Reel Change Interview: Peter Landesman, Writer/Director of “Parkland”

On September 21, I spent 15 minutes talking with Peter Landesman, the writer/director of Parkland. You can read my previous writings on the film at Washington City Paper and Movie Mezzanine. Below is the full interview.


Noah Gittell: Hi, Peter. This is Noah Gittell.

Peter Landesman: Hey, Noah.

NG: How are you?

PL: I’m good, thanks!

NG: It’s great to talk with you. I really, really loved your movie. I write almost exclusively about film and politics, so it was a lot of fun for me, and I’m really glad you made it.

PL: That’s very sweet of you to say. I appreciate that.

NG: How did you and Parkland find each other?

PL: In a long dark alley (laughs) You probably know that I have a background as an investigative journalist, and I’ve been interested in fact-based, even political films, for a very long time. In fact, there was another film of mine that was shot this summer called Kill the Messenger, which you’re going to want to know about. It’s about the reporter Gary Webb who died primarily because he discovered the CIA’s complicity in massive cocaine trafficking in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So these are the kind of stories I organically am attracted to, and I wrote a similar one about Watergate and about Mark Felt for Tom [Hanks] to play. Similar approach: through the looking glass, the real story, the kind of truer story of Watergate and why Felt did what he did, and not the Woodward and Bernstein self-mythology. And Tom put Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the JFK assassination in my hands after that, and I was off and running. Then, it was like being bitten by a vampire, primarily because I realized that the most salient and potent story about the assassination had never been told, and that’s how Parkland was born.

NG: So I don’t know your age, but from pictures I found online, I’m guessing you were either not born or very young in November 1963.

PL: Not born.

NG: Okay. Then what did Kennedy mean to you prior to your involvement with this film, and why was this story important enough to you that you wanted to make it your directorial debut?

PL: Well, Kennedy didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t know much about the substance of his presidency, and I didn’t know much about the substance of the person. I think we’re discovering that he’s a little more complex and dark that we would have hoped, although for our icons, I think that’s usually the case. But you know, Kennedy’s irrelevant. This isn’t about him. He’s just a corpse in this movie. Or a dying corpse. Or a man bleeding out on a hospital table. What interested me was how him being shot set in motion a series of Shakesperean dramas that became the film, and these kinds of stories meet the immediacy with which I shot the movie, the kind of ferocity of the filmmaking, it felt like a natural place to begin as a director because this is territory I knew. I am used to spending time in physical jeopardy. You know, Dallas in those 3 or 4 days felt a lot like New York on 9/11, which I experienced close-hand, closer than I wish. So it was territory that I traveled, and I could take the cast and the crew on a journey and feel comfortable leading them there.

NG: It’s so funny you brought up 9/11 because when I was watching the film, I had a few moments where I felt that it was as much a 9/11 film as it was a Kennedy film, particularly as compared to the way the JFK assassination has been previously depicted in film more of a confusing mystery, and without that sense of immediacy.

PL: I agree with you. What I wanted to capture is something universal, the disorientation and panic of feeling physical jeopardy and fear. It’s 9/11, it’s Kabul, it’s Kosovo. It’s all the things that I’ve experienced, and it’s what I was saying to the cast about how to physically behave when you’re feeling those emotions, and I thought they did a really beautiful job allowing me to lead them to places that they, in some ways, had never gone before, certainly not in this context.

NG: I thought the cast was amazing, maybe the best cast that a first-time director has ever had. As you said, you’ve faced down some very intimidating situations in your previous career, but as a debut filmmaker, was there any intimidation working with actors like Paul Giamatti, Marcia Gay Harden, and Billy Bob Thornton?

PL: The opposite. I think that the more powerful and talented the actor, the more generous they are because they have less to prove. So the opposite was true. They really gave it up. They really trusted me and trusted each other. And for Paul and Billy, this was the first time they had ever been onscreen together, which was bizarre to think about considering how long they have been in the business. So, no, that wasn’t the issue. I think we all felt we were moving downhill together.

NG: When you talk about the immediacy of the movie, I think about your director of photography, Barry Ackroyd. He has a reputation of being the kind of go-to DP for this type of journalistic film, like The Hurt Locker and the films he has made with Paul Greengrass. Was the always the guy you wanted?

