Framing John DeLorean Is the Story of a Man Whose Life Was Too Colorful for a Black and White World

The narratives around John Z. DeLorean usually go one of two ways. He’s either remembered as an iconoclastic hero of American motoring, a David who fought one Goliath after another until he lost everything in an unfair and overzealous prosecution by the U.S. government, or scorned as a charlatan and a fraud who thought rules didn’t apply to him. But DeLorean’s life was too big to fit in just one box. And the new documentary film Framing John DeLorean is a chance to examine him from all sides.

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DeLorean’s story is a well-told one at this point. Gearheads everywhere know him as the maverick young General Motors executive who kickstarted the muscle car wars by essentially sneaking the Pontiac GTO into production. He rose through the ranks at GM and was presumed to be its eventual president, until his fast lifestyle of jetting off to California, hanging with movie stars and infuriating his conservative bosses had him ousted from the company.

He later went on to found his own company, which aimed to make a futuristic, stainless steel, gull-wing sports car built in conflict-torn Northern Ireland. The car may well be forgotten today had Back to the Future not made it into an instant icon.

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But DeLorean’s life and work were irrevocably clouded by his 1982 arrest on federal charges of conspiracy to obtain and distribute 55 pounds of cocaine, which he envisioned as a last-ditch financing effort to save his failing car company.

Effectively set up by a confidential informant for the FBI who was aware of his money problems, DeLorean successfully fended off the charges at trial in 1984. But his career never recovered, and as the film recounts, his children were left wondering why their father agreed to risk everything on a drug deal—even if it was a deal that happened to be set up by federal law enforcement.

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DeLorean died in 2005 living in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, having never gotten a new car company off the ground as he had planned.

Coke dealers, fast cars, a sprawling family drama; it’s the stuff of a big Hollywood movie. But for some reason, one has never materialized, despite multiple attempts over the decades since his trial.

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That’s how Framing John DeLorean was born. Its directors were originally consulted to direct a documentary to supplement a feature film about DeLorean. That movie fell through, as all of these projects have to date, so this unique documentary stands alone.

The film moves quickly and covers a lot of ground: DeLorean’s beginnings at GM, the production of the DMC-12 car, the trial, his more controversial business dealings with Lotus and Colin Chapman, and his life after acquittal.

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The movie also takes pains to show the collateral damage all around DeLorean when things began falling apart—what happened to the wife and kids he clearly loved, his business partners, his workers in Belfast and more. He does not exist in a vacuum in this story. Indeed, his kids feature prominently in the movie’s interviews, and even as adults now they seem to have never fully reconciled with what their father did.

It also boasts an unconventional approach to documentary filmmaking: Alec Baldwin plays DeLorean in several fictionalized scenes interspersed throughout the usual interviews and retrospectives. And occasionally, Baldwin (as well as Morena Baccarin of Homeland and Deadpool, who plays DeLorean’s wife Cristina Ferrare) pauses the narrative to offer up commentary on DeLorean’s life. It’s about 85 percent documentary and 15 percent biopic.

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It shouldn’t work. When you think of re-enactments, you probably think of low-budget History Channel shows or cheeseball fare like Rescue 911. But in this film it largely does work, because these performances humanize DeLorean—through his heroic moments and his terrible decisions—and his family in ways that a straightforward documentary narrative probably could not. If nothing else, seeing Baldwin as DeLorean will whet your appetite for a real, two-hour movie version of the whole tale.

Jalopnik sat down with directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott ahead of the film’s release to talk about the movie, and why John Z. DeLorean’s story still resonates with us today.

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(This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

PG: There’s two reasons I’m into cars. One was my father was into cars, so I got a little bit of that from him. The other was, I grew up watching Back to the Future. And a lot of car people I know got into things that way. So if it weren’t for the DeLorean, and that story, I’m not sure that I’d be sitting here talking to you. It’s funny to see how that car has had a “ripple effect” in a lot of different ways.

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Sheena M. Joyce: It is funny. Tamir Ardon was our producer and our resident DeLorean historian. It was Back to the Future that got him into this car, and in this world as well. Were it not for Tamir, we wouldn’t be here either. But I know being a fan of the car in Back to the Future, that when seeing the film you learn some new things too.

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PG: We’re nearing 30 years after when John Z. went through his much publicized criminal trial and about 15 years after his death. So why this story and why now?

Don: Good question. You know, it’s pretty timeless. I think the story is very timeless and I think it incorporates a lot of things that are relatable to our current situation now in the world, in terms of enigmatic men in power. You know, it has maybe some lessons to be learned in that, but I think ultimately it’s a timelessly great story.

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It’s also a testament to the car. The car is still, to this day... not that you see them on the street a lot, but when you see them you usually don’t look away.

I think that obviously people have the frame of reference to Back to the Future, but there is so much more to John’s story that is worth exploring.

