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December 6, 2017

A Conversation with the Creators of ‘Chappaquiddick’

The filmmakers behind the film about Ted Kennedy’s tragic car-accident talk about creating a feature from history.

In the summer of 1969, Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and into a pond while riding with campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne. While Kennedy managed to escape the accident, Kopechne did not, and Kennedy’s subsequent failure to report the accident during the ten hours that followed has meant an air of mystery has since surrounded the exact details of that night.

Chappaquiddick works to explore the accident and the events that came after it.    Directed by John Curran and written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, the film dives into the tragic situation, shedding light on the perspectives of various figures in the story, as well as the unraveling of Ted Kennedy’s political career.

We sat down with Curran, Allen, and Logan to discuss piecing together this moment, the research that went into it, and how they approached working with material in which much was left unanswered.

When did you all first take fascination with this story? Has it just been something you’ve thought about forever and carried with you, and wanted to tell the story through a feature film? How did it all come about? 

Allen: Well, me and Andrew are both Texas boys, through and through. We both grew up, actually, in the Dallas area, and so the Kennedy legacy, in my opinion, looms a little bit larger in Dallas, because you know, every family vacation, you end up driving through Dealey Plaza. And me and Andrew had a lifetime love of movies, and so a lot of the things that we knew about the Kennedys were through movies about JFK and movies about Bobby. We had never really seen an actor play Ted Kennedy, and yet for us, he was the most fascinating member of the Kennedy family, with tragedy befalling all of his older brothers and then having that legacy thrust on his shoulders as the youngest; the baby of the family. So, ultimately, we were originally looking at it as a character piece about Ted Kennedy, and we were looking at it more from the biopic standpoint. And it was just because, as writers, you don’t want to write a cradle to grave sort of the thing, that we ended up kind of discovering the Chappaquiddick angle.

Can you all talk a little bit about what it was like to write and direct a story that is true, and about such an iconic family that at least most everyone is a little familiar with?

Allen: That was one of the great joys of writing the movie; [it] was getting to put on the Woodward and Bernstein hat and have my day being a journalist and looking into court records. There’s actually an inquest into whether or not a crime was committed that weekend. And that inquest brought back everybody six months later to testify under oath; the boiler room girls took the stand, the US attorney played by Jim Gaffigan went under oath, and even Ted Kennedy himself. And it was reading those transcripts that really formed the basis of the movie. I think that was one of the most exciting parts of the process; [it] was poring through, and finding the inconsistencies and different perspectives on the events of that weekend.

Logan: Yeah, that was our, you know, we really wanted the truth to be our North Star, and having those court transcripts were invaluable as we dug and did the research. Because it was very important to us that we not make a conspiracy movie; that it was something where we were investigating what had actually happened, and trying to accurately portray that.

Curran: You know, there’s the responsibility, I think, with any historical film: you feel there is a sense of responsibility to get it right in some way. But the great thing about this story was that a lot of it is built around myths and conjecture. So, what I think these guys did really well was actually going to what are on-the-record facts about this story. And a lot of them come from Ted himself — his evolving story — and the film kind of follows the evolving story to the point where, [by] the end of it, you’re really no closer to the truth; the actual truth. For all we know, the events of that night are completely different than what we have in the film. But I think what was freeing about the way these guys approached it was [that] it is kind of the point. A lot of it was deflection and cover-up.

Allen: And one of the things that John says is interesting is that maybe they were completely different, but [that] ultimately, the sourcing is drawn from these many different perspectives that people brought to it. So while the film isn’t trying to be the definitive source or the definitive truth, it is an amalgamation of many people’s different viewpoints, and so it’s got an effect in that way that you come away wondering, and hopefully capturing more of an essence of truth from these perspectives.

Going off of that, what was maybe the most difficult part of putting together this story; of directing this story?

Curran: Well, for me, it was getting the character of the setting right. My instinct was that it’s so typical in modern-day filmmaking [to] just chase state incentives, that it literally doesn’t matter where the story is set: someone is trying to sell you on New Mexico because they have a great incentive or something, even if it’s a tropical story. But for me, this sense of the physical setting, and the specificity of the bridge, and its relationship to the road and the island…I just felt like we’ve got to go shoot there. It’s a very distinct and specific thing. And, also, the character of the people. That accident is very well known, and people doing bad Boston accents is very distracting. So I wanted to have a wealth of locals that I could pull into the film. But that made it difficult because of the cost, you know, shooting there probably cost us some money; we could have saved it in other places, but it was just figuring out how to protect the script — not cut the script down to fit this strict budget — but at the same time shooting in a place that I felt was very important to the film.

