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Article by Teddy Durgin

Teddy Interviews 'Parkland' Writer-Director Peter Landesman

"Parkland" opened in such markets as New York, Los Angeles, Washington and across Texas earlier this fall and is new on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. The film, which counts Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton among its producers, chronicles President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas 50 years ago this Friday, Nov. 22, through the eyes of several lesser-known people who were eyewitnesses to this tragic chapter in American history. Writer-director Peter Landesman wasn't interested in re-telling the murder from the perspective of the major players. Instead, he focused on the doctors and nurses of Parkland Memorial Hospital who worked on Kennedy; the Secret Service agents who failed their boss that day; Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who captured the only clear film footage of the shootings; and Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), Lee Harvey Oswald's brother, who comes to realize his life will be forever stained through no fault of his own. It's an interesting way to tell an oft-told tale, and I was fortunate to sit down recently with the man who has told this particular version. Ladies and gents, here is my chat with journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman: TEDDY DURGIN: This is a very different way to tell the story of the Kennedy assassination, through the eyes and experiences of many of the peripheral players. There were SO many people involved in the real event. How did you decide on these specific individuals to focus on as "movie characters?" PETER LANDESMAN: I wanted the hospital to be the engine of the film. It seemed to me that what went on in that trauma room in that 30-minute period was SO Shakespearean in its power and its weight and its ferocity that it seemed a no-brainer, pardon the pun. These are people most of us never even knew existed. We never really knew about the doctors. We never even thought about Kennedy's body once it left Dealey Plaza. So, that story and that narrative, I became obsessively interested in it. Once I built that into the engine of the movie and that became the driving force of at least the first half of it, the other characters - Robert Oswald, Abraham Zapruder, [FBI agent] James Hosty, [Secret Service agent] Forrest Sorrels - these were people who had a direct line to the assassination whose stories, I thought, carried narratives we'd never seen and untold stories we never knew. They needed to be told because so many didn't know they existed, and they seemed more central and even more emotionally connected than anybody else. It was less an issue of me picking them and more them picking me. TD: It's fascinating how many of these people could have their own standalone film. PL: All of their stories are obsessively interesting. TD: There are aspects of your film such as JFK's body being moved out of Texas so soon after his death and Hosty destroying his FBI files on Oswald that have given conspiracy theorists fuel for their fire. But the film offers explanations for those actions. Ultimately, this IS a "Lone Gunman" movie. Do you have doubts? Is there any aspect of the case that is still a lingering question in your mind? PL: I am intrigued by it in the way that I am intrigued by Santa Claus. I can't prove he does not exist, and I can't prove he does exist. But if any rational person sits down and tries to put their preconceptions in a bag, just sitting there looking at facts and logic streams and the things that you can actually prove... if you sit there, take a breath, and put it all on a wall, it all falls away and what you're left with is the incontrovertible, very uncomplicated, simple truth of Lee Harvey Oswald's pathology, motivations and whereabouts. TD: My favorite filmmaking choice of yours was how you dramatized the assassination itself, with your camera trained not on the shooting but on Zapruder filming the shooting and his reaction. We have kind of built the assassination up to have been this drawn-out, mythological event in which there was this overwhelming sense of dread leading up to it. But it was really just a few seconds that no one saw coming, and - POOF - it was gone. PL: Yeah, it was really just six seconds in time. TD: If you could just talk about your thought process going into the film regarding that sequence, I would appreciate it. PL: I didn't want to recreate it like Oliver Stone did. Once you are recreating something, you are subjected to all sorts of subjective stuff. Did you change this? Did you make this up? Why did you have this actor doing this? I wanted the assassination to be experienced like it has never been experienced by an audience before, which is through Abraham Zapruder's emotional point of view. So, when he sees the developed film, it's the first time anyone in the world sees the film. TD: You're a first-time director on this. Was it at all intimidating to direct such great actors as Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti and Marcia Gay Harden? PL: There was no sense of intimidation at all. We were all artists who came to play, and we all had enormous respect for the material. TD: What is the Parkland Hospital like today? PL: It's a gargantuan monolith. It's nothing like it was on that day. That's why I shot the hospital scenes in Austin at a hospital of the same era that was abandoned and left alone. Parkland today is a city inside a city. It's huge. The facade that people may be familiar with from old footage is kind of buried inside the modern structure. Basically, there's really nothing left. TD: Our exit question is, "What do you hope this film will be for the anniversary for those people who lived it and for those who didn't live it?" PL: I think I have two hopes. One is that when people see this film, they experience the assassination as if for the first time. That it feels like it is happening now, in the moment, in front of them. And, two, I hope it becomes the face of the assassination, of what it was and what it meant so that we can begin to move away from the intellectual chess game of conspiracy theory and re-focus on what was shocking and powerful and so grimly real.

 

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