As most readers of the Tracking Board probably know, it’s incredibly hard to get your first script produced, and even though it was voted to the Black List, that was still the case with Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan’s script Chappaquiddick. The writing duo didn’t come to the project the usual way. Allen was an editor and production coordinator for The Simpsons for many years, while Logan has produced a number of shorts and indie films, including the 2015 Sundance fave Entertainment.
If you haven’t heard of Chappaquiddick, the island off of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, then you probably never heard of Senator Ted Kennedy, played in the film by Australian actor Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty). In 1969, Kennedy was famously at a beach house party with friends and supporters when he drove off a pier, and his campaign aide Mary Jo Kopechne (played by Kate Mara) drowned, leading to an investigation that eventually got Kennedy off the hook for her death.
The movie Chappaquiddick isn’t so certain, and in fact, it pretty much indicts Kennedy for negligence in Kopechne’s death. Since Kennedy himself is now dead, the only two people present on that fateful night can’t deny the movie’s claims. The film co-stars Ed Helms as Kennedy’s cousin Joseph Gargan, and Jim Gaffigan as another advisor and confidante.
The Tracking Board spoke to Allen and Logan a few weeks back, and though the latter didn’t talk much, he did chime in from time to time. Plus, Allen gets points for being a fan of my long-running box office columns and EIC Jeff Sneider’s Twitter feed.
This is your first screenplay, which is pretty amazing in itself, but I was reading up on you guys, and I’d never think that a guy from The Simpsons and the guy who produced Entertainment would have written Chappaquiddick, so how did all this happen?
Taylor Allen: We had been unsuccessful screenwriters before this, and this is our first screenplay together, and my first feature. Before this, I thought that I would be writing sketch comedy. I took a sketch comedy class at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) and was told that I was not very good, then I immediately left. Andrew was writing a fantasy children’s film with a writing partner, and then we both broke up with the writing partners we had. Frank Pierson via Matt Weiner said that “it’s after your first divorce, you really know what you’re looking for in your second wife.” For us, we became writing partners, because we had failed with other writing partners. We’re best friends…
Andrew Logan: We met each other in Austin.
Taylor: It came down to six years of failure writing shorter things and things weren’t working, it was finally time to write that thing that we were actually passionate about, and I think that’s the reason this one worked. We both had always been fascinated by the Kennedys. We’re big fans of political movies. I often say that we worship at the altar of Sorkin, so it was something that was really exciting from the jump to write about the Kennedys and politics.
Why this story in particular? I guess it hadn’t been written about so much?
Taylor: Yeah, you need “blue ocean,” is the phrase. You don’t want to go where everybody else has gone, and for us, we grew up in Dallas, both of us. We met in Austin, but who knew that my future best friend was living a few blocks down from me in Dallas. Dallas obviously has a history with the Kennedy family, and every vacation, we drove through Dealy Plaza, and because of that, I grew up really fascinated by them, as did Andrew. For us, JFK and Bobby were both figures that were so large and sort of hard to understand, because they were President and Attorney General, and Ted, being the youngest, and the one that didn’t have all these expectations on him until his brothers were assassinate, that somehow made him more relatable to us, and that was why we went into it, knowing that we wanted to tell a Ted Kennedy story, and then once you decide you want to tell a Ted Kennedy story, all roads lead back to Chappaquiddick. If you don’t want to tell a cradle-to-grave story, you really want to focus it, and we thought that Chappaquiddick was one of the larger themes of his life.
Had Ted Kennedy already died when you started writing this or thought about writing it?
Taylor: Yeah, we started in 2014, so he had been gone for a few years, and we had still yet to see an actor really play him. How many people have you seen JFK? You’ve seen a few people play Bobby, and it just seemed like a really exciting, unexplored cinematic territory for the Kennedy family.
With Ted, he was very much in the public eye right up until he died, but with JFK or Bobby, you’d have to be significantly older to have seen them outside of news clips. How do you proceed with something like this? Did one of you know Joe Gargan and got the inside scoop? How did you start researching this?
Taylor: I know that I worked on The Simpsons, but believe it or not, the editor at The Simpsons has no connections to Hollywood. We were just writing it in our bedroom, and we were using information that the people that wanted to dig could always find but had gone unlooked at for too long. Andrew, actually, is the son of a lawyer, so we knew that truth really needed to be our North Star, and so we wanted a primary source. Instead of feeling like we could pick up the phone and call a Kennedy member, we found out that there was an inquest into whether or not a crime had been committed that weekend. Everybody in the movie, pretty much, went under oath, including Ted Kennedy, and talked about the events of this case. That court transcript ended up running a thousand pages, so that was more than a wealth of material to draw on for the seven days we wanted to cover.
