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Interview: 'Parkland' Director Peter Landesman Brings a Journalist's Eye to Filmmaking

We talked to the investigative journalist-turned-director about stripping away the mythology of JFK's assassination, and how reporting from war zones prepared him for a movie set.

There are few moments as culturally pored-over and historicized than the JFK assassination, and one might wonder what another film - especially in the long shadow of Oliver Stone's JFK - could bring to the topic, and yet Peter Landesman's debut feature, Parkland, manages to shed new light on a subject that many had thought was already exhausted.

A former journalist, Landesman brings to his filmmaking an investigative eye for detail, portraying the minutiae of culturally-mythologized events with such specificity that the veneer of history is lifted and we see the JFK assassination in a new light - not as a set-in-stone narrative, but as a shocking event that happened to real people, with plenty of confusion and plenty of characters whose roles have now been forgotten.

Among those are Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who shot the only footage of the assassination; Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who was running the Secret Service detail at the time of the attack; Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), a doctor who operated on both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald; and, perhaps most touchingly, Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), the innocent brother of Lee Harvey.

By telling the stories of these characters mostly lost in the tide of history, Landesman has managed to create a work that highlights the manner in which the official historical record of culturally significant events is often quite lacking. I had the chance to discuss the film with Landesman recently.

Tribeca: How did your background in journalism influence your filmmaking abilities? I think there's actually a strong link between the two disciplines.

Peter Landesman: I think it helped me in three ways. One is that the relationship between a director and actor is not that dissimilar from the relationship between journalist and source. In both cases you're trying to get something from someone who may not want to give it, or who may not even know what they have. It's the idea of having a narrative, an architecture that you're chasing, and needing that source or actor to help make it happen. Secondly, I wanted to get this movie right - I spent years making sure that this was all true. I knew it would be controversial with all the conspiracy obsessives out there. So every scene in real life happened, for the most part, in the way it happened in the film. I wanted to provide some verisimilitude after fifty years. It's how I felt about United 93 and 9/11, how I felt about the opening of Saving Private Ryan. That was my approach to the research. And then, in shooting the film I wanted to give a sense of subjective presence - I wanted to create a visceral experience, to give the audience a sense of being there. That's how journalism was helpful.

We've seen what the assassination looks like. I didn't want to recreate that.

Tribeca: The idea of verisimilitude - I was particularly struck by how well the assassination scene was done. You don't even realize what's happened until it's over, which I imagine is what it was like in real life.

Peter Landesman: Didn't get it, didn't know it, people had a visceral sense that something horrible had happened. I didn't want the gunshots to be 50-caliber sniper rifle shots, or from a Howitzer, because people weren't sure what it was. Was it a car backfiring? Was it a firecracker? You know, a .22 rifle has a very specific sound to it. I wanted the assassination to play ordinary, because it was so fucking big. Everything that happened after was Shakespearean. Also, we've seen what the assassination looks like. I didn't want to recreate that.

Tribeca: It's interesting, to present such a mythologized cultural moment in such a simple fashion. You're cutting away at the mythology and revealing that it's a real thing that really happened, a simple moment in time.

Peter Landesman: You know, the movie ends before any of that begins - they're still burying the bodies, still terrified, still not sure what really happened. You kind of put your finger on the raison d'etre of the movie, which is to strip away the retroactive gloss and get to the human experience. You just never see it like that because we've been so distracted by the noise, the conspiracy noise, which will never end. That's why I made the movie, exactly what you said. I think when audiences see it they expect to see just another version of what they've already seen, and so people are shocked - and I'm glad they're shocked. I was shocked when I started finding this stuff out.

Tribeca: How did you come across the character of Lee Harvey Oswald's brother?

Peter Landesman: Well, I knew about Robert Oswald. I knew he existed but I didn't know who he was. Then I started digging, talking to people who met him, and then - there's this great book about Margeurite Oswald called A Mother And History, and reading it, I was like, there's the rosetta stone of the assassination. She's so nuts. So I get Lee and his psychology, but who is this other guy? And then I realized that Robert was just us. He woke up one day and his brother's the devil. To me he's kind of the spiritual angel of the movie. I even came to feel empathy for Lee Harvey Oswald. I get him.

Tribeca: It's a fantastic cast you put together as a first-time director. What was the process like of developing the working relationships you had with this variety of actors?

Peter Landesman: I hired actors who I thought were the best options for the roles, so it's my nature to wait and see what they bring. With many actors we talked a great deal about motivation and who the characters were, but you know, every take they give you something different, usable, interesting, equally as good as any of the other takes. Then there are others who swim, who are trying to touch the edge of the pool, trying to find their way, and you just have to figure out who they are and be really supportive. I'm not 20. I have a strong background and I've seen a lot and done a lot, and I think that's reassuring to them. I think it's also reassuring when the director is the writer, because they're dealing with a director who gave birth to the whole thing.

