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Filming the Life & Faith of Steve McQueen: A Chat with Director Jon Erwin

Hannah Goodwyn - Senior Producer

Steve McQueen's mountain-climbing motorcycle chase in The Great Escape is an iconic moment in cinema history. For filmmaker Jon Erwin, the 1963 movie was the first introduction he had to the King of Cool.

Little did the Mom's Night Out and Woodlawn director know that decades later he, and his brother Andrew Erwin (in partnership with Pastor Greg Laurie), would film their first documentary about the life and faith of the famed Hollywood star.

Steve McQueen: American Icon isn't just a new angle on an old story. The Erwin Brothers' documentary (which includes never-before-seen photos of McQueen and never-before-heard audio from his last interview) is the first to fully explore the actor's life – from his troubled childhood, rise to fame, disillusionment and retreat from Hollywood, to how he came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Recently, Erwin shared some behind-the-scenes stories and discoveries he made while researching McQueen's life. Here are excerpts from our very interesting conversation:

On what makes Steve McQueen's story an important one to tell...

Jon Erwin: Steve McQueen, the king of cool, the American rebel, kind of a bad boy and obviously one of the most iconic movie stars of all time had actually become a Christian late in his life because he just couldn't find peace and meaning in everything he tried.

There was very little written about it. We just kept wondering, 'Is this true? Did the King of Cool become a Christian in a real and meaningful way?' That led [us] on a journey, and we decided to do a documentary about this story because it confronts a universal question [about what makes us truly happy].

On what McQueen really believed about God and Hollywood...

Erwin: It was interesting talking to all these people in [McQueen's] life when he did find out he was dying, how much peace he had, how centered he was as a person. They were talking about it like, 'Man, this was like a different guy.' I talked to the guy who sold him his cars and he was like, 'There was a peace about him. There was a stillness.' It was like Steve was finally OK with himself. He had finally found forgiveness. I find that interesting and easily relatable. And I think that's a story that will bring other people hope.

You just really root for this underdog guy that just had it so bad in childhood and yet rose to the top of the entertainment industry just by sheer force of will. Then, he found that it wasn't the answer, that everything he thought would make him happy didn't. He went on his quest to find his faith and found Christ and found peace and found reconciliation. That's a story that we can all relate to.

On what audiences will see in Steve McQueen: American Icon that has never been seen before...

Erwin: Sometimes visuals can bring back memories that questions just don't. So, we loaded a slide project with 100 or 200 of the best pictures and just put [McQueen's widow Barbara Minty] in a room and said, 'Comment on this.'

It really turned out special and it felt like a celebration of McQueen's life. We thought we should end the film with this recording of McQueen that no one has ever heard before. He says, 'The cure I've been looking for is finding the Lord in my life.' And I love the line when he says, 'My body's broken but my spirit isn't broken.' Then, we go to the slide projector and have this time of celebration of the life of this American icon. I was looking through these pictures and it just felt like the right way to end the movie. It gets me emotionally and I hope it does the same thing to the audience.

Our goal was almost not to make it just basically a Christian story of his conversion, but to really just make the first complete biography of Steve McQueen, you know, documentary of Steve McQueen. His whole story has just never been told for whatever reason. Maybe because his fate doesn't match the brand, the rebel, the King of Cool. But this was a very real part of his journey and it's just the only place he really truly found peace in his life.

On what this experience has meant to Erwin personally...

Erwin: Hopefully when [Steve McQueen: American Icon] goes to Netflix, it'll be something that people will just stumble upon and want to watch. Then maybe it will get to them and maybe they will ask the same questions that the character in the film asks. Maybe it can lead them to where they can hopefully find the answers that they crave.

It's a legitimate story and a very real conversion experience. The only time he found peace and happiness in his life was when he became a Christian. It's a really cool story. That's why I get up in the morning is to tell stories. I love telling stories and trying to do those in service of sharing the Gospel. It doesn't get better than this.

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