Interview: Aaron Sorkin on “The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Posted on October 14, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Netflix 2020

Aaron Sorkin answered questions from a small group of critics about “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” premiering this Friday, October 16, on Netflix. The all-star cast play the eight men accused of conspiracy and incitement to riot at demonstrations during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The highly unpopular Vietnam war and the frustration with candidates who seemed old and out of touch, the fury at the loss of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year, led several groups to send protesters to the convention. Mayor Richard J, Daley called in the National Guard and gave the local police orders to “shoot to kill.” The battle between the police and the demonstrators became very violent and many were arrested and injured.

In the film, Nixon’s new Attorney General, John Mitchell (later sent to prison himself for crimes associated with Nixon’s re-election and the Watergate scandal) orders the District Attorney to bring charges. Among the eight defendants (later reduced to seven when one’s case was separated), the two characters that are the focus of the film are the flamboyant, outspoken Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and the quieter, more traditional Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne).

Sorkin told us that he first met with Steven Spielberg in 2006 to talk about the film. Spielberg asked Sorkin if he would be interested in writing a film about the Chicago 7. Sorkin said “It sounds like a great idea; I’d love to do it,” then “as soon as I left his house I called my father to ask who the Chicago 7 were.”

The trial, which was filled with colorful characters and memorable confrontations, exemplified and embodied many of the conflicts of the era, between old and young (this was the era when the term “generation gap” was popular), between tradition and upheaval in resolving issues of civil rights and social justice.

Copyright Netflix 2020

It was front page news around the world in 1969 but not generally remembered today. “I had to go to school on this,” Sorkin told us. That included the many books on the trial and the 21,000-page trial transcript. But most valuable to him was the time he spent talking with the late Tom Hayden, one of the leaders of the group. “In my head, the film organized itself into three stories that would be told at once: the courtroom drama, the evolution of what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a riot, a violent clash with the police and the National Guard, and the third story, one that wasn’t in any of the books or the trial transcript, and that I would only be able to get from Tom, was the relationship between Tom and Abbie , two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other, who each think the other is doing harm to the movement, but in the end they come to respect each other. I turned in the first draft and the next day the Writer’s Guild went on strike.”

So, everything was on hold and the film kept getting “kicked down the road for a while, until two things happened at once. One was that Donald Trump got elected. And he was holding big rallies where he would say of a protester, ‘In the old days they would have carried that guy out of here on a stretcher; I’d like to punch him in the face and beat the crap out of him,’ being nostalgic for 1968, and by that time I had directed my first film, ‘Molly’s Game,’ so Steven said, ‘The time is now and you should direct it.'”

“We thought the film was pretty relevant when we were making it last winter. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but obviously, it did.” He spoke about seeing tear gas and nightsticks used at the Black Lives Matter protests “with Donald Trump in the role of Mayor Daley. We couldn’t believe our eyes; it was chilling, it was shocking.” He said he had been asked whether he made changes in the script to reflect the current conflicts, to make the parallels more explicit. “The answer is, not a word, not a frame. Events in the world changed to mirror the script…Ultimately, I feel like the film has been on a 14-year crash course with history.”

The only part of the story that could not be found in a book or the trial transcript was the relationship between Hayden and Hoffman, so that became the heart of the story. There was another key point he learned from Hayden that becomes significant in the film, which I won’t spoil here. “It’s a personal story. Most of the conflict in the story is about ideas, but it gets more personal than that. I was coming at these people and at this event with next to no knowledge at all…Coming at this with no preconceived notions turned out to be a blessing. I had a hard time getting fully on board with Abbie Hoffman…I found his antics counterproductive, the way Hayden does. I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. But I wanted him to be a hero. Tom and Abbie kind of balance each other out. It’s a reflection of the Democratic party today, the intramural friction between the left and the further left, between people who want incremental change and want to work within the system and people who are tired of incremental change and want revolution. I have respect for both of those points of view and I have respect for both men as well as the others, and I thought that was an argument that belonged in this film and that the tension throughout between the two of them that was leading to an explosion in the third act was helpful for the film.”

Sorkin talked to “smart people” of the era, not necessarily involved but with strong, principled views about the issues and who was right and who was wrong, “to see how much of other people’s intelligence I could borrow and inject into the film.”

He talked about the challenges of shooting riot scenes on a budget, with help from the real-life locations, like Chicago’s Grant Park, which allowed them to blend new footage with archival images. “I don’t want to be glib, but the tear gas was helpful, too, having all that smoke, we could camouflage certain things, make it look like more people there than there really were.”

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (L to R) KELVIN HARRISON JR. as Fred Hampton, YAHYA ABDUL-MATEEN II as Bobby Seale, MARK RYLANCE as William Kuntsler in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7. Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX © 2020

Sorkin talked about what it is appropriate to change in a story based on real life. “There’s a difference between what you are doing and journalism, just like there’s a difference between a painting and a photograph.” He gave an example from “The Social Network,” where in real life Zuckerberg drank beer, but Sorkin thought a screwdriver was “more cinematic.” Director David Fincher disagreed, and in the movie it is beer. Here, one departure from the real story was the look of the courtroom itself. The real-life courtroom was an unprepossessing mid-century design that “looked like a middle school multi-purpose room.” The grander one in the film better suggests the power dynamic in the force of the US government being brought to bear on the protesters. “Real courtroom scenes aren’t as entertaining and snappy and dramatic.” And the real trial went on for almost six months. “Your inner compass has to decide what’s an important truth and what’s an unimportant truth — and if yours is broken, the studio legal department will be glad to help you out.”

