“Gyllenhaal can ride a bike, but can he take drugs?” The Program
John Hodge on finding the truth in Lance Armstrong's story, the cult of personality, and the sequel to Trainspotting.
By Christopher McKittrick.
In one scene in The Program, cycling superstar Lance Armstrong (Ben Foster), then at the height of his fame, speculates who will play him in a Hollywood biopic. One cycler on Armstrong’s team suggests Jake Gyllenhaal because Gyllenhaal rides a bike in the film Donnie Darko. Floyd Landis (Jesse Plemons) a teammate of Armstrong whose later admission to using performance enhancing drugs during his cycling career was eventually followed by Armstrong’s own doping confession, asks a more pertinent question: Gyllenhaal can ride a bike, but can he take drugs?
The scene takes place when Armstrong was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, years before his 2013 revelation that his seven victories in the Tour de France were the result of his performance enhancing drug use. The Program goes behind the scenes to investigate what we all now know about Armstrong – despite the appeal of his celebrated “cancer survivor to champion athlete to charitable humanitarian” narrative, it was all based on falsehoods.
Though the film is inspired by Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the 2012 book written by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (portrayed by Chris O’Dowd in the film) who worked to exposure Armstrong despite pressure not to, screenwriter John Hodge also delves into Armstrong’s extensive web of lies that enabled him to escape detection for over a decade.
However, The Program doesn’t just implicate Armstrong in this lie – Walsh discovers many who turned a blind eye to obvious red flags about Armstrong’s career in order to support the alluring and inspiring story of a sports hero.
The Glasgow-born Hodge has over two decades of experience as a screenwriter after leaving a promising career in medicine. His first produced screenplay, the black comedy Shallow Grave, was also his first collaboration with director Danny Boyle.
The duo’s second film, Trainspotting, an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about a group of Scottish heroin users, has been recognized as a classic of British cinema. Following that success, Hodge has had seven additional feature screenplays produced, most of which have been directed by Boyle.
The Program is Hodge’s first produced screenplay to be adapted from a non-fiction book, and it is also his first collaboration with English director Stephen Frears. Hodge and Boyle are currently collaborating on a long-awaited sequel to Trainspotting.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Hodge about writing a screenplay about such a controversial figure, how the “cult of celebrity” contributed to Armstrong’s scandal, and the challenges he is facing in writing the Trainspotting sequel.
Lance Armstrong was an American sports figure, but he participated in a worldwide sporting event. What was your familiarity with Armstrong before you started writing the script?
I was aware of him and knew of him as the biggest name in cycling, and I knew the allegations had been around for a few years, but had never been proven. But I wasn’t a cycling nut, and I wasn’t someone who knew any other cyclists. So obviously I was new to this world in that sense.
The film credits David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins for “inspiring” the film, which is less common than a typical “Based on” adapted screenplay credit. How was writing this screenplay different from adapting novels like Trainspotting and The Seeker?
With novels you generally just go on the materials and the characters in the novel. With something set in the world of established fact where there are real people involved, you have to double-check and cross-check your sources and get other points of view of any anecdotes or events. I used other sources like journalism, sports journalists, and the affidavits of disgraced cyclists, which were a very rich source of detail and had the added benefit of being legally secure.
Of course, the actual process of building the story – whether it’s a novel or a non-fiction piece that you’re adapting from – what you’re looking for in the script is three acts, a good guy and a bad guy, whatever. Those things are the same, but because it’s real you have to cast your net a bit wider.
Unlike other screenwriters, you have a background in medicine. Did that experience factor into writing the scientific aspects of The Program?
My background is actually one of the things that drew me to the story. Back in 1988 I worked on a dialysis unit, and it was when that unit was starting to be more widely used. Another junior doctor and I started learning the protocols of how it was given to people, and it was a formidable experience for me. I just wanted to return to my other duties [Laughs]. It definitely helped me understand the whole business.
The Program features several behind-the-scenes sequences of Armstrong and his collaborators. Since the film was inspired by a book written from Walsh’s point of view, how did you develop these scenes from Armstrong’s point of view?
Clearly the scenes that are from Armstrong’s point of view or scenes where he’s alone must be fiction. We could only take a guess because we haven’t spoken to him and he hasn’t published a soul-baring version of his own story. I think we have to discount Armstrong’s autobiographies, It’s Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts.
What any writer has to do is find out what we do know about this man from his public actions and then work with an actor who brings his own research and speculations into it and you arrive at what we see on screen. How can anything ever be a true depiction of a living human being on screen? It’s always a question for debate. But you hope your guess is plausible, credible, and not disrespectful.
There is a very effective scene about halfway through the film that depicts Armstrong visiting children with cancer, and despite the audience knowing that Armstrong is a dishonest cheat, this scene shows Armstrong in a positive light. What was the importance of presenting Armstrong in a scene like that?
We included the hospital visit and the charity because some people say he didn’t raise money for research, he just raising money for awareness of cancer or encouraging people to go to the doctor for diagnosis. On the other hand, he really did visit people in the hospital and people were inspired by the help from his charity. You think, “Well, these are real people who did benefit from the work he did.” You can’t deny that just because of any other aspect of his life. The man was a cheat, but it doesn’t undo the good he did.
