Peter Landesman made his feature film directorial debut last year with Parkland, a movie that has been released on DVD & Blu-Ray this week.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about Parkland, his interest in the assassination of JFK, and what lies ahead of him.
-Parkland is about to be released on DVD here in the UK, so can you tell me a little bit about the film?
Parkland takes an audience and puts them in the middle of the weekend that Kennedy was killed, and the days that immediately followed, and give them the experience of the event having happened to them for the first time.
It is hard to come away from this movie feeling like you haven’t seen it for the first time. It is almost like a war film as it is very immediate and it is very raw.
- You have penned the screenplay as well as being in the director's chair, so where did this project start for you? And what sparked your interest?
The book was used as an inspiration and a launching off point. I was an investigative journalist for the New York Times, and I have always been compelled by stories that take something we think we know everything about and unpeeling it in a way that reveals that we really knew nothing.
The fascination with the Kennedy’s in this country (America), really is a national obsession; that and 9/11 are probably the two touchstones for not just negative change, but also change in the second half of the 20th century American history. It is a story that was very natural for me to tackle.
I realised early on that we actually knew very little about what happened, and I became much less interested in the conspiracy and much more compelled by the stories of those who lived it and survived it.
- I was actually going to ask you about your journalism background and how much having that investigative eye was useful to you during this project?
Very much so. Not just in the preparation and the writing of the screenplay, but even the way that I shot the movie had a feeling of being present - almost like being in a conflict zone.
There is a subjective and first person quality to the shooting, which I think was inspired a lot by my time in conflict zones in Kosovo, Rwanda and Afghanistan. Just feeling the immediacy, the rawness, and the power of what it is to feel in danger and feel scared.
- Can you talk a bit about the research process that you went through as you were preparing for this project? Were there any specific areas that you were particularly interested in focusing on?
I was hungry for the first person experience of the people who were on the ground - no one we knew - but the doctors, nurses and the agents who were covered in blood. A number of them were alive and a number of them were willing to talk.
Many people stopped talking about it when they realised that people were only interested in the conspiracy. Once it was clear to them that I was not interested in that, they all opened up. I spent about three or four years tracking people down who were still alive - or their progeny - there were a lot of interviews that had been done and shoved in a box and put up on a shelf, and I was able to find all of those.
- As you say, there are a lot of people involved in this story who were on the ground at the time, so how did you decide on who to focus on and which character to highlight?
To me, it was really a simple process and some of them were quite obvious. A Zapruder film has never been looked at in any kind of real way. In addition, Robert Oswald’s brother, must people didn’t even knew that he had a brother. Once I understood his journey, it became like a powerful and moral touchdown.
The others all came to represent certain facets of the story; the young doctor who had no idea what he is doing, but is suddenly faced with the most powerful man in the world, with his head half blown off in his hands. What do you do? It is almost a cruel trick of fate.
It is a movie that is very much about heroism, stepping up and committing. These are all unknown people doing the best that they can in horrible circumstances.
- There is a lot of mythology and conspiracy theories around the assassination, how difficult was it to strip that away and tell a simple and as true a story as possible?
Oh god, it was a f***ing relief. If you are in an insane asylum and you have fifty crazy f***ers screaming in your ear, and then one really attractive, sweet, innocent and totally sane starts talking to you, who are you going to pay attention to? (laughs).
If you look at the conspiracy stuff, it really is all nonsense. It is really easy to ignore. Once you sit down and pay attention, it is really easy to ignore because it is just garbage. It is really the story of us and out history, and that is really easy to pay attention to.
- The movie brings together a terrific cast; can you talk a bit about the cast process and what you were looking for when you were casting roles as such as Marguerite Oswald and Dr Carrico? Jackie Weaver and Zac Efron both give terrific performances.
They really do. There isn’t a bad performance in the movie, everybody really… all of these actors and artists really stepped up. They all fell in love with the subject in the way that I did, and were able to put their faith in me and my vision for the movie.
These are some of the great actors of our time, and the question is, why wouldn’t I want them in the movie? I really didn’t get anyone saying ‘no’. The first piece of cast that I put in place was Jackie. I went to her and said: ‘there is no other actor on planet earth who could play this part. So if you don’t do this movie I can’t make this movie’.
She was in before I even sat down with her. She is a very remarkable soul. It was a short journey because we shot the film so quickly, but it was a very intense experience for everybody.
- The last twelve months has see Zac Efron in particular go down a very different career path, how did you find being part of that? This is a movie that two years ago, you wouldn’t have expected him to be in?
My daughter - who is six - is obsessed with Zac Efron. She met him on set and completely lost her mind (laughs). The Zac Efron that I know is a powerful and committed young man. He is an artist who… there is not a movie that he is doing that isn’t challenging him and pushing another piece of himself.
I really admire that about him. He is trying to redefine himself, and doing it successfully. He is an exceptionally talented guy and he is going to have a very important career.
- Parkland also marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found that experience?
It is very organic to me. I am a painter and a novelist, and there is something about the relationship between a director and an actor that is similar to the relationship between journalist and source. You are pulling things from people that they may not know are there, different ideas, trying to create a narrative for somebody.
It was very organic for me and it didn’t feel like it was a stretch. I felt like I had been directing for many years. I had written a number of screenplays and other things. When I write I see what I am writing and I am directing it in my mind.
My cinematographer Barry Ackroyd was the perfect partner, and the way that we saw things was perfectly in line with each other from the very first frame of the movie.
- The movie played on the festival circuit last year, so how was your festival experience? And how have you found the response to the film?
It has really been compelling. The festival experience has been a whole lot of fun. The movie played at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world, so that was a huge honour for me. Its world premiere was in Venice, and for my first film, it was really confirming.
The response to the film has been really interesting; some of it I expected and some of it I didn’t. I always knew that the film was going to be polarising, which is good; I think that art should challenge people. Therefore, the reviews are extreme: on the one hand, you have people who know a lot about film and raved about it. They got it and understood what it was I was trying to do.
Then there were others, who seemed to enjoy debunking the conspiracy or the non-conspiracy elements of the movie. There are those who are never going to be willing to see the film on its own terms. People think that they know everything about this, and I was trying to say ‘no we don’t’, and some people were just unwilling to accept that. I chalk up the extreme reaction to how powerfully people feel about this subject matter, and that is ok.
- Away from Parkland, you have penned the screenplay for Kill The Messenger. Can you tell me a little about that project?
Great film. It really is one of the great stories of our time. It is also a very personal one to me because it is about an investigative journalist, as I was, who inadvertently stumbled upon the CIA’s massive complictety in cocaine trafficking into the United States in the eighties, to support the war in Nicaragua. It was a terrible story because the cocaine that arrived in the United States inadvertently helped trigger the crack epidemic.
This reporter, who is working for a small paper, found this monster story, uncovers it, and writes it. At first, he is elevated and then destroyed: destroyed to the point where he killed himself because his life had been completely decimated for it. It is a story that resonates to me, because investigative journalism is an endangered species today.
Jeremy Renner plays the role of Gary Webb. It will be coming out in the Fall with Focus, and it will be interesting to see if it resonates with people, and if people care. It is just a terrific story in general.
- Finally, what's next for you? Now that you have made you directorial debut, do you want to stay in the director’s chair.
Oh yeah. I am going to be making a movie this year. There are three movies that I am looking at: two really closely, and I am close on both of them.
Parkland is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now.