In Chappaquiddick, we re-live the worst moment of Ted Kennedy’s life (portrayed in the film by Jason Clarke), the accident that killed Mary Jo Kopeche (Kate Mara). Though that moment is re-lived through a few different perspectives.
The film screened as part of the Austin Film Festival last fall, and is now in wide release this weekend. Back during AFF, we got the chance to talk to writers Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, and director John Curran about how their creative process dictated how they’d tackle such a somber topic.
Why the interest in telling this particular story now?
Taylor Allen: Me and Andrew grew up in Dallas, and so the Kennedy legacy looms a little larger in Dallas, as most things do. And we were fascinated by the fact that, as movie fans, there had been several movies made about JFK, we had seen several actors play JFK. There had been a few movies made about Bobby Kennedy and I had seen a couple actors play him, but I had never seen an actor really play Ted Kennedy in any significant way.
So, I think that me and Andrew, as aspiring screenwriters collaborating on our first screenplay together, were really interested in exploring this person who suffered immeasurable tragedy in his three older brothers all dying in various tragic ways. And that was really the impetus was exploring him as a human being and as a character onscreen. Ultimately, the decision to focus on Chappaquiddick was born out of the fact that we didn’t wanna write a cradle to grave biopic.
If you’ve seen the movie Walk Hard, Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) has to think about his whole damn life before he plays the song. And we didn’t want that, we wanted to really talk about Ted’s whole life through this one incident, and the whole movie takes place in seven days, and that’s kinda like the perfect amount of time for this sort of story.
What got you in the director’s chair?
John Curran: I’m very nervous about the topic. That’s a hard one to [do]. You don’t wanna read an apology, and you don’t wanna read something that’s overly sympathetic, but I just thought this script was really amazing and hit a perfect balance. And surprisingly, this tragedy kind of evolved as I’m reading it, into almost like a black comic farce, which I was not expecting, and I found myself laughing, and then being disturbed that I was laughing. And I thought, that’s a pretty amazing trick in a script if I can somehow translate that into a film where the audience is feeling uncomfortable about how they’re feeling and responding. I thought that was a great challenge.
Allen: Yeah, as writers, me and Andrew are really inspired by the Coen Brothers, and so that uncomfortable laughter was definitely something that we wanted. But at the end of the day, we really wanted to make it a character piece about Ted Kennedy. And I think that Andrew would be the first person to tell you, our big thing was letting the truth be the thing that guided us in avoiding this conspiracy movie that the Kennedy families are certainly plagued with. Instead, by grounding it in objective facts, we could avoid a lot of that sorta thing.
With biopics, I suppose it’s inevitable to play up certain aspects, along with having to condense characters and timelines. But this story has that an added twist of what really happened? There’s Ted’s account of what happened, formally, and then, you had to work in what really happened.
Allen: I think that that was the concede of the movie, and it was the thing that got us up in the morning, was the opportunity to, in a Rashomon-like way, show multiple perspectives about what happened that night. And the reason we were able to do that is because, we actually based the script off of an inquest that was held into whether or not a crime was committed. This inquest took place in January 1970, so six months after the accident happened.
And they got everyone back in Edgartown, in Martha’s Vineyard, the boiler room girls, the US Attorney played by Jim Gaffigan, Ted Kennedy’s cousin played by Ed Helms, and Ted Kennedy himself goes on the stand under oath and recounts his version of events. [His] cousin, Joe Gargan, recounts his version of events. And I think the goal for the script was to be able to incorporate those different points of view and show how the stories diverge at different points, and the evolution of how this story was told to the American public.
Was any of this altered with you in the director’s chair, or did the script come non-linear?
Curran: No, the script was non-linear, for sure. And that Rashomon effect of going back and seeing it anew or from a different angle, or something’s different, so that by the end of the film, you’re questioning what the real truth is, which I think was the objective. It wasn’t to like, this is gonna be the film that reveals all the answers about Chappaquiddick.
That’s what I was afraid of what I was gonna be reading when I first got the script, and it’s not that at all. It actually provokes more questions, and it was non-linear. It’s a different kind of non-linear, I would say. I think that was a big wrestle with me with the edit, was, the script was really tight and had a great structure. And for various reasons, when you shoot, you don’t have enough to properly serve some scene, and the structure in the final edit was different than the script, but I think it still had the spirit of what these guys were reaching for, or I hope that they feel that way.
