Film as a medium is incredible for so many reasons. Yet, perhaps one reason that is often overlooked in that regard is its unique ability to re-open and re-examine bleak chapters of unresolved and unjust history.
That is exactly what the interviewees I was privileged to speak within this chat – screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan – sought to do and accomplished with their movie Chappaquiddick, based on the very real drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne (brought to life in the film by Kate Mara) in Senator Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy’s car after he accidentally drove it into the water on the Massachusetts island for which the film and incident are named, in 1969.
Jason Clarke was the ideal casting choice as the Senator – Clarke gives vibrant life to the “Lion of the Senate” and all the conflict and amorality he exhibited in carrying the Kennedy name after the deaths of JFK and RFK, all the pressure from the domineering yet sickly Kennedy patriarch Joe Kennedy (a scary-intense Bruce Dern) – and all his haphazard and amoral behavior following Kopechne’s death. Clarke is also a dead-ringer for the late Senator.
Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan really succeeded in bringing the tragedy of Chappaquiddick to stark life for a new generation and have affected a brilliant and captivating portrait of a supremely conflicted and morally confused political figure. I highly recommend this well-researched and well-made, thoughtful look at an American tragedy.
We get into their thought processes and creative decision-making below and the ethics of bringing history to life in the one-of-a-kind medium that is cinema, and a lot more.
Hello Taylor and Andrew and welcome!
I was wondering if we might start by getting an idea of what your collaborative process looks like. Do you guys each specialize in a particular area then put the result together (a division of labor) or is it more shared throughout?
TA: I am about to take you on a journey through this process that you are not gonna believe… [Laughs]
TA: Uh… Andrew and I do not live in the same city and yet every word, every comma, every period of this script was written with both of us looking at the cursor blink at the same time over the phone, arguing and hammering out what was the best diction, the best punctuation would be, and it was something that we were really lucky: John August, the screenwriter of Big Fish, he created a situation where you could write using plain text in Google Docs and then transfer it to screenplay format later.
So yeah, with Google Docs you have two cursors, and that was our process.
Wouldn’t it make more sense that two guys who don’t even live in the same time zone might divide and conquer?
TA: No! Two brains working at their full capacity can almost do the work of 1 normal man!
[Laughs] That’s awesome. Favorite films? I’m curious which you would consider most influential on you?
TA: There were two movies for me that were most influential during the writing of Chappaquiddick which happen to be two of my favorite movies – which is why we got lucky and this one got made. The first one is A Few Good Men and there’s a woman in the room right now who knows Aaron Sorkin very well and she has heard me quote A Few Good Men more times than I could count.
I know the whole screenplay backward and forwards and I love it. I love Aaron Sorkin’s writing, but with Aaron Sorkin, I can’t wait to see what he does – he’s capable of anything.
I love Fargo and the Coen Brothers and that like dark humor. To have such real characters behaving in ways that are understandable and so flawed – I know that’s the way I would react in some of those situations.
That’s something that fortunately we didn’t have to make up for the story of Chappaquiddick. Senator Ted Kennedy did many inexplicable things that we found confounding and interesting throughout.
Absolutely. Quite the fertile historical ground from which to get the story.
I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas without any access to any sort of arthouse movies or any sort of foreign films – they were all Hollywood blockbusters at the local Cinemark Theater right down the street.
So, when I saw A Clockwork Orange for the first time, it was a very eye-opening experience for me about what film could be and how artistic of an art form it is, and what you can achieve with that medium.
So that always stuck with me because that movie experience was the defining moment where I realized that movies are the greatest art form.
That’s great – I’m a big fan of Kubrick myself. Getting right into your film, how would you explain the significance today of the incident at Chappaquiddick on American history and politics to someone unfamiliar with the story?
TA: It’s a tragedy in which a promising young woman died. In so doing, potentially presidential history was changed forever. Ted Kennedy was lined up to potentially be the democratic nominee in 1972 and he certainly had the wind in his sails at that point. It’s quite likely he would’ve beaten Nixon and went on to be president – except for Chappaquiddick.
I actually didn’t know anything about the Chappaquiddick incident until I was in my mid-twenties, and I considered myself to be a pretty smart guy, really political. I rewatched Sorkin’s The American President like 2 dozen times, wondering to myself, why didn’t I know about this important moment in history about a family I was always endlessly fascinated by – Andrew and I grew up in Dallas where you go to the JFK Museum there and experience the tragedy of his family.
Ted Kennedy was always someone I was interested in that regard and yet I still had not heard of Chappaquiddick. So that’s the failing of a Texas public school education. [Laughs]
The character of Senator Kennedy is so conflicted in the film. I found his most telling line to be “I’m not going to be President” …
…the night of the crash. I was wondering if we might be able to get a window into your creative process in capturing the character. That is, capturing his motivations and who he is, in dealing with a tragedy.
