With Parkland out on digital download from 17 March and on DVD and Blu-ray from 31 March, Flicks And The City brings you an exclusive interview with Parkland writer-director Peter Landesman.
Parkland takes a fresh look at the events surrounding the assassination of JFK on 22 November 1963 and has an outstanding ensemble cast including Zac Efron (Paperboy), Marcia Gay Harden (50 Shades of Grey), Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), Colin Hanks (Dexter), Ron Livingston (Boardwalk Empire) and Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave, Sideways).
What’s the thinking behind making a film showing the Kennedy assassination from the viewpoint of secondary characters?
They are always more compelling to me. Because, usually, no one is watching them. They’re free to act (or not) without the supervision of the media or surveillance by writers (and directors). I kind of cut my teeth as a journalist as a war reporter and I was always on the ground and the stories of the little people always have more pathos, they are Shakespearean, more shit happens to them. It’s unheralded and they have to fight and they are alone and no one knows and then they recede into the shadows. It’s very powerful stuff. And with this when I started researching, it became a no-brainer. The stories of the doctors in the trauma room, the characters in this movie, are all very powerful and to me they became the central players. Kennedy and Jackie almost became secondary to me.
Well, Tom Hanks (producer) put the book (Four Days In November by Vincent Bugliosi) in my hand and it was an obvious thing for me to do. The book was a wonderful foundation, because it’s data, it’s a lot of information, but there’s no emotion and no character. So then I kind of put my journalism hat on and went to work and spent a lot of time in Texas. I spent four years researching it and there’s a treasure trove of information out there, there are people who are still alive, there are witnesses and I spent four years mining all of that.
You have an investigative journalist background and it sounds like you drew on some of those skills in researching the film?
Oh yeah, no question.
And you also met James Hosty as well?
I spent four days with James Hosty before he died.
Was the film already in the works at that point?
Well, the screenplay was, but you know the movie business, it’s not in the works until you are on set. I finished the screenplay not that long ago, maybe last June, and it really became like lightning in a bottle. The screenplay was done, we put together some cast, and I went to Tom and we were in pre-production literally on the following Monday and we were making our movie a couple of months later. It was almost like the process was so fast nobody had the opportunity to be like, ‘wait a second, maybe we should think about this a little farther..’ which I think is the best way to make a movie because you don’t second guess yourself and you don’t trip yourself up. It had a ferocious momentum that I think the movie itself has – the momentum of the development of the movie was similar to how I shot the movie, which is what I wanted. If I had more money or time I don’t think the movie would be any different or any better. Maybe I would have had more extras (laughs); I would have liked more extras…
You said Tom Hanks gave you the book. What was your connection with him?
I wrote a movie for him about Deep Throat and Watergate, a similar sort of concept (to Parkland) as it’s from the other side of the looking glass, not the Woodward and Bernstein view of it, but from the point of view of Deep Throat, Mark Felt, who I met. And it was a very similar concept and Tom loved it and hopefully we’ll make that. And when I finished that he put this book, Four Days In November, in my hands and we moved right on to this.
I wouldn’t put this in the same grouping as the other stuff. The Kennedy assassination was the turning of a page, it was the end of the post war western culture and it opened the door to where we are now. We go back to the Kennedy assassination because it was the conception of modern America, I think. I’ve just been in Italy and France and Europeans feel as strongly about this as Americans do but maybe in a different way. I think people have a very difficult time believing or understanding that such a small, insignificant creature like Lee Harvey Oswald could kill arguably the greatest celebrity leader we have had in the 20th century. I think that conjunction confuses people and makes them keep asking questions when the answers have already been delivered. So given that I felt it was time to do this from a completely different point of view – not the murder mystery, but the drama of the death to some degree. I was underneath the towers at 9.11 and if I had stayed there with a camera for three days that’s what this movie is.
You don’t believe any of the conspiracy theories over the assassination? Oswald is the killer for you?
Look, that dialogue is going to be had. It will go in circles and it’s like arguing about the existence of God. The dialogue was there before this movie and it will but there during the movie and it will continue after the movie. There are people who will just not believe it because they can’t understand the emotional relationship between small and big. But there is just no evidence for anything else. It’s 50 years since the assassination and people just don’t keep secrets. There’s no logical evidence for anything else. I mean, does Santa Claus exist? I can’t prove he doesn’t and I can’t prove he does, and it’s like that’s the level of discourse. That being said, something like 70 per cent of Americans believe in the conspiracy and that says something about our culture.
