In 1972, a group of thieves perpetrated the United California Bank robbery, one of the most notorious robberies in modern American history. They stole from, of all people, President Richard Nixon, who was essentially using the bank to hide his secret extortion and bribery funds. While it sounds like a very serious story from certain angles, deeper investigation reveals a comedy of errors, hubris, and general wackiness.
The story is now being adapted into a motion picture, Finding Steve McQueen (named after one of the robbers' hero-worship fascination towards the iconic film actor). Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, the film boasts an ensemble cast of stars, including Travis Fimmel (Vikings), Rachel Taylor (Jessica Jones), Forest Whitaker, and William Fichtner.
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While promoting the release of Finding Steve McQueen, director Mark Steven Johnson spoke to Screen Rant about making an action/comedy heist movie out of one of the most legendary crimes in United States history, the stress that comes with making a 1970s period piece on a shoestring budget, and the irrepressible comic stylings of leading man Travis Fimmel. He also dishes major gossip about one of his most infamous films, 2003's Daredevil, including how much of a struggle it was just to get studio executives to allow the title character to have a red suit with horns. The things we take for granted in super hero movies today weren't so tried-and-true back in 2003.
Screen Rant: Finding Steve McQueen is based on a true story. It's a hugely important story, but relatively little-known, considering how incredible it is. I didn't know about it until I learned about this movie.
Mark Steven Johnson: I didn't know about it either.
Screen Rant: When did you learn about it and when did you go, "I need to make this into a wild action/comedy?"
Mark Steven Johnson: I was sent a script, and exactly like you said, I had never heard of this. I thought, this can't be real! I started Googling it, and was just like, "Holy s***! That part's true, and that part's true!" It was one of those rare cases where the most outrageous stuff was all dead-on true. I was fascinated by it, because I was like, how has no one ever told this story before? It's fascinating. These guys from Ohio try to rip off the president... It's crazy, like they're gonna rob the Declaration of Independence, know what I mean? It's like... They were so out of their element. It's so fascinating. That's what got me excited about it. We had to change the names and some of the places. But all the big important stuff is directly factual. Even all the quirky little things, like the fact that Harry, for eight years, was in a small town and fell in love with the Sheriff's daughter and nobody knew about his background, and how they left the dishwasher on, and all those great parts of the story are factual.
Screen Rant: And Nixon is hip again, too.
Mark Steven Johnson: You keep hearing about Nixon and Watergate every day in the news. You turn to CNN and you see Roger Stone coming out and giving the Nixon peace sign and showing off the Nixon tattoo on his back. The movie is oddly topical after all this time.
Screen Rant: Not to get political, but who would have thought we could be nostalgic for Nixon?
Mark Steven Johnson: Exactly. (Laughs) It's only getting more and more tense. I'm hitting refresh all the time on my computer... We all know we're living in a historic time right now. We don't know what's going to happen, but we've never had a president like this before. Never. And we've never had anything like this since Watergate. It's definitely in the zeitgeist.
Screen Rant: Obviously, this story is set in the 1970s. Can you talk a little about making a period piece, what you like about it and what's difficult about it?
Mark Steven Johnson: This one was tough, for a couple of reasons. The biggest is that it's told in five different timelines, which is really complicated. The movie opens in 1980. She's dressed like Debbie Harry from Blondie, and he says, "I'm not who you think I am," and then you flash back to 1970, before he makes it onto the crew, and then you flash ahead to about '71, where he makes it onto the crew. Then it's '72, they go to California to pull off the heist. Then it jumps ahead to after the heist, and Forest Whitaker's interviews, and he's investigating a break-in. Then you go back to the planning of it, and then back to 1980... We're all over the place in terms of jumping in and out, putting these puzzle pieces together. It's really cool, it's a really interesting challenge, but very difficult to pull off in the editing room. If you want to cut a scene, the whole thing can come down like a house of cards. The other part is, we had a $5 million, $5.5 million budget. It's a tiny movie. So it's hard to do period. Period is expensive. Period cars, period clothes, all that stuff costs money. Sec decoration and everything. You can't just show up with a camera and start shooting. Everything has got to be brought back to the '70s. That's difficult. It's tough to do on a shoestring budget. Or, like, we have our cars; people asked me, "Why didn't you get the car from Bullitt?" I love that car, but we couldn't afford it! We got the GTO, but we needed two of them so we could crash one and drive one. Those cars are so old, I think they were both '69s, they just kept breaking down, constantly. We had to get very creative and had to worry about things we wouldn't have to worry about if we had a bigger budget. Things like, "Don't crash that car, or we're gonna get shut down because it's the only one we have." It felt very much like film school, in a way.
Screen Rant: You said the budget was about $5 million. Travis Fimmel looks like $5 million.
Mark Steven Johnson: Oh, good! (laughs)
Screen Rant: He's not just gorgeous, but also an amazing actor. I think he's been working towards the A-list for a while now, and I think his turn here will go a long way towards giving him the stardom he deserves. Tell me about directing someone with his level of swagger who's playing a character with the level of swagger required to channel Steve McQueen, one of the coolest human beings who ever lived?