I actually know someone whose child was in the hospital in New York having treatment for a brain tumor, and Lance Armstrong came to the ward. She said it was great and he brightened up everyone’s lives for a short period of time. Even if that was the only thing he did, and he didn’t just do that once, that was pretty good.
The trouble with someone like Lance Armstrong is that he attracts on one side people who thought he could do no wrong and clung to the belief that he wasn’t a cheat long after it was proven that he was, and then on the other hand there is the group that condemns him and all his work. Of course, the truth is somewhere down the middle. You have to acknowledge both parts of the man, I think.
The Program isn’t the first time you’re written about reviled real-life figures. Your Olivier-winning play, Collaborators also pits a writer against a powerful figure known for silencing criticism, though in a different way. Do you see any similarities between these people?
Obviously, both were skilled in one way or another to silence their critics. Actually, for me what’s interesting is that while Lance Armstrong is the center of the film, it can’t just be a film about him or even just a film about cycling. For me, it’s a modern fable about our belief in celebrity and the way that the world of this news, internet, and social media complex elevates people to global stardom. It’s a modern phenomenon that can destroy them just as quickly when we realize that they haven’t lived up to our impossible ideals.
The whole Lance Armstrong story is that here’s a handsome, young cancer survivor who wins one of the most difficult sporting events not once, twice, but seven times. It’s impossible. It’s a story that’s too good to be true, but we all wanted to believe it and that’s why we did.
Afterwards we don’t blame ourselves for being fooled, we blame him for having deceived us. But really, he was just filling the niche, and if it wasn’t Lance Armstrong from Plano, Texas to fill that niche, it would’ve been someone else.
Sooner or later someone was going to come along to meet this stringent demand of the newscycle’s demand for heroes. He did what he had to do to get to the top, and we discovered it was all a lie. I think that’s the media’s fault and that’s our fault for believing it.
At the time the film came out at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, it was around the same time of the Volkswagon scandal. I thought that was exactly the same thing. Here’s the second biggest car company in the entire world and has the reputation of being the best German cars. “Aren’t they wonderful? They’re really kind to the planet!” Then we discover that actually, no they’re not. The whole thing is just one big lie that was too good to be true. Human beings are not really a trustworthy species. [Laughs] That’s the message of the film, if there is one.
Speaking of the cult of celebrity, there are a few instances in The Program when Armstrong speaks about Hollywood making a movie about him. What’s funny is that we are watching a movie about Armstrong, but it’s obviously not the movie he expected us to see. Can you talk about including these references?
They were very important to me and something I would’ve liked to have taken further. One aspect I find very interesting is the interplay between drama and real life. We’re living in age where living people have films made about them and you wonder what it’s like to be the real person.
It’s also because we know nowadays that the subjects, in a post-modern sense of biography, have input into it and a view of it which they can then put back into the product. I would’ve quite liked to have got more into that, but that wasn’t where the director wanted to go. But I really liked the idea of actually depicting a version of some of the scenes that were made up and were a fictional “Lance Armstrong hero movie” and to have played that up against the reality.
I would’ve liked to have contributed something about the shooting of the scene in Dodgeball with Lance Armstrong, who you see with Vince Vaughn. It’s kind of cringingly awful, actually. But it would’ve absolutely been fascinating to go into that world with our Lance on set with a fictional Vince Vaughn, or something like that. I find the relationship between real life and fiction interesting.
Most of your produced screenplays have been directed by Danny Boyle, but The Program isn’t one of them. Is your writing process any different when you’re working with Danny Boyle?
I’ve worked with several directors other than Danny – some has been uncredited material – and it’s always interesting. I have had general experience with different working methods. Stephen Frears doesn’t get involved very much in the scripting process, and it was really left to me and the producers.
Other directors are far more involved. Danny, who I’m working with now on the Trainspotting sequel, is just very encouraging. He responds very quickly and very comprehensively to whatever I send to him. Unless he feels very strongly about something, he doesn’t say “I think you need to do this or you need to do that.” It’s the same when he’s directing actors. He’s much more interested in getting out of them what they can offer.
Speaking of the Trainspotting sequel, what is it like revisiting what many consider one of your best films?
On a personal level, it’s been a nice experience so far. For example, we did a read through with some of the actors and I hadn’t seen many of them in years. It’s really nice to become reacquainted because it has been such a long time. They’re such great actors, really. We got lucky then and stumbled on a fantastic cast.
It’s very daunting because I hadn’t watched Trainspotting for twenty years and I watched it and thought, “Oh, gosh, I thought that was quite good.” It can never really be the same phenomenon again, but just in a narrative sense and a character sense it’s an awkward film to think of what happens next because they’re at a different stage in life now. It’s not just more of the same. They have to have moved on, but yet still be recognizably the characters that they were.
I don’t want to give away what happens [Laughs], but it’s just a question of “What are these guys doing now?” and trying to present it in an interesting way. That’s the challenge. The film is about men in their forties and the sad fact is that men in their forties are not that interesting on screen [Laughs]. The film has to reach for different things other than chaos and self-destruction, so we’ll see.
The Program is currently available On Demand and Digital HD.
Featured image credit: Momentum Pictures © 2015.