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Sheena: Yeah, and I would just add that it might sound cheesy, but it’s true that it’s a story of dreams. And how far will you go to achieve those dreams, at what cost, and what happens when you kind of invest in this cult of personality, so to speak. What are you left with, what happens to the people who are left in its wake?

PG: I want to talk about what a unique format this was for a documentary—having these sort of reenactments and commentary by your cast, like Alec Baldwin, spliced with documentary footage. Why go with that for this film?

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Sheena: We thought it was so crazy it just might work. On one hand you want to challenge yourself as a filmmaker to try something new, but really it kind of sprung from these conversations about why Hollywood is obsessed with this guy, but no one can pull off the film.

There were these, you know, four to six competing biopics at one time all green lit with legit people, and none of them finished. So this guy’s a tough nut to crack. And what was also interesting to us is that each of these projects was kind of associated with a different person in John’s life. You know, who all in their own right, claimed to have the real story. So which one is it? Which is the real story?

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And kind of using that device to frame our character was interesting to us, to have those conversations with our actors about getting to the core of the real guy. Does he have to be one thing? Can he be the hero and the villain? He was a great father, and also a shady business man. You can be both of those things.

And adding that to the documentary provided these different lenses into John’s life that hopefully reveal his character for the audience.

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PG: You don’t often get both narratives. I thought this film did a good job of starting out very sympathetic to him. But then the more you learn about him, it’s very possible to have a mixed opinion of his life and his work. What did you want people to know about him when they watch this film?

Don: When you do a narrative film, you really have to stick to who your hero is supposed to be. Your protagonist can’t be this person and this person, you know. Not that you couldn’t do that in a narrative film, but I think that a lot of biopics in general they have to stick with a version of this guy because it kinda only works that way.

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I think the way that we approached it was to really try to show all of these different facets, pulling you in all these different directions. Because yeah, he is sometimes the maverick who took on the stuffy corporate GM and went against the grain to do his own thing. And then he’s also the guy who is the shady businessman, even if you drill deeper into the GM stories. He had a lot of questionable business dealings going on.

The only way to really do it, we felt, was to kind of use all of these devices. So that it would feel like he was this person and this person and also could be another person to these people over here. So, I think that we were just trying to get to the essence of who this guy really was, that was our big job.

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PG: I was thrilled to see Alec Baldwin get cast in this role. I’m a big 30 Rock fan—I guess who isn’t?—but it was brilliant casting. What did he bring to this?

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Sheena: Yeah, we were very, very lucky to have Alec on board. And I think, you know, John was a larger-than-life character and it would do a disservice to his story to have someone portray him that wasn’t kind of big in their own way.

Don and I felt like we needed, you know, not just a great actor but someone who was well-known and a huge celebrity to kind of mirror John’s charisma and talent and presence. Everyone told us when John walked in a room, everyone in the room looked his way and he kind of commanded everyone’s attention. And I think Alec is like that when he walks into a room too.

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He’s also incredibly intelligent and really, really thoughtful and was a wonderful kind of partner to explore this world with and take this deep dive into John’s character. Alec would ask great questions. It was fun to see him peel back the layers and see his acting process, and how he would get to know the person he was playing; it kind of helps our viewers to get to know John as a character as well.

PG: I like that so much of the documentary was focused on people around him too, like his family, his employees, people like Bill Collins. I think that was all really well done.

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The real DeLorean and wife Cristina Ferrare in 1982.
Photo: AP

I was also really glad that this film put a lens on Cristina Ferrare, especially, and their children. With Cristina, her career was shattered in all of this too. And that’s not a thing that people really remember as much today. Why was telling her story and that of the family important to you?

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Sheena: I think that it would be paint an incomplete picture to leave Cristina out. You know, she was such a big part of John’s success because she took care of so much behind the scenes. She allowed him to be who he was.

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And as you said it’s forgotten that she was the biggest model in the world at that time, and her career was destroyed by this. And her family was decimated by this. That should be a huge part of telling John’s story. You have to see the damage that was done to the people that were around him.

She was a wonderful friend to the production, and she spoke to Alec and she spoke to Morena and really those conversations helped inform our narrative scenes as well.

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PG: What do you want people to take away from this story when they watch it? Whether they are well-versed in Back to the Future or they know a lot about John Z., or they have never really heard this story at all. What do want the takeaway to be from this film?

Sheena: Like I said, I think it’s a great story about chasing your dreams and at what cost.

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I think John’s brilliance as an automotive engineer are overshadowed by the drug trial, and it’s great to remind people about his role in the auto industry and the American muscle car world, and to kind of see behind the scenes what happened when he was making the DMC-12.

You know and at the end, we’re filmmakers and we just want to tell a good and entertaining story and hope that people walk away from this feeling like they went on a fun ride.

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Framing John DeLorean comes out in theaters and on demand on Friday.

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About the author

Patrick George

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.