Walter Mencken 4 p.m., May 3
Interview with Parkland writer-director Peter Landesman
Matthew Lickona: Tell about how you conceived of the film.
Peter Landesman: I didn't want to go down the path that so many people have gone down, the murder mystery and conspiracy nonsense [surrounding the Kennedy assassination]. There's no point. The only reason to make this film is if it's telling a story that no one knows. For me, the way to do that was to take a journey into the lives of the people on the ground on the day it happened. I realized that we were onto something really monumental - that this wasn't just a retelling from another point of view. This was really a whole new understanding of what the assassination really meant, and what really happened.
ML: So, just to be clear, you were interested in the assassination and you were looking for a new way to put eyes on it.
PL: Look, [Producer Tom] Hanks put the book [Four Days in November] in my hands, but I had always been obsessed with this, in the same way I was obsessed as a journalist with peeling the lid off of commonly held beliefs and myths. If you Google my journalism, you'll see that almost all my big stories for the New York Times Magazine were similar.
ML: How did you decide upon your points of focus - which characters you would highlight?
PL: They kind of picked me. I'm not being a pretentious asshole by saying that. I'm really being truthful. I knew the engine of the movie was the hospital [where they brought Kennedy, and later, Oswald]. That was a point of view and a set of characters in a circumstance that no one had ever thought of before. Doctors covered in the President's blood? You can't get more Shakespearean than that. These are kids who are just learning to be doctors who are suddenly faced with the most important patient in the world, and they're trying to do the undoable. He was DOA, and they were still tasked with trying to save him. That was immediately digestible as the most powerful way in.
And then in my research into Zapruder, Robert Oswald, and Jim Hosty - these were characters who came to represent the bigger messages of the day, what the assassination was really about. Robert Oswald, waking up to realize his brother is the devil. How do you just continue with your life after that? Zapruder, feeling the shame of having been in the right place at the wrong time - an immigrant, a real patriot, knowing that his American dream was over. Jim Hosty, just a great tragic hero. A shoe-leather cop trying to do his job, who realizes that he had the right guy, but he didn't know for what crime. Ordinary people forced into brutally extraordinary circumstances, discovering acts of heroism in little things. You couldn't make this shit up.
And then, it's important to say this, I got angry. I thought, "Why have we been wasting our time? Why is there a multi-billion dollar industry built around this conspiracy nonsense when none of it really makes any sense whatsoever? When we're faced with really powerful, visceral, ferocious, real drama that's true?
ML: There was an awful lot of interesting tension when the coroner came in and demanded that Kennedy's body stay in Dallas. I found myself wanting to spend more time with the coroner, but I wondered if the reason we didn't was that you didn't want to feed the conspiracy beast? People saying, "Why did the body not stay in Dallas?" That sort of thing.
PL: No, it was much more psychologically simple than that. The Secret Service - these are body guards and they fucked up. They were sure as shit going to get their fallen hero back home. That's all it was about. To be perfectly honest, Earl Rose was doing his job, and by the way, he was right. That was a local murder and that body belonged to him. He had every right in the world to do the autopsy. I'd actually say that on an emotional level, both sides were right. I mean, if Earl Rose had given it a moment's thought, he would have shut the fuck up and let them go, but he didn't. And you know, look, I was a war correspondent. I've watched great people crumble under pressure and make bad decisions.
ML: Was the amount of time given to Oswald's mother just to manifest her effect on Lee's brother Robert? She dominates every scene she's in.
PL: Partly, that's the power of Jackie Weaver. She's one of the great actors of our time. She can't be denied as an actress - she's so present, so big. But here's what I wanted to say: that's a very accurate portrayal of that woman, as bananas as she seems. There's an argument to be made that she's as responsible for killing the President as Lee Harvey Oswald is. She was a narcissistic, partially sociopathic, overbearing mother who created a monster. I think if you watch this movie and you take her in, you come away with a very strong understanding, thinking to yourself, "Yeah, I kind of get why he is so bananas, and why he became capable of killing a President. It kind of makes sense."
ML: A person can see the Zapruder film of the assassination on YouTube, but you chose not to show it - at least not all of it - in the movie. Why?
PL: I wanted it to be experienced as if you were there. I didn't want to be literal, I wanted to be impressionistic - not to be tricky, but to be true to the experience of seeing it subjectively - through Abraham Zapruder's eyes. Anybody can see it, but they've never seen it like this, through the point of view of the man who shot it, and the people who saw it for the first time.
ML: How did you do your research?
PL: Carefully. A lot of planes, trains, and automobiles. Anybody who was still left alive, I made sure to spend a lot of time there. There's an enormous amount of documentary evidence of experience - interviews and oral histories done with people on the ground immediately after the fact. Every medical staff member who was involved sat down and wrote a very detailed report. That stuff was invaluable. The Zapruder family opened up for the first time to anybody. They were extremely generous.
ML: How did you get them to open up?
PL: It's like any other relationship. It's about trust. They felt that we were going to be dignified and trustworthy with his story. Tom Hanks comes with a lot of credibility. Tom and I went to them and said, "Look, you've never told your story. There's a lot of mythology and bullshit out there about this man. This movie is kind of the last word on who these people were and what they went through. If you are going to tell your story, this is where you want to tell it."
ML: The camera is very kinetic.
PL: I wanted to give the movie a subjective feel. It's a movie without judgment, but it's a movie that puts the audience in the room. When we look at things, our eyes are kinetic. Our focus shifts depending on our attention, our moods, and our emotions. I wanted the camera to approximate that as much as possible.
ML: What led you to include the real-life photos and histories of the people involved at the end of the film?
PL: There were two reasons. Audiences wanted it; they hungered to know what became of these people. I showed it with and without the photos, and the audiences who didn't get them wanted them. And on a practical level, it gives the audience a chance to sit there in the dark without having to talk to anybody, and kind of recover. It's a very intense movie.
ML: The film is a dramatic work about a real-life event, and the photos sort of pull it into the middle ground between dramatic work and documentary.
PL: It's a risk - I hear what you're saying. But I wasn't going to pretend that it was a purely dramatic work. Part of the power of the movie is knowing that it's true. That's why I used archival footage at the beginning - archival footage, my footage, and footage I shot to look archival. I wanted to create a visual language, to allow the audience to know that what they were looking at actually happened That they could trust it, they didn't have to negotiate with themselves throughout the movie. They could sit back and relax, knowing that they were in the hands of someone who was telling them a true story.
ML: There's a strong religious presence in the film. Not just Kennedy and Jackie, but the Secret Service agent putting the crucifix on top of the casket in the plane, and the preacher at Oswald's funeral, and the prayer from Jim Hosty at the end of the film.
PL: There are a few ways to discuss it. On a literal level, they were all Catholics, and their Catholicism was very, very important to them. When Kennedy died, as opposed to when the priest showed up to deliver Last Rites, is a very, very important time gap. They had a problem to solve, because they needed to revise the truth. The Last Rites had to be given before the soul left the body. These were times when religiosity and spiritualism meant something - the ritual of the crucifix meant something. He had become a martyr to some degree. Jim Hosty, who takes us out of the movie when he delivers the prayer at the end - he was a devout Irish Catholic with nine kids. He loved Kennedy. It was character authenticity, but I also think it gave a kind of gravitas to the film, gave it a sense of spirituality. I'm Jewish, not Catholic, but I'm a spiritual person. Sometimes, any kind of prayer or psalm at the right moment becomes an emotional experience. To me, it added an emotional layer to the experience of watching the movie.
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