'Chapter 27' answers 'Who'd do a thing like that?'
Empty"Chapter" conversation: When we hear about senseless killings like that of John Lennon in December 1980 the question that immediately comes to mind is, "Who in the world would do a thing like that?"
The answers regarding Lennon's killer are presented in fascinating detail in Jarrett Schaefer's "Chapter 27," opening via Peace Arch on Friday in New York and April 4 in L.A. and then expanding to other key markets. For his awards worthy portrayal of Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman, Jared Leto ("Fight Club," "Girl Interrupted," "Requiem for a Dream") went the extra mile and actually put on some 60 pounds. Chapman, who's still in Attica Prison, hasn't said much over the years about what drove him to murder Lennon, but he did talk about it with crime journalist Jack Jones for the 1992 book "Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman," on which the film is based.
Written and directed by Schaefer, "Chapter 27" is produced by Alexandra Milchan, Naomi Despres and Robert Salerno. It's executive produced by Gilbert Alloul, Rick Chad, John Flock, Gary Howsam, Leto and Lewin Webb. Also starring are Lindsay Lohan as Jude, a Beatles fan Chapman meets and is attracted to while he's killing time waiting to shoot John outside his New York apartment in The Dakota, and Judah Friedlander ("30 Rock," "Zoolander") as Paul, a paparazzi who's also there to shoot John, but with his camera.
Having enjoyed an early look at "Chapter 27," which takes its title from Chapman wanting to in effect write his own final chapter for J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," with which he's obsessed, I was happy to be able to focus recently with Schaefer on the making of the movie.
"The idea of this film of being inside this guy's perspective in these three days (before Lennon's murder) occurred to me," Schaefer explained. "It was so elegant and potentially interesting a film that I had to attempt to write it. That was four years of writing to get it to the point where it actually made sense. This is hard material and there's lots of times when it (could have come off) like a bunch of other serial killer movies, not to name names, but things that are to be avoided. You definitely don't want that."
Did the news of Lennon's murder hit him hard at the time? "Well, I was one," he replied. "I was born in '79. I'm told that I was watching 'Monday Night Football' with my Dad, but I don't remember. But I do remember where I was when I found out how John died. I was in junior high walking with my friend Clinton Beer, who's actually mentioned in the credits of 'Chapter 27' (with) a thank-you. He was the one who got me into The Beatles and got me into John Lennon. We were talking about John Lennon walking into the cafeteria and he told me that he was shot in front of his house."
Writing the screenplay was a long journey for Schaefer: "There's a lot of stuff in this guy's life. People want to know 'why?' obviously and there are a million answers to the reason 'why?' and there are also no answers to the reason 'why?' or maybe just one. So if you try and satisfy that 'why?' and talk about the guy's childhood and his marriage and how he'd lost job after job, all those supposed answers aren't going to help satisfy that need. So the part of the story (that didn't end up) in the film -- getting lost and flashbacks and stuff before Mark came to New York for that last 'Catcher in the Rye' weekend -- (was cut out) at some point in all the rewriting.
"Then it occurred to me in rereading 'The Catcher in the Rye' for the who-knows-how-many-times where he says, 'My family stuff, that's not important. I'm just going to tell you about that madman stuff -- those three days (that Holden Caulfield spends in Manhattan after being expelled from his prep school).' And that became the focus of the film and I realized that this 'why?' was never going to be answered and that all that stuff wasn't important and just the here and now and the one sort of sole individual aspect of this guy being there and choosing to do this with his life (was important). It wasn't any of us, but it could have been any of us -- that sort of thing, you know."
Asked how he works when he's writing, Schaefer told me, "Actually, as I get older it's becoming more regimented, but that's because I don't have another job now. I can just sort of write. But back then I was working at a video store. Computers are part of our lives so I use a computer, but I'm not always on it. I print out pages and write in longhand around them. It's a strange endeavor because movies are long and scripts are challenging so you just have to like ignore how much work it's really going to take and just sort of (attack) it in bursts. It's certainly not refined the way I write. It's in bursts and long struggles and then there will be times when you can't even deal with it and you have to leave it alone for a bunch of days. And then there's times where you can't even want to deal with the world and you work on it alone (for days).
