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"It's all about the personalities": A chat with director of new McLaren biopic

May 22, 2017, 11:09 AM

The story of Bruce McLaren isn't as widely-shared nor as celebrated as other motorsport legends', but the new documentary film McLaren is set to ...

The story of Bruce McLaren isn't as widely-shared nor as celebrated as other motorsport legends', but the new documentary film McLaren is set to change that with an intimate look at his life.

McLaren's New Zealand-born founder not only created a motorsport legend, but the story is still writing its own chapters as the outfit struggles in Formula 1 while rekindling its fame and glamour in IndyCar.

Director Roger Donaldson (The World's Fastest Indian, Thirteen Days) spoke to JA on F1 ahead of the film's premiere, about the allure of McLaren's life story and the trials and tribulations of making this documentary.

The movie is an absorbing look at McLaren's life which mixes in home video and audio with well-known talking heads punctuating the various chapters of his story.

“I felt the subject matter had real potential, because I felt that the world didn't really know why McLaren was called 'McLaren', they maybe didn't realise that the little logo on the side of the car was a Kiwi,” said Donaldson.

“When Bruce first moved to London they would make these tapes and send them out to his parents to let them know what was going on.

“There was some really great footage of Bruce when he was doing the Can Am series, when there was really good coverage of those races – better coverage really than the Formula 1 races from that same era.

“And Bruce's cars were so dominant in that series. They were bright orange cars, they really did stick out and they were winning especially in the '69 season.

“They won all 11 races so that stuff is well documented and of course when Bruce died and in the race after his death Dan Gurney took over the car for them and won: that's all real footage.”

Figures such Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney himself, Jack Brabham, Roger Penske and Frank Williams talk about their memories of McLaren, their faces lit up in front of a bright-white background so that every grin and every tear shines through the screen.

“They have amazing stories and Mario Andretti is still really at the forefront of it.

“Dan [Gurney] is a lovely, lovely guy and he's working on the Space X program – he's very much at the cutting edge of what's going on in the world.

“Stirling Moss is getting on in years but what he did in a car is legendary,” said Donaldson.

Donaldson himself is “fascinated by motor racing” and is a staunch defender of F1's direction, and a hopeful if slightly downtrodden McLaren fan who watches as many races as he can.

“While everybody says it's not as entertaining as it used to be, it's really about the detail of it and you can see the personalities and the team managers and the pit crews close up, and there's plenty of entertainment value there.

“I believe that McLaren went back to orange because when they saw the film they said 'the orange Can Am cars were dominant so if they were doing well, make them orange'.

“So I heard that's why they changed the colour back to orange for IndyCar and F1,” joked Donaldson.

“As a kid I went to watch racing – it wasn't Formula 1 in those days – in Australia. I saw Bruce race in 1962 at Sandown Park so I knew who he was and I knew his career, and how he got to be the young upstart that he was.”

After his 2005 movie about New Zealand motorbike rider Burt Munro, The World's Fastest Indian, was released, it doubled the amount of visitors at the upcoming Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats that year according to the director.

In the same way, McLaren is a celebration of Bruce McLaren's life which hopes to bring people closer to his legacy, almost like a party in which we get to revel in watching old (but digitalised and enhanced) footage of screaming, pulsing engines and infinitely growing rear wings.

“I think when you think of some of the characters of history - Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly or James Dean - who were at the peak of their fame when they came to untimely ends, their lives live on," said Donaldson.

“And I think it's the same with Bruce. The success of the McLaren car company into the future is an homage to Bruce's whole life and yet nobody really knows where McLaren started.

“This movie was going to be Bruce as he really was from the people who knew him and I wanted to dig up the original footage, which itself was a giant detective job.

“Luckily the McLaren Trust and Bruce's sister Jan have done a fantastic job of keeping a lot of this stuff in one place and then there was a great treasure trove."

Yet, loss and sadness is inevitable and even more painful after such a glorious celebration. McLaren's death in 1970 at Goodwood Circuit is a focal point of the documentary and it does hurt, as it should, particularly after a sense of familiarity is built up with the wholly endearing friends and family of the man.

It's a tearful ending but one which proves the solidity of McLaren's mantra: ‘Life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.'

McLaren will be in cinemas for one night only on Thursday May 25 and on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital platforms from Monday May 29 2017.

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