As John DeLorean, Alec Baldwin Revisits The Past Of A Car Made For The Future

Jun 4, 2019
Originally published on June 5, 2019 6:41 am

You might know it best as the time machine in 1985's Back to the Future: The DeLorean was an unmistakable sports car with doors that flapped open like wings. Now, a new film starring Alec Baldwin explores the past of its automaker, who designed for the future.

John DeLorean rose through the ranks at General Motors, recasting Pontiac from a sleepy brand into one known for American muscle cars. He was forced out of GM and founded the DeLorean Motor Co.

It took years for DeLorean's company to put out cars that didn't sell. He stationed his factory in Belfast amid decades of civil and sectarian strife. And when a newly elected Margaret Thatcher yanked his subsidies, DeLorean looked for easy money to pay his debts. Federal agents busted him as he agreed to fund a scheme to sell drugs. He famously beat the charge, arguing he was entrapped by the FBI.

Baldwin says he sees DeLorean as a tragic figure. "He really was an immensely talented guy," Baldwin explains. "He had an enormously successful career at GM. He could have stayed that course and probably run the company. But John just had a contrarian streak in him — and his ego as well — he just found it very difficult to work for other people."


Interview Highlights

On DeLorean's vanity

I think that John is somebody who really believed that he was a hero. John was obsessed with his image. John wanted to — and did — stand out from other white-shirt executives in Detroit who were a little stuffy, and a little staid, and a little more traditional. John had open-collar shirts and lifted weights and had his hair cut a certain way. John was obsessed with his public relations. Obsessed. And I think he, right until the very end, I'm sure if you spoke to him, he'd tell you what he thought he did was heroic.

On DeLorean's sales skills

He was very smart. He was very shrewd. He was very manipulative. ... I spoke to [his ex-wife] Cristina very briefly ... she had not wanted to speak to people really that much involved with the film but she was very kind, and got on the phone with me — and she said John literally could walk into a room and talk anybody into anything.

On a conversation he had with DeLorean

In the early '90s DeLorean himself called me. He said, "Alec, it's John DeLorean here and I was wondering if you'd consider playing me in a part in a movie they're going to make about my life." And the film — there were a couple of them at the time — they all unraveled and none of them were made. ...

If that phone call was at all an indication of how John operated, then part of John's success was he asked people to do something that they were predisposed to do. He said to me, "You want to play me in a movie, don't you?" And I'm like, "Well, yes, I do actually." So John kind of knew people very, very well.

On driving a DeLorean to help prepare for the film

Stylistically the car's a beautiful car. It was ahead of its time. To me, the important thing is what might have been. - Alec Baldwin

It was like a kooky car. Your body is almost like you're laying down like on a chaise or something — you're really reclined and your feet are out in front of you. That's not my favorite position to drive ... I like to drive sitting up.

But listen, stylistically the car's a beautiful car. It was ahead of its time. To me, the important thing is what might have been. Whether DMC [DeLorean Motor Co.] worked or not, I think John could have played an important part in American automobile manufacturing until all this went wrong.

It's kind of a warning to [SpaceX founder and Tesla co-founder] Elon Musk — a cautionary tale in terms of: Just do one thing well, you know? Just make the car. ... I'm of the school where you should just try to do one thing well.

On DeLorean's impression of himself as a hero

It's like a Robin Hood complex — by the letter of the law what I'm doing is wrong, but by the spirit, what I'm doing is benevolent. I admired some things about him, and I was obviously turned off by some things about him. ...

[Actors are] expected to look at people very closely and understand why they do what they do. And sometimes people do horrible things, or they do criminal things, they hurt other people, and they create a lot of wreckage in their path. But their intention is a good one, initially, and then things just become perverted. I think that's the case with John. ...

He loved his wife, and he loved his kids, and he really was a great father. But his ambition drove him to a point and he was backed into a corner. And then he started to do really, really terrible things and he should have stopped. But he didn't, and then all the wheels fell off — no pun intended.

Taylor Haney and Peter Granitz produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey and Andee Tagle adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The signature car made by John DeLorean did not last as a consumer product, but it survives as the time machine from the 1980s movie "Back To The Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACK TO THE FUTURE")

MICHAEL J FOX: (As Marty McFly) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Doc, are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a DeLorean?

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: (As Dr. Emmett Brown) The way I see it, if you're going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style? Besides, the stainless-steel construction made the flux dispersal - look out.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASH)

INSKEEP: Even when it wasn't made into a time machine, the DeLorean was an unmistakable sports car with doors that flapped upward to open like wings. It was named for the man who tried to start his own auto company, John DeLorean, who had been a creative rule-breaking executive at General Motors. He'd been credited with creating a popular sports car, the Pontiac GTO. And it was when he was forced out of GM that he founded the DeLorean Motor Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN")

ALEC BALDWIN: (As John DeLorean) Allow me to introduce the first incarnation in the evolution of my dream - our first vehicle, code-named the DMC-12, the DeLorean motor car.

(APPLAUSE)

INSKEEP: OK, we're hearing an actor playing John DeLorean - Alec Baldwin, who stars in "Framing John DeLorean." This movie is essentially a documentary but with key, private scenes reenacted about DeLorean's rise and fall. And there was a fall - DeLorean based his company in war-torn Northern Ireland because he could be paid a subsidy, and when the subsidy dried up, he went looking for other sources of cash. Federal agents arrested DeLorean for a scheme to sell drugs; he said he was entrapped and beat the charge. Alec Baldwin says DeLorean's complicated history is what drew him to this role.

BALDWIN: You can play someone who was a completely just negative value in a script, some villain or something, and you think, well, I want to do that in the service of a great story. And then, there's times you do something like this and the issue becomes, what are all the layers of John? I didn't want to just play John if he was somebody who defrauded the British government or someone who tried to, you know, sell cocaine to cover his tracks, financially. I really felt that John was somebody who is a tragic figure.

He really was an immensely talented guy. He had an enormously successful career at GM. He could have stayed that course and probably run the company. But John just had a contrarian streak in him. And his ego, as well - he just found it very difficult to work for other people. And so when I look at a part like that, I think there's got to be something good there; there's got to be something constructive or positive there, or I don't really think I want to put myself through that.

INSKEEP: Sure, you find him to be what, then - a great salesman, a great visionary? What was he that was positive?

BALDWIN: You know, words like visionary, he was part that. He was very smart. He was very shrewd. He was very manipulative. His wife - I spoke to Cristina very briefly. And she had not wanted to speak to people, really, that much involved with the film, but she was very kind and got on the phone with me. And she said John literally could walk into a room and talk anybody into anything.

INSKEEP: There is a scene where you're playing John DeLorean, and your character is selling his wife on a move to another country, where he wants to set up an auto factory. Let's listen to a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FRAMING JOHN DELOREAN")

BALDWIN: (As John DeLorean) Eventually, the car will get built, but right now I'm trying to build a brand.

MORENA BACCARIN: (As Cristina) Well, it concerns me where we're going to raise the children.

BALDWIN: (As John DeLorean) Wherever we set up shop, we won't have to spend much time there. All that matters is which government gives us the most money.

BACCARIN: (As Cristina) Well, it matters to me, and it matters to the kids.

BALDWIN: (As John DeLorean) Don't worry; it's going to be great for all of us. Trust me.

Well, I mean, I love how - I mean, for him to look at his wife and say trust me at the end of the scene is everything because John did a lot of that. John got people to do things they never do. But I think at the same time, he loved his wife, and he loved his kids, and he really was a great father. But his ambition drove him to a point, and he was backed into a corner, and then he started to do really, really terrible things. And he should have stopped, but he didn't, and then all the wheels fell off - no pun intended.

INSKEEP: Did you ever drive a DeLorean yourself?

BALDWIN: (Laughter) I did to prepare for the film, and it was, like, a kooky car. Your body is almost like you're laying down, like on a chaise or something. You know, you're really reclined, and your feet are out in front of you. And it's - that's not my favorite position to drive. I don't like to drive lying down, shall we say. I like to drive sitting up (laughter). But listen - stylistically, the car's a beautiful car; it was ahead of its time. To me, the important thing is what might have been. Whether DMC worked or not, I think John could have played an important part in American automobile manufacturing, until all this went wrong.

And it's kind of a warning to Elon Musk, a cautionary tale, in terms of, just do one thing well, you know, just make the car. Musk apparently wants to open up dry cleaners on the moon. I don't know what he wants to do.

INSKEEP: We're talking, of course, about the founder of Tesla and also of SpaceX and various other...

BALDWIN: Yeah. Right. I'm of the school where you should just try to do one thing well.

INSKEEP: Did you ever meet John DeLorean?

BALDWIN: In the early '90s, DeLorean himself called me. He said, Alec, it's John DeLorean here, and I was wondering if you'd consider playing me in a part in a movie they're going to make about my life. And the film - there were a couple of them at the time. They all unraveled, and none of them were made.

INSKEEP: Did you come away with any particular impression of him? Did he sell you well, for example? Was he a good salesman?

BALDWIN: (Laughter) Well, I can honestly say, I think if that phone call was at all an indication of how John operated, then part of John's success was he asked people to do something that they were predisposed to do. He said to me, you want to play me in a movie, don't you? And I'm like, well, yes, I do, actually. So John kind of knew people very, very well.

INSKEEP: Very early in the film, you note that from John DeLorean's perspective, he wasn't a criminal; he was a hero. In what way did he believe he was a hero?

BALDWIN: It's like a Robin Hood complex - by the letter of the law, what I'm doing is wrong, but by the spirit, what I'm doing is benevolent. I admired some things about him, and I was, you know, obviously turned off by some things about him. What I do for a living, like other people in my businesses, is were expected to look at people very closely and understand why they do what they do. And sometimes people do horrible things, or they do criminal things. They hurt other people, and they create a lot of wreckage in their path. But their intention is a good one, initially, and then things just become perverted, and I think that's the case with John.

INSKEEP: Alec Baldwin, it's a pleasure talking with you.

BALDWIN: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASERATI'S "THIEVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.