WHEN Steve McQueen died 25 years ago in Juarez, Mexico, he left behind two children, some 30 movies and a legacy as "The King of Cool" (the title of a documentary about him). He also left behind two custom-made trunks containing 16 leather-bound notebooks full of drawings, photographs from period magazines, and a detailed script continuity — a screenplay without dialogue — written in a kind of hyper-stylized poetry. These materials were his plans for "Yucatan," the vanity project he yearned, but failed, to make.
A heist film and adventure epic, it would have married the sprawling canvas of films like "The Great Escape" and "Papillon" with the chase-scene histrionics of "Bullitt" (transferred to motorcycles, McQueen's lifelong passion) along with some ancient history and visionary science thrown in for good measure.
The trunks sat in the basement of a house in Trancas Canyon in Malibu, Calif., until they were unearthed by McQueen's son, Chad, 10 years ago. (His daughter, Terry, died in 1998.) "If I'd handed this to the wrong people. ..." Chad McQueen said in a telephone interview, his voice trailing off. "Man, I don't need that."
He said he had planned just to "sit on it and let my kids deal with it down the road." But luckily that wasn't necessary, thanks in part to Lance Sloane, now a producer of the project, which is working its way through the development system at Warner Brothers, with a genuine shot at being made.
Mr. Sloane, Chad's best friend from high school and godfather to his son, spent much time at the McQueen household. The two families met at the Indian Dunes motorcycle track near Valencia, when a young Mr. Sloane was yelling at his mother. Steve McQueen, who spent some time at the Boys Republic reformatory in Chino, got out of his car and scolded this complete stranger for disrespecting his parent.
Later, after the two boys had blown up a neighbor's mailbox, McQueen administered some rough punishment, putting a boot to Mr. Sloane's backside that lifted him in the air and across the room. Mr. Sloane called his mother to come get him and walked up a hill to meet her. There he found McQueen leaning against the hood of her car, having convinced her that her son would be better off with a man's supervision. Mr. Sloane stayed with the McQueens for months at a time.
While growing up with Chad, Mr. Sloane said, "I learned a lot of things you learn at that age from his dad, and if there's somebody I want to pay back in life, it's" the McQueens. Much later, when Warner executives, pleased with a skateboarding movie he produced called "Grind," suggested he look for new properties, Mr. Sloane remembered those earlier tales of buried treasure.
What he found when he got the trunks to his office floored him: 1,700 pages of hand-typed material, written by Steve McQueen over a two-year period from 1969 to 1970. It amounted to a proto-PowerPoint presentation for a finished film, in which an archaeologist from the Museum of London enlists a renegade Navy diver, who works for the oil companies and races motorcycles on the "shores of the Mojave," in a plan to explore the cenotes, caves in the Yucatan jungle that reveal underground lakes. Here, a millennium before, Mayan priests sacrificed virgins covered in gold and precious jewels, a fortune rumored to still adorn their skeletons at the bottom of these sacred wells.
The writing is filled with a reverence for nature and sympathy to the class struggle in Mexico, and there is a motorcycle chase spelled out in illustrated storyboards that McQueen planned as the most elaborate ever committed to film. In William F. Nolan's biography "McQueen," the actor describes the film as follows: "Our story will center on a guy who takes his cycle into the Mexican wilds on a personal treasure hunt. Naturally, I'll play the guy on the cycle."
Asked to work with a supervising producer, Mr. Sloane went to the bungalow next door to his on the Warner lot to talk to David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter films. Mr. Heyman instantly lent the project credibility, thanks to both the $2 billion he has grossed for the studio and his respect for his source material. He set aside 45 minutes to read the journals on a flight from London and ended up staying with them for three days. "My role is to protect McQueen's vision," Mr. Heyman said. "But I think everybody on board feels that way. I've rarely seen a writer, let alone an actor, who's done this much preparation. There's just a tremendous amount of reference." To write the screenplay Mr. Heyman tapped Paul Scheuring, currently riding the crest of his Fox TV series "Prison Break," who claims to have seen "The Great Escape" 500 times and has the charming habit of referring to the actor as "Mr. McQueen." His screenplay reflects the latest politics, such as the Zapatista uprising, as well as technology — including portable marine submersibles and the practice of injecting carbon-dioxide-eating microorganisms directly into the bloodstream, an experimental process used by competitive divers — that was speculative science when McQueen first included it in the original.
Mr. Scheuring compares the tone of the film to the scenes in "Papillon" in which McQueen finds refuge among coastal Indians, or to "Sorcerer," William Friedkin's mid-70's remake of the French classic "Wages of Fear," about soldiers of fortune transporting nitroglycerine through the South American jungle. And he is adamant that McQueen receive story credit. "If I'm sharing a marquee with him," Mr. Scheuring says, "that's fine by me."
McQueen planned to make the film through his production company after the 1971 race car drama "Le Mans" but lost his moment and momentum when that film ran over schedule and over budget. Chad said that a painful mastoid problem with his father's ear in later years precluded him diving and curtailed the project, although the novelist Bud Shrake, a writer of "Tom Horn," remembers him trying to revive it as late as 1979. According to Mr. Shrake, McQueen discussed it with Sam Peckinpah, with whom McQueen made two and a half films ("The Getaway," "Junior Bonner" and "The Cincinnati Kid," from which Peckinpah was fired).
So far, the producers said, at least two of Hollywood's top stars — whom they declined to identify publicly — have read the journals and are circling the project. And it's easy to imagine directors sparking to the material, though no filmmaker or star has become attached while the script work goes on. "The fastest way to slow things down is to tie someone up on your project," Mr. Sloane said.
The notebooks are housed in a safe in Mr. Sloane's office on the Warner lot, where they serve as a road map to the kind of broad adventure plus intense character study the studio system has rarely made since the 1970's.
For the McQueen fan the notebooks, more than just a map to a movie, represent a rarely seen side of the actor.
Here's how McQueen closes his final meditation on "Yucatan":
He was parting the curtains on tomorrow
A commando on the liquid frontier...
The inheritors of that emerald planet
That jewel on the finger of the firmament
Ringed by its creator with sapphire seas
For the exaltation and the ultimate salvation of the Dominion of Man.
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