Were you familiar with the assassination of Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, in the 1980s?
That was brought up to me recently. I was aware of it at the time and then I read up on it again recently. And it was very similar, like some drunken, disaffected motherfucker.
I was a novelist and a journalist before I was a filmmaker and I really believe human beings are built to metabolize stories in a very specific way – they need mythology. You need a frame around something to make sense of it because life is just a continuum of shit happening. It’s arbitrary, there’s no design, no plot, no three act structure, no beginning, middle and end. So you put a frame around it and you kind of build it into a structure. So conspiracy theories are almost like screenplays and movies are much easier to metabolize than archaic, arbitrary shit happening. You know military history and warfare is just ‘mistake/ solution, mistake, mistake, mistake, solution and then somebody will write a textbook or an article or make a movie and they will give it meaning and design. And it’s the same with this. The movie ends with two burials, which gives a kind of finality to it all but the movie could go on for hours because the stuff that happened after the burials is fascinating. It could keep going on and on and on. You know, the drama inside the Whitehouse between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and then Jackie and that whole drama, the relationship between Jackie and Bobby, it’s all so interesting.
Was it a challenge to weave the multiple storylines together in the story and keep it moving forward?
It was a challenge because it was a sort of embarrassment of riches. It was a challenge to keep it to this set of characters because there are other ones who also have fascinating parallel tales. But at the end of the day it had to be a two-hour movie and I think these are really the central players and they are intimately connected to what happened. And then the narrative momentum is about how the different threads talk to each other. But it is chronological; things did happen in an order, so that was helpful.
Well, who has ever seen that before? Nobody focuses on that. Kennedy is shot and he dies and then he is buried but who ever saw what happened to the body? Why the hospital? I would ask, ‘why not the hospital?’ I think it’s interesting. I think the shit that went down in there was mind blowing and it all happened inside 30 minutes. That’s a lot of drama and I was really compelled by it.
You have some fascinating details in there. There’s a scene when Jackie is in the trauma room and opens her hand to find that she is holding fragments of the President’s skull. Is that true?
That all really happened. It was very important to both Tom and myself that we are journalistically spot on with this. Because we know what is going to happen, there will be a tidal wave of controversy, there are going to be people who buy into the conspiracy theories (about Kennedy’s assassination) coming out of the woodwork saying ‘that’s not true, that couldn’t be true..’ And the scene between the brothers (Robert and Lee Harvey Oswald) – Lee Harvey didn’t say he did it but he doesn’t deny it either, which to me is the most damning thing. I wanted to write a scene between an older brother chastising a younger brother for something he stupidly did. We’ve all experienced that in our lives. And that scene is really about Robert, not about Lee Harvey Oswald.
So where does the dialogue for that scene come from?
There is a transcript. As you can imagine they were heavily watched and there is a transcript.
I was wondering about the title of the film. What made you pick that title?
Because Parkland came to take on a larger meaning other than just the name of a hospital. It came to represent a kind of state of mind, like the end of innocence. There’s a scene after Oswald is shot and Robert (Oswald) asks a secret service agent where they are taking him and he says ‘Parkland’ and it’s almost like the end of Chinatown. To me, it’s a state of mind.
And how important is the title of the film?
To me, it’s everything. I wanted it to be ambiguous but it also has a literal meaning, it’s a hospital but it came to take on a larger spiritual presence for me. Whether it works is for others to say.
What was the most fascinating thing you discovered?
Oh it’s all interesting and what was happening in that hospital’s trauma room was pretty amazing. I think one of the reasons we kept this as short as we did is because of how rich it is. I don’t know if I have a favourite (part). I think that surprised me the most was Robert Oswald. I think James Badge Dale gives an Oscar worthy performance. We’ve seen him in Iron Man and Flight and Lone Ranger but he’s never done this kind of thing before and I felt his performance was so spiritual. So through his performance I think I rediscovered his character and I think that might be the biggest surprise.
Why Jacki Weaver to play Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother?
