The Program: Bringing the Lance Armstrong story to the Big Screen

The true story of the meteoric rise and fall of a champion

From Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and producers Working Title Films (The Theory Of Everything, Everest, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), comes the true story of the meteoric rise and fall of one of the most celebrated and controversial men in recent history; Lance Armstrong, the world-renowned Tour de France champion.

Ben Foster plays Lance Armstrong in The Program

Ben Foster plays Lance Armstrong in The Program


The Program follows the meteoric rise and dramatic fall of the shamed seven times Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong, and David Walsh, the journalist who lifted the stone to reveal the dark underworld of cycling.

Chris O’ Dowd as Sunday Times journalist, David Walsh

Chris O’ Dowd as Sunday Times journalist, David Walsh

The idea for The Program first came about when director Stephen Frears came across a book review which intrigued him, as he explains. “A man called Tyler Hamilton, who rode with Lance, wrote a rather good book called The Secret Race and I read a review of it. I thought it sounded fantastic.” He quickly approached Working Title, a company with which Frears had already made four films, including the one which launched both his career and that of producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, My Beautiful Launderette.

Producer Tim Bevan picks up the story. “Stephen emailed me and said I haven’t asked you to buy anything for a long time, but I’m really interested in the Lance Armstrong story and there are several books coming out about it.”

Frears continues. “My two ‘advisors’ [journalist] Richard Williams and [designer] Paul Smith had told me about David Walsh. We read his book and met him.” Walsh had only written his book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong the previous year [2012]. Within weeks he had his first meeting with Bevan and Frears.

david-walsh (1)

Walsh explains, “It had been about the only story in my journalistic life of the previous 15 years. I started talking and had a sense from Stephen that he just couldn’t believe what he was hearing and he was intrigued. At that time he understood nothing about it but he had a huge desire to learn about it and he was fascinated by it. I knew that his enthusiasm would carry him through on this.”

Tim Bevan details the film’s focus. “The story of this movie is about two characters. It’s about Lance Armstrong, who in the early nineties was a champion cyclist from the United States who’d come to Europe to start cycling in the various European competitions and particularly the Tour de France. And a journalist by the name of David Walsh; David at the time was a correspondent for an Irish newspaper, and continues to be a sports correspondent. In fact he’s a sports editor for The Sunday Times now.  It wasn’t actually David Walsh who brought down Lance Armstrong, it was Lance Armstrong really who brought down Lance Armstrong, but David certainly contributed to it.  But for the purposes of the film that’s what we do; we run these two guys’ stories in parallel.”

David Walsh first encountered Armstrong rather by chance when he had picked him out to interview in 1993. From this point on, Walsh’s professional life became entwined with Armstrong’s, and still is to this day.  Fast-forwarding 20 years, Walsh had just written his book chronicling Armstrong’s toogood-to-be-true rise to the top of the cycling world amidst an endemic culture of performance enhancing drugs use.

From Tim Bevan’s perspective, this was a story which provided an excellent basis for a feature film, as he outlines. “The Lance Armstrong character and the whole idea of cheating, if you like, in sports and doping was something we thought was a really interesting arena. It’s about morality and it’s also a story about now, very much. Hopefully, if the film works, you can take out the cycling element and drop in politics or drop in tabloid journalism or drop in all of the other areas where this sort of moral questionability has gone in the past four, five years.”

Stephen Frears and Ben Foster during filming of The Program

Unanimously regarded as one of Britain’s finest directors, Stephen Frears has always embraced a wide variety of styles, themes and genres. He made his name in TV drama, working almost exclusively for the small screen in the first 15 years of his career. In the mid 1980s he turned to the 34 cinema, shooting The Hit (1984) starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt and Tim Roth. The following year he made My Beautiful Laundrette for Channel 4, which crossed over to big screen audiences and altered the course of his career. After directing its companion piece Sammy And Rosie Get Laid and the Joe Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, he began working in Hollywood, with Dangerous Liaisons and The Grifters (for which he was Oscar®-nominated) among his most notable titles. Returning closer to home, he directed The Snapper and The Van, two Irish films based on Roddy Doyle stories and after a second spell of making American films (The Hi-Lo Country and High Fidelity) based himself largely in Britain. Frears showed his versatility with two vastly different movies — Dirty Pretty Things, a realistic account of immigrant life in London, and Mrs. Henderson Presents, a nostalgic backstage comedy-drama. For his 2006 film The Queen he was again nominated for an Oscar®. His subsequent films include Cheri, Tamara Drewe, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight and Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, which won one BAFTA, and was nominated for three others, along with three Golden Globe and four Oscar® nominations. Frears has just finished filming Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.