"I essentially had what the final draft was going to be from pretty early on. It was just getting stuffed with all these other answers and complicated stuff that I was trying to solve with the flashing back to (events in Chapman's life in) Hawaii and Georgia and places like that. So this final edit purifying rewrite just threw the right lens on it and put everything in focus and everything that wasn't meant to be part of the song just fell off. That probably took me just a couple of months to make that rewrite. Once I finally knew what the movie was supposed to be, to put everything in place (didn't) take that long. And after everybody that was working with me was happy with the script, it took like a year and a half before we were in preproduction, which is nothing -- which is a heartbeat. We shot in January 2006."
"Chapter 27" marks Schaefer's debut as a feature director. When I asked how he was able to get financing to make his first feature, he replied, "It's weird. It's like you're asking me how I slept with a cheerleader. I don't know what to tell you. You just sort of try and say the right thing and act right and hopefully, you know, things go according to plan. You've got to believe in what you do. You know, ultimately, people are looking for the answer. They don't necessarily want to buy a script that they really like and (then) run out and try and convince this great filmmaker (to direct it) if they can be told the right things to trust you (to make it, yourself). It's yours anyway and if they're wholly impressed by the writing (then they will like the idea of you directing it). I was working with really great producers -- Alexandra Milchan, Naomi Despres and Bob Salerno -- so they were behind me all the way. When we'd go (looking for financing it helped) to just have three really strong producers who were already trusting me. We also had Jared behind us for the financing meetings and then Lindsay, as well, finally.
"The way movies are put together right now it's all these tiny, tiny relationships and trust (that really matters) so if I go into a company like Peace Arch and (tell) them we've already got the movie stars and the producers and I've got an idea for the vision and a book full of all kinds of images that I want the film to look like and I can speak about it eloquently and the actors like me, that's what they want to hear."
While writing his screenplay Schaefer said he didn't have anyone in mind to play Chapman or any of the other key roles: "I know Jared was very, very impressed by the writing and was very excited about it from the minute we sat down. One of the many things that was exciting about it was that he's so selective. He's avoided starring in a movie for a while because he wants interesting roles.
"The work he does -- all of it -- is consistently really, really interesting (like) 'Fight Club' and 'The Thin Red Line' and 'American Psycho' and 'Requiem for a Dream,' so it's always these really great things. (It was gratifying) to think he would see (in 'Chapter 27') what he sees in all these other roles and want to take (on a role in a small independent movie like this). That was something that was really new. We haven't seen Jared Leto totally disguised (before) doing some real 'acting chops' work. The 'new' really excites me."
Despite all her high-profile problems on the celebrity circuit, Lindsay Lohan comes across quite well as Jude, the Beatles fan Chapman meets while preparing to kill Lennon. How did a first-time director manage to get Lohan to take on a small role in a small movie when the odds would seem to be against her doing anything like that? "I guess I beat the odds," he observed. "I know she really liked the writing, really liked the sort of earnestness of the script. And when you've got three great producers who have great credits each all coming together for this one little movie, you're not exactly a first time director although you are. She trusted me and wanted to do a film like this. I think what's great about Lindsay is that her work is getting infinitely more interesting and complex."
But how was she to work with? "You know, it's like getting to drive a Ferrari," Schaefer replied. "I can't really compare it to anything -- a Ferrari off road no doubt because it wasn't on some soundstage anywhere. We were out in (the streets of) New York City. She would (do) these improv things, but they're not really improv because they'd come to her before a take and she'd always let me know (what she wanted to do) and they'd be hysterical. I had her for seven days -- it was broken up (into) three days and then four days -- and it was probably a good thing that we had such tough material in New York City with limited time and limited money. That stuff (about Lohan being difficult on other shoots) didn't occur to me. I didn't have those kind of problems.
"You know, there's always problems (with people wanting to watch stars during filming) because it's a movie. People surround movie stars and there's all kinds of issues that way, but I didn't lose any days or have any crazy stuff (with Lohan and) no one had to write any letters (to complain). No, I didn't have any problems (with her), but we were doing something that we really felt (good) about. Lindsay was spending time with Yoko (Ono). I know they went out to dinner and stuff. She wanted to play Jude and she had ideas about Jude being like this ultimate Beatle girl with a foot in the past and a foot in the future. That was what we were doing."
