Road to Ruin: Nick Hamm’s Driven Takes a Comic Approach to the Downfall of Auto Rebel John DeLorean

Lee Pace as John DeLorean. Image courtesy: Universal Pictures Content Group.

Most people recognize the name DeLorean from the sleek, gull-winged car that became a time-traveling vehicle in the classic 1985 sci-fi comedy Back to the Future. Automotive buffs will know John DeLorean as the brilliant engineer and inventor who broke away from General Motors to form his own car company in 1973. But DeLorean’s ambitious venture never gained traction, and he resorted to fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion in a desperate quest to save his company. Worse, at the behest of his ex-con neighbor Jim Hoffman, he engaged in cocaine trafficking; what he didn’t know was that Hoffman was an informant for the FBI.

Driven, which opened yesterday from Universal Pictures Content Group, takes a startlingly comic and irreverent approach to a very flawed genius’s reckoning. Jason Sudeikis plays the slippery Hoffman, while Lee Pace, perhaps best known from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, is ideal casting as the larger-than-life (and taller than most) DeLorean. The excellent supporting cast includes Judy Greer as Hoffman’s curiously loyal wife, Ellen; Corey Stoll as calculating FBI agent Benedict Tisa; and newcomer Isabel Arraiza as DeLorean’s fashion model wife, Christina. The movie also boasts an intriguing behind-the-scenes story: Filming in Puerto Rico in 2017 was halted by Hurricane Maria, and the cast and crew opted to return to the devastated island to finish the picture. Director Nick Hamm, a former resident director at the Royal Shakespeare Company whose previous films include Killing Bono and The Journey, talks about that and more in this interview conducted during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where Driven had its North American premiere.

How did the script develop?

I did a film called The Journey with the same writer [Colin Bateman]. We wanted to do the DeLorean story for ages, and we looked at it the way a lot of other people would, initially as a biopic. But it was a really boring approach. I’m not particularly fond of biopics myself. If you’re actually doing a biopic, you’ve got to be careful, you can’t mess around with the truth the way a dramatist can. When you’re using history but still navigating those bits where history is absent and there’s no record, then you can fictionalize. Some of this is true, but as a biopic you can’t really invent whole parts of somebody’s life to make it interesting. I’ve very rarely seen a biopic I think is amazing. If you’re going to do a biopic, do a documentary.

So once we discovered there was this whole other character, Hoffman, and Colin could write him quite well—this horrible, scumbaggy, lowlife, deceitful cheat—it became obvious that was the way into telling the story. It’s more fun, because nothing is known about him.

I went into the film with a whole different set of expectations. I wasn’t expecting a comedy, but something about the tragic downfall.

There is that movie, but I’m not sure it’s that interesting. I think if you can make people laugh, allow them that sort of freedom and entertain them and say something at the same time, it’s a pretty cool way of doing it.

So once you had this character, was Jason Sudeikis one of the first people you thought of?

He totally was. He’s such a horrible character, he’s such a liar, and if he played him dark, you would have seen the act of betrayal coming, you would have expected it and you never would have forgiven him for that. He only has one saving grace, that he loves his wife and kids and wants to support them. That allows him to be a pretty terrible character. And Jason has that sensibility—he’s a much more open person, and I needed somebody who had humanity and humor that could hold the movie in that middle ground.

Back on “SNL” and in some of his movies, he’s able to balance sleazy and likeable.

Isn’t that incredible? He can do that. And you sort of don’t mind him doing it. And you automatically laugh at him.

How did you arrive at Lee Pace? 

I wanted somebody who had that kind of classic ’50s, old-fashioned movie star sex appeal and grace and pure charisma. One thing DeLorean had in bucket loads was charisma. He could walk into a room, and he was the tallest guy and the most successful guy in the room. And to a certain extent, Lee has that grace and ease.

And he’s tall.

And you know what? He’s tall. DeLorean was six-six. He was a really tall guy, Look at all the pictures—people are always looking up to him. So I wanted someone who had that effortless charisma.