Contre Le Montre

John Hodge was signed up to write the screenplay at somewhat short notice as Tim Bevan relates. “We said to John, here’s a big challenge. Basically you have four weeks to come up with the first draft. He went a little bit white and went away and came up with the first draft in four weeks.”

John Hodge

John Hodge was born in Glasgow. He studied medicine before writing the screenplay for 1994’s Shallow Grave, directed by Danny Boyle and produced by Andrew Macdonald. Hodge continued the collaboration with Boyle and Macdonald on Trainspotting (1996), for which he won the best adapted screenplay BAFTA, A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and The Beach (2000). Other credits include The Final Curtain (2002), The Seeker: Dark is Rising (2007) and The Sweeney, co-written with Nick Love (2012). Hodge worked once again with Danny Boyle on Trance (co-written with Joe Aherne) in 2013.

John Hodge for his part confesses that he was employed on something of an accidental basis. “Working Title were looking for a writer and another producer they were working with said John Hodge is really into cycling, which actually wasn’t the case at all – I cycle to and from work but that is the extent of it.” However Hodge was undaunted given that the story was about so much more than cycling, an idea he expands on. “It was immediately clear to me that here is a modern phenomenon that would be worth having a go at on the big screen. The elements of personal struggle, rise and fall, globalisation, the exploitation of media; so many aspects of modern sporting life and modern celebrity; and the wish fulfilment of a public that wants to invest in heroes and is then disappointed; That cycle that we are all a part of as consumers was something that I was interested in.”

Examining the icon that Lance became, Hodge outlines how the cyclist became the answer to everyone’s dreams. “To the outsider, he seemed like he was the perfect vessel for cycling in the nineties and 2000s at a time when the sport was expanding due to the internet, satellite and communications sweeping all around the world even more than before. There is this really charismatic, handsome, English speaking cancer survivor, who is going to spread the word to the whole world; who is going to transform a niche European working class man’s sport. And he is going to suddenly make it a sport that huge global corporations will want to invest in, Nike and so forth.” There was inevitably a postscript. “Of course the fact that he turned out to be false, as Walsh says at the end of the film, shouldn’t surprise any of us because that was bound to happen.”

The ProgramIn terms of material, Hodge started out with David Walsh, both through his book and in person. Hodge also worked through the many other tales of Armstrong mainly by cyclists. “They are all more or less recounting the same incidents from a different angle”, Hodge explains. “So it was interesting in a way to cross refer the various accounts. Then there were the affidavits that were sworn by many of the former US Postal cyclists [Armstrong’s team] when they were delivering their evidence to USADA [the US Anti-Doping Agency]. They were very helpful. And then various news articles… And of course one of the great things about making a modern sporting film is that YouTube makes everything continuously available. This is true of any sort of sporting hero nowadays; they live their life through social media and through YouTube. And that both helps them in terms of exploiting their celebrity but of course when it comes to things going wrong it works against them.”

When Tracey Seaward saw the early drafts of John’s scripts, she was stunned. “John’s immediate insight into that world was quite extraordinary”, she explains. “The professional consultants who had access to some of the earlier drafts thought it was amazing that he managed to get into the head of cyclists, in terms of that mindset. It’s quite a complicated story to tell with the two perspectives – you’ve got Walsh and Lance, you could say hero and anti-hero but there’s a quality of both of them being heroes and he found this amazing way of balancing that story.”

Frears identifies Hodge as vital in managing to shape the film within the tight time constraints. “I’m not sure I knew what kind of film we were making at the beginning but it was clearly very interesting. We were lucky that we got John Hodge who picked his way through it so very delicately.” Seaward concurs. “He found this way of carefully constructing a rather neat thriller rather than making a history lesson in cycling.” Frears concludes that one of Hodge’s strengths is his ability to distil huge amounts of information and a time span of 20 years into a film of under two hours. “He is very elliptical; he covers an awful lot of things, and I guess they’re the most important things.”

