I recently had the chance to speak with director John Curran about his latest film, Chappaquiddick. Here’s what he had to say…
Matt: I look at American politics at the moment and it feels as partisan and divisive as it’s been for a long time. Is that a risk in making a political film like this? Is there a worry that people are going to attack it from both sides?
John: It’s about a politician but it’s not really a political movie. We went into this with eyes wide open. We knew it was going to be controversial and particularly in this climate, we knew the right side would look at it through their own prism and that the left would be seeing a whole different film and having a different reaction to it. I think the divisiveness will create conversation which is good for any film.
Matt: What was the source material here?
John: The main plot points can be Googled. There are no secrets there. There was a degree of cover-up and an irresponsible delay in reporting the accident. In terms of the specifics, we drew from the inquest where the people involved had provided hours of testimony. There were also a couple of books that provided a comprehensive overview of the accident and the aftermath. We drew from the facts as much as possible and then created conversations around that. We weren’t trying to lean left or right or create a salacious piece or something apologetic. We wanted to go down the middle and tell the facts according to Ted.
Matt: The film doesn’t make a definitive statement in a few areas – like how Ted got out of the car, how much alcohol he had consumed and the cause of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. I’m guessing that’s a conscious decision on the part of you and the writers?
John: Oh yeah. It’s a film about an evolving narrative that still has gaps in it today. The idea was to leave it to the viewer to form their own opinions by the end. There’s no “good” telling of this story. Ted was highly irresponsible and neglectful in the aftermath of the accident. We didn’t feel the film should embellish it in a way where we try to take claim for certain truths that we couldn’t back up with evidence.
Matt: In today’s age of 24 hour news and social media, do you think Ted Kennedy could have controlled this story as easily if this had all taken place today?
John: I don’t think they could. I think it’s very likely that Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have had a second act and would not have been re-elected. Then again, look at what’s going on with the current President. There is a scandal every single day that would sink any other President. What he’s revealed is that regardless of who is President, half of the country is going to support him no matter what so maybe I’m wrong. If this happened today, half of the country would still support Teddy Kennedy.
Matt: It feels like such a fine line. There are politicians today who have fallen on their sword for what I would argue are much lesser discretions but Kennedy was able to find a way to dodge this scandal. Was he just lucky with stuff like the timing of the Apollo 11 landing or were he and his team smarter than most?
John: I think the press had more of a “hands off” approach to politicians and celebrities back then. It was end of the 60s and the end of an incredible decade where the Kennedys had dominated American life and were like a Royal Family. More importantly, it had only been a year since the tragedy of Bobby and I think that garnered a lot of sympathy for him. This accident helped put an end to the myth of Camelot. After that, the Kennedys were perceived with more honest eyes.
Matt: An Aussie (Jason Clarke) playing Ted Kennedy. I have to ask how that came about?
John: I lived in Australia for a long time. Like 16 or 17 years. Jason and I have known each other since my very first film, Praise. It’s a book that’s set in Brisbane actually. Jason is in that film for about 8 seconds and I’ve remained in contact with him. He was attached to the script and through his manager, it came to me. Whatever concerns I had about how the content of this film would be perceived, I had total faith that Jason could pull it off. He has this similar look to Ted and he had the acting chops to do it.
Matt: Did you know a lot about this story before coming on board? I have to admit that here in Australia, I knew very little about it. I wonder if that’s the case in America as well.
John: I did because by chance. This happened in 1969 when I was 9 years old and I was living in the town in New Jersey next to where the Kopechene’s lived. I heard a lot about it in school because there were stories going around. I thought I knew about it but it wasn’t until I picked up the script that I realised there were a lot of things I didn’t know which were amazing like the fact it happened the same week as the moon landing.
Matt: How did you create the setting? We see the bridge where the accident occurred which looks very similar to photos from the time but that said, I believe the current bridge now has guard rails in place.
John: We rebuilt the bridge to the original specifications in a big water tank in Mexico where they filmed Titanic.
Matt: The real-life interviews with members of the public at the end of the film are a nice touch. How did you come across those and identify which ones you wanted to include in the film?
John: That was by accident and it happened very late in the edit. There was something not right about the ending and we had a researcher pulling together old archival clips from the news. I didn’t come across those until late. They’re both funny and tragic. The day after Ted Kennedy’s speech, this reporter went out on the streets of Boston and was interviewing people to get their varied opinions. All he was getting was people who supported Ted no matter what. The reporter was getting increasingly frustrated because he couldn’t find anyone who was saying something negative. There were only 2-3 people who said something negative and they’re in the film but that’s just to show there were some descending voices but for the most part, the people of Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly to re-elect him a few more times.
Matt: What are you working on at the moment? What will we see from you next?
John: I’m attached to a couple of things but I don’t know what will be next to be honest. I’m still in that phase of trying to decide.