TA: I think that I’m a highly sensitive person, and I mean that in a psychological bad way [Laughs]
TA: …much as a writer who’s trying to communicate my own feelings about the world. When I read Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, going on that journey that he took me through in his own words… he is a very conflicted man.
What me and Andrew found was that our favorite characters to write are ones that have that internal conflict – what we call an “inherent contradiction”, where their greatest strength is often their greatest weakness. In Ted’s case, that’s the Kennedy legacy itself that he was never going to be able to escape because his last name was Kennedy.
Going into that weekend in 1969, it was impossible to avoid the question of, will he run? The question in 1968, after Bobby was assassinated, was why didn’t he run in his place? That’s in the movie too.
TA: To have a character be both the protagonist and antagonist in a movie is rare. It was really exciting for us to develop it that way.
AL: As we researched, one of the things that we learned is that, growing up in Dallas with the tragedy of Dealey Plaza, and Dealey Plaza looming very large, we sort of assumed that John F. Kennedy was sort of the anointed Kennedy brother.
We learned, however, that it wasn’t him who was supposed to be president but rather his older brother, Joe Junior who ended up dying tragically in WWII. Then that pressure to become great fell on John F. Kennedy and after his assassination, it fell on to Robert, and after Robert fell on to Ted.
To us, Ted Kennedy is someone who is asking himself, do I even want this? So, when this incident at Chappaquiddick happened, and he’s having to struggle both with saving the Kennedy family and asking those questions of himself of what he wanted, we felt that was really compelling dramatic material for a character-study in a movie.
I would certainly agree with you there. It added a lot to an already compelling narrative. I think it helped to have Jason Clarke in the role, not just for his ability but man the guy is a dead ringer for Senator Kennedy in his younger days.
TA: Yeah! There’s a great story there that I’ll let Andrew tell…
AL: Yeah! I got texted a photo in pre-production of them doing hair and make-up tests for Jason.
TA: Yeah, they were like, we’re going to send you a photo of Jason in the make-up test and a photo of Ted as comp so you can give notes on how to change the hair or make-up or whatever, make it more of a dead ringer…
AL: So I got this picture that was in black and white and I said, “Cool! Now send me the picture of Jason.” And they were like, no that is the picture of Jason.
AL: And I was like oh my God – the way you said, he was a dead ringer.
Indeed. That’s amazing how alike they look. I think we covered my other question: what does it have to say further about justice, power, and privilege in this country?
TA: I’d like to expand on that if I may.
TA: I think it was something that we felt very deeply when we started writing in 2014, that the tragedy of Chappaquiddick isn’t Ted Kennedy’s presidential ambitions. It was the life lost too soon with Mary Jo Kopechne. This woman who I thought was really covered incorrectly by the media at the time.
The moment in the movie, when you see the newspaper flop down and it says, “Blonde Drowns”, and that’s just not how you describe another human being. Another paper referred to her as a “floozie”. Our goal in a lot of ways was to talk about how capable a person and how smart she was and how promising a life she was set to lead before this happened.
One of the greatest tragedies was that this story of Mary Jo Kopechne was always obfuscated by Ted Kennedy, using his power and privilege to keep the human cost out of the public’s mind.
Absolutely shameful how she was treated.
Circling back to one thing we hadn’t yet covered: what makes a great film?
TA: Roger Ebert says that a great movie is 3 great themes and no bad themes. That’s as good a metric for me as any. I love movies because I didn’t really leave the south as a kid. Movies were a way to travel to faraway places and have new ideas brought to me and new experiences.
Now, writing movies honestly not that much has changed because prior to starting writing Chappaquiddick, I had never been to Martha’s Vineyard and was in the process of wanting to write it when we went there for the first time.
I got to learn about a whole different culture in the United States and a different time period. I think one of the most shocking things for me and Andrew, was putting into the context of 1969 being pre-Watergate.
So, one of the reasons the people on the Island were so accommodating to Ted, even as it appears a crime has been committed – certainly, a woman’s dead – was that pre-Watergate, elected officials were held to a different standard because they were believed to be inherently good, where you wouldn’t question their moral character.
AL: They were put on a pedestal.
Absolutely. Skepticism about power wasn’t as intense in this country before Watergate. The last question I had: what is next for you?
TA: We’ve got a couple of things in the hopper. We’re writing a movie about the Augusta National Golf Course if you can believe it as a subject for a movie. The reason is that the founder Clifford Roberts is a notorious racist who said, “as long as I live, all caddies will be black and all golfers white.”
Yet, when Roberts died a few years later, he left the vast majority of his fortune to the first employee of Augusta National, a black man named Bowman Milligan. He and Bowman had become best friends, with some even saying it was a father-son relationship between them.
So, we asked: what would that money mean to Bowman? Having worked at one of the most historically racist sports institutions of all time, would it be blood money?
An interesting story we wanted to tell.