I was amazed that John [Curran, the director] actually filmed in Chappaquiddick, because I would think it would be hard to film there, but he found people who were around during that time and knew about him. Did you guys do the same thing? Go there to get a feel for the place?
Taylor: No, we were still working day jobs at the time that we were doing this, and frankly [had] limited means, so the first time we got to step onto Martha’s Vineyard soil was for production when we were on set. It was kind of extra-special that way, I’ll say. It really meant even more that the first time we were there, it was the world we had seen in our head and seen in these photos come to life.
I also thought it was interesting that John cast Ed Helm and Jim Gaffigan, who are more known for their comedic stuff, but he said the script was funny as well. Can you talk about trying to bring humor to this even though someone died, so it has to remain somewhat serious? How much of that did you want to include in the script?
Taylor: Like I said, I’m a failed comedy writer first. UCB grad with a “D” and ultimately, I love the movie Fargo, and Fargo is a movie, in my opinion, that is very real with realistic people, and they make a lot of bad decisions. And sometimes, those bad decisions come out in a very funny way. That was kind of what we were going for, particularly towards the end with the war room of advisors. Having a roomful of lawyers barking at our main character had some intrinsic humor value to it.
There are obviously some parallels being drawn to what’s going on these days with our current President but just in general, if something like Chappaquiddick happened now, he would be in jail within a week or less.
Taylor: I gotta throw out the Trump quote that “I can shoot a guy on Fifth Avenue and I wouldn’t have a problem.” There is something to – in 1969 especially – it’s pre-Watergate, and our politicians and elected officials were just looked at in a different light. They thought of the highest moral character, so when you see Chief Arena wanting to get Ted off the island and out of the Vineyard, I think that it’s a very earnest, not cynical, person believing in the truth that he’s been given from a cooperative Ted Kennedy.
When John came on board, how closely did you work together with him? You mentioned going to set, and I’m sure he had lots of questions about what was real and what wasn’t. Did you have to pull out proof of everything?
Taylor: Yeah, we were able to have the inquest by our side and point to everything that was truth. Truth is stranger than fiction. I actually will tell you that John had all but signed on the dotted line when we met him, and it was very clear to me that had we made up a lot of stuff, he was going to walk immediately. Fortunately, the truth will always set you free, and we had not only told the truth to John but told the truth on the page, and that helped.
Andrew: We were lucky as first-time writers to be as involved as we have been. We’re producers on the movie as well, so not only were we involved in production and post-production, but we continue to be involved on the marketing as well.
Taylor: So if you don’t like the poster, please blame us. (laughs) Jeff specifically tweeted that he liked it, so I was like, “Cool.” (laughs)
By the way, I lived in Massachusetts during the ‘70s. I was pretty young but I must have led a sheltered life, because I never heard anything bad about Ted Kennedy or about Chappaquiddick.
Taylor: I was the same way. I didn’t find out about this until I was 28, and I turned to my Mom and said, “How could no one have told me this happened?” That was certainly something that made it interesting to write about. There’s a lot of people even younger than us who don’t even know who Ted Kennedy is, and I think this movie is a real opportunity to have an interesting discussion.
Where do you guys go from here? Are you working on your next script, or are you writing for hire and working for the studios now?
Taylor: Both! All! Yeah, we have a couple of new scripts in the hopper, and one of them that we’re really excited about that we’re almost finished with is believe it or not, a golf movie. In the same way that – I’m sure you know from your box office reporting that a lot of political dramas aren’t necessarily lighting things on fire, the golf movies have a tortured history at the box office, but this one is very special. It’s actually about a very racist institution in American sports history, the August National where the Masters is played, and the founder of that club is a guy named Clifford Roberts. In the ‘70s, after the Civil Rights Movement, he still said, “As long as I live, at my club, all caddies will be black and all golfers will be white.” So that uncanny statement was enough to have us dig further, and then we found out that when Clifford died, he gave a significant part of his estate to a black man. It was the first employee of the Augusta National, a guy named Bowman Milligan, and for us, that’s the entry point into the story. It’s a movie about what for Bowman, what does this money mean, and what does having worked for one of the most historically racist sports institutions ever mean for a black man in Augusta, Georgia?
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor