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Sony shifts gear with Lance Armstrong documentary

The studio is betting money that documenting the cyclist's comeback bid at Tour de France will capture audiences, with 'Taxi to the Dark Side's' Alex Gibney at the wheel.

July 07, 2009|John Horn

When Lance Armstrong surged to third place overall Monday in the Tour de France, plenty of news crews recorded his heroics. But six of the video cameras trained on the 37-year-old cyclist's surprise breakaway weren't working for any newspaper, magazine, TV station or website -- they were sent by Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Hollywood loves beat-the-odds stories, and Sony hopes that Armstrong's return to racing after a 3 1/2 -year absence could prove as enthralling as any make-believe film. The studio, best known for its "Spider-Man" franchise and a stranger to nonfiction filmmaking, is currently financing a feature documentary chronicling Armstrong's attempt to win the world's most prestigious bike race.

"In all of my sporting experience, I've never seen anything like it," Frank Marshall, the untitled documentary's producer, said from near La Grande-Motte, France, where Armstrong had just escaped with several dozen other riders from the main field (and all of the tour's pre-race favorites) to move from 10th to third overall in the race's third stage. "We're very pleased."

If Armstrong's Astana team (which includes 2007's Tour winner Alberto Contador) takes today's team time trial by a comfortable margin, Armstrong, who won the tour a record seven times (consecutively), could be wearing the leader's yellow jersey. Though an Armstrong victory, still a long-shot outcome with 18 stages of racing to go, would give the documentary an astonishing ending, his daily performance in the tour's peloton was never the film's focus.

"What interested me was the story of his comeback -- his will," said the documentary's director, Alex Gibney, the filmmaker behind "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side." "I wanted to understand Lance and what makes him tick. And the more I know, the more compelling the story gets."

Sony and Armstrong have a long relationship. For years, the studio has been developing a movie based on the cyclist's 2000 memoir, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," which chronicles Armstrong's recovery from metastasized testicular cancer to his first Tour de France victory in 1999. The feature film, which Marshall is also producing, is now in the hands of writer-director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit," "Pleasantville"), but has no start date or cast attached.

Columbia Pictures President Matt Tolmach is one of the industry's most avid cyclists (he has raced locally for Velo Club La Grange) and a friend of Armstrong's. When Tolmach learned in August that Armstrong was planning to return to racing -- largely to promote cancer awareness and push for increased research funding -- he saw the possibility for a captivating documentary, even if the studio wasn't in the nonfiction business.

"It's about cancer. It's about getting old. It's about proving all the naysayers wrong," Tolmach said. "It's about a comeback. It unfolds in an isolated period of time. It's all the ingredients for a documentary."

He was able to persuade his bosses Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton that a well-made movie could reach audiences far beyond the road-racing intelligentsia. "As a small movie, it struck me as having enormous commercial potential," Tolmach said of the $3.5-million production.

Tolmach and Marshall picked Gibney because, as Tolmach said, "We wanted someone who could get inside of him." It was far less important that the filmmaker understood the minutiae of race strategy and team tactics. "When I first met him, I said, 'I know next to nothing about your sport,' " Gibney said.

Gibney, Tolmach and Marshall agreed that the movie would not work as hagiography. So the filmmakers needed broad access -- Gibney's cameras witness several of the unannounced blood doping tests that Armstrong and all tour racers must take -- and enough time with Armstrong to get past his well-practiced media patter.

"Maybe the most daunting part of telling this story is that Lance is so very good at telling his own story," Gibney said from Monaco, where Armstrong finished a strong 10th in the tour's opening prologue. "There are levels within levels. He's a masterful producer-director of his own myth."

In addition to following the Tour de France and the Astana training camp, the documentary's crew covered Armstrong's races in the Tour of California (where he finished seventh), the Vuelta Castilla y Leon (where he crashed and fractured his collarbone) and the Giro d'Italia (where Armstrong finished a surprisingly strong 12th, but nearly 16 minutes behind winner Denis Menchov).

In shooting so much racing and the physical preparation for it, Gibney hopes to educate audiences (just as he has learned, in making the movie) on what athletes at Armstrong's level must obsess over -- critical decisions about nutrition or team politics, for example. "I think I have a peculiar ability," Gibney said, "to make complicated things understandable."

While the filmmakers and studio obviously hope Armstrong wins, they don't believe the movie's success depends on it. "The end of the movie is going to be great no matter what happens," Tolmach said. "It's about the journey."

Tolmach said the studio had not decided which of its releasing labels -- which includes Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor of the award-winning documentary "Waltz With Bashir" -- will handle the film when it is completed, likely sometime later next year.

"But this movie has to work the way all the movies we release have to work," Tolmach said. "Even if it's a little movie, it's a big movie for us."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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