When director Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider
, Grumpy Old Men
) began to read the script for what would become his latest film, Finding Steve McQueen
, he initially thought the story couldn’t be real.
Set in the 1970s, the narrative revolves around a group of criminals from Youngstown who travel all the way to the West Coast to steal $30 million in dirty campaign funds that President Nixon has stashed in a Laguna Niguel, CA bank.
“I kept cross-checking it on Google, and I realized then that it was real,” says Johnson in a recent phone interview. The movie opens on Friday, March 15, at AMC Solon and arrives on Demand and digital that same day. “I kept thinking, ‘How did I not know about this?’ It’s such a strange footnote in American history. I was shocked that no one had done a story about it before.”
Johnson worked off a script by Keith Sharon, who wrote a 10-part series
about the crime.
One of the things that Johnson found appealing was the fact that the script didn’t follow the typical trajectory that most heist films follow.
“I had no interest in doing a heist movie,” says Johnson. “There are so many great ones already. This one was so different. In every heist movie, the drama and conflict comes from wondering, ‘Will they get away with it?’ This one is the opposite. It opens in a diner with a guy telling his girlfriend that he’s not who she thinks he it.”
The film does, however, have one thing in common with most heist movies in that it creates a situation in which the criminals become the protagonists. You find yourself rooting for the ragtag group led by the fast-driving, good-looking Harry Barber (Travis Fimmel) who changes his name to Steve McQueen to avoid the authorities.
In fact, Johnson turns the film into a comedy as he follows the group’s exploits (in one scene, they rip an alarm off the side of a building to see how it works, and the thing continues to ring all the way to their hideout).
“The idea was inherently comedic to me,” he says. “These guys from Youngstown think they could rip off the president. That made me laugh. They’re reaching so big. I love that in a character, and that’s a big theme in the film.”
The film’s light-hearted tone doesn’t diminish its message either.
“It’s about identity and wanting to be more than you are and reaching and sometimes failing,” says Johnson, who adds that the film inadvertently provides a commentary on our troubled times, something he didn't foresee when he began to make it a couple of years ago. “You never hear the words Nixon and Watergate as much as you do now. It was so funny seeing [former Trump consultant] Roger Stone come down the steps and give the Nixon peace sign. Whatever side of the fence you’re on politically, the one thing we can’t argue is that we’ve never had anything like this since Watergate. Maybe it’ll turn into nothing, and maybe it won’t. That’s the zeitgeist we’re in right now and we’re right back to 1972. It’s a fascinating time.”