and is released in UK on 14 October.