Cocaine, cars, Alec Baldwin: The story of 'Framing John DeLorean'

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
John DeLorean in the driver's seat of his famous DeLorean sports car.

It seems improbable that it’s taken this long to make a movie about the life of legendary 1980s Detroit auto-entrepreneur John DeLorean.

"It's got cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents and hard-core drug dealers,” muses DeLorean’s only son, Zachary, who appears in the new film, “Framing John DeLorean,” which hits theaters Friday. Not to mention the gull-winged sports car that became a cultural icon in three “Back to the Future” movies.

But in the end it took the passion of producer and lifetime DeLorean car junkie Tamir Ardon — with a little help from actor Alec Baldwin — to get the job done.

At the film’s premiere in Birmingham last month, Ardon reflected on his 15-year journey to make the docudrama, the remarkable coincidence that attracted superstar Baldwin to the project, and how the film resonates four decades after DeLorean dominated magazine covers as America’s most famous auto executive.

A DeLorean sports car is parked in front of Birmingham's Maple Theatre, where the movie "Framing John DeLorean" premiered May 14 at the Cinetopia Film Festival. The movie opens nationally June 14.

“One of the things most fascinating about John in relation to today is that he was the first (businessman) to truly brand himself,” said Ardon, who lives in Los Angeles. “He branded his name. The slogan for DeLorean Motor Co. was 'live the dream.' He was married to a supermodel, he looked glamorous, he had plastic surgery, the silver hair.

“He really epitomized the idea of branding himself before the likes of Trump and others.”

REVIEW: 'Framing John DeLorean' driven by ingenuity

Directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce and told in a documentary style with dramatic reenactments starring Baldwin and a supporting cast of top Hollywood character actors, “Framing John DeLorean" follows the man's meteoric rise through General Motors; his fairy-tale marriage to supermodel Cristina Ferrare, and the birth of his DeLorean dream car in war-torn Ireland.

It also traces his fall from grace through mounting losses, Thatcher’s cut-off of government subsidies, federal charges in Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs and his conviction for embezzlement.

In DeLorean and his ambitious auto startup, there are echoes of Silicon Valley startup Tesla today.

“Elon Musk hates being compared to DeLorean,” Ardon says. “But he wants to make an ethical car just like John did. They both started with sports cars. Elon has exceeded what John accomplished. Hopefully, it doesn’t end in a drug bust.”

Ardon admits his obsession for all things DeLorean since he first laid eyes on the stainless-steel car as a 6-year old.

"This one was a special passion project I’ve been working on for 15 years," the veteran producer says. "It’s a hard story to tell."

Alec Baldwin as John DeLorean sits in a DeLorean sports car with "Framing John DeLorean" producer Tamir Ardon. Ardon's movie about the famous automaker debuts June 14 in theaters nationwide.

But the film — which opens Friday at the Landmark Main Art Theater in Royal Oak, the Birmingham 8 and the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor — is no hagiography. It’s a brutally honest look at DeLorean’s mercurial career.

The producers first approached Baldwin for the starring role after learning of his admiration for director Argott’s documentary “The Art of the Steal.” But it quickly became apparent that Baldwin, like Ardon, had a personal investment in DeLorean.

“In 2004, John DeLorean actually called Alec Baldwin out of the blue and told him he was working on his own future film and had hoped that Alec would play him,” Ardon says. “Clearly this was a passion play (by Alec). We got in touch with the people who do the make-up at 'Saturday Night Live,' and after one or two tests to make sure he could pull off the look, he was down to do it.”

"Saturday Night Live," of course, is where Baldwin became synonymous with his comic impersonations of President Donald Trump. But he melts into the role of DeLorean for reenactment scenes. He also comments in what Ardon calls “meta-scenes” on what motivated him for the DeLorean character.

“He was someone who perverted a dream he had,” Baldwin says in the film.

John DeLorean and his third wife, Cristina Ferrare, are all smiles as they leave Federal Court in Los Angeles in May 1984. DeLorean was acquitted of drug trafficking charges after the jury decided that he had been entrapped by the government. Shortly after the trial ended Cristina and he divorced.

Ardon says the actor’s stature and depth are essential to the film’s success. “He’s so intellectual — to pull off these behind-the-scenes meta-aspects. I don’t know if we would have been able to pull that off with any other actor.”

“Framing John DeLorean” also calls on the talents of veteran local journalists like Car and Driver’s Don Sherman and Automotive News’ Ed Lapham. They covered DeLorean and recount how a stainless-steel car originally targeted at the masses became an exotic affordable to only a few.

The car’s production struggles led a desperate DeLorean into the hands of a federal sting operation where he is entrapped soliciting drug money.

“We have interviews with people who have never spoken before,” Ardon says. “The undercover DEA agent, the FBI agent, and one of the prosecutors of the case. And the defense attorney — Howard Weitzman — who got John off (on) those charges.”

Then there is DeLorean’s son, who steals the show with his candid assessment of his father. Zachary is the collateral damage of DeLorean’s unethical pursuit of his ethical car, an obsession that led to his indictment on embezzling millions of dollars in investor funds.  

John DeLorean, left, is seen in an autographed picture with Tamir Ardon. DeLorean died in 2005 and Ardon produced the biographical film, "Framing John DeLorean," which debuts June 14.

“Zachary is so raw and visceral,” Ardon says. “He didn’t hold back. He is why we have an R rating.”

Neither does the movie pull punches in presenting one of Detroit’s most controversial figures.

“(DeLorean) was the ultimate American dream. He grew up in the poor parts of Detroit — the son of an immigrant,” says Ardon, who befriended DeLorean in the last years before he died of a stroke in 2005. “John encompassed individualism during a time — especially here in Detroit —  when the idea of individualism wasn’t embraced. He was a maverick back then and, let’s be honest, there aren’t that many of those people today.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.