Logan: As writers, one of the most difficult things I found was getting our script down to a manageable, producible length. When we finished our first draft, it was 196 pages long, which is a little on the long side. But because we were so research-driven, a lot of that research found its way into the script, and so it was a process between Taylor and me to figure out how to parse everything down into 120 pages.

Allen: There was a great scene where Ted bought his newspaper in the morning from the hotel desk clerk, and we thought it was interesting from the perspective of: what was not actually a normal day at all seemed to be [a] normal day to everyone that encountered him, and that was just one of the many people he encountered. So we have all those details about what was on that paper and what he talked about with the clerk, and all of it was on the record, so that was really exciting, but you end up condensing, so now we just have a scene where he’s at brunch with the other people at the race, and that speaks to those larger themes.

So, Taylor and Andrew, this was your first feature script that you’ve written. Could you both talk about that experience and any advice that you may have for aspiring screenwriters? And John, if you could maybe give some perspective and advice for those who aspire to be directors?

Allen: Yeah, I mean we had been dreaming of making a movie for ten years; we went to film school together, and ultimately I think you just need to always find the right story, because I think story is king. And I think the fact that we were lucky enough to have our first script produced isn’t because we’re such great writers, but I think that it’s because we approached really great material in Ted Kennedy’s life. In the sense that, with a lot of sincerity and a lot of heart, we hope we brought a lot of humanity to everybody (including Mary Jo’s experiences) in the movie, and I think we just found the right story. So, the advice I would give on that is that when you’re searching for [a] story, a lot of times it’s like walking on a beach, and you’re looking for a rock in the sand, and there’s actually a giant boulder right in front of you. And Chappaquiddick was kind of that for us. This thing that has never really been explored, despite the huge impact it had on potentially affecting the presidency.

Logan: And, you know, the interesting thing about our partnership is that we’re long-distance. Taylor lives in Los Angeles and I live in Austin, and we write together over the phone using Google Docs. So we see each other’s cursor, usually in the same scene. And I guess, you know, the advice I would give is that once you find the right story, having the discipline to stay on schedule in terms of writing every day and chipping away at it, because for me that’s the hardest part of writing.

Allen: That’s actually the reason we’re writing partners: because we both needed accountable buddies to hold us to that schedule.

Curran: Yeah, and I will echo that. There’s nothing worse than people talking about ideas; you just have to do them, you just have to write it. Even if you’re not a writer, you have to get stuff down. Try to chase the things that mean something to you. You know, you can drive yourself crazy, it’s so arbitrary; you feel like a weather vane trying to figure out “what do people want”, and “what’s selling”. You know, if you don’t have a reason to make films, and you don’t know yourself and know what you’re chasing as an individual, I think you just become like a dancing monkey. You lose a sense of purpose, and are spinning in circles. Whatever it is that you’re into, whatever you think [you] can contribute to the collective, you know you just have to be confident about it and just keep chasing that. Whether it’s finding a writer or writing it yourself; or finding a book, or finding a story that speaks to you. I mean, if I approach my career on what’s really popular this year, you fall on that and won’t survive on that.

Logan: On that note, when we started Chappaquiddick, we never thought in a million years that it would become a movie. We just simply thought that it was a great story that we had to tell, and that maybe we could write it in an interesting way, and maybe, with any luck, people would want to read the script. And that’s about as high as the bar was for us.

Allen: Yeah, two 28-year-olds starting to talk about writing Chappaquiddick; you don’t start writing it thinking it’s going to be the next Spider-Man. It’s something that you have got to have a sincere look at yourself, and I think that’s why we got really excited about it, [it] was because, you know, we really related to a lot of Ted Kennedy’s experiences, and his brother…

Curran: And the encouraging thing I will add to that, from a director’s standpoint, is that [if] you write a great character or find a script with great characters, you will cast it. And if you can cast it, someone out there will make it. If you have good talent that wants to do your script, there’s a million people out there. Getting money is easy, if you have a good script and you have talent. The money’s not the hard thing at all. It’s getting the script and the actors involved. You know, whenever people say “indie films or dramas are getting harder”… as long as there’s actors that have a sense of worth in their craft; they all don’t just want to do big-budget superhero films. They actually got into it to do meaningful films with really great characters. So for me, those are always the scripts that I’m looking for, because that’s what appeals to me, and I have total confidence. When I read the script, even though it was already cast with Jason, I was like, I won’t have any problem finding really interesting actors for the rest of these roles. People will be chasing this thing.

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