I’d forgotten this whole scandalous side of DeLorean. I just remember that he had a car company that failed.

I think most people are the same. There’s some memory of it, but most people remember the car from Back to the Future, a big piece of cinema iconography. But it’s an illustration of reckless hubris, that’s why the story is quite interesting. Because in the end, it’s a man who had everything—the wife and the parties and the cars and the money. He had the world at his feet, he was a rock star, he was the prototype CEO rock star, Musk kind of figure. How did it happen? And you find out it’s because Hoffman’s kids played with his kids in the street. If Hoffman hadn’t lived down the road from him and didn’t have that proximity to him, the downfall of DeLorean never would have happened.

Sort of reverse kismet.

Exactly! Reverse kismet—I’m stealing that.

I have to congratulate you on the triumph of finishing this film in Puerto Rico.

It’s an example of the movie business giving back. It’s not exactly a business known for its altruism or its good works. Most people look at our industry as a bunch of narcissists and self-promoters—which is true, there is that whole element in our world. When we go into a place like that, we take a whole infrastructure with us on a movie, we build an infrastructure. There’s millions of dollars that goes into the local community because we are there. And you’re teaching crews for the next movie. 

When we flew back in there, there were no flights out. There were no hotels for the crews to stay in overnight. The flights would come in and fly straight out again, and they’d only come in in the morning. People were desperate to get tickets out of the island. They didn’t tell me this when they flew me back in after two weeks: There was no return ticket, and no return ticket for any of the actors. That place was torn apart in a profound way. What I saw which was so immediate was that once you take away electricity, there’s no using credit cards, the bank machines don’t work. There’s no money, no light, no air conditioning, no freezers for food. It’s all on generators. 

So our experience on this little movie is a reminder: How do you live with climate change? Not is it going to happen—it’s there. What do you do? And in our business, where do you go? Sometimes those rare locations you want are threatened areas.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced after you returned?

Unquestionably, the sheer brutality of shooting every day in that heat, a heat which for Europeans is so unpalatable. You stand there and you drip—you literally could take three showers a day. I would take three t-shirts to work and go through them and then have to rinse them out and dry them at night. Everything became much more difficult—it’s normally difficult anyway on a movie set, but it became double. There’s no cell phones, so imagine trying to get actors on a set and give them call times. They were back on old-fashioned walkies, and had to have people strategically placed between the locations. Nothing was quick. 

None of that is visible in the film.

You don’t want that. It’s not the audience’s problem. You have to to finish the movie. 

It must have been a real bonding experience for your cast, though. It must have brought them closer together.

That’s exactly right. Sometimes our business, the paraphenalia that surrounds it—looking after actors, the trailer sizes, the cars, the support, all the nonsense that goes into this—well, that all got taken away. Everyone was in one minibus. No one had their trailer right next to the set. When I said, “Look, guys, we’ve got two, maybe three takes on this,” they knew we had two or three takes. So they had their game face on. Every single actor walked onto that set raring to go. And I think that shows in the movie, because there’s an immediacy to their performing with each other. If I had shot this movie on the backlot of Warner Bros. in Studio City, it wouldn’t be the same movie. It would be a comfortable comedy, and it wouldn’t have that kind of edginess.

Are you still doing theater?

No, I haven’t done theater for a while. I did 10 years of theater when I was in my 20s. A long time. I pretty much took everything I learned in the theater into the process of making films. What you learn in the theater is how to work with actors. You learn the trade of actors, you learn how to dramatize a scene, how to focus a scene and stage it really quickly. Your gig as a director is to be able to take what’s on the page and dramatize it. And it’s good for communicating with actors if you have a theatrical background, because that’s how they all talk to each other. They have that knowledge. I love working with actors—that’s my most enjoyable part of the process. It’s great when you capture a moment between two people and you see you got that moment. Whereas in the theater, you have to recreate it every night.

Lee Pace as John DeLorean. Image courtesy: Universal Pictures Content Group.

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