Making Dynamite From Pennies in ‘Finding Steve McQueen’

We chat with Mark Steven Johnson about how he juggled multiple timelines and tones for little more than $5 million.
Finding Steve Mcqueen
Momentum Pictures
By  · Published on March 28th, 2019

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Don’t eye-roll at that trite expression. Read it again. Think about it. Believe it. Do you want to make a movie? Go ahead and make your damn movie.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson tackled comic book movies before they were cool. Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Jack Frost — okay, that last guy isn’t technically a comic book superhero, but Batman lived within him, so yeah. He’s been handed sacks of cash from the studios, and he delivered spectacle that erupted well beyond the frame of the screen. If you’ve got the money, you’re going to spend it. Every cent.

Johnson’s latest film, Finding Steve McQueen, is a heist picture in which the crime is already in the rearview mirror. The action and the comedy of the genre extends well after the job is done, but this “based on a true story” picture finds its absurdity in the years that followed the scheme. For Johnson, that set it apart from the long line of films that came before, and casting his hero with Travis Fimmel brought a spark of unsuspected charm. The Vikings guy? Yeah, he masters that sparkle in the smile owned by the real-deal Steve McQueen.

I spoke to Johnson over the phone, and we talked about how this film sort of fell into his lap and the resistance he had towards attempting a well-tread genre. Rather than dwelling on all the other filmmakers who’ve already done it well, Johnson embraced what made Finding Steve McQueen unique and pushed its script to break free from the linear.

On top of that, he appreciated the film’s microscopic budget of $5.5 million and embraced the challenge of making it all work because it just had to, dammit. With no sticks of dynamite to shoot, he just rolled up some pennies. Who needs an actual safe when you’ve got a yoga mat? Making movies is a stubborn act of determination. Find your inspiration in the discussion below.

Here is our conversation in full:

How did Finding Steve McQueen become your next project? What was the impetus?

The impetus, to be honest, it was sent to me by the producer, Anthony Mastromauro. I asked him what it was about, and he said, “It’s a heist film.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m not the right guy for that.” There’s been so many heist movies, and so many great ones, that I decided I got nothing to add to that. There are people that are better for that than me, for sure. And he said, “Just read it.” And I did, and that opening scene when Harry sits down in a diner and says to his girlfriend, “I’m not who you think I am.” Then you flash back eight years ago. I was like, “So the heist has already happened. That’s pretty cool.” Because heist films are always about the planning and the execution and the aftermath of the heist. And this one, the heist is done.

That’s not where the conflict comes from. It’s gonna come from the fact that it’s a love story, will she forgive him? Are they gonna end up together? I really liked that. That was very cool. Then there is the true story part of it, which I’d never heard of before, except by Googling it, going, “Well, that can’t be true.” The craziest parts were all dead-on, and I was shocked that I’d never heard this story before, this really bizarre footnote in American history. Meanwhile, of course, the whole time, I’m watching CNN and they’re saying, “Not since Nixon, and not since Watergate.” I was like, wow, it’s sort of like it’s just very timely suddenly after all these years, you know?

Sure. It’s easy to draw parallels.

So that’s how I got started, and I thought it was just really, I thought it was different. I’m always trying to find different things to do, and I decided it was really unique. I like the tone of it. It felt very quirky and off center. I got excited about it and ended up casting the script, and then it all came together.

So, the spin on the genre interested you – this post-heist experience.

Well, for me, the most interesting part, and the most difficult part of the film was that it’s on multiple timelines. So the very first draft was actually linear. It was bookended. It opened and closed in the diner, and then between, it was told in the linear fashion. Once I started making it like a puzzle piece and jumping in and out of different timelines, it got really interesting. I’d never done anything like that before. That was challenging. It’s a deceptively difficult movie because it’s on, I think it’s about five different timelines.

The movie opens in 1980 with Harry saying, “I’m not who you think I am.” We flashback to around 1970, before he’s made it onto the gang. From there, you flash forward, and he makes it out of the gang. And then they go to California to rob the bank, and then we flash forward again, with Forest Whitaker. We meet him, and he’s investigating the break-in after it’s happened. Then we go back to the guys planning the break-in. And then on top of that, we’ve got the fact that the bank was broken into not once but three nights in a row, which I’d never seen before. On Friday night, and Saturday night, and Sunday night, they broke into the same bank.

It was very challenging, because not everything works, as we all know. You start editing something, and you realize, “Oh, the scene’s not working.” But if you cut that scene, the whole thing comes down like a house of cards. So that was what made it very difficult and very challenging and interesting and challenging, the structure. The structure and the tone, were the two most challenging things because there’s a lot going on here.

