Sep 5, 2014
The Happy Script Doctor: The Lance Armstrong Biopic
Imagine the private hell of Lance Armstrong. His career went down in flames, but worse than that and darker than that, it went down in flames with perfect narrative arc. Lance Armstrong’s hell is not having his Tour de France victories taken away; his hell is knowing three different movies are being made about it.
To the celebrity, biopics are a PR nightmare of creative liberties and lies of varying maliciousness, but to the screenwriter, biopics are amazing for these exact same reasons. You get to run roughshod over the realities of a celebrity’s life in the interest of making a larger point about society. You get to incorporate details from highly questionable biographies and essentially fictionalize whatever the hell you want.
So let’s do some freelance script doctoring for the Lance Armstrong story. It is almost perfect, because the narrative is so cohesive. It’s good vs. evil and life vs. death. It’s the rise and fall of a hero. But it is immediately obvious that the story is missing something: lies. If the Lance Armstrong story is to become a box office smash in America, we’ll need to add lots and lots of lies.
What works in this story? Well, Lance Armstrong is an incredible athlete who conquered death, used illegal drugs, and dated a singer. Plus he’s Texan, so we can pretend he’s a metaphorical lone gunslinger and not a millionaire with a PR firm. Those are great. We’ll keep those. But there are two major problems: first, it’s about bikes. Outside of cities, bicycles are still widely seen as the domain of children and alcoholics. They are a toy. And the Tour de France, where Lance Armstrong was so famously great at riding bikes, takes place in Europe. Who wants to see a movie about a fallen American icon that takes place largely in Europe?
These are small problems. A good screenwriter can easily fix them. The obvious first move is to have Lance Armstrong not ride a bike at all, but a motorcycle. It allows him to race against opponents, but in a much more cinematic way. A motorcycle makes him an outlaw. We’ll have him ride one of Steve McQueen’s favorites: the legendary 1970 Husqvarna 400 Cross. And we’ll move the Tour de France to a location more conducive to motorcycle racing: Ascot Park in Gardena, California. This creates a small logistical problem in that we’ll have to set the Lance Armstrong story in the 1970s, but audiences will readily overlook these trivial inaccuracies if the movie is entertaining enough.
So Lance Armstrong, 1970s motorcycle hero, has won Gardena, California’s “Tour de France” a record seven times. Now we got a movie. Who plays him? It has to be somebody with a rugged Texas intensity, who can really capture the iconic spirit of Lance Armstrong, sitting on his Husqvarna and smoking a refreshing Camel Straight. Bradley Cooper has been mentioned frequently in the trades as a potential name. Wrong. Luke Wilson is clearly better.
Great! We’ve corrected the pesky logistical problems of Lance Armstrong’s story and we’ve found our leading man. Now it’s time to write the script. This is the fun part. As anybody who saw Ray or Walk the Line can attest, this is where we get to simply make shit up for 90 or 100 pages. This gets results. It wins Oscars.
I present to you a summary of my script. LANCE ARMSTRONG: A LIFE OF BIKES.
We open on a teenage Lance Armstrong as he walks along a long, dusty road in the lonesome desert of Plano, Texas. The sun is scorching the horizon and dirt and dust is all around him. The camera follows him as he walks past Plano’s few landmarks: a liquor store that looks like a shotgun shack, an abandoned court house, and a small general store visited only by tired ranch hands. The 60s were characterized by cultural revolution, but the hardened old residents of Plano are barely aware of it. A Harley rolls by. On that Harley is a man with long hair and a leather jacket and a pretty girl holding on for dear life. They kick up a wall of dust and race the fading sunlight toward some faraway city. Lance Armstrong has never seen anything like it and he immediately knows that’s the life he wants.
So he works at the ranch every day and every night and he does not drink or chase women like everybody else at the ranch. He’s gonna go to California and ride bikes at the Tour de France. Nothing can stop him. Three years go by at the ranch and Lance gets a beat up Harley. He fires her up and heads out west. A dusty, desert blues take on “Race with the Devil” plays. It’s the only music in the movie, repeated in situations of emotional duress.
Lance Armstrong rides his bike until his body starts to give out. For days he rides across the southwest, through the flatlands and the hills and the desert. Times are changing in the cities but Lance Armstrong’s America is rocks and dirt and canyons and man has barely made a dent in it; the desert mocks the highways. But every man gets tired and a bad thing happens to Lance in Arizona. The trucker just calls it “pills” but today they call it speed. Lance is enthralled by this performance enhancing drug. It makes him as invincible as he always dreamed. It seems heaven-sent.
Lance finally makes it to Gardena without even sleeping, thanks to those pills. He starts winning small races and is able to buy a Husqvarna. He calls her his “Husky” with true affection, and he chuckles every time he says it. An earnest chuckle, unadorned and unaffected. This was a man born to ride bikes.
He climbs the ladder of professional bike riding. This kid is a star. His charisma captures the hearts of the crowds that gather around him in Gardena. And his charisma captures the heart of a beautiful country music superstar: Emmylou Harris (Sheryl Crow was born in 1962 so we have to rewrite the girlfriend.) But his addiction to pills is increasing and people are worried about him, most of all his best friend and teammate in bike riding: Floyd Landis (Woody Harrelson, of course.)
Soon it’s time for Lance Armstrong’s first Tour de France competition at Ascot Park. The California sun is beating down on Lance and he’s drenched in sweat. He’s on more performance enhancing drugs than ever. Floyd is worried.
Lance dominates at his first Tour de France. He’s an American hero. An institution. He’s all over the news. He even has a line of action figures with his trademark yellow jumpsuit. He keeps winning the Tour de France. But all the other riders know he’s gotta kick pills or die. He wins his seventh race by his thinnest margin ever. A popular bet around Las Vegas is whether he’ll even be alive for his eighth race. Odds are 3:1 in favor of death. And Floyd’s personality is taking a sinister edge. He wants Lance to fail at bike racing. “I want him dead. He’s a disgrace to our profession.”
The eighth Tour begins. Floyd takes a $5000 bribe from an AP reporter to provide photographic evidence of Lance’s cheating, and Lance is immediately kicked out and stripped of his victories. Floyd coasts to victory. There’s no other competition, not when you’re on the same pill regimen as Lance.
It’s all over for Lance. He retreats to the Mojave Desert, a hundred miles from the Tour de France. He parks his bike by a trailer, puts black trash bags over the windows, and does pills for 3 days. But he prays and prays and finally has a vision in the high desert. God wants him to repent by challenging Floyd, who is overflowing with evil these days, to one last race. Clean this time. Gardena to Stockton.
The traveling is tough. It’s the hardest race he’s ever done. He’s nervous and has many premonitions and close calls with death. But Floyd is always slightly ahead of him. The pills give him an undeniable edge. Cops pursue and in the truck stop towns the people cheer Lance and boo Floyd. As Stockton approaches, it becomes clear Floyd will win. But it’s an honest loss for Lance, and maybe that’s alright. The Texaco that is their finish line approaches. Emmylou Harris is there to reconcile.