Swift Talk with John Curran

Critically acclaimed American director John Curran, who earned his directing cred in Australia, is not afraid of taking risks. He’s now shedding some light on the fall of Ted Kennedy, whose political career was hobbled one night on Chappaquiddick Island just days before the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

I have been fascinated with this story since I first heard about it in high school, with so many unanswered questions, and centering around the Kennedys. See, at that time we were inundated with the William Kennedy Smith trial in South Florida. You couldn’t turn on a TV without seeing the famous “blue dot” lady. Now, years later, I was about to meet with a man who was probably as fascinated with the Kennedys as I was.    

First I had to get my butt down to South Beach to The Standard hotel (with the weird upside down sign) for the Miami International Film Festival. I plugged in the coordinates into waze and locked and loaded for the trip down south. The entire time wondering how ironic it would be if I were killed in a horrific crash on my way to interview the director of Chappaquiddick. Luckily, I made it.   

Turns out my talk wasn’t as swift as I thought, and I had to split the conversation into two parts. And for those who don’t want to read the whole thing, you can listen here: Part 1 and Part 2

Why now? Why make this movie now?

You know, even in 2016 when I first read it, I felt like it was time. You know, that it’s a story I’ve known about since I was nine. And I’ve never seen any well done version of it and I thought the script handled it, in terms of the truth, it got to the truth as far as know it and it was handled in a way very that was very cinematic. So you know as a film and as a director I thought, you know, this is really compelling.

But it also came in the presidential primary of 2016, and I felt like it was time to take a really hard look at the people we’re electing into office. And I had a certain kind of disgust in what was going on in that primary, and I couldn’t really ask, expect someone on the right to take that sort of, you know, critical view of their own candidate if I wasn’t prepared to do the same, you know. It’s a bit hypocritical, you know.

And, so it was the season, it came along with the season of reevaluation and reevaluating certain legacies at least in terms of calling a thing what it is. You know?

I don’t think this is all of Ted’s legacy, but it’s a big part of Ted’s legacy. And I think the good stuff, the positive things that he achieved because of a lot of it will ultimately be bored out, but it should always be tempered with this equal amount of him.

So, are you looking to do any other kind of piece on Ted then? Are you going to do more of a balanced thing, since you said that you wanted to tell a story with integrity. So you showed this side, but are you going to show a different side of Ted?

I mean, you know we toyed with a different ending, that you know, that seemed to work with this film. And this is a week in his life that changed his life, and that seemed to be a lot more interesting than trying to tell, it seemed counterproductive to tell the story of his whole life. You know what I mean?

It doesn’t matter how I tagged on or you know in this particular film tried to evolve it into them balancing it. It really depends on the prism that you’re watching the film through. If you’re a Ted Kennedy fan, you already know what he accomplished. If you’re not a Ted Kennedy fan nothing I put in this film is going to make you reevaluate your opinion towards him.

It calls for a different study of him, a different story, that is very separate to this. This is very much a before and after of a person.

Right, like in the scene where he is in the back of the car, and he looks up and is like “I’m not going to be president.” It’s like right then, all the building up to that, and his brother had just been killed. And, I mean the Kennedy family whether you like them or you hate them, they are a cursed family. They are a family that has had so many tragedies.

They’ve also had a lot of benefits. All that wealth that was built up by a pretty visionary father and controversial father. But yes, an unusual amount of bad luck, for sure.

Well, you’ve mentioned that you’ve been exposed to this story since you were nine years old. So, how do you actually feel about it?

I remember it, because I grew up in the town next to the Kopechnes. I was living at the time in New Providence, New Jersey, in Berkley Heights where the parents were living was next door. And I remember, you know, talking about Mary Jo in school. You know, it didn’t really register. I remember her picture in Life magazine. Iconic, you know, pictures and things like that. It always just sat with me as a cover-up or something shady about it. But never really dove into it in much detail.

And I would say that, you know, Ted Kennedy was, even though I didn’t know him, and I knew that he had certainly demons throughout his career, I would have said, you know, and I will still say as far as politicians go his heart, I felt, was on the right side of history. I thought the stuff he was championing even back in the sixties, civil rights, education, health care reform. I mean and the foundation he built around legislation of those issues, I would say his heart was going in the right direction for me as a voter, ok. And how I feel about the story, very conflicted, because it happened, it’s real, and it’s part of Ted Kennedy.

Well, I like that you’re not, you’re not running from it. You’re showing it, and I like that you said why you’re showing it. That’s important, because I think that a lot of times, right and left people, we tend to grab onto stories that are, you know, good, and we just kinda brush that aside.

It’s human nature, you really have to force yourself nowadays to like look at the news on the other team. And I do it, I probably force myself, you know, once or twice a day to read publications that I despise, but you know, and try to really see something through that prism and understand it, because it’s so easy to just be . . . it’s so divisive now.