Name me one other actress on planet Earth who could do that. Seriously, I cast Jacki first. I said ‘if you don’t do this movie, I can’t make this movie.’ She was the first person who said ‘yes.’ And she didn’t know me, we’d never met before but we sat down and talked. Her son is obsessed with the Kennedy story and so that was part of it for her.
Let’s talk about the rest of the cast…
And there’s Paul Giamatti and who else could do that part? He looks it, he is it. He really is so good. And Zac was fantastic. Someone was giving him a hard time the other day and I don’t get it. All artists are young once and he is growing all the time. He is only doing important shit now. And I don’t know another actor who is trying as hard as Zac is to change his path and he is really talented. His problem is that he is beautiful and so people give him a hard time and it’s just not fair. It’s not his fault. He is a talented, committed actor. On his first day he was working with Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver and he completely belongs in that company. Billy is amazing. He is such a professional, subtle actor and his performance in this is exquisite. Marcia is incredible and brings such sensitivity. And Jeremy Strong, who plays Lee Harvey Oswald, first of all is a dead ringer for him and secondly, he played that part with such empathy and humanity. I loved it. Even the actors in the smaller parts are wonderful. As a first time director, I was very lucky to have that cast.
What’s your view on the earlier films, including Oliver Stone’s JFK?
You know JFK is a beautiful movie; it’s a great experience for an audience to watch. Oliver Stone is a masterful filmmaker, he’s bright, he’s a beautiful shooter, it’s just not an historical document in any way.
And you wanted to clean up the mess as it were?
No, I don’t think it’s my job to do that. I wanted to tell my version. And you know, there’s room for all sorts of views on this. It’s like, how many World War Two movies can there be? A lot. You know, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, they all share a space. The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now are both about Vietnam. There are many movies about similar topics and themes and every director and writer has something different to say about it. I think JFK and Parkland can live side by side. It’s not like Parkland is saying JFK is full of shit. It’s saying, ‘I don’t know about that..’
Did you deliberately time the release of the movie with the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination?
Yes, the sea level of awareness about Kennedy’s death will be tsunami high in about a month. And in the US every student will be doing a school project about it, every parent will be talking about it, every news programme will have their JFK special and this is the only feature film to come out about it. We’re all alone, which is kind of amazing and shocking. I kept waiting to hear news of another one.
Is there pressure that comes with that?
Oh yeah. A lot of important people are going to see this movie, a lot of people that matter and a lot already have and I felt an obligation to get this story right. You don’t want to mess this up because there’s something sacred about it. It’s like the death of Princess Diana in the UK – it’s similar sacred territory and you don’t want to mess with that.
But you clearly did a lot of research…
Yes, we’re very sure of ourselves. There’s nothing that anyone can say about this movie. There’s not a beat in this movie that’s not true. And that was Tom. Three days before we started shooting for the 50th time he was saying to me, ‘are we sure? Do we know this for sure? Can we take this to the bank?’ He really kept me on it.
What will you do next?
There are three or four things that I’m looking at. I’m not sure what it will be yet. At the moment I want to concentrate on Parkland and get through the release and put it out into the world.
Are any of them based on real life events?
A couple of them are. A couple are things that I have already written for other studios. I don’t want to be boxed in this genre forever but I love this.
What about the Watergate script you wrote?
That would be nice. We’ll see. It’s a good movie and it is to Watergate what this is to the JFK assassination. It will completely change the dialogue about Watergate and especially All The President’s Men. It will put the whole thing in a very different light.
Do you think you have a higher regard for getting the facts right because of your journalistic background?
I think the truth can be poetic by itself. I mean look, there’s poetic license, don’t get me wrong. It is a movie and there is art to shooting – there is a beginning, a middle and an end and there is design to it. And at the end of the day, when I’m shooting I’m a filmmaker not a journalist. But I think an audience can tell when something has integrity to it even if it’s not factually completely true in every moment. And I often think you can get spiritually closer to the truth of something through poetic license. When I was writing for The New York Times everything I did was thoroughly fact checked. There were world important events that I knew for a fact to be true that I couldn’t write about because my sources had told me off the record. That was The New York Times threshold. But in a movie I can say it and I will say it. So weirdly enough, I think through film you can be truer, you can be more accurate.
Parkland is available on available on iTunes and Amazon UK on 17 March 2014 and on DVD & Blu-Ray on 31 March 2014.