After chatting with the writers of Chappaquiddick, I was able to also chat with the film’s director John Curran. Read that first interview with screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan here. Catch Chappaquiddick now on demand.
Chappaquiddick tells the true story of the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) in Senator Ted Kennedy’s (Jason Clarke) car as he drove her home one summer night in 1969. The film is a thoughtful, gripping, and intense look at this very real tragedy – covered up by Senator Kennedy and his famous family – and the lack of any justice for Mary Jo in large part because of the power and prestige of the Kennedy name.
Chappaquiddick functions very well as a political thriller and a historical piece. The history detailed in the film is scrupulous without getting into hyperbole or a distortion of the facts. Yet, it is also entertaining throughout. I highly recommend catching the film.
Hello John and welcome! I’m wondering if we could start by getting a brief idea of your history – what got you into film?
I was in art school, at Syracuse, for illustration. I was an illustration major, you know, graphic design, with the intention of illustrating certain books until I realized there’s probably no money in that. Also at that age, I don’t think I was prepared to be sitting in a room doing freelance illustration, which I did for a couple of years. I didn’t like it.
The first time I stepped onto a film set, for a commercial or something, I just knew that was the circus I wanted to join. I left New York to start over, and I moved to Sydney, Australia, to get into advertising with a view towards getting into directing somehow.
I just got lucky. Within a couple of years, I was directing TV commercials and music videos. At that time, there were a lot of great DPs and actors and directors, and all this where we were fighting to make our first short film and fighting to make our first feature.
One thing just led to another, I guess, would be the long answer to your short question.
Absolutely. It's fascinating how that often works out. Favorite films and directors? I’m curious there as to which you would consider most influential on you as an artist.
Well, most influential on me, I would say two Australian directors who I kind of started off with were Kriv Stenders and Andrew Dominik. I think your contemporaries are who really form your earliest aesthetic interest.
Did that answer your question?
It certainly did, thank you, John. That’s a question I like to ask most everybody I talk to. It gets a clearer look at their processes, I’ve found if one knows what helped build them.
Getting into Chappaquiddick, I’m curious about what attracted you to the project initially?
I got the script with Jason already attached to play Teddy. What attracted me to it was the script and Jason. The script was awesome and very unexpected.
I’d agree with that assessment.
I was sort of loath to read it – I thought it would be a sort of a one-dimensional political hit piece.
But it turned out to be something completely different. They constructed it like a clever thriller…
Taylor and Andrew really did. I was very impressed by that thriller quality while keeping the essence of the history.
They also did a really good job with sketching a fully formed human being in Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo. Mary Jo wasn’t just a secondary background “floozy” or something. She came across as the intelligent, ambitious, competent person that she was.
Absolutely. I think your film gave her the respect that was basically taken from her by the media after the Chappaquiddick incident. Especially with the newspapers even calling her a “floozy.”
I thought it was a really great distinct take on it. Not only is it a political-factual story but as a thriller itself.
I would certainly agree there. What you said there really acts as a fine segue into another question I had. Was it a challenge balancing the historical facts with the human emotion and license that must be inevitably taken in a film? You did an excellent job in capturing the history of the tragedy without losing the emotion involved.
I think if the Chappaquiddick incident was anything, it was a series of really bad decisions by Teddy initially and then by everybody else.
That always makes for great drama – humans doing those stupid things. You have elements of humor and absurdity in that and there’s the pathos of regret and guilt and sadness obviously.
So, you know a lot of emotions are baked into the story itself. The hardest thing is getting the facts right and constructing them in a way that ultimately gets a film that reflects the truth as much as we can.
It also has to be moving emotionally and have a pace and be entertaining along the way – otherwise, you’re just making a documentary.
Definitely. Asking a question I also asked Taylor and Andrew, what does Chappaquiddick say about power, privilege, and justice in America?
I think it has a lot more to do with that today than even in September when we premiered it in Toronto. I think there’s been a reckoning for power and privilege, and what was the third thing you said?
Yeah. You know I think there is justice here, it’s been slow in coming but I don’t think politicians will ever get a pass the way they did when this took place. This was on the same weekend as the Moon Landing.
Yeah. I hope that’s true with politicians.
Luckily, I guess, for the Kennedys, the Moon Landing basically overshadowed this news story. I would argue that if it happened today, that this story would overshadow the Moon Landing.
It likely would, I would agree.
That says something about, I think more and more, I think this administration is really testing the limits of what people are prepared to turn a blind eye to. It still surprises me the amount that we do.
You’re not alone in that surprise.
But I think a day of reckoning is coming. I can only hope…
Me too. I think a lot of people are in that boat as well.
You know, I did the adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel for that. I had to drop off it to do another film so the producers then went to Michael Winterbottom and he sort of made it his own thing. So, I didn’t really have much to do with that film besides the original draft for it.
To be perfectly honest with you, my take on it was very different. We were both very faithful to the book but in mine, I reversed the structure of it where you went with the ruse a little longer until you understood that he knew exactly what he was doing. Michael reversed it and he was very faithful to the book so…
I have to say, it’s different than my other scripts and I really don’t feel that much ownership over it aside from being one of the originals to do the adaptation, other people worked on that script as well.
I see. One other question I like to ask everybody: what makes a great film?
Wow. Good question, my mind just went completely blank…
I don’t know whose adage it is, but there’s that old saying of “eight great scenes and no bad ones.” [Laughs]
I’m not sure who said that but to me personally, I’ll just speak for myself, I always seek to be transported or moved in some way. It should go from one place to another, you know? Getting lost in the film, and coming out the other end, feeling like it took me someplace surprising.
I know that’s kind of vague, but there’s a lot of films that ask you to be moved and you feel nothing. Then there are other films that for some reason get under your skin and you have a visceral emotional reaction to them – whether you’re laughing or crying, or you’re frightened – that, to me, is the mark of a good film. Where against your own cynicism and better judgment it gripping you a certain way and take you someplace.
That is a successful film to me.
That’s a fantastic answer. A big part of that question is the variety of answers it elicits.
The last question I had for you John: what is next for you?
What’s next for me is that I’m writing. I’ve been trying to get a few projects that I’ve been developing for a while, I want to finish those scripts. I don’t know if I’ll do one of those next, and I’m looking at a few, I’m horribly… picky in the sense that making a film for a director is at least a year, year, and half life, and I’m not very good at doing two or three things at once like some directors are.
Some can be finishing one film off and prepping the next one, I’m very much a monogamous filmmaker [Laughs]