Mark Steven Johnson: The funny thing about Travis is that he's the most incredible looking guy, such a physical specimen, and he looks like such a stud, and he's such an idiot! And I mean that in a good way! Travis is a total goofball, and he loves making fun of himself, he loves looking silly. He has no shame with anything. If anything, there was no swagger there! I had to encourage him to give us swagger. He was the one who said, "Hey, what if, during this big scene where she's asking me about my past, I start eating chocolate cake and get cake all over my face?" I go, "That's a great idea," and we do it, and by the end of the day, he's like, "I can't eat anymore cake." He ate dessert the entire day, and he felt like he was going to throw up, but that was always Travis. He's always like, what can I do to make myself ridiculous? It's interesting to see that side of him. He's incredibly funny, and like most Aussies, very self-deprecating.
Screen Rant: He seems like a super jolly guy.
Mark Steven Johnson: He really is. Sometimes you have to pull him back, because he's like a big brother to Rachel (Taylor); you know, they're both Aussies. And, you know, he'd be teasing her and giving her wet willies, and, like, I'd have to go, "Travis, she's not your little sister, she's the love of your life!" But they were so great together. It's very odd to have two Australians, actually, in those roles. Rachel is fantastic, I love her.
Screen Rant: There's been a groundswell of support for... At Screen Rant, especially, we've been tracking the Zack Snyder Director's Cut of Justice League. It's a really big thing that's been going around for a year or more. I think a big part of the reason of this phenomenon is because of your movie, Daredevil, which has one of the most acclaimed Director's Cuts of any movie out there. It's like a whole other movie from the theatrical version, which itself, I personally feel, is underrated. You did a superhero movie before the big tidal wave of these movies. Back in 2003, the things we take for granted in superhero media now, I imagine you had to really fight for back then.
Mark Steven Johnson: Oh yeah. It's funny, because Daredevil's been coming up a lot lately. It's a funny thing. There are a lot of people who bring it up to me in my personal life, too. Sometimes they'll apologize, like, "Can I say something? I really like Daredevil." I'm like, it's okay, I'm not going to tell anybody! (Laughs) It's one of those really bittersweet things. When the Director's Cut came out, a lot of people who really hated the film came around and loved it. As you said, it's like a whole other... Like, a fourth of the movie had been cut out, all the character stuff. It's very bittersweet. I'm glad people feel that way about the Director's Cut. Of course, I wish that had been what was released, but... It was tough, though. It was a non-stop battle. It was way before the MCU. The Marvel characters were all over different studios, but no one quite knew what to do with them. When we were doing Daredevil at Fox, they were really fighting me on any kind of costume. It was ridiculous. They were like, "We're not going to put a man in devil horns! They call him Daredevil because he does daring things, not because he dresses up like a devil." I was like, "You have to! Otherwise, he's not Daredevil." I remember, one time, with the Chairman of the studio, he was actually a really good guy, he said to me, "You're gonna quit if you don't get horns, aren't you?" And I said, "Yes." He said, "Okay... Well, it's not gonna be red." So then it became three or four months of different color swatches of different shades of red, because they wanted him to dress in black. They said red would be ridiculous. These people don't understand that you fight and fight and fight just to get horns, just to get the color red. And then some people go, "Bah, he's got a leather costume, that's bulls***, he should be in spandex. You ruined my childhood." And I'm like, dude, you have no idea; I fought so hard just to get horns. It was like that all the time. Now, it must be a dream, because anybody would say, "You're Marvel Studios, do whatever you think. You have the magic touch!" It would be amazing to make a film for Marvel that didn't have all the politics. It's draining and it's not productive. I'm like everyone else, now. I'm dying to see the next one, I can't wait!
Screen Rant: Would you like to tackle another superhero movie if the opportunity came up?
Mark Steven Johnson: Sure! I mean, you know what, for the right character, I would. It would be great. I haven't seen Kevin (Feige) in ages. He's fantastic. Kevin's a genius. It would be great to do a show. Most people don't realize that I was the first one to bring Preacher to HBO, years ago. I worked with Garth (Ennis, comic book writer and creator of Preacher), and wrote the script, wrote the Bible, and we were very close to going forward when there was a regime change. Michael Lombardo came in and became head of HBO, and he sat down with me and said, "Mark, I love you, but I don't get this. I mean, angels and demons and the voice of God?" He was like, I'm sorry, I just don't get it. He put it in turnaround, then Seth Rogen came in and set it up at AMC and the rest is history. I've been very close on a couple of things I really love. I would like to do that again. I would like to create a great show with Marvel or anyone else, from a graphic novel, that I can live with, hopefully for years and years. I think that would be amazing. I'm definitely open to that.
Screen Rant: Well, I can't wait to see your show on Disney Plus.
Mark Steven Johnson: Hey, I hope so! That would be amazing.
Finding Steve McQueen hits theaters, Digital, and Video on Demand starting March 15.