The production’s cycling consultant David Millar agrees, “I was in awe that John Hodge was able to write that just from research, without actually knowing the people and without actually knowing the sport.”

Frears outlines how Millar came to join the production. “We were all learning as we went. I’d been told about David Millar’s book Racing Through the Dark so I spoke to David and he came to England and met with Tim Bevan and Amelia [Granger, Executive Producer] who were very taken by him.”

David Millar defines his role on the film. “I have everything to do with cycling and educating Stephen on the cycling world; from the bike riding, to the history of the sport, to the characters involved and the real life people.”

Bevan brought on board producer Kate Solomon, who had worked for Working Title on earlier titles including United 93. As an expert in researching fact-based material for fiction she was invaluable at this stage, as Bevan outlines. “She’s like a terrier. She went through everybody and anything that had anything to do with cycling and cheating and doping in cycling. And through that you arrive at what is a fiction but hopefully fiction that’s as close to the truth as possible.”

Given the intricacies of the subject matter, it was never going to be an easy project for Frears as he explains. “It was a crash course… I knew nothing, nothing about cycling; nothing about Lance.  I had to learn everything; I’m still learning.” What’s more, his friends were obsessed by the detail of it. I remember Paul [Smith] saying well, I hope you’re going to get the bikes right or I hope you’re going to get the clothes right.  So there was a lot to learn.” Frears’ friends went from being concerned about accuracy to hugely envious as the production managed to embed themselves with the most informative sources imaginable, as Frears outlines. “David Walsh said to me at one point, ‘well you’re a lot further inside than I ever got’. I was the guest of the Tour de France which meant that I saw things that journalists had never seen.  I was in a car behind the front racers and I saw things they’d never seen; they were furious!”

Riding deep in the Tour with the UCI, the sport’s ruling body, gave Frears and his team a fantastic insight into their subject matter, as he tells: “I discovered the craziness that was going on behind the cyclists. The cyclists are like people in a bubble, going straight along. Behind them is all the organisation of the Tour. Also, you start to realise what a huge circus the whole thing is.”

David Walsh was very reassured by the detail that went into the preparation for the film.  “When I watch a film about sport, I’m invariably disappointed. It always looks like film people don’t understand what sport looks like or somehow they haven’t been able to get it right.” However, in this film, he continues, “What you’re going to be looking at is going to be a pretty authentic portrayal of how the peloton moves and what happens inside the peloton. I was really cheered by that because the journalist always thinks, we’ve got to be accurate here. This has got to be authentic. I could see there was a fixation on getting this stuff right.”

The film reached the finish line after an incredibly concentrated timeframe. For Walsh, his history with Armstrong was the most epic story, culminating as he thought at the time, in writing his book. “I thought I said everything that could be said and the only way I could make Seven Deadly Sins as quickly as I did was to make it personal. Just to write it like a long diary entry. This is where I started on this journey and this is where I’ll finish it.” He continues, “It’s been an extraordinary experience to think that within a year of me starting the book, the film had been completely shot. How many times does that happen in life? Somebody has written a book, the book goes into shops. 11 months later and the film is shot.”

For Hodge, the actors have made the film what it is. “That’s what I’m most pleased by – a fantastic performance by all our leads. That’s what makes the film.”

Foster, for his part, concludes, “It is an hour and half of entertainment; tell a story and hopefully come away feeling a little more compassionate or a different way of thinking. A little bit more connected to your fellow man. I guess that is the only goal.”

O’Dowd meanwhile hopes that viewers will leave with a clearer view of the story. “I think the audiences will be really thrown by how vindictive, how manipulative and how full bloodedly selfish Lance really was. As well as how there are still good journalists left in the world.”

Seaward is proud of an aim the film set out to achieve “To realise the world of cycling as respectfully as possible. It’s a huge community. We just hope we’re doing their world justice.”

And the final word on a film about Lance Armstrong goes to director, Stephen Frears. “He’s the most complicated man in the world. I hope he has a good analyst.”

The Program releases on November 13 in South Africa.