In the historical drama “Parkland,” director/writer Peter Landesman revisits one of the darkest days in U.S. history – November 22, 1963 – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Landesman takes the narrative from the viewpoint of people involved, including Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the gentleman who recorded the assassination on his camera; Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), the brother of shooter Lee Harvey; and Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), a resident doctor assigned to treat Kennedy when he is brought into the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.
During an interview with me, Landesman, who is no stranger to controversy (read below about what happened to him in 2004), discussed what he thinks about the many conspiracy theories linked to the Kennedy assassination and why he doesn’t worry when dealing with a controversial topic.
Besides Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November,” what other kind of research did you do for the film?
Well, Vincent’s book was a great blueprint and roadmap. I spent three years really working on the characters and their experiences and trying to find living witnesses. I looked for a lot of interviews and oral histories people did immediately after [the assassination]. It was a long, arduous journey, but I have a background as an investigative reporter so I wanted to find the primary sources and accounts. I also wanted to find the interesting and creative and, hopefully, poetic elements of the story as well.
A film like “The Butler” has recently received criticism for taking a bit too much creative license in the narrative. What is your take on historical films adding non-factual elements to the story for dramatic purposes and did you do any of that with “Parkland?”
I did not take any poetic license. Every scene in the movie happened. That was one of the principles we followed from the very beginning. Everything is something no one has seen before, and everything is verifiable. It all happened. It might not have happened in the exact way it happens in the film, but if you look at a piece of art, it has a frame. This film has performances and cinematography and editing. It’s artful. It’s not a documentary. The poetic license came within the scenes, not on top of them.
Did all the controversy you went through with the New York Times Magazine cover story you wrote on sex trafficking back in 2004 (“The Girls Next Door”) affect you in any way going into this project? Did it make you more aware that people are always going to have questions when it comes to controversial topics? (Note: In 2004, slate.com wrote an article called “Doubting Landesman” where they questioned some of the claims Landesman makes in his story and go as far as doubting his main source is even a real person).
Well, I’m not getting accused, as I was in that story, of making it up. But I definitely am a little more thick-skinned when it comes to people not liking what I write. Here’s the parallel: Like in [“Parkland”], that [cover story] exposed something no one knew about and exposed it in a way people didn’t like because it was so shocking. People came after me because they just couldn’t believe that it was true. Since then, it’s been all over the place. It’s been in federal legislation and New York courts. That story triggered a lot of real-world stuff. I think it’s very similar in this movie. [“Parkland’] has a lot of real-world connotations. It’s an emotional ride. It takes audiences into the experience of surviving the Kennedy assassination. That [cover story] did the exact same thing. Some of the reactions to the movie are parallel, mostly because it’s shocking. It counters what a lot of people want to believe to be true. But sometimes critics can be uncomfortable with the power of the truth.
What were your thoughts on conspiracy theories going into this film and was it a challenge to ignore the controversial elements of a story like this?
It was easy to ignore because it’s really all such nonsense. It’s a lot of noise. None of it makes any sense. It’s all circular. None of it connects. None of it meets anywhere. None if it is even close to being conclusive. Once you push all that nonsense aside, the power of the movie and the emotional DNA of the movie really sings pretty clearly. It gives the story back to the people. It’s a movie about small acts of heroism and patriotism. The story [of the Kennedy assassination] happened to us. Kennedy was our guy – our President. It means something in the context of us as a nation.
Although you try to stay away from the controversial elements of this story, you do choose to keep in a character as controversial as Marguerite Oswald.
Look, I don’t worry about the controversy. All controversy means is that you’re touching a nerve, which means you’re probably doing something right. I can’t make a film, write a story or write a screenplay and worry about controversy. You have a principle. You stick by the principle to the courage of your convictions. With this film, I’m 100 percent on those terms. Marguerite Oswald was a crucial figure in understanding the psychology of Lee Harvey Oswald. Robert Oswald is really one of the central characters of the film in many ways because he represents us – the American everyman. To understand him, you have to understand the mother. Marguerite Oswald is one of the most fast-fading villains of our time.
Was it hard to get audiences to feel sympathy for the Oswald family with someone as unlikeable as Marguerite at the forefront?
I wasn’t out to create sympathy anywhere. I was out to create empathy. Sympathy involves judgment. “Parkland” is a film that has no judgment to it. It’s actually quite democratic about peoples’ motivations. I was interested in who these people were not what they were. Judgment is for history to do. In terms of wanting to create sympathy, Lee Harvey Oswald was a human being. He’s a sociopathic, narcissistic, sad little motherfucker, but he was a human being. That scene with him and his brother, I wanted audiences to see them as brothers. It’s not a scene about a national villain. It’s about a big brother and little brother. It’s about a big brother coming to terms with what his little brother did.
Of all the secondary characters involved in this story, which one do you find most intriguing personally? Which one do you think you could explore in their own film?
Any of them could’ve had their own movie. They’re all fascinating. The only problem with “Parkland” is that it’s only 90 minutes. Each of these characters could’ve had their own 90 or 120 minutes. Each of them is crucial and one can’t exist without the other. That’s how I designed the film and that’s how I shot it. [James] Hosty (Ron Livingston) is an extraordinary, tragic figure. He was thrown under the bus. The FBI inadvertently blamed him for Oswald being free. It was a completely unfair charge. He just didn’t know Oswald was that dangerous. Abraham Zapruder is an extraordinary figure and another kind of American tragedy. He came to this country as an immigrant and believed in America and it was all taken away when he does one of the most patriotic things you can do – film the President of the United States. All these characters have extraordinary stories to them.
Which cast member did you speak to the most about his or her character and where their mind needed to be to create the character you envisioned? I mean, I know you’re working with Oscar winners and Oscar nominees here, but who had the most questions and who needed you the most?
Who needed me the most? That’s a good question. I think Ron Livingston had the most questions. Ron did a lot of research. We sat down and talked a lot about it, but I really had to education him about how [Hosty] was really innocent in any kind of involvement or accountability. Ron gave a gorgeous, modulated performance. I also have to say the actors who played doctors (Zac Efron, Colin Hanks and Marcia Gay Harden) really needed to understand what it was like to be medical personnel working in an emergency situation. We had a lot of conversations about embracing the chaos, disorientation and panic of that day.