Some of it’s a broad comedy, and some off it’s very heartfelt and romantic. Some of it is straight-ahead drama. Again, I feel like when you make a movie for $5.5 million bucks and 25 days to shoot it, no one’s getting paid, no one’s getting rich. You know you’re gonna have to sacrifice a lot. And so, it’s kind of like, “Okay, then in exchange, I want to try some things.”

I’m fascinated by tone management. It may seem easy in the script process, but then you get on set. Then add in these multiple timelines on top of that. How did you ride that line?

The timelines were fairly easy, because I spent so much time on the script, and I had it all mapped out. It got difficult in the cutting room, like I said, because if something’s not working… We were like, “The scene, we don’t like it. Yeah, but we need that scene or this film… It’s bookended by two other scenes that are out of sequence. It will be so confusing.” So sometimes you have to — I hate to do this — but we’ll use a piece of voiceover letting you know what night it is, or a slug line, which is a cheat, but you have to sometimes do that.

But then you’re also jumping from comedy to sincerity and back again.

The tone is tougher. I have a really bad habit of trying to make everything funny, with varying degrees of success. It’s the way I was brought up in comedy writing with Grumpy Old Men, and I’ve done a lot of comedy rewrites of things. It’s just my nature. I just find shit funny. I just do. Sometimes I’ll put in humor where it probably shouldn’t be. Normally, I have people around me that will pull me back.

In this case, I had Travis Fimmel, who’s always pushing me for more. So I had to do my own restraint, which is not great because Travis is really funny. I mean, people know him from Vikings, and he’s really funny and very self-deprecating, and always up for looking foolish. I had to be the one pulling Travis back. It was interesting for me to be in that position.

I guess a lot of that tone management happens in the casting process.

Yeah, you’re absolutely right, because I had Travis and the guys in the gang, which are very funny and sometimes almost broad, with almost screwball antics. Then you get someone like Forrest, and he grounds everything. So Forrest and Lily Rabe, who’s just fantastic, they come into it and they give it a certain amount of gravitas and verisimilitude to it. And it’s great, too, because you get to know their lives, and they’re not just the cops after the bad guys. And we love the bad guys. We want them to get away.

You learn that his wife left him, that he’s trying to single-parent, with varying degrees of success, that he’s been passed over at the FBI for promotion, that he’s the first black agent. But then she’s the first female agent, and you go, “Oh, shit, I want those guys to succeed, too.” The audience is put in an interesting position.

And William Fichtner is so fantastic in everything he’s done. And so, even though these guys are kind of idiots at times, Fichtner’s the one, like the father of the group who will put everybody in their place. There’s a nice little bit when they’re actually doing the heist and Harry’s living out his fantasy of this bank job being Steve McQueen. He looks over there, and he sees Rhys Coiro, who plays Ray, take out a gun, and locks it, you know?

Yeah, it’s the Come-to-Jesus moment.

You see the look on Harry’s face, like, “Well, wait a minute. I didn’t sign up for this. Shit’s getting real now.” That’s a good example, even on that one night when there’s a lot of comedy trying to break into that next door to the bar and everything gets gnarly, but it’s the real deal. Somebody could get hurt and go to jail. So, yeah, it’s a tricky thing, but I think it works. I think there are some things. Of course, not everything works, but I do think that it’s fun, it’s different.

As I said, the weirdest things are the truth. The fact that Harry lived under an assumed name for eight years in a little town and fell in love, and her daughter was the sheriff. The fact that these guys pulled off this amazing heist and did absolutely everything right, as far as they left no evidence behind. They put bleach down the drains, and they scrubbed everything. They didn’t leave a fingerprint, but they forget to run the dishwasher. It’s hilarious, which made me laugh.

Tell me about the constraints on a $5 million film versus your previous productions.

It’s like night and day. I mean, I think Ghost Rider had a $100 million budget, and this one had a $5 million budget, so it’s very different. You really gotta think on your feet. You’ll have a scene like our one big stunt scene, and we had two cars, and only one worked. Sort of like, “Don’t crash that car. If you crash that car, we’re gonna get shut down. It’s the only car we have.” It’s funny, whether it’s a big movie or a little movie, it always ends up at my house, with me in high heels, putting out cigarettes, doing insert shots. You know what I mean?

If you look at the scene of them breaking into the bank and they’re putting in the dynamite and everything in that, what looks like the top of the safe is actually a yoga mat that I cut slits in. The dynamite sticks are just rolls of pennies. It’s still an independent film. No matter what you’re doing, it ends up like that. And everybody pulled together. I like the spirit of that. Like I said, no one’s getting paid. People are doing it because they love it, they think it’s interesting, and they love the character. That brings a different kind of energy. When you wrap someone for the day, they don’t want to go home, they want to hang out. They want to stay and watch, and then everybody goes out for dinner afterward. It’s a really nice feeling.

Finding Steve McQueen is now playing in select theaters and on VOD and Digital HD.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)