Given The Beatles' "Hey Jude," I had to ask Schaefer whether Jude was a real character from the time of Lennon's assassination or one that he had invented for the movie. "Jude Stein is her name," he said. "She's the real person who had dinner with Chapman on the night he shot John Lennon. They talked and had those conversations. She's real. It's pretty much all real (in the movie). There's not a tremendous amount to read about this event, but there's enough. Jack Jones, of course, wrote the book 'Let Me Take You Down,' which is the source. There's distant distant second place (sources) like a People magazine series of three articles and Barbara Walters did something (and) Larry King did something. It's all facts (in the movie). Everything that you think would be invented like the meeting (Chapman has by chance in Central Park with the then very young Sean Lennon and his nanny) or that the photographer's name was Paul or that the girl's name was Jude, that stuff is all real.
"There's like (a few) things that I changed and they're really kind of tiny and laughable. There was another meal (Chapman ate) that I cut out. After the second night and the prostitute (Chapman had sent to his hotel room), which is also real, he went out for another meal. He had fish and chips in Times Square. And we don't do that because (of time considerations). The other thing is the autograph (Chapman gets from Lennon in the film). It was still light outside (when it actually happened), but we took it to night just to sort of move along the story and get the flashes (from cameras) effects and just kind of obscure Lennon a little bit more and make it a little bit more dramatic."
In real life, he continued, "Paul, the photographer, was actually a big fat guy, but in the script he (originally) was like this cute blonde guy. He was the guy who was not a loner and (Chapman) was the guy who was a loner, but it never worked. And then I met Judah because I didn't want to just see pretty guys to play Paul. I wanted to see all kinds of different guys to play Paul because I didn't quite know what was up with Paul yet. So we went with Paul being a big fat guy and kind of a weirdo and Judah took over.
"So it's actually two things (that we changed). There's got to be other tiny things that are changed, but it is a true story. There's no fiction. But, of course, we heighten everything because we're making a Hollywood movie. Once Leto was going to play Chapman you needed that universe populated with people like Lindsay and Judah and you needed it to be photographed with the sort of bold intensity that those performers were going to bring to it. You just have to complement your art form. You have to have all the gears functioning and playing off each other."
We don't get a very good look at Lennon in the film, but the actor playing the role makes you believe you're seeing Lennon on the screen. When I looked at the credits for "Chapter 27" I couldn't believe my eyes because Lennon is played by an English actor named Mark Lindsay Chapman. His credits include soap operas like "The Young and the Restless" and "Days of Our Lives" as well as James Cameron's "Titanic."
"I didn't intend it," Schaefer said of the uncanny coincidence of having Lennon played by an actor whose first and last names are those of Lennon's killer. "It was a weird (thing). We were looking everywhere for John. There was this world famous Lennon impersonator who was pretty amazing, but also the way I hear it very difficult to work with. We were going after him for a little while, but it just couldn't happen and he's also very, very expensive. All the guys that make their money looking like John Lennon, you know, play him too iconically. They play him six inches off the ground and they act like they're in a movie already. I wasn't happy with any of them. There were bunches of John Lennons in Los Angeles going on tape for me and I heard one of (them was named) Mark Lindsay Chapman -- and I was like, 'That's just weird.'
"I got the tape and it was all the L.A. guys. I put it on in my office and let it play and was doing other things and then (I saw) this guy, this British stage actor, who wasn't even performing. He was talking to the casting director. He was from South London and has that sort of blood-in-the-street thing. You know, Liverpool, where John grew up, is a tough town and John was on the road traveling with his band when he was only 16 and he's got this very famous chip on his shoulder and was always cracking these cynical one-liners. And that's what the impersonators couldn't come off with. But Mark Lindsay Chapman, who's from South London and who's been a theater actor all his life, popping up in 'Titanic' and 'Law and Order' and all kinds of places, has that real quality to him -- that worn, cynical dimension that attracts people to John. That's how he got the job."
It took some doing on Schaefer's part to get Chapman hired because of his name: "It was a difficult conversation with the producers to hire him. It was not so much the producers, but everybody. Well, it was a difficult conversation with (the producers) because they knew it was going to be a difficult conversation with the financiers and stuff. Even after we cast (him) the big conversation was, 'Oh, what are we going to credit him?'
