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Deauville: 'Parkland's' Peter Landesman on Tackling JFK's Assassination and Moving From Journalism to Film (Q&A)

Peter Landesman Headshot - P 2013
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Peter Landesman

"Every American already has a version of this movie in their head," the first-time director tells THR about the title that premiered at Venice and will also screen in Toronto.

Just 14 months ago, first-time writer-director Peter Landesman finished the script for Parkland, an adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi’s acclaimed book Four Days in November, documenting the average Americans caught up in the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He assembled a star-studded cast filled with Oscar winners and nominees -- including Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Paul Giamatti, -- and shot the film in a frantic 24-day period. The movie, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival before heading to Deauville and then Toronto, tells the stories of the agents and doctors trusted to care for Kennedy in the aftermath of the shooting, as well as the unassuming clothing manufacturer behind the camera of the only known film of the event. As a journalist, Landesman wrote for The New York Times Magazine covering global arms trafficking, and he wrote the controversial "The Girls Next Door" exposé on the sex slave trade in the U.S. He talked to The Hollywood Reporter about taking another look at the Kennedy story and making the jump from reporting to screenwriting and directing.

PHOTOS: Hollywood Does JFK

The assassination story has been revisited many times, from many different perspectives. What inspired you to make this movie?

I was a war correspondent and journalist for a long time, and I was very near the towers on 9/11 and very shortly after in Afghanistan. I love writing in compressed time periods, because the act of survival in the midst of panic and fear, that’s where true heroism comes. If you have a uniform and you’re expected to do things, it’s a sort of incremental heroism. But when you’re faced with life or death and survival, it’s different. In Parkland, these people are in a car accident. And for the entire length of the movie, the car is spinning, ready to crash into a wall, and it’s “What do I do?” You’re the brother of the devil. You’re the man who accidentally shot the only evidence of the murder. You’re the 26-year-old rookie doctor and suddenly you’re covered in the president’s blood. I found those dramas towering over this endless [conspiracy] dialogue over something you’ll never get close to proving. This film kind of refuses to have that dialogue. We can talk about that all day. We can talk about it as we talk about the existence of God -- we’ll talk in a circle and end up where we began. The film just refuses to do that; its focus is elsewhere. And it’s the 50th anniversary [of Kennedy's assassination in November], and I thought it was time to have this.

How did you make the jump from working as a journalist to working in Hollywood?

I’ve been writing screenplays for a long time, and a lot of it came out of the journalism I was doing. I didn’t have a path. I didn't ask permission. I never read Bob McKee’s book. It’s my fifth career. I was a painter, then a novelist, then a journalist, then a screenwriter and now I’m a director, and it feels all part of the same continuum. One led to the other, and it just feels like the natural confluence of all the ways of storytelling that I’ve been doing for almost 30 years.

VENICE REVIEW: Parkland

How did Parkland come together?

It was really organic. I wrote a script for Tom Hanks about Watergate that tells the story of Deep Throat, Mark Felt -- again, from the other side of the looking glass. Parkland happened because Tom gave me the Vince Bugliosi book, and it wasn’t necessarily going to happen or get made, but 14 months ago I felt a sort of ferocious urgency about it. Exclusive Media are classy, committed, passionate financiers, so I went with them to Tom and Gary [Goetzman] and there was no reason not to make it. We had the money, we had some actors, we had Barry Ackroyd to shoot it. Tom had just worked with him on Captain Phillips, so there was a lot of mutual respect there. This project was just weird lightning in a bottle -- it will probably never happen this way again.

Did your feeling of urgency in getting the story to the screen affect the filmmaking process at all?

If I’d had more time and resources, I don’t know if the movie would be any different or better; it would probably be worse. And I think the ferocity of making the movie is on screen. We were racing for time onscreen and on set; we didn’t have enough time, didn't have enough money, but in the end it was more than enough. The sensibility of the creation of the project became the sensibility of the movie. I was trying to capture and create a visual style that was analogous to the psychology of fear and panic -- what it was to be in the moment. At times it’s very claustrophobic and involved.

Were you nervous about working with such a diverse cast, including Oscar winners, for your first film?

In terms of directing casts, this was not unlike my relationships with my sources as a journalist. I spent my time developing relationships with people I didn’t know that ware telling me things they probably shouldn’t because they trusted me. And it was a very similar kind of dynamic of building trust. Paul, Billy Bob, Marcia Gay Harden are exquisite professionals, and it was a true collaboration. This sounds kind of hokey, but this movie was such a mission from the beginning because of the subject matter. I think they felt it in the screenplay and trusted me as a first-time director, but we all kind of held hands. I don’t know how else to say it. I hope they feel the same about me.

VIDEO: Zac Efron, Ron Livingston Try to Save JFK in 'Parkland' Trailer

You premiered at Venice, now Deauville, then off to Toronto. What has the experience been like for you?

Look, for my first film to premiere in Venice is kind of ridiculous. It’s been really interesting so far. The American audiences and writers are hitting this in a very different way than the European writers. They have baggage, they have expectations. I feel like every American has a version of this movie already in their head. They’re watching Parkland and thinking, ‘No, no, no, that’s not how it went, that’s not how I would tell that part,’ or ‘Well, I didn’t know that, ergo it’s not in my movie.’ Who knew that Lee Harvey Oswald had a brother? Who knew that the doctor that was alone with Kennedy for 10 minutes was 26 and a rookie? Something like 80 percent of Americans believe in a conspiracy, and this movie doesn’t deny that, but it just doesn’t engage it. I think it needs to be watched on its own terms, and I think that’s hard for Americans. The Italians and French are cinephiles. They really understand film, they love filmmaking, they love the art of it, and Parkland is shot in a way that Americans aren’t used to. There’s a review that came out that says it’s an Oscar movie. In Italy it was potentially winning an award there and other great reviews. The American reviews, some were like, ‘What the f--- did I just see?’ So I have no idea what to expect.

Do you miss being on the ground and the adrenaline of reporting from war zones?

Not at all. It’s like 80 percent boredom, 10 percent travel and 10 percent panic and fear. I have two kids. It was very dangerous and exhausting. It was poverty-inducing, and those kind of long-lead stories are very expensive, and magazines just don’t have the money any more. The arms trafficking story for The New York Times Magazine was the most expensive story they have ever done. It cost them a fortune and took me a year, and they just don’t have that money anymore.

What is the next project for you?

I wrote Kill the Messenger, with Jeremy Renner, that just wrapped. There are two or three things I’m looking at, a couple are fact-based but they’re all dramas. I’m not a comedy director. The kind of films I can see myself making are always a hybrid of fact and fiction. In the case of Parkland, it’s all verifiably true. But to me, you can get spiritually closer to the truth of a thing if you aren’t constrained by confirmable fact. If you had to fact-check a movie, name me a single movie that would survive that process like a magazine article. I think you can get truer to the spirit of a story through films that are some kind of combination of inspiration and truth. That’s where great storytelling is.