In Finding Steve McQueen, a group of thieves tries to steal President Richard Nixon’s secret bank funds in the early 1970s. We talked with the film’s director, Mark Steven Johnson about his career, Finding Steve McQueen and future projects.

You have established quite a career in Hollywood as both a writer and director. At what point in your life did you know you wanted to make films?

I always knew that I wanted to make films since I can remember. I was living in Hastings, Minnesota in middle school and high school and I would save up my money for screenplays that would come in the mail. Back then, that was pre-Internet, to get a hold of the scripts you had to order from a place called Script City and they would show up in my mailbox and I would get my hands on whatever I could to see the format and how it worked. I never told anybody, but that’s what I would spend all my time doing -- reading comic books and reading screenplays and knowing that one day that’s what I was going to do.

I was twelve when Jaws came out and my mother took me to see Jaws at the Hastings’ Theatre and there was a line around the block. We finally got in and people were screaming and laughing and cheering. It was such a great feeling and I looked at my mom and said that was what I was going to do, I wanted to do this. That was the big moment where I really knew and I really started working my way to get out here, which was a long way to go from Hastings, Minnesota.

What attracted you to this project?

For me, it was a footnote in history most people had never heard of. It was the most interesting bank robbery that I had ever heard of. It was this idea that these bank burglars from Youngstown, Ohio decided that they were going to rob the President of the United States. They were in so over their heads, and yet, they kind of did it. They pretty much pulled it off. So, I thought it was a very unique heist film. There are a million heist films and I wasn’t dying to make a heist film, but I love stories about underdogs. That’s what Simon Birch was and what Grumpy Old Men is, that’s what even Daredevil was, a superhero who was handicapped. I love the underdog: and this was the ultimate underdog for me. I also saw it was an incredibly topical story. You hear so much about Watergate and Nixon today in the news and that made this feel like something different. It was that combined with the love story. The love story is what really got me hooked. When they sit down in the diner and he (Harry Barber) says “I’m not who you think I am,” I was in and to then tell the story out of sequence was very interesting - it was a combination of the love story and the fascinating true story that most people have never heard of and giving people a chance to learn about this strange little footnote in history.

You used time period music quite a bit. How did you decide which songs fit the scenes and how fun was it to revisit that music?

It’s fun and frustrating. You fall in love with certain songs and you can’t get them. It is a continual search to find the music for something like this because it’s really important in a period piece to have recognizable music. It really helps set a place and a time and a tone. It was, again, everybody in this film pulled together. It’s a small film and we didn’t have a lot of money, you really have to have everyone pull in as much as they can to get you the songs that you need to really set it. We had a lot of Tommy James and the Shondells. The tricky thing about the movie is that it has five different timelines. You jump back and forth constantly in the film from around 1970 to around 1980 and one of the great ways to establish where you are, besides color palette and hairstyles, is music. It became a great kind of barometer for us as far as setting the tone of the scene.

You’ve worked with legendary actors over the years. In this film, you got to work with two men who audiences will recognize immediately in Forest Whitaker and William Fichtner. What was that experience like?

It was fantastic! Both are such gentlemen, they are such professionals. When you’re working with someone like Forest Whitaker or William Fichtner you really just have to stay out of their way. It’s kind of like driving a really high-performance race car: you don’t have to muscle it much. You get to sit back and have discussions, let them do the thing, and make adjustments. That’s the way I like to work, I don’t like giving too much direction - I think that freezes actors up. And actors like this - they’re going to come already with a point of view and a passion. It’s my job just to help them achieve what they’re trying to get to the scene. They’re both fantastic. You know when you’re in Dailies and you’re watching every time that they come on screen you’re watching pros at work. They are both fantastic and I would love to work with both of them again.

What would you do if you had unlimited resources to make a film?

I would get cars that work. When you’re dealing with period cars they break down a lot and when you don’t have a lot of time or a lot of money to make a film, you find yourself very frustrated when the cars are not moving and the sun is going down and you’re about to end the day. It would be fun to get the real Mustang, the real Steve McQueen car from Bullit. We have a GTO, which is beautiful, but people sometimes say to me “Why did you get the GTO? Why didn’t you get the same car from Bullit?” Because that’s [what] we could afford. We needed two cars, one to drive and one to crash. It’s funny, it’s all independent filmmaking at the end of the day. No matter how big the movie it is, it always ends up with me in my backyard in high heels putting out a cigarette, doing insert shots. It’s not that much different, you don’t have as many toys for big shots and what not. I do think the stunts, we didn’t have money for stunts – it would have been great to do some spectacular car crashes and whatnot, but we had what we had and we made the best of it.

Do you have any new projects you are working on that you can tell our readers about?

I do. I have a project called Patrick 1.5, which I am working on right now. I’m casting, which I hope to have news on very soon, which is a fantastic comedy. And I have a movie called Lucy Boomer that I am producing with Shirley MacLaine, which is another kind of historical comedy that I am working on at the moment. I hope it will be shooting this summer - we’re also on casting. Those are the two front burner ones right now.

Finding Steve McQueen is available in Theaters, On Demand and Digital now.

Watch Finding Steve McQueen via iTunes or while showing in a cinema near you.