I think often, the better the actor - you know, great actors don't have anything to prove. They're very easy. They know what I want and they try to deliver it. Zac Efron is a really interesting guy because he's in the midst of this transition from Disney to very serious films, and he's taking on really meaty roles. I really respected that and admired that. He was really intent on doing it right. There wasn't a bad apple in the bunch.

Movie sets are like controlled chaos. I mean, it's pretty military in its regimentation. PAs are like fucking drill sergeants!

Tribeca: You mention that you're bringing a certain amount of life experience to your role as director, even though this is your first film. How do you feel coming to filmmaking later in life helps you out? It makes a lot of sense, since it's such a demanding job.

Peter Landesman: You know, I'm a parent. I've been through a nasty divorce. I've reported from three war zones. I've been shot at, threatened by Russian gangsters, chased by Serbs. I've been in car chases in Watts with Bloods and Crips. It takes a lot to intimidate me. I also operate well in chaos, because of that. Movie sets are like controlled chaos. I mean, it's pretty military in its regimentation. PAs are like fucking drill sergeants!

That being said, a lot can go wrong. If a lot goes wrong - I mean, I've heard of experiences where the director doesn't have gravitas or leadership and it all falls apart. Movie sets are top-down machines. Also, I have an enormous love for what I do - I've been through a lot to get here, and I'm not going to fuck it up now. I have a lot of passion for this. That's what actors want. They want a director who gives a shit and supports them and lets them do their thing. It's like being the CEO of a corporation or the general of an army.

Tribeca: Talking about chaos makes me think of preparation - do you work out your shots beforehand or come up with them on the set?

Peter Landesman: It's a combination. I mean, I had a remarkable DP. From day two he and I were seeing the exact same way. So I came with shotlists but by day three we really knew what we were going to do. He knew that the movie I wanted to make had a sense of visceral-ness, of found moments. There are some shots that were just accidents of Barry and I figuring it out. But finding the look of a movie is about being present with the cast that you choose - you don't really know what you have until you get there. You don't want to be rigid because shit happens.

Tribeca: It reminds me of a theme in the film itself, which is that you have these characters in this extremely stressful situation trying to create order in the midst of chaos. Like the scene where there's an argument over whether JFK's body stays in Dallas or goes back to DC.

Peter Landesman: There was no road map for how to handle this situation - they were men in the dark, trying to figure it out as they went along, just going by what they thought was right. You know, JFK's body did belong in Texas - that was a local crime. Killing the President was made a Federal crime afterward so there were no fights like that again. I mean, the Secret Service didn't know if there was an invasion happening, they just knew they had to get on Air Force One. They were trying to find order in the chaos, ordinary men doing the best they could.

That episode with JFK's body staying or leaving actually lasted 45 minutes. A gun was drawn, bodies hit the floor, it was bananas - these men were so beside themselves with grief and rage and shock. And Johnson, the new President, was not far away, and they didn't know who was who, they didn't know if it was an inside job - you can imagine how terrified everyone was. But Earl Rose, the medical examiner, he was just trying to do his job.

Tribeca: The small details in that sequence - like the scene where the Secret Service guys remove a few rows of chairs on Air Force One so they can fit the casket on - the specificity of the detail becomes its own kind of poetry. This small detail in such a major cultural moment, like watching the Secret Service guys looking for a screwdriver.

Peter Landesman: This is the stuff I obsessed on, what I built the movie on, you're totally right. Every one of those things is like a line in a poem - I wanted to focus on all of those little things, I never wanted to get wide. Like the idea of Jackie Kennedy walking around with a piece of his brains in her hand. But you put moments like those together, and then you get a narrative, which is just a narrative of survival. I mean, I do think the movie says something big, but it's not out to create abstraction out of the either, it's not trying to look for answers where there aren't any.

Tribeca: Obviously, history is a crucial thing, and we need history in order to proceed as a society. But since so much of this film is about revealing some of the details that were lost in the tide of the creation of a historical record, I'm wondering what you feel is lost in the creation of a set, mythic history.

Peter Landesman: You know what's lost? Everything. Even before I became a journalist, I developed a slow-burn anger about that. It's how I feel about 9/11 conspiracy theories - I want to reach across and grab someone who asserts that by the throat. People have no right to turn 9/11 into a fairy tale. Certain things are just sacrosanct. And I got to feel like this was one of them - we became so distracted by what turned out to be utter nonsense that we lose the human experience, what the event really means, it's a missed opportunity. I think the film is about that. It just focuses on what's in front of us, and that's where the truth is.


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