Words: Andy McGrath Photos: Offside
The English-language documentary about Marco Pantani is due to be completed in the next few months.
“The Accidental Death of a Cyclist” charts the tumultuous life and times of the late Italian star, using archive and contemporary footage, stylised dramatic reconstructions and interviews with Pantani’s family, close friends, former teammates and peers.
The film is a collaboration between director James Erskine and New Black Films, who previously teamed up for Italia 90-based One Night in Turin and cricket flick From The Ashes.
Erskine’s hope is that the Pantani film can approach the success of Senna, the 2010 smash about the mercurial Brazilian Formula 1 driver.
Last week, we sat down with Erskine to get the details on a film which could surpass anything that has come before in cycling cinema.
Why did you want to make a film about Marco Pantani?
I thought this was an extraordinary story with an extraordinary athlete, unique in that his story combines all the highs of contemporary commercialised sport and all the lows.
It feels to me that this was a story on the scale of Senna or Raging Bull, one about a human being and a human tragedy in the sporting world. And that’s what compelled me. It’s about getting to the heart of the man.
The Pantani story is really about someone who loves the bicycle. It’s ultimately about why someone becomes a professional in the first place. It’s about love and risk and adventure and seeing sport as an art.
I think that’s really important if you’re going to try and make a cinematic film. Senna was an artist behind a racing wheel, Pantani was an artist on a bicycle.
How do you frame whether or not Pantani doped?
I think we allow the audience to make their own conclusions. But I don’t think the aim of it is to force them into making any conclusions.
It’s about stripping away the doping scandals and looking at the real human being behind it. Is it more interesting to examine the question of whether Marco Pantani took performance enhancing drugs or to explore why he had such a tragic end?
If you decided that Marco Pantani took drugs, it doesn’t explain the ending. If you decided he didn’t take drugs, it certainly doesn’t explain the ending.
What happens to a human being in that situation, one that has won the Giro d’Italia in spectacular fashion, everything that their life has been about, at the very peak of the mountain. That moment when the haematocrit test comes out [at Madonna di Campiglio in the 1999 Giro], he can never get back, he can never be untainted again, even if he was innocent.
How anyone could cope with that? It’s supposed to be about suffering going up the mountain. What’s extraordinary about Pantani is this suffering on the way down.
When did you come up with the title, which seems a nod to Dario Fo’s work The Accidental Death of an Anarchist?
Pretty early on. The nod to Fo was deliberate in the sense that this is the story of a man whose death no-one will take responsibility for, yet everybody is responsible.
Also it’s about a corrupt system. I think there’s no doubt now – you might have argued when we came up with the idea – that cycling in the Nineties was corrupt.
The relationship between Conconi, the IOC and the UCI indicates a system in which natural justice doesn’t prevail.
Does the film go from the beginning of Pantani’s life?
It starts from the age of sixteen, seventeen years old. Most of the archive footage came from the Italian national broadcaster, RAI.
It’s very much about mountains too: we went with GoPros and cameras to these places, like the Galibier, the Mortirolo, filming on empty roads.
What makes Pantani stand out is that he’s a climber. I don’t think the film would have anywhere near the impact if Pantani wasn’t already attempting to do something which is, by its very nature, visually terrifying.
Cinema is supposed to be about showing extraordinary people in extraordinary places. What could be more visually extraordinary than the Galibier, Alpe d’Huez, the Mortirolo?
Which other places did you visit?
God, we went everywhere: Alpe d’Huez, Deux-Alpes, the bit near Turin where he fell off his bike, Cesenatico, Rome, Aprica, Minneapolis, where Greg LeMond lives.
Who else was interviewed?
We talked to his mother Tonina, Pino Roncucci, Roberto Amaducci, Piotr Ugrumov; Marco Velo was good too.
One Night in Turin drew heavily on Gazza-mania in England. Can you compare Pantani to Gascoigne?
There’s an interesting symmetry. I think they’re artists of sport, that’s what makes them entirely memorable and makes a nation embrace them.
It’s the idea of that single figure who represents the emotions of a country at a certain time. Pantani unquestionably does that in Italy.
Think about his funeral, it was extraordinary, on that scale of Senna and Princess Diana. Tens of thousands turned up – more people than for Margaret Thatcher.
It’s a way of connecting emotional identity through sport. Televised sport is at the heart of it.
Has there been an Italian sportsperson since Pantani? I’d say not, and Italian cycling is searching for a similar hero.
Pantani is unique. As much as Coppi might be a hero, or Jacques Anquetil in France or Merckx, they’re sort of pre-television.
You need mass media to create mass celebrity. You’ve got to be able to see their faces, see the emotion. It’s emotion that gets people.
Pantani’s mother Tonina seems to feel that the media had a part in her son’s downfall. How did the family feel about the making of this film?
We’ve been talking to them for a long time and interviewed them. I’ve shown them some bits of the film, which they found moving.
They see that we’re not making a journalistic exposé, we’re just trying to capture the spirit of the man.
Is there a narrator?
If we needed to clarify any of the key propositions of the film and push the emotional moment, we’d have one. But I don’t think that we do.
Each race is a story of its own, commentators from all over the world tell it well.
A lot of it was stripping down races to the bare ingredients, the key battle and protagonists, be it Tonkov, Ullrich, Armstrong, Indurain, Buenahora… fortunately Pantani offers those pugilistic moments.
When will it be in cinemas?
Some time between now and the 2014 Tour de France. I hope it would premiere at a major film festival and get theatrically released…
To me, it feels like a film that could come out in the autumn. It has lots of beautiful shots of mountains that recreate the magic of cycling so perhaps cyclists might fancy getting on their bikes, going down to the cinema and seeing those things.
Rouleur 38 is out now, featuring Colin O’Brien’s piece on Marco Pantani. Buy it here – or get it free before May 20 with a Rouleur subscription.