After four decades, Roman Polanski's groundbreaking documentary Weekend Of a Champion hits the big screen and it's a timeless journey into a bygone era. In 1971, Polanski already had an Oscar nomination under his belt for Rosemary's Baby (1968) in his late 30s. With more nominations and a win still ahead of him, the young filmmaker made a side-trip into non-fiction. Polanski tapped documentary filmmaker Frank Simon who he met at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, which was cancelled in the aftermath of the now legendary student uprisings, to join him on a filmmaking project on the Riviera.
The subject was Polanski's friend, Formula One champion Jackie Stewart. The film, then titled Jackie Stewart: Weekend of a Champion went on to receive a Special Recognition at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1972 followed by limited roll outs at select festivals, and then it all but disappeared until just recently. Decades later, Polanski viewed the footage and reached out to his old friend, now Sir Jackie Stewart, to take a look. The now Oscar-winning filmmaker decided to reshape it and add an updated interview with Sir Jackie and himself at the end, reminiscing how racing has evolved over the four decades.
Set in Monaco during the Monaco Grand Prix, the film is at once a pristine time capsule (Stewart and Polanski's sideburns and shaggy mops are classic) and timeless. The film reveals Stewart's innate instincts about Formula One unfolding with humor and drama. Filmmaking technique is also key, with the viewer virtually sitting next to Stewart courtesy of a 16 mm camera as he zooms at breakneck speeds through the streets of the Principality along the course and its hair-raising turns just feet from spectators. And the glamour of the event is also in full bloom. A vibrant and stylish Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III greet Stewart and his fellow racers, while later, there's a table-side view as the jet set and beautiful of the time party up with their Serene Highnesses and their glittering set, including Ringo Starr. Still, it's all about the race and the looming villain is actually the weather. Stewart, who went on to win three World Drivers' Championships during his racing career, is the one to beat in the race. He toils over how to deal with the sporadic downpours, making an already dangerous sport even more perilous, all the while bantering with Polanski who appears on camera throughout the feature.
Stewart chatted with FilmLinc Daily this week ahead of the film's release this weekend at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. Stewart talks about re-discovering the film and his longtime friendship with Polanski. He also talks about his upbringing and how his dyslexia — something he did not know he had when the film was originally made — drove him to his championship career. And he talks about the long road to revolutionizing safety in Formula One, something that is both a testament to dozens of his friends who died and a legacy of many lives that have been saved.
FilmLinc: Congratulations on the rebirth of Weekend of a Champion and its release this weekend.
Sir Jackie Stewart: Thank you. We've had quite a lot of viewings already. The film was selected by the Cannes Film Festival this year. For Roman [Polanski] that was a big thing. Of course the movie was made 40 years ago.
FL: What was it like re-visiting Weekend of a Champion after all of this time?
JS: It was refreshing. I think what's appealing is to look back. Forty years ago, safety just wasn't there. Drivers racing passed 180 m.p.h. by the grandstands was crazy. There were no [meaningful] barriers. If the wrong kind of accident had occurred, you'd wipe out [the spectators]. It was ridiculous and nobody wanted to do very much. This is when I was most active. So it's good to look back and see. I mentioned to Roman [Polanski] at the end of the movie that if you were racing for five years there was a 2 in 3 chance you were going to die. But as of now, it's been 19 years, seven months and 16 days since we've lost the life of a Formula One driver. It's amazing to think of that.
FL: There are young fellow race car drivers that are shown in the film that lost their lives. It's insane how many people died and that Formula One was able to survive all of that.
JS: Helen my wife and I, who is in the movie, sat one night and counted 57 people that we knew well enough to call real friends that were killed. There was a very poor batting average. When you're racing at that time and going to funerals and having to help the wives or girlfriends and seeing the families and their grief, you realize that this simply should not go on, but it was a major battle. I had threats against me because it would take away the sport from certain regions that were important to the local economy.[At one annual race] in Germany, 75,000 people would attend, and that's a lot of bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants and other parts of the economy that won't have business. But we took the Formula One away from there. That was unpopular but, in my opinion, we had to do them because they refused at the time to do even the simplest adjustments to improve safety. We didn't expect the whole circuit to change overnight, but we expected some dangerous various areas to be improved. It was a very big fight, but the point that Roman was making this movie was the height of it all.
FL: Why was there such resistance to the safety changes? Was there a perception that the lack of danger would change the stakes and drama of it all?
JS: I think part of it was just old fashioned thinking and also partly was money. I also think part of it was generational. There was thinking that if they could do it in the '30s then, “Why can't you pussycats do it now?” It's a very easy question to simply ask, “Why don't you just get out?” But I was still winning world championships at the time. So working with Roman Polanski was very nice for me not only because he was a good friend, but when the movies come out, it's very straightforward. It's cinema vérité and it showed how it was.
FL: What prompted you and Polanski to re-visit this material after four decades?
