Filmmaker Roundtable Interview: With “Parkland” Docudrama Director Peter Landesman

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PARKLAND opens October 4th at the Angelika Plano & Dallas. Rated PG-13.

Written by Gordon K. Smith

Vincent Bugliosi’s massive nonfiction detailing of the JFK assassination, “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy”,  was later pared down to its first 400 pages and retitled “Four Days in November”.  That book, covering the events immediately surrounding the fatal shots on November 22, 1963 and the 3 days that followed, has been adapted into the new docudrama PARKLAND.  The film recreates the chaos of those fateful hours at the Dallas hospital where both Kennedy and Oswald died;  the discovery of the Zapruder film;  the anxiety of the Feds, Secret Service and police who failed in their duty to protect the President, and more.   At its best, the film succeeds as a gripping piece of you-are-there, fly-on-the-wall reporting, with (sometimes grisly) details that most people never knew about this world-changing event.

That realism is thanks to the journalism background of first-time screenwriter/director Peter Landesman, and fine performances of Zack Efron, Colin Hanks, and Marcia Gay Harden (doctors);  Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Wellington, and Ron Livingston (Feds), Jackie Weaver (Oswald’s mother), and Paul Giamatti (Abraham Zapruder).   Landesman spoke about how the film came together in a September roundtable interview at The Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, a brisk walk from where the events took place 50 years ago.

“The Kennedy assassination was one of two seminal events in modern American history, the other being 9/11”, he began.  “Too many Americans have been obsessed with the wrong thing with that story, all the speculation and theories.  The truth is more worthy of that obsession.    I lived through 9/11, I know what it felt like, and I wanted the same feeling for our film.  I wanted it to be grounded in truth…for the people who think they know everything about this story…I had two absolutes for our film – there could not be a scene that had been seen before (in other JFK dramatizations), and every scene would be verified for accuracy.”

 Twelve producers/executive producers came together to make PARKLAND happen, including actors Bill Paxton (who, as a child with his mother, saw Kennedy in Fort Worth the day before Dallas) and Tom Hanks (whose son Colin plays a Parkland chief surgeon).

“The film was Bill’s idea originally…we were having a hard time getting it to come together.  Tom was busy shooting CLOUD ATLAS and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS…I was just going to produce, and finally I said, time to make this happen.  I said to Tom and Bill, ‘I’m going to direct it myself!’  It was a bit of a bluff, since they had the rights, but they agreed, and we were off…it came together remarkably quick.  We had our first meeting August 12th of last year, started prep the next week, did our first shot on January 13th of this year, and here we are opening October 4th.”

The accuracy includes recreating actual dialog, as closely as possible, between the doctors, lawmen, the Zapruder family, and the Oswalds (James Badge Dale plays Lee Harvey’s brother Robert; briefly seen New York actor Jeremy Strong is a startling Lee Harvey lookalike).  “I spoke with ex-secret service agents and the surviving Parkland doctors,” Landesman continued.  “The Zapruder family has been quiet for many years.  Abraham Zapruder took a lot of money for the film at the time, and took more later.  He was deeply traumatized by the experience the rest of his life.  His granddaughter really opened up to us and that’s where a lot of the info comes from…  We didn’t talk to Oswald’s brother.  He doesn’t discuss it and he’s in not-so-good health now (at age 84)…the Dallas police didn’t record their conversation in the police station, but they had great stenographers then who wrote it all down, and that’s what you hear in the scene.”

zac-efron-parkland-msConspicuously absent in the film is any mention of Texas Governor John Connally, severely wounded by the infamous “magic bullet”.  Was he in Landesman’s first, four-hour cut of the film?

“Yes, Connally was being treated in the room at Parkland right across the hall from Kennedy’s room.  We shot those scenes, too, but the preview audiences were confused by the cutting back and forth,  so we decided to cut them and focus on the core story.”

Most of PARKLAND was filmed not in Dallas but in Austin. Seamless digital effects also played a big part in the modestly budgeted ($10 million) film.  “Shooting in the real Parkland Hospital wasn’t practical, and it doesn’t look like it did then…we shot in the former trauma unit of the Austin State Hospital.  It was around the same age and had that exact same look as Parkland did in 1963…the scenes in the Dallas FBI office were shot at another old Austin hospital.  The scenes with Zapruder at Dealey Plaza were actually shot there; that and a few other pick-up shots were done in Dallas…when you see the Secret Service and police hauling the President’s coffin up the gangplank into Air Force One at Love Field, they’re actually pushing it into nothing.  That kind of plane doesn’t exist now.  It was created in post by CGI.  That was a big outdoor green-screen on a huge tarp, which kept blowing in the wind. It was acting like a big sail.   That wasn’t easy!”, Landesman recounts with a grin.

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