PL: First and only guy I went to.

NG: What is it about his style that you think really works for this type of film?

PL: First of all, he is his own camera operator, which is rare for cinematographers. So his eye misses nothing, and he understands the screenplay and the dialogue intensely. He knows where the dialogue is going and where the story is going, and he just misses nothing. And his camera work – and the work of the other camera operator who works with him – just felt like a character. It felt like a physical presence in the room, and through that lens, which I felt was like a set of eyes, we just experience the ferocity of the moment. I don’t want to call it documentary filmmaking because I think it’s too simplistic a term. Documentary filmmaking is actually completely objective, and I think there was something very subjective about Barry’s shootings here. Something very emotional and individual.

NG: I agree, and I think it’s even more important in a film in which there not a central character.

PL: Very important so the audience doesn’t feel grounded, doesn’t feel bounced around a lot. You’re right.

NG: Was there ever a point in the screenwriting process where you considered making one of these people the central character, or did you always envision it as a mosaic?

PL: No, the latter. The central character was always the event and the time and the weekend. There was never one character that overtook me or the movie. Not once.

NG: When you were writing and thinking about directing the film, as a first-time director, were there any movies that you looked at and said, “I want to do something that looks like that”?

PL: That’s a good question. Clearly, I look at Greengrass’s two earlier movies – Bloody Sunday and United 93. But as a storyteller, the most salient movie was The Deer Hunter. Obviously not in scale, but in terms of taking a real event and turning it into an emotional journey and finding raw honest emotion in the visual storytelling. That had an incredible imprint on me. You know, United 93 and Bloody Sunday were like tangible, practical guideposts. How do you take a big event and compress the shit out of it and tell it in a way that makes you feel like you’re there? But as far as the emotional DNA of Parkland, bigger films like The Deer Hunter, The Insider and Michael Mann’s films. Michael is a friend and a colleague and someone I admire a great deal.

NG: I love the comparison to Bloody Sunday and United 93 because, with events that are traumatic to us as a society, it’s important for us to re-experience them as part of the healing process, and movies like those and like yours really do that for us. And for my generation, which certainly wasn’t around for JFK, it’s so important to re-experience the trauma of 9/11 and look at it with fresh eyes, and I really think you’re film accomplished that and can play an important role in our national healing process.

PL: Thank you. You know, it’s funny, I think we look at historical events over and over, sometimes expecting them to turn out differently. I think one thing Parkland does is takes an event we think we know, and says to you, “It’s going to turn out exactly as you remember, but in a way that you can’t possibly expect.”

NG: I know we’re almost out of time now, but I did want to ask you this. Nearly every book and film about the JFK assassination deals in some way with conspiracy theories. Parkland doesn’t, but I did feel when I was watching it that the actions taken by James Hosty and the FBI at the end of the film do add something significant to that conversation. How do you think Parkland fits into that discussion, if at all?

PL: It addresses it by not addressing it. First of all, Parkland ends before any of the speculation begins. It ends on a Monday, when people still think it is a potential coup or invasion. They really had no idea what had happened yet. Parkland doesn’t add to the conversation. I think Parkland kind of takes over the conversation, and I think it’s one of the reasons why there has been some harsh criticism of the movie. It’s because people don’t want to give up the intellectual chess game of the speculation and the mythology. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s compelling. And I think there’s an audience experience that happens where they sit back and let the movie wash over them, and it becomes an emotional ride. And I think that’s what Parkland adds. This wasn’t an event about a constellation of possible murder mystery suspects. This was an event that happened to real people with real emotions. And that’s a difficult thing to metabolize for a lot of people.

NG: And I know Bugliosi spent many pages in his book debunking the various conspiracy theories.

PL: Oh my God, two thousand fucking pages!

NG: And you got a brisk 90 minutes here, which I think is an amazing achievement. You were able to not debunk them but dismiss them for a little while and put your focus elsewhere, and I thought it was really effective.

PL: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.

NG: You’re welcome. I know you have many more of these interviews to do today, so I’ll let you go.

PL: If you need any follow-up, I’ll be here.

NG: I appreciate it, Peter.

PL: Thanks.

Marcia Gay Harden and Landesman on the set of "Parkland"

Marcia Gay Harden and Landesman on the set of “Parkland”

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