A new documentary from British directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna explores the film that “almost destroyed” Steve McQueen. Clarke talks to Geoffrey Macnab about the making of ‘Steve McQueen: The Man And Le Mans’

When Steve McQueen starred in Le Mans (1971), he was in his pomp. Thanks to Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, he was among Hollywood’s highest paid and most powerful stars, the “king of cool” - and motor racing was his obsession.

The film, which he wanted to be the ultimate racing movie, turned out to be one of the toughest he had ever made - and his career was never quite the same afterwards.

Now, a new feature doc from British directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna, tells the story of the film that “almost destroyed” McQueen. Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (screening in Cannes Classics and sold by Content Media) boasts a treasure trove of material relating to the movie that had long since been presumed lost.

“When we began our investigation into this passion project of McQueen’s, we knew he had shot so many million feet of film in pursuit of his dream but because of issues with the storyline and the script not coming into place, they continued to film the racing.”

It had long been believed that most of the original rushes had gone missing or had been destroyed. However, Clarke and McKenna eventually tracked down much of the material. There were film reels from one of the “making of” docs stored in the LA garage. “They had been there for more than 40 years. Thanks to the kindness of California’s climate they had survived the ravages of time,” Clarke reflects. 

In addition, Clarke and McKenna discovered super 8mm material shot by one of the drivers, Paul Blancpain. “That had been licensed to us by a museum in Germany having previously spent several decades stored in deepest Mexico. Getting that was fantastic.”

McQueen’s missing film reels themselves - the mythical million feet of film regarded by film and motor racing enthusiasts as a holy grail - turned up too. In February 2014, the filmmakers received an email saying that “hidden beneath a sound stage and covered in dust, we’ve found between 400 and 600 boxes of film. Each one reads Le Mans along the spine. They don’t smell of vinegar and so they may have survived.”

Much of the film came without audio but the documentary makers made sure in post production that every last sound of an engine revving was absolutely authentic. “If it is a Porsche 917 or a Ferrari 512, classic cars that were used in Le Mans 1970, then it is their distinctive sound that you hear. The motor racing enthusiasts will not feel in any way short changed.”

Clarke, well known to British audiences for his TV football reporting, is the son of the revered British director Alan Clarke (whose 1987 feature Rita, Sue And Bob Too screened in the Cannes Quinzaine in 1987.) He clearly shares his father’s perfectionism. “If we have anything in common, what he gave me is that once you’re into a project, it’s this obsession to make the projects as good as it can possibly be. There may be things you sacrifice along the way that you might regret but you still have that passion to follow it through,” he says​.