All Roads Lead to the Delorean
In a pivotal scene in the 2019 film Framing John DeLorean, a part-documentary, part-biopic, part-documentary-about-the-biopic, Alec Baldwin stands at a podium, transformed into the late automobile executive by a team of makeup artists borrowed from Saturday Night Live.
“Allow me to introduce the DeLorean Motor Car,” he tells an audience dressed in their 1981 finest. They cheer as a sheet falls back to reveal the now-iconic stainless steel sports car, both of its gull-wing doors lifting on cue.
Hitting that cue from inside the car was Dan Greeney’01, who co-wrote the scripted scenes that punctuate Framing John DeLorean. Greeney was invited onto the project by Tamir Ardon’02, one of its producers, after the documentary aspect of the film had been completed. “We [including directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott] were working on figuring out the right dialogue, and we knew Dan would be perfect for that,” Ardon said recently.
He was confident in Greeney’s screenwriting savvy because Framing John DeLorean was far from the first time Ardon and Greeney had collaborated. In fact, it wasn’t the first time they’d collaborated on a project involving the DeLorean automobile. At the beginning of “Back to Beloit!” a Y2K-era video that spent some time on Beloit.edu’s earliest recruiting pages, a college student version of Ardon arrives on Beloit’s campus in his personal DeLorean, complete with a novelty license plate stamped “OUTATIME,” to offer viewers a tour of the college.
Ardon was initially infatuated (along with the rest of his generation) by the car’s starring role in the 1985 adventure-comedy Back to the Future, but his interest in the DeLorean and its lore quickly came to have more to do with the man who had put his name on it. By the time he graduated from Beloit, Ardon had already met John DeLorean, after it occurred to him that calling DeLorean’s New Jersey estate might be worth a try.
Eventually, Ardon built relationships with DeLorean’s children, Zachary and Kathryn, and others close to him, and even had a stint as president of a DeLorean fan club. Ardon secured the rights to produce a film, as well as a separate documentary, about the mogul’s life after DeLorean passed away from a heart attack in 2005. Leslie Kidder’02, a close friend of Ardon’s and Greeney’s, believes that by that time, Ardon had earned the trust of even the most jaded of the supporting characters in the DeLorean story, and that’s why the project was eventually possible.
Both the dramatization and the documentary were realized simultaneously, nearly 15 years after Ardon’s initial idea to make a film (or two) about DeLorean was spoken aloud. Together, both projects also attempted to answer a question almost as enigmatic as their subject: Why is it so hard to make a movie about John DeLorean? As Zachary DeLorean summed it up in the documentary part of the film, his father’s life story has “cocaine, hot chicks, sports cars, bombed-out buildings, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, FBI agents, and hard-core drug dealers.” It was conspicuous that it had never been successfully dramatized.
More than a decade before the release of the car that he’s best known for today, John DeLorean was already an icon in America for his movie-star lifestyle and his boldness as a General Motors executive. In 1973, he left G.M., founded the DeLorean Motor Company, and eventually built a manufacturing facility in Northern Ireland. Before long, he’d encountered a series of production delays, depressed markets, and tepid critical responses that postponed the DeLorean Motor Car’s release by eight years, then plunged the company into financial crisis.
In 1982, DeLorean (the man) was charged with cocaine trafficking after an FBI sting. The very public trial that followed was watched by the American public as a kind of Icarus-like cautionary tale. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges.
To finally bring such a legendary story to the screen required casting a legendary lead, as far as Ardon was concerned. That’s often hard to achieve for a biopic, he said, but Alec Baldwin was “immediately intrigued” when the Framing John DeLorean team reached out to him, in no small part because DeLorean himself had confided in Baldwin before he died that he wanted the actor to portray him in a film. Baldwin was also satisfied by the promise that the Saturday Night Live makeup team he’d come to trust during 17 turns hosting the show—and dozens more Emmy-winning transformations into Donald Trump for cameos—would be brought on board as well.