It’s very difficult to get to the heart of anything by just reading , and sometimes I get disgusted with the outlets that I read, you know, habitually. Because it’s so painfully obvious, the agenda, you know. And I think this was a different time, and I think that, and I would say that this scandal and probably, you know, Gary Hart, when the press crossed that line into really staking out candidates and getting the real dirt on them. And it being popular, and then everybody had to sort of follow suit.

But this scandal was still at a time where the police, the DA, the press, they were still a little bit of a hands off . . .

You know, it’s interesting, because when I was screening it, I was thinking, how would this play out today? If this story happened today with Twitter and Facebook and social media, and the way that, how divisive our society is and how divisive the press is, you know, the right, the left. I wonder how it would actually play out.

JC: I think if it happened today, and even if the first moon landing happened today, I think with this scandal would be bigger than the moon landing. I think people would be, this would be everywhere. And it would be like [small print] Man lands on moon.

You know, you’re right, it’s sad but it’s funny, because I totally forgot that, I was born in ’74 so for me the Kennedys were always like this weird ethereal, royal family and still you didn’t really know all the details about JFK, his demise and it’s interesting to me seeing it now, and when I first heard about this story, it was actually in high school that I first heard about this story.

And I wanted to ask you a question as a director, where, you see them driving off the road, and then you see the car crash, and then you see Ted and he’s on the bank, how did he get out of that car? Because when you’re thinking about it as a director, you’re always thinking about how the audience is going to see, and how are they going to frame that in their mind? So, I was wondering how you thought he got out of that car? How Mary didn’t get out of the car, how the door wasn’t opened?

I purposely, you know, I wanted a black out in the film, because it is a mystery how he got out. There were two open windows, the back windows, and the passenger window was blown out, so there were three open windows. And our stunt guy re-did the accident exactly the right speed, we rebuilt the bridge to the exact specs, and you know, we know the car went off the bridge and did like a half roll and then landed on its hood. He did it in one. Like, it’s exactly replicated, like the hit, the roll, he did it in one take, it was pretty astounding.

And, you know, the car didn’t sink right away. Like, I’m imagining that I am in that disoriented, whatever, you know, there’s still time to, you know, the pressure changes, you swim out somewhere, you have to go somewhere, and I think that even if you were disoriented you’re probably going to bounce around and hit one of those open windows, by feel, I don’t know, I guess. And it’s actually in the film, the shot of him kicking his way out the window, it’s at the end during his speech. But I am pretty convinced that he went out one of the windows, and he talks about it at the inquest, that he thinks he pulled himself out of a window.

See, I didn’t get that when I was watching it. And I was confused, because you see Ed Helms down there, and he’s trying to bang on the, you know, driver’s side window, so I didn’t realize that the windows were actually open.

Because I thought he would just go in there, I mean, to me logic would be, we’ll just go in the open window then. He doesn’t try.

Well, the other thing is that there was, uhm, if you go out to the bridge, Jason and I walked out onto the bridge about eleven o’clock, eleven thirty at night, and even today, there’s no ambient light, so first of all it’s pitch black, really dark, there’s a current there, so there’s a hard current going under the bridge, so you know, even if you were sober, you know, you’d be diving in inky black water. And you’re being dragged away, and I think it’s easy, like we know that it’s only ten feet deep, but I think in your disoriented state, you don’t even know if you’re in the car, outside the car, how deep it is there. I don’t know how she didn’t get out with all those windows open.

Because even with the car upside down, like we replicated to get in there, and you know, you would, it seems like at some point you would feel around with your feet and feel that there’s an opening. It wasn’t like he was cut or bruised. I think it’s easy to understand how he got out, what’s harder for me to understand . . . I can understand how he couldn’t get back down with the current maybe in his state. I don’t understand how she was conscious and didn’t get out. Unless she was petrified and in shock, and you know she had been drinking, she had about four drinks in her.

So there’s so much that doesn’t make sense. But I wasn’t there, you know, but I tried not to in detail show every nuance of the thing, because we just don’t know.

Well, I liked how you showed the fixers, you know with Bob MacNamara and all these guys. Yea, it was funny to me though that I forgot that, well I didn’t forget, again I was born after it, but that it happened during the moon landing.

Yea, I read the script and I had to go and check it, they, they invented this? I was like, oh shit, I just couldn’t believe that he could invent that.

No, there wouldn’t have been time to do something like that. So what was like the biggest reward working on this movie?

You know the thing that scared me the most was, I mean you read the script as a director and you think, oh this is great, but who’s gonna believably play Teddy Kennedy? I read it with an actor already attached, which is Jason, and I knew Jason from, you know, my very first film in Australia that he worked on.