JS: My son Mark has a boutique production company in London (Mark Stewart Productions). He knows Roman and of course I know Roman very well. Roman found the reel of the movie and had forgotten all about it. One of his people asked if he should just scrap it. But he remembered that my son Mark had another reel, which was actually in very good condition and then he decided to take a look at it with Mark and myself. The three of us watched it and he said, “This is very well worth doing. Let's take another stab at it,” — and he's still alive and I'm still alive almost 40 years later. So it was very great to see four decades later and of course there was nostalgia. There are many in the generations today who were not aware of what was going on then. So we're getting a young audience saying, “Woah! That was very primitive.” And we're getting an older audience that's saying, “Wow, those were great times!” One thing that's made it so attractive is to see what it was like back then.
FL: In the movie, the weather seems like the ominous villain in the film beyond the ongoing safety issues. As it plays, it's a character that lurks and threatens to spoil the happy ending.
JS: Yes it was. Actually, NASCAR doesn't' race in the rain, but Formula One does. The weather conditions in Europe can be very volatile. And especially in those days there weren't a lot of wet weather tires. In '71 there were two or three tire companies involved, so one would be a good wet weather tire and the other one wouldn't be. It was always a challenge when it was wet. I think Firestone had the tires that were good when it was wet and we had Goodyear. The Ford Motor Company was very important at that time. We were using Ford engines. They were very big in Formula One racing. They beat Ferrari and all those big names…
FL: At the end of the movie you and Roman Polanski did an updated discussion toward the end of the movie. He asked you what initially prompted you to get into racing and you said that you had dyslexia, which you didn't know back in the early '70s. It was a very interesting revelation because had the question been asked back in 1971 your answer might have been so completely different.
JS: That is correct. I just thought I was stupid. I thought I was thick because that's what my teachers told me. When you're young and then your teacher tells you that right in front of your classmates, it inevitably moves from the classroom to the playground. A dyslexic today may find the same thing. There can be an inferiority complex of not being able to do the most simple things that most other people can do. My son Mark also has dyslexia. But he's very creative and into movie making. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are dyslexic. It doesn't mean you cannot be successful, but your school years might be the most difficult part of your life — or at least that was so in my case.
So, I just couldn't get out of school early enough. I left at 15 without any education at all… Right now, I can't recite the alphabet and I cannot sing our National Anthem. I can't remember them. On the other hand, I have other skills that other dyslexics have that are very creative. Financially I've done very well and in business. Charles Schwab is also a dyslexic, but he's a helluva good banker. What saved me was similar to what saved Muhammad Ali who is dyslexic, which is sport. A lot of the Olympic gold medalists are dyslexic and are able to achieve what they have because they're just so relieved that they can excel at something where they're praised rather than mentally abused. It was ironic that when I was doing the film with Roman, some of the descriptions I was giving about the car to the mechanics or when I was telling Roman about how to drive a car, were things that I was able to pass on that had different points of reference in their explanation. Dyslexics are good at that. And look who created Star Wars for god sakes? George Lucas did it. That creative side brings a different side of things.
FL: And it's very interesting that your dyslexia brought you into the racing world actually…
JS: Absolutely! And I'm also now president of Dyslexia Scotland. We're probably doing more with dyslexia there than in any other country. All of our teacher training colleges in Scotland to have all new teachers coming out to have the knowledge and recognition to identify early students who show signs of learning difficulties. That's a huge step forward. That is something that is not happening across America for instance. There are some very good pockets in America identifying dyslexia, but not unilaterally. A minimum of ten percent of the population have dyslexia — and of course you have 300 million people.
FL: That is fantastic and I hope your work there will go beyond Scotland's shores and certainly make its way here in a meaningful way. I do want to get back a bit to racing which is of course the crux of Weekend of a Champion and specifically, the setting of this story in the Principality of Monaco. The Monaco Grand Prix continues to be a huge draw all these years on — bigger in fact. What about Monaco that makes it the pinnacle event of racing?
JS: Monaco is still the crown of motor racing. It's glamorous, colorful and exciting. It's right after the [Cannes] film festival and the stars come over. The greatest yachts in the world are in the harbor. Both of Their Serene Highnesses [Monaco's Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene] are there and playing a big part of the whole weekend. Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace at the [time we made this movie] were there. The race was created in 1929 and Monaco is about the size of Central Park. And yet, the jet set go there and it marks the beginning of the Riviera season. So it's enormously important.
We just came from the Grand Prix in Austin, TX and that's a great addition in America. It's important for American motor sport and they do a very good job. And Singapore has become very important and now China. We had never been there before. We're also in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East. And of course we're still in Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy of course. It's bigger than it's ever been before and we're the largest television sport in the world. It's bigger than the Olympics or the [soccer] World Cup because it's throughout the year and those are every four years.
Next year we have 21 Grand Prixs scheduled of which 20 will take place, but there's only one in every country, which means it's a very big ticket. All the CEOs, heads of marketing and advertisers attend. Formula One is by far the most commercial sport in the world with major corporations investing in it [by way] of sponsorship, hospitality and technical access. We had Microsoft, Nike and the biggest private equity companies in the world etc. in Austin, TX. All of this attracts a lot of other businesses. Formula One is probably the biggest business to business sport. Transportation is the third largest industry in the world…