Duncan Campbell's Make it New John combines fact and fiction to tell the story of DeLorean's downfall

Make it New John is a film chronicling the life of Northern Ireland’s best-known car-maker, John DeLorean: a rags to riches story of the American son of an immigrant worker who became owner of his own factory, only to be ruined by accusations of embezzlement and drug smuggling.

Archive footage from the DeLorean era provides a wealth of material for any storyteller. For Campbell, however, the DeLorean car will always be Marty McFly’s time machine in Back to the Future. ‘It became an icon of the 1980s,’ he says with a grin. ‘I was interested in the mythology of it.’

There is an element of story building to Campbell’s film. It is a combination of fact and almost-factual fiction. Three quarters of the film uses archival footage sourced from different television stations. The final 15 minutes, covering the worker’s sit-in during the last days of the DeLorean factory, is a scene written and shot by Campbell himself. It is a fiction as close to fact as Campbell could manage, constructed using print sources and retrospective interviews with the workers who were there.

‘I tried to be as faithful as I could to how the workers felt about their predicament and John DeLorean,' Campbell explains. 'It was surprising, because even though there were stories about embezzlement they were still loyal to him and critical of Margaret Thatcher [British Prime Minister at the time]. They felt it was the Tory government who pulled the plug on the factory.’

Myth plays a part in how an audience receives the film too. Campbell showed Make it New John in New York in 2010 to a very different reaction from US audiences. ‘The folk memory here, in Britain, tends to be about the bad stuff, but in America they have very fond memories of the car itself. It was built for that market.’

The film was also exhibited during a period when the topic resonated with American interests. The Detroit car industry had just been bailed out and Make it New John seemed to strike a cord with audiences. Campbell is interested in how the piece will be received in Belfast, because, he says, ‘it is like it’s home'.

So which myth does Campbell buy into? After years spent immersed in John DeLorean’s world, where does he think the cracks started to appear in the manufacturer’s dreams?

‘I think that it was partially a conspiracy of small things,’ Campbell says after a moment. ‘The DeLorean was an assembly line car but had to be partly hand-built, which was labour intensive. There was also a recession in America in the 80s and an intense cold snap that affected people’s appetite to buy a sports car. The main thing, however, was that it was just too ambitious.’

Normally it took an established car company five years to go from prototype to production. DeLorean gave himself two, and that time scale included building a plant in which to produce the car. To make that happen a lot of short-cuts had to be taken and some design features were left out.

‘The car is a paradox,' Campbell concludes. 'It looks great on the outside, but the interior is half built. But it is still an enduring piece of design that has stood the test of time.’

Watch a video above featuring archive footage from Make it New John, with commentary by the artist.

Make it New John is showing every hour on the hour at the Belfast Exposed Gallery until March 4.