Andrew Logan: Yeah, we felt really lucky, because film is such a collaborative medium, and John is correct that the script was different structurally than the final edit, but the movie gets written three times. It gets written when you write the script, when you go into production, and then, when you’re in the edit. We felt so lucky to have such amazing collaborators and John Curran, and our editor, Keith Frays, who, we went to college with.
Curran: Yeah, these guys turned me onto him, actually.
Allen: And it was an easy sell because, in the meantime, after we graduated, I’m working on the Simpsons as an editor and my friend Keith is working for Terence Malick, so, much easier to sell him as editor than myself.
Logan: But we were in the edit room, and much to John and Keith’s credit, they reconstructed how the order of the events played out onscreen differently than what we had on the page. But I think we all shared the same vision for what we were trying to achieve, and when it was clear that things weren’t working the way we thought they were going to, these guys really came up with new ideas to really make the movie better than I thought it was gonna be.
Was it a challenge to figure out how you’d cast the character of Ted Kennedy in the audiences’ eyes?
Allen: Yeah. My joke answer is that we had been watching a lot of Mad Men at the time, but the serious answer is that, ultimately, we’re fascinated by characters with inherent contradictions. And when we enter into writing anything, we’re looking for a central character whose greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. And with Ted Kennedy, it’s that he is part of this legacy of this family, and yet, that’s the biggest burden for him at this time, as well.
We thought that was simultaneously the thing that created a lot of his problems is also the thing that solved a lot of his problems. It’s also something that he never really fully was able to make peace with until after Chappaquiddick, and after his father passed away. And I think that that was something that just really excites us, is that the dramatic tension of a movie doesn’t have to be a conflict between a good guy and a bad guy, and it can be a really flawed human being, a real person, fighting within themselves.
Logan: I think it’s authentic to who Ted Kennedy is. He’s a very provocative person, depending on who you ask. People either hate him, or they hugely admire him. And I think it would’ve been wrong to fall down hard on one side of that. I think that that balancing act was hard, but I think that was sort of the genius of the inspiration with these guys, is that, they were gonna embrace him as a fully complex person. In the end, it’s gonna be a provocative character, he’s not gonna be one-dimensionally heroic or inspirational, or a loser, you know what I mean?
Depending on the prism that you watch the film through, you’re gonna come to your own conclusion about him. And, I think for the audience, the entry point emotionally and morally is, the character of Joe Gargan, who I think is really brilliantly played by Ed Helms, who’s able to observe the actions that Ted takes, and is voicing concerns in the room in ways that other people aren’t.
Allen: Which is totally true to Joe Gargan the person. That’s one of the interesting things about the inquest is that, a lot of people on the stand were answering questions with yes or no, and lawyers would move on. But Gargan clearly had a lot of pent-up moral conundrum that he was expressing on the stand, and I think that’s how the character became the way that he was.
Speaking of, I have to know what inspired you guys to cast comedic actors like Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan in these serious roles.
Curran: Well, when I read the script, I was laughing a lot at it, and there was [this moment, like], ‘What a piece of shit!’ I wanted to fully embrace the surprise of that turn. It sorta crept up on me in this script, I didn’t expect it to go where it went. And then, I really got into it, and I wanted the film to capture that and the casting to capture that.
And there’s a lot of great dramatic actors that, I can tell you, they’re just not funny people, and they don’t have comic instincts, they don’t have comic timing. On the other hand, I’ve met a lot of comedic actors, comedians, who, for the most part, these are very intelligent, complex people, and they have a well of angst and disappointment to draw from.
In my experience, I’ve always found them to have a really amazing range from comedy to pathos. And I knew the kind of type that I wanted, and Ed just perfectly fit the bill. He’s super intelligent, he certainly struck me as an east coast educated lawyer. He could pull that one off. And by sheer coincidence, when I came up with the idea of Jim Gaffigan, the first person I ran it by was Ed, and he was over the moon about it, because, unbeknownst to me, they’ve had a friendship going back years, so I thought, okay, that’s perfect. That makes a lot of sense to me.
Chappaquiddick is now playing in theaters everywhere.