Director of Parkland finds new angles on a much told tale

DIRECTOR PETER LANDESMAN

By Gary Murray

“I think that any rational person would think that Oswald acted alone,” said Peter Landesman, the director and writer of the new film Parkland. He is adamant in his assertions that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone killer on that fateful day fifty years ago.   In his new film, he does not take on the conspiracy theories of that November of 1963.  He is more interested in some of the stories that have not been told.

The former journalist has been working with both Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton to make Parkland.  It is loosely based on the book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.  The film stars Paul Giamatti, Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden and Jacki Weaver. 

On getting the story out, Peter said, “I was a reporter and I just followed my nose, trying to sniff out what was really interesting.  Tom (Hanks) and I had two goals.  One was that there was not a scene in the movie that anybody has ever seen before.  The other thing is that everything has to be verifiably true.  Everything in the movie happened, every scene happened.” 

Peter sees many parallels between the assassination of JFK (an event he did not witness) to the terror attacks of 9/11 (an event he saw first hand in NYC).  “It is one of the two seminal events of modern American history,” he said.  “The anniversary (of JFK) is here and we’re still obsessed with the wrong thing.  In this country, 70% of America thinks it was the Gay Cuban Mafia Santa Claus.  It is Mr. Mustard with the candlestick in the broom closet.  To be honest with you, I’m tired of the nonsense.”

He continued with, “I was a journalist for a long time, tearing the lid off of mythology and peering underneath and seeing what was really there.  The truth is much more dramatic, much more interesting, much more truthful and much more worthy of storytelling.  The JFK assassination is exactly that.  When you lift the hood on in and you brush away the nonsense, you get to what it is really about, which is us.  It was done to us; it was done to this city.”

Peter sees his movie not about the big names of that day but of the normal people affected by the event.  “The movie I wrote and directed is a movie about the rest of us.  It is really about the people it really happened to.  It is not about the celebrities, it is not about abstractions.  It is about the ground truth.  My entire interest was to take the audience and give them the experience of living through it for the first time. I didn’t want this to be a period movie where everybody looked funny and listened to funny music.  I wanted to create a time period that wasn’t then, wasn’t now but was its’ own moment.”

His goal was not to make a history film but a film that reflected more modern times.  He said, “The movie is shot like it is now–it is not a period piece.  I lived through 9/11 in lower Manhattan.  I wanted it to feel like 9/11, 9/12, 9/13.  I wanted it to feel like it was now.  When you do that you cut through all the bull and you get to what is really fascinating and powerful about it.”

The journey to make this film was a long time in research but a short time in production.  He got the green light in a first meeting on August 2012 and a week of pre-production before initial testing began.  He said, “In a little over a year, the movie went from nothing happening to a finished movie being released.  It was all bananas and crazy.”

Peter did research before he got behind the camera.  “I was in town for three years finding anybody I could who was alive,” he said of this process.  “The Sixth Floor Museum is a treasure trove of oral histories, witnesses and first hand accounts of people spitting out what they saw.  That is where I got the real emotional DNA of the movie.”

He also talked to the reporters who worked that day and called them a valuable source.  “I found a no bull reporter who was just interested in the facts and has no agenda.” 

The director also spent time with the Zapruder family, the owners of the film that showed the actual assassination of the President at the Grassy Knoll.  “The Zapruder family had not talked to anyone since that day and I finally got the grand-daughter to talk to me and then the family agreed to cooperate.  What you see is available only because that family talked to me, they hadn’t spoken to anybody ever.”

Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, a man who took cash for his film. “The Zapruder story is complicated,” said the director. “He took a lot of money and took more than a lot of money later.  And why he did that, I actually understand that.  It was tricky.”    

He did not show the Zapruder footage as most have seen it but through the eyes of a man who had witnessed a horrible crime.  “I wanted the Zapruder film to be seen as he saw it and experienced it.  Not literal.  It is more about what it suggests and it is much more about Zupruder’s personal experience shooting it and seeing it.  It is not a dialogue with conspiracy and non-conspiracy.  This is what happened.  It is a personal experience.”

One person he did not interview was Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother Robert who still lives in Dallas.  “I didn’t want it to be an advocacy piece for anybody.  I didn’t want to carry anybody’s water so I didn’t want to talk to him.  I didn’t need to talk to him.”

Jacki Wilson brilliantly plays Oswald’s mother and was the first piece of casting he made.  He said to her when trying to get her for the role, “If you don’t do this movie, I can not make this movie.”  He added, “I don’t know another actress could play this role.”  He admitted that he had Jacki base the performance on his mother. 

Peter Landesman definitely sees Parkland is a fictional account of facts.  “This isn’t a documentary,” he said.  “I think in a lot of ways a feature film can be truer than a documentary because documentary are limited to what you can actually get you hands on which isn’t everything.  With a movie, with narrative non-fiction, you can be more accurate and truer to the spirit of the thing.”

He sees the world of Parkland in different terms than most.  “I was brought up on the abstraction and the intellectual chess game.  I knew it was all wild and it seemed like a board game.  It seemed like smart people messing around with abstractions.  9/11 changed everything for me as a man and as a father and as a reporter.  I just have no time for it anymore.  It made all the sense in the world.”

Even though the film is about Dallas, he shot most of the film in Austin.  “I shot Dealy Plaza for Dealy Plaza,” he said but most of the interiors were shot in Austin at the Austin State Hospital.   “We needed a hospital and Parkland is no longer what it used to be,” he said.  The filmmakers used a former trauma unit to double for the Parkland halls.  They built the exterior of the first floor of hospital in Austin and used CGI for the upper floors.  They also built the Kennedy limo from scratch. 

Currently, Peter has a few movies that he is working on but nothing he could announce to the media.  “I had always planned to direct but I never had a path,” he said of his new career.  “I never went to film school.  I never read a film book.  I‘m a painter and so I always told stories visually.  I was always going to direct, I just didn’t know it was going to be this.  I didn’t ask permission, I just did it."

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