The Program, a new film from Stephen Frears (director of Philomena, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and Dirty Pretty Things) chronicles the rise and fall of cycling hero and villain Lance Armstrong. The movie, based on journalist David Walsh’s book, Seven Deadly Sins, stars Ben Foster as a scarily accurate Armstrong along with Chris O’Dowd, Dustin Hoffman, Jesse Plemons and Lee Pace. We chatted with the director to find out why he wanted to tell the story and why he wouldn’t want to have a conversation with the disgraced Tour de France winner.
THE RED BULLETIN: How much did you know about Armstrong before making the film?
STEPHEN FREARS: I didn’t know much. I didn’t know about Armstrong. I didn’t know about cycling. I didn’t know about drugs.
What drew you to the story then?
I thought it was a terrific crime story. I thought it was very modern. This guy was a master criminal.
Did your opinion of Armstrong change at all during filming?
Not really. I think that he’s suffered more than anybody can imagine in the last five years.
He has suffered?
I would think that he’s suffering. He’s been disgraced in his own way.
Do you think he deserves the scrutiny?
I don’t know if deserved is the right word, but if you do that, if you live like that, then you get scrutinized.
You’ve also said that you don’t find Armstrong very fascinating as an individual. But the movie focuses a lot on the psychology of what he did. Why did you make that decision?
I don’t think he’s interesting. If I was sitting beside him now, I don’t think he’d be a particularly interesting person to talk to.
So what did you find interesting? The crime? The scope of the crime?
It was what he did that was so interesting. It was awful but he was also recovering from cancer. He was raising all that money. He was in a very unique situation. Whether he’s interesting as a person, I have no idea.
Does making a film about a living protagonist who isn’t going to be happy with the film itself change your approach in any way?
You tend toward generosity.
Did you find yourself tending toward generosity when you were making this film?
I don’t know because I don’t know him. But I know that when I’ve made films about real people in the past, you always tend to be conscious of not seeming unfair. There’s nothing I can do about that. I just wanted to tell the story about what he did.
Ben Foster nails the physical appearance of Lance.
Yes, he’s fantastic.
What drew you to him initially?
Somebody I trust said the person you want is Ben Foster. I met him, and you could see that he was immediately intrigued by the idea. I just trusted him. I don’t know how you audition someone for a part like this. He had to learn to cycle like a professional. He never let me down.
Was he the only actor you auditioned for the lead role?
Yeah, I didn’t see anyone else. When I met him, I knew he was right.