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There is nothing about John Curran’s past films as a director that point to him being the best person to tell the story of an incident that would plague Senator Ted Kennedy for his entire political career. On a fateful night in 1969, the car Kennedy was driving went off a bridge on the Chappaquiddick island, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, a political campaigner, raising lots of questions about their relationship and whether Kennedy could be held accountable for her death.
Curran’s new film CHAPPAQUIDDICK stars Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as the Massachusetts politician who was preparing for a Presidential run in 1969 when the incident derailed any chances of him winning. Kate Mary portrays Mary Jo Kopechne, a naïve young woman who had been working on Ted’s brother Bobby Kennedy’s own Presidential run when he was killed, pulling her closer to Ted.
Written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan in a screenplay that made the Black List, Chappaquiddick tries to create a fair and balance portrait of Kennedy as a flawed character surrounded by advisors (played by Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan) who urge him to do the right thing even as he goes further down the well of lies about what happened that fateful night.
Curran has directed six films over the past twenty years with 2004’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore and 2006’s The Painted Veil being two of the standouts, although the Mia Wasikowska film Tracks is probably one of his more underrated gems. Either way, none of those films point to a filmmaker that can pull off such a historic coup as Chappaquiddick is.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Curran a few weeks back for the following interview.
I know a little bit about the history of the screenplay from the Black List, so how did he get it to you? Was it sent to you or were you just reading a lot of things and that just jumped out?
I’ve known Jason [Clarke] for a long time. I used to live in Australia, and he had a small role in the first film I made. We’ve kept in loose touch over the years, so when I got this script and I knew he was attached, I was already kind of predisposed to liking [it], because I really like him and wanted to work with him, and I like his taste. But then the script really blew me away. I hadn’t read it before, and I was praying not to read a different version of this. What I was pleasantly surprised about was that it read like a thriller more than a dry political drama or something like. I think the writers did a really kind of inventive thing with it, and the tone of it was just really odd. It was sort of this tragedy that evolved into almost a farce. I found myself reading it and sort of being appalled that I was laughing and then feeling sympathy for Ted, and then feeling disgust that I felt sympathy. I just thought it would be a great challenge to take it on as a film.
It’s interesting that Jason was already attached, because I would guess that finding Ted would probably be the hardest part, and that was already done for you.
Jason chased the role, and you’re right, it’s everything. I mean, you’re doing a famous person, an iconic person, like Ted Kennedy. If you don’t get the casting right then the film is kind of a joke, and I know we’ve all seen films where you go, “You know what? They didn’t get it right and the film doesn’t work.” I had total confidence that he would come to it and find something that he would make it his own. I knew he wouldn’t come and do some kind of bad impression of Ted. He’d be concerned about protecting the same kind of complexity of character that I’d be concerned with, so it was a big reason I did it, was that the hardest part was already done, which is casting Ted.
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I would think most Americans would know Ted Kennedy from his later years in the Senate but Chappaquiddick was so closely associated with him, even though I’m not sure how many people really knew what happened other than a young woman dying and there being some questions about their relationship.
I was 9 when it happened, and I grew up in the town next to the Kopechnes, so I remember in school hearing about it. I thought I knew about it until I read the script and then I realized that there was a lot of detail to the story that made it really kind of crazy and absurd. You do a bit of research and you realize that it was all born out of fact, the script. I mean. My biggest question to the writers when I read the script was, “How much have you invented in this?” and they were like, “Not much.” I had a list of about 15 things I thought were writer inventions, and all of them were born out the inquest and out of facts.
As you watch the film, you realize that there were a couple people there but the two main people are both dead, so did you spend a lot of time with the writers developing the script once you came on board?
I think there’s always the constraints of a budget and production that make you have to go back into the script and make trims. I mean, I was very, very protective of the scope. I found ways of finding some efficiencies in the script within the heart and the script. I definitely felt that the beginning of the script had to establish a little bit more clearly who Ted was. For someone who had no idea who he was, it’s important that you understand the fable that you’re about to watch, which is about the prince that’s next in line to be king that’s not ready to wear the crown.
You have to know that that’s who this guy is, so if you don’t know anything about Ted Kennedy, it’s very important that you understand the expectations that were on his shoulders at that point in time. It’s really about a guy going to a party on an island — it’s not about his career. But you gotta know the stakes at the beginning. When you’re doing a film obviously you’re changing the film a little bit in prep and changing it when you’re shooting it, you’re changing it when you’re editing, so it’s an evolving thing.
Had Jackie already come out or been at Toronto when you were working on this?
I think Jackie came out while we were … I can’t remember. When did Jackie come out?
I think Jackie was at Toronto a year before this was, and then it came out a few months later.