"I asked Mark, 'What do you want the credits to say?' And he was like -- in the way that makes him him, which is the reason he got the part -- 'Mark fucking Lindsay Chapman. That's my fucking name.' And that's (just like) John. I remember when John was getting awards in England on some television show and earlier he'd been in a mental hospital and seen how horrible the conditions were and he talked about that that night in front of all these people that he was just supposed to say thank you to. So that's what Mark Lindsay Chapman had that nobody else had."
Actually, there's even more that connects the actor to Lennon. "He shot a scene for 'John and Yoko: A Love Story' (the 1985 TV movie)," Schaefer said. "He was set to play John Lennon 20 years ago. He'd been using the name Mark Lindsay because there was already a Mark Chapman in British Equity. He went to read for (the small role of) a British newsman who was supposed to interview John. The way he tells it, he was on break from playing (in a) London stage thing and he had to go all the way over to some place to read for this bit part and a producer threw him the script for John and said, 'Here, read that.' He did it and it (led to) meetings after meetings.
"He met Yoko and they shot a scene and did some improv and they did some prosthesis for his face to make him even look a little bit more like John. And then he told one of the producers at one point when they were going full speed ahead, 'You know, my name's not really Mark Lindsay. My name's' -- what his name is. They chose to keep it a secret from Yoko and then it was a journalist who called her up and said, 'Hey, do you know the real name of the guy who's playing John?' And then Yoko thought it was bad karma and hired someone else. I think it was probably (because) she didn't know up front. But I understand it, you know. Absolutely. If someone called me up and launched that kind of surprise on me, I would start anew, as well.
"But he was the best guy for the part (in 'Chapter 27'). That realism wasn't present in any of the other guys. See, here's the thing with the look-alikes -- some of them have a good chin or a good forehead or good eyes, but as much as they look like John in that one part of their face, it just makes them look even less like John in those parts that they don't (resemble him). So to really pull off a lookalike, if it's not going to be the best in the world you can't do it because then it ends up looking like some kind of 'Saturday Night Live' thing. I wanted a 'feel-alike.'"
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 14, 1990's column: "After seeing 'The Godfather, Part III' it's clear Paramount made the right decision this fall to pull out all the stops to get it done in time to open for Christmas.
"Critics will certainly debate the artistic merits of the picture...but that's not what's going to drive the film at the boxoffice. As the highest profile film of the holiday season it should generate substantial boxoffice gold as moviegoers find out for themselves how it turned out. Unlike the critics, real moviegoers won't remember the first two 'Godfather' films well enough to make comparisons. Even those who have seen them recently on home video or pay TV won't care about much more than whether the latest in the series provides two and a half hours of entertainment that's worth the price of admission.
"Exhibitors also got their first look at 'The Godfather, Part III' Wednesday. Not surprisingly, Thursday morning found insiders quoting some less than flattering remarks by theater owners. There were those who complained it's not as violent as the first two films. Others took issue with Coppola casting his daughter, Sofia, in a key role. Some predicted it won't play to 18 to 35 year olds. To others, its ending isn't big enough...
"It's necessary to take into account not only the film's virtues, but also the nature of the marketplace in which it will be playing. Thus far, it should be remembered, this holiday season has generated only one runaway hit, 20th Century Fox's family appeal comedy 'Home Alone...' On the horizon is a glut of product, but other than Universal and Imagine's action comedy 'Kindergarten Cop,' it's hard to perceive any huge boxoffice winners.
"When you consider what will be playing from Christmas through New Year's, when moviegoing really peaks, there's no film that's likely to be higher on moviegoers' lists of the one of two pictures they'd like to see over the holidays than 'The Godfather, Part III.'
Update: The third "Godfather" movie turned out to be a hit, but not a blockbuster. It opened Christmas Day 1990 to a huge (for the time) $6.4 million for the day and $19.6 million for the weekend at 1,901 theaters ($10,288 per theater). It went on to gross $66.7 million domestically, which was $19.2 million more than the second "Godfather's" $47.5 million gross in 1974, but $67 million less than the original "Godfather's" $133.7 million gross in 1972.
Sofia Coppola, of course, grew up to become an Oscar and Golden Globe winning screenwriter for "Lost in Translation." She also received Oscar and Globe best directing nominations for "Lost" and a best picture Oscar nomination as one of the film's producers.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.