The rest of the film was approached with just as much rigor. The very same prototype that DeLorean revealed to the public in 1981 was shipped from Florida to the Framing John DeLorean set in New York for 48 hours, to be used in the recreation of that moment.
And in the scripted scenes, “if we ever took creative liberties, it was because there was no evidence” of what might have really happened in that moment, Ardon says. “We never created anything that was BS.”
The film premiered with a “big red-carpet moment” at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Ardon says, and it was a Critic’s Pick in the New York Times, where film critic Glenn Kenny called it “unfailingly engrossing.”
“None of this would have happened without Tamir working his ass off,” says Greeney.
“Watching it brought tears to my eyes,” says Kidder. “I’ve known Tamir since we were 18, and this is his life’s work realized.”
Dr. T and Paul
When Greeney first arrived at Beloit College, he had already spent a year studying screenwriting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, but he found himself wishing for more opportunities to “do his own thing” there. When he found Beloit, he says he was “looking for something that was the photo-negative of a big-city university,” a place where he might be granted more creative breathing room.
The same semester that Greeney transferred to Beloit, Ardon and Kidder met while taking Professor of English Shawn Gillen’s First-Year Initiatives course, called “How Alfred Hitchcock helped America win the Cold War.” The two met Greeney not long after.
Gillen recalls the Hitchcock course as one of the best FYIs he’s taught. The potential among that batch of first-years was “eye-popping, to say the least,” he said recently.
Within a year of arriving at Beloit, Ardon and Greeney were producing and starring in a Beloit Public Access television show called The Dr. T and Paul Show, featuring Paul Ternes’02 (who also took Gillen’s class), Kidder, and a number of other students and professors. Each 15-minute episode parodied romance and sex advice shows that could be found on television at the time. Its format foreshadowed the self-referential nature of Framing John DeLorean by including scripted “behind the scenes” footage, in which Ardon played the show’s resident romantic expert “Dr. T,” and Greeney his evil producer, “Dan the Man.”
Kidder struggled to characterize the show, eventually insisting, “you have to see it.” (Today, most episodes can be found on Vimeo.) She recalled that students who owned televisions would host watch parties when a new episode aired. Gillen guesses that a number of Beloit city residents tuned in regularly, on top of at least half the student body.
Gillen considers it “the best student show on [Beloit Public Access television] ever,” although he noted that it probably “was outrageous in 1999, but not in 2019 terms.” He remembers Ardon as the “eccentric visionary” behind the show, and Greeney as the “more hands-on guy.”
In other words, Greeney had gotten his wish for creative leeway when he transferred from NYU. “At Beloit, no one told them ‘no,’” says Kidder, a fact that she’s still not sure Ardon and Greeney fully realize.
Television and Film
After earning his degree in creative writing from Beloit, Greeney moved to New York City to work as a post-production assistant, then returned to the Midwest to obtain a master’s degree in screenwriting from DePaul University in Chicago. Meanwhile, with a degree from Beloit in philosophy, Ardon completed a master’s program at Rush University’s Medical College in Chicago before deciding that his heart was in film and earning a degree in the subject from the University of California-Los Angeles.
They’ve both remained in television and film since then. Today, Ardon is head of documentaries for the company XYZ Films, and his upcoming projects include a documentary about the 1995 film Showgirls, which will be out in 2020. Greeney is a freelance screenwriter and producer. Another XYZ Films documentary in development, this one about the life of stop-motion animation pioneer Will Vinton, already has Greeney attached to it.
Ardon claims that with his first big DeLorean project out of the way, he’s no longer as intensely seeking to scratch that itch. But Framing John DeLorean has merely been a milestone in both Ardon’s and Greeney’s DeLorean Motor Car-related media careers: They’re now developing an eight-part television series together on John DeLorean’s life. And after that? Only a time traveler could say for sure.
Clare Eigenbrode’20 is an environmental studies and Spanish major and a Midwest transplant, originally from Moscow, Idaho. She is currently co-editor in chief of the student newspaper The Round Table.