Yea, I used to live in Australia for a long time. And so I’ve known him, and I have been looking to work with him again, because I really like him as an actor, uhm, the greatest thing for me is that he pulled it off you know but I watched the film, even in the edit and I thought, ok he’s nailing it, you know, he looks like him, his accent isn’t distracting, you know he’s delivering a great nuanced performance, you know, I mean that is hands down the thing that I was most thrilled about and relieved by, because if you don’t get that right, the whole film is kind of laughable.

Right, exactly, and it’s funny, because I really like Jason Clarke too, and I, several times in the movie I was like yelling at him, you know, yelling at Ted Kennedy, and it wasn’t like until the end of the movie that I was like, oh wow, yea, I am not watching an actor, I’m watching Ted Kennedy right now, and he did a great job, I mean, he really did, he nailed it. And I mean, Bruce Dern, I mean . . .

Yea, those two together were, yea, Bruce is, for me, I’m older than you, but my touchstone films are your first decades, ‘70s films, you know, like where it’s at for me, I think in terms like, people tend to listen to music like when they become aware of music, teenaged and twenties, whatever music was going on then sticks with you the rest of your life in someway, because it has a nostalgia thing, it’s the same with ‘70s films for me. And Bruce is like the archetypal weird villain of that period, he did so many great iconic roles where he was just really out of the box performances, you know. Like, where is this dude coming from?

I first saw him in The Burbs, my dad took me to see The Burbs, and it was awesome, and my dad was like, “Oh, it’s Bruce Dern” because he really liked Bruce Dern, he thought he was awesome so, that was my first exposure to him, so every time I see him, he’s always to me, that guy.

I think I remember him from The Cowboys, that John Wayne, then Silent Running, he did some really cool films. Anyway, he couldn’t have been better to work with, a lot of actors would have been, you know, maybe impatient with the limitations of being in a chair and not able to get up or say anything and he loved it, he just thought that the constraint was such an awesome challenge, and to have to try and play fierceness and intimidation and power, just in his face, you know, a gnarled face, and he really twisted his face into that.

He was perfect, again he was Joe Kennedy, like when he smacks him, you feel all those, and when Ted says, you know, which one am I? Joe was the rock star basically, or not the rock star, but he was th chosen one and died in World War II, and then JFK was with all the charm, and Bobby was the genius, and then he’s like, what does that make me?

And really, early on, his role was sort of the comic relief, I think he was the guy that came in the door and made everybody laugh.

Right, and then he was thrust into this, and everyone was now saying you’re the one.

And not only that, but you know he had to kind of take over, you know he sort of inherited John and Bobby’s kids, you know he was like the Uncle to all of this massive sprawling family and he was the leader of the family now, at 37, because Joe was more so, much more so than even the film depict him, he was that incapacitated but I think he could say literally one word, and that was No. And they learned to interpret the word No, you know, he means Yes, or you know, he wants to get up, or he’s hungry, or you know, he had a second stroke in the mid-sixties and I think he couldn’t talk too well after that.

I have one more final question, are you at all concerned about the Kennedys?

Yea, I mean, they’re human beings, you know, and this is their family and their legacy, and you know, you have to balance up, you know a person puts themselves up as a public official, you know, their life is open to scrutiny, it comes with the territory.

I suppose to a certain degree, even in this business environment, you expect that your life is, you know what I mean, I am not a famous person, but I am sure if, ah, I did something outrageous that it would play out in a different way, because you’re open season a little bit, and I’ll do interviews, and somewhat of a public face, not to the degree of the Kennedys obviously, but I think that as a politician, it should be fair game. If we are all voting for these people, there should be a sense of integrity and character that we can understand and have access to.

But, no I’m concerned more that I get it right. You know, if I was making up salacious details adding stuff on there for the sake of entertainment, then I’d feel creepy about it. But, you know, I wouldn’t say this is a documentary, but it’s as close to the truth as we can get. The rest we’re never gonna know, I mean the two people that really know what went down, they’re both dead.

Exactly What was your biggest challenge working on this film?

Not wanting to cut the script, because it was you know, fit together like a puzzle, and not really having enough budget to cover the days needed to shoot it, so I kinda crammed a longer shoot into a shorter schedule. So it made it, every day was a sprint.

I wrote a short film, and we went down and over to California, and we had four days to shoot it, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. You’re like boom boom boom, go go go.

Yea, it’s the worst thing about film making is it’s such a laborious, slow process setting up each and every shot, because you want to be finicky but at the same time you’ve got a gun to your head about time. So it’s constantly trying to be zen and stress at the same time.

This one was particularly, you know, we had to come up with a language and a style that accommodated a very fast moving shoot in a very simple language for the film that, you know, because I have been on films where I would say some cuts in prep that I wish I didn’t make, that by the time I got to the edit, I regretted, I wish I had that little moment or that color to work with. So I would say overall that that was the most difficult thing.

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