Director Alex Holmes
Q: King of Cheats (the title) has a somewhat antagonistic tone to it. Why this title?
A: The first thing is that this is a working title, but I think the idea behind King of Cheats is that Lance rode in an era when doping and taking performance enhancing drugs in cycling was very widespread. But no one did it to quite the same degree or with quite the same success that he did. In a way there’s something also celebratory about King of Cheats – he did it better than anybody else, you know, he was the most successful cheat that there was.
But our show isn’t just about performance enhancing drugs or even really just about cycling – it’s about so much more than that. When ABC made their current affairs show, The World According To Lance, which was one of the programmes broke the story in the first place; I think they did a great job with establishing the facts of Lance’s drug taking and his cheating. What I think the role of this film is, is to go beyond that, to go a bit deeper into Lance’s character, to look at the bigger story – one that perhaps takes us right back to the early days because Lance wasn’t always a drug cheat. You know once he was a school boy, like many of us have been who dreamt of being a great sports hero and wanting to win the greatest endurance race in the world. We’re looking to tell the story of how he made his first impact with performance enhancing drugs. And really, what we’re interested in is what the effect of having a secret like that is – how it kind of hollows out a character, how it changes and warps their personality; and how this led to him basically destroying other people and warping his own relationships with people.
And we tell it very much from the perspective of his inner circle, his inner team because in a way when you have a secret, it’s the people who are closest to you that are the most dangerous. And in a way the two cyclists who were his closest compatriots on the team were the people who eventually brought him down – Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis. That team of cyclist was such a tight-knit group but look at how those relationships break and dissolve over time. That is really what the story of the film is.
Q: How much access do you have to this people you talked about? The people on the inside, plus Lance Armstrong himself?
A: We are fortunate as a featured documentary to be standing on the shoulders of a lot of work that’s been done by Quentin McDermott who produced the original show for Four Corners. He has developed a lot of the relationships with a lot of the key people over many years actually. So those relationships are very established and we have access to those people inside Lance’s world. We’ve gone beyond that and we have on our team now someone who’s a chief sports writer at Sports Illustrated who’s been following the world of cycling for years called Selena Roberts. So we’re adding to our inside list of characters who can tell us the inside story.
When it comes to Lance himself, we’re approaching him, we’ve made a proposal to him to take part in our film. We’re waiting to hear back on that. I think it’s clear that whatever his ambitions for the Oprah interview, perhaps it didn’t quite have the effect of what he hoped it would do of clearing his name and clearing the air and allowing him to move on. In a way, now that we can see that in retrospect, perhaps he rather deepened his troubles by what he said on the Oprah interview because he didn’t really come clean – it was at best a partial admission. And it raised as many questions as it answered. So I think there is still a place for Lance to come forward and really tell the full story. Whether he chooses to do that with us or not; if he does that will be great. But if he doesn’t we can also make a great film. One of the models for this production is the feature Senna about Ayrton Senna. It was made by Working Title and released by Universal, it was one of the biggest grossing documentaries ever released and that was about Ayrton Senna who was dead at the time when the film was made. But yet Ayrton Senna was so present in the film because they really mined the archive in order to excavate his character and discover things about him that haven’t been shown to the world before. Sports coverage produces huge amounts of footage – it’s covered in every angle and sports personalities are filmed at every opportunity. But it’s only really ever turned into one sort of coverage – it’s yesterday’s news and passes very quickly. But if you have time to go back and revisit that footage and really focus on it, drill down into it and ask yourself the questions: ‘What is really going on here?’ Especially when you have the knowledge and the hindsight provided by all the other interviews that you have got. You see the footage in a different light and actually you find that it illustrates different things than what people thought at that time. So we can add to the material, construct the story and cut it more like a drama than a documentary. Using the archive footage, we’ll be able to tell the story because so much of it was in fact filmed.
Q: You said you tend to see it more as drama?
A: My background has been in feature films for the last four or five years. I think that to really explore the full depth of this story, you have to look at a dramatic narrative – Lance as a character and you know, his story has a huge character arc. He goes from this innocent young boy to being this hollowed out, broken man. He may well rise again from the ashes – a man of incredible resources! But it’s an arc of a tragic hero in a way, and in a way that’s what I mean when I talk about drama is that sense of the grand scale of the narrative of following a character through these traumatic changes. And also, looking at what happens to the relationships, studying how that impacts on the relationships with the people closest to him – how it corrodes the relationships, creates antagonism within the groups. That’s the story we want to tell.
Q: How far back into his life do you plan to go?
A: Oh, right back. I’m interested in thinking about what was Lance like before he took his first performance enhancing drug. Where did his ambition come from, what drove him? One of the interesting things that came out of our early research that hasn’t really been explored is that American cycling changed radically in 1984, which was the year of the Olympics and up until that year, the U.S. cycling team hasn’t won any medals at the Olympics since 1912 – they just haven’t been a presence in cycling at all. A couple of people at the head of U.S. cycling set out to change that and they brought on a Polish coach who had defected from Eastern Europe, and he transformed the way cycling was approached. In fact back in 1984, they were blood doping – they were actually substituting their own blood with other people’s blood before they raced and there was a big controversy about it. Amazingly enough it wasn’t against the rules back then but there was a big controversy about it. But it just shows how the success of U.S. cycling was really based on blood doping right from the start. And back then, Lance was a 13-year-old boy watching the Olympics for the first time as an aspiring athlete and he saw those men win those medals and really creating a huge story for his country in a sport that he was interested in. Speaking on my part, I have a 16-year-old son who is a keen rower and you know, he watches the Olympics and he sees these British rowers winning medals at the Olympics and that‘s what he wants to be. So you can imagine the effect on a 13-year-old Lance thinking ‘I want to be there, I want to be a champion like those champions.’ And so really it’s about he goes from that innocent childhood desire to be a sports hero, to becoming this kind of dark figure who is weighed down by the weight of a secret he had to keep almost his entire adult life.