I think Jackie came out after we shot, or while we were wrapping up the shoot, around the fall of 2016. Is that right? Yeah, I really liked Jackie a lot, and I liked it because it was a fresh angle on… It’s tough to commit a Kennedy story and not feel like you’re retreading old ground, but certainly Chappaquiddick was something that I’ve never seen done properly. I felt like it was fresh territory there, but I liked that Jackie came at it from a unique angle and made her more complex and human, and our ambition with Teddy was the same thing.
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You cast Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan as two of Ted’s main advisors, and they’re generally more known for their comedic work, so what made you think of them in those roles?
Well, I certainly wanted to access their comedic chops. I mean, not every dramatic actor is necessarily funny. It’s very presumptuous to thing that you can get a dramatic actor to come and give real shades of nuanced humor. It isn’t always that easy, but first and foremost, I knew from meeting Jim and Ed, that they could both handle the dramatic side of it and they’d be fantastic. But I also knew I could draw on them for the right deadpan look and ad lib here and there. I wanted that gallows humor to creep into the film kind of halfway through, because it becomes kind of a farce. I was very consciously looking for comedic actors for those roles, and when I met Ed and Jim it was kind of a slam dunk.
Bruce Dern is also pretty amazing in the film. He hasn’t done much lately, but with just a few words, he gives such power to the role of Joe Kennedy. Was it hard to find the right person for that role?
It’s a hard role to cast because it’s difficult to get guys that are actually that age to want to show themselves in a diminished role where they’re a stroke victim or dying. [It’s] just too close to the bone, but Bruce was the opposite. He came at this really aggressively. He wanted to do it, he loved that there was no dialogue. He loved that he could play it with his eyes, and he wanted to be fierce. He had a lot of opinions and ideas. Bruce couldn’t’ have been more awesome to work with I have to say.
Where did you end up shooting the movie? I assume you couldn’t shoot in Massachusetts, because you have so many people who either were there or have very specific thoughts on what happened.
I wanted to shoot in Boston in the North Shore, and I wanted to shoot on Chappaquiddick, and that’s where we shot it. The whole movie is shot in the North Shore, and there’s a lot of scenes I shot on Chappaquiddick.
There must’ve been a lot of people who were there at the time, and who had a lot of questions for you.
There were. We were worried about getting pushback, but the reality is it’s part of their history now. It’s a long time ago. I mean, it’s what? It’s almost 55, 60 years ago, and for them, it’s now just ancient history. Most of that generation is gone, so the younger generation has sort of embraced it as like a part of their identity. They were actually the opposite of what I thought they would be. They were incredibly helpful and supportive, and there’s a lot of Chappaquiddick people in the film.
Do you feel that Ted is sympathetic in the film? Is he supposed to be sympathetic? What are people supposed to think about Ted Kennedy after seeing this movie?
I really tried to present it … It’s very hard to make a film about a politician and not have it feel political. I was very careful in editing, shooting it. I wanted to have a down the middle, non-partisan slant to it, and that was very important to me. People are going to come at this film either they’ve already decided they hate Ted Kennedy or they’re Ted Kennedy fans, and you’d be naïve to think that it’s not going to be seen differently by two different camps of people.
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I think that all you can do is present the most researched and authentic character and storyline that you possibly and try to really make it balanced without pulling any punches. I mean, it was not whitewashed, and it also wasn’t a one-dimensional hit piece. I think that it’s consciously trying to balance the tragedy with the humans behind it with all their foibles and flaws. In the end, I think that you should have as many questions as answers. I don’t think it’s the point of the film to kind of wrap it up and say, “This is how you’re supposed to feel.” I think more of the point is with the people on the street is whatever you think about this story and how it relates to maybe politicians of today. You know, you get what you vote for — it’s as simple as that.
Where did you find those testimonials? I assume they were real interviews from some local news?
I got very lucky. I had a researcher that was getting me new clips for on the TV, and she sent me a whole bunch of stuff. I didn’t find that until late in the edit stage, and it was a series of interviews, about a half an hour of interviews, from this guy from ABC, I think, who was going around getting people’s impressions the day after Ted Kennedy’s speech. What’s funny about the interviews is that the guy after about 15 or 20 people he’s getting really frustrated that nobody has a bad thing to say about Ted. He’s saying to the cameraman, “We can’t find anyone to say anything negative about Ted.” But, yeah, those are actual interviews from On the Street Boston.
I should mention that I lived in Massachusetts in the ‘70s, and while I was very young, I don’t remember hearing anything bad about Ted Kennedy as I was growing up.
No, you wouldn’t have probably, and I probably didn’t either, but when you’re young you kind of just buy into it… Certainly, you were in Kennedy country, that’s for sure.
Sure, but it’s really interesting compared to today where as soon as something happens, the court of public opinion has already reached its verdict within the hour.
Oh, man, yeah. If this story happened today, he’d be in jail.
Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Have you started developing something, or writing something?
Yeah, I’m writing at the moment, but I don’t know what I’m doing next yet.
Chappaquiddick opens on Friday, April 6. Look for my interview with writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan sometime next week.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor