Open Menu
Open Menu

Behind the scenes at “Le Mans:” McQueen gets read the riot act

Published in

McQueen pulls down his Nomex face guard to get a breath of fresh air. Photos by Don Nunley, courtesy Dalton Watson.

[Editor’s Note: Though gearheads revere the movie today, Steve McQueen’s Le Mans was actually a box-office disappointment and nearly a total disaster, as Don Nunley, prop master for the film, explains in his new book, “Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror.” In this excerpt from the book, Nunley describes one of the low points in filming, a point in which McQueen has to give up some control of the film he’d wanted to make for 10 years.]

There was just one scene in the can; the rest of the time the crew only shot racing sequences. In the first 37 minutes of the finished movie there is not a single line of dialogue. That was great for racing fans, but boring for movie-goers in the market for cinematic diversion. Something had to give.

We had an accomplished, talented and willing crew of movie makers, but nobody knew what they were supposed to do.

GT40 with Panavision camera and operator, squeezed in next to the driver, filming Ferrari 512S, car #8, at the Arnage corner.

It was not a fun place to be. Some film sets are light and happy; crew members are cheery and greet you every morning and look forward to the day’s tasks. Not on Le Mans. No one had worked under these conditions before, and the details were not coming out as we had hoped.

Every morning we would get our marching orders on our call sheets. But they were vague and often contradictory thanks to the lack of a coherent script. Sometimes certain cars were not working properly, or a previous scene had not been finished or needed to be re-shot altogether because overnight somebody added a new wrinkle. Drivers had to rehearse the new scene at half speed until they had it right, and by the time they had it down pat the entire day had been eaten up.

Five weeks into filming we were not making any forward progress and the very expensive meter was running. Expenses were mounting thanks to the foreign location, race car maintenance and the salaries of professional drivers, an international crew whose members did not always understand each other, uncooperative weather – and an even more unpredictable star.

Cars lined up to re-stage the start of the race.

McQueen’s recklessness was a constant problem. One morning as Derek Bell and Jo Siffert were shooting a racing sequence in which the cars were traveling at 160 mph, Bell spotted something that almost gave him a heart attack. On the white line in the center of the track, amidst the onrushing traffic, was someone filming with a hand-held camera.

Bell put in an alarmed radio call to John Sturges: “There’s some nutcase lying on the ground in the middle of the track out there!”

Sister Bridget helps a doctor remove something from Steve’s eye.

Sturges’ response was to radio McQueen and ask to see him, pronto. A few minutes later Steve came roaring up on his bike, wind in his hair, in his usual macho posture.

“Steve, who the bloody hell did you put in the middle of the road with that camera?” Sturges demanded. McQueen just grinned and off-handedly replied, “Oh, that was me.” Putting himself and the picture in peril did not seem to matter at all to McQueen. Nor did he give a damn about what Sturges thought.

Steve in Porsche 917K, car #22. Ferrari 512S, car #8, against the pit wall. If you look closely you can spot Derek Bell (facing the camera) standing next to a Shell technician.

That the buccaneering star had completely hijacked the production was made clear to Bob Relyea when he walked out of his trailer on day 24 and found McQueen giving orders to a cameraman. In a nearby chair slumped John Sturges, sullenly chain-smoking cigarettes. Had McQueen tried that a decade earlier, Sturges would have thrown him off the set. But now the dejected director just sat there while his star ran the show.

“This is bullshit!” seethed Relyea as he did an abrupt 180 and headed back to his office. Inside, he picked up a lamp, hurled it at the wall across the room and shouted, “This damn picture is out of control!”

Sitting in a corner was Cinema Center executive Bob Rosen. He put down the magazine he was reading and excused himself to send an SOS to his employer, Gordon T. Stulberg, back in the States.

Re-staging a late pit stop for Ferrari 512S, car #8. The grime on the car indicates the stage of the race. One day they’d need to be clean, the next day dirty, and vice versa. Matching these cars as the race progressed was a difficult task.

Cinema Center chief executive Stulberg was not a man to be trifled with. Born in Toronto’s Jewish ghetto, he battled against and overcame the kind of prejudice typified by the sign at a public swimming pool near his boyhood home that proclaimed, “No dogs and No Jews.”

The son of a labor organizer, Stulberg worked his way through the University of Toronto performing a variety of odd jobs, everything from selling flowers to traveling with a carnival – something McQueen had also done in his teen years.

After earning a law degree at Cornell, Stulberg moved to Los Angeles to work at a prestigious law firm and discovered a special gift for dealing with entertainment industry clients. Eventually he became the point man for the Writers Guild of America. He hammered out collective-bargaining agreements and later worked for Columbia Pictures under Harry Cohn.

GT40 filming alongside Ferrari 512, car #8, at the Arnage corner.

Stulberg knew how to deal with temperamental movie stars, and several days after Rosen’s call he and a coterie of Cinema Center suits, including Jere Henshaw, were on their way to France for a showdown.

McQueen himself met them at the airport and personally chauffeured Stulberg to Solar Village; the others followed in the Solar limo. It was not out of respect or courtesy. In a juvenile effort apparently designed to cow and disorient the bigwigs, Steve made the drive as harrowing as possible, revving the Porsche up to 100 mph-plus on the country roads. He’d show them what was needed to take charge of a seminal epic about car racing.

John Sturges and Steve relax on the track in front of a Porsche 917, when they were still speaking.

But the subsequent showdown happened in an office, not McQueen’s car, with the unflappable Stulberg at the wheel driving circles around McQueen and his team consisting of Abe Lastfogel, Roger Davis, and Stan Kamen of the William Morris Agency.

Stulberg laid it right out for them. If they did not fall in line, Cinema Center would cut its losses and shut down the project entirely, and McQueen would be out his $750,000 salary and points. Or, they could keep going and replace Steve with Robert Redford.

Re-staging the start of the race. Steve stands with his back to the camera. Cameraman Rene Guissart Jr. is over Steve’s left shoulder looking for the light to change.

They preferred to stick with McQueen, but he had to behave, knuckle down, decide on a script and shoot the damned thing. It was a take-it-or-leave-it deal.

This time there was nothing the William Morris executives could do for their most powerful client, who had put himself in a corner with his churlish behavior, and they acquiesced.

Later Bob Rosen told me McQueen was a basket case at the meeting, spouting off with outrageous and irrelevant comments that made even the people on his side of the table wince.

Steve walks through the Porsche pit to pick up his helmet and head for his 917.

To that point in his career McQueen had achieved it all. He had gone from a kid on the streets to the stage and then to television stardom, and never looked back as he went on from there to become a Hollywood legend. But now he’d overreached. The stretch from megastar to filmmaker was beyond him. McQueen had dreamed of making the one movie he could call his own, that would best represent his passion and personality.

Now, despite all his power and influence, it was taken away from him in the snap of a finger. His decade-long lucky streak was finally over. Losing control over the movie was like stripping McQueen of his manhood.

He had two weeks to sulk while Cinema Center ordered a complete production shutdown to resolve the chaos McQueen had wrought.

Steve was excited to meet racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio.

Steve steps out of his Porsche 917 between takes.

Examining a prop movie camera. Notice I am wearing one of Steve’s Heuer watches. Little did I know, that particular watch would sell for almost $800,000 one day.

Steve relaxes on the track talking with reporters and signing autographs.

Steve putting on Nomex face protector surrounded by the press and French gendarmes.

Sitting behind the wheel of his Porsche 917K, McQueen chose an open helmet to show as much of his face as possible.

Riding with Steve as John Sturges (left) walks toward the start line.

Steve making small talk with fellow actors and mechanics.

Steve and Derek Bell enjoy a Coca-Cola between shots. Gino Cassani, who played the Ferrari team manager, is on the right.

Re-staging the apron before the race. This is the shot Steve refused to do on race day when we had thousands of free extras.

Close-up of the damaged Porsche that Steve drove into a ditch. He was always testing his driving ability, even on narrow French roads. This happened more than once.

One of Steve’s personal-use Porsche 911s he wrecked during the production.

“Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror” is available at