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Movie Mom: A Guest on the At The Movies Podcast

Posted on October 10, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyrignt 2020 At the Movies

 

Many thanks to my friends Arch Campbell and Jen Chaney for inviting me to appear on their wonderful podcast, “At the Movies.”  We talked about what we’re watching, our favorite 1980s horror movies (fortunately for me, my favorite horror movie came out in the 80s), the loss of Eddie Van Halen and Murray Schisgal and lots more.

 

 

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Win a Gift Card from Fast and Furious: Spy Racers Rio!

Posted on October 9, 2020 at 7:00 am

Copyright Netflix 2020

Win a $25 gift card from the “Fast and Furious” animated spin-off “Fast and Furious: Spy Racers Rio,” with the second season premiering today on Netflix. Details of how to enter below.

In the series, teenager Tony Toretto follows in the footsteps of his cousin Dom when he and his friends are recruited by a government agency to infiltrate an elite racing league serving as a front for a nefarious crime organization bent on world domination.

Now experienced spy racers, Tony and the crew embark on their first international mission to Brazil. Once in Rio de Janeiro, they discover that Ms. Nowhere’s latest recruit and formidable fellow racer, Layla Gray, is missing in action during an investigation. Unwilling to leave family behind, Tony and the Spy Racers go undercover to find Layla, but end up uncovering a sinister plot that keeps them guessing at every turn.

Tim Hedrick (DreamWorks “Voltron Legendary Defender”) and Bret Haaland (“All Hail King Julien”) are executive producers and showrunners. The series is also executive produced by Vin Diesel, Neal Moritz and Chris Morgan, producers on the live-action Fast & Furious franchise.

To enter the contest: Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with Spy Racers Rio in the subject line and tell me your favorite place to drive. Don’t forget your address! (U.S. addresses only). I’ll pick a winner at random on October 15, 2020. Good luck!

o New episodes of #FastFuriousSpyRacers now available on Netflix!
o Hashtag is: #FastFuriousSpyRacers
o IG: @dreamworks / FB: @dreamworks / T: @Dreamworks
o https://www.dreamworks.com/shows/fast-and-furious-spy-racers

Reminder: My policy on conflicts

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Middleburg Film Festival 2020

Posted on October 8, 2020 at 9:13 pm

The Middleburg Festival begins October 15, 2020 and, as always, it has an impressive line-up of hotly anticipated films including some arriving with a lot of plaudits from other festivals, like “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand, and “Ammonite” with Kate Winslet. This year’s honorees include Hollywood legend Sophia Loren, composer Kris Bowers, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, and director Chloé Zhao. And I’ll be on the critic panel again with my friends and colleagues Tim Gordon, Travis Hopson, Jason Fraley, and Susan Wloszczyna.

Check out the full schedule.

There will be some in-person, socially distant events and screenings but much of it is available virtually, so anyone can attend!

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The War With Grandpa

Posted on October 8, 2020 at 3:15 pm

D
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for PG some thematic elements, rude humor, language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended cartoon-style comic peril and mayhem, some injuries, mourning, funeral scene
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 9, 2020
Copyright 101 Studios 2020

Sigh.

Robert Kimmel’s 1984 book, The War With Grandpa, is a lot of fun and also thoughtful about family, resolving conflicts, and war. The movie has tons of star power but it is just dumb slapstick, with escalating cartoon-style mayhem. It’s been on the shelf since it was originally scheduled for release in 2017 and even by pandemic shut-in standards it is barely watchable.

Which is not to say that some children won’t be amused by it because, see above re slapstick and mayhem. For the rest of us, it’s just sad and exhausting seeing Robert De Niro, yes that Robert De Niro, dropping his pants and flashing his son-in-law, plus sticking his hands down the pants of a dead body at a funeral. Then there’s Uma Thurman doing a spit-take and running around in a Christmas elf costume, plus a lot of predictable jokes about old people (they don’t understand technology! Hilarious!), married people (Dad feels diminished by his job, his father-in-law, and sometimes his wife), teenagers (they like to make out!), middle schoolers (puberty humor! bullies!), and little kids (precocious witticisms!).

The story is in the title. De Niro plays Grandpa, still mourning his late wife and not doing so well living at home since he can no longer drive. After he gets frustrated at the grocery store because they’ve switched to all self-checkout and, say it with me, old people don’t understand technology, he gets into a fight with the security guard. And so his daughter Sally (Uma Thurman) says he has to move in with her and her family, including her architect husband Arthur (Rob Riggle), teenage daughter who is always running off to “study” with her boyfriend (Laura Marano), middle school son Peter (Oakes Fegley of “Pete’s Dragon”), and youngest daughter Jenny (Poppy Gagnon).

Pete gets moved to the attic so Grandpa can have his room, and Pete is not happy. And so he slips a note under his old bedroom’s door signed “Secret Warrior.” It is not much of a secret, though, since he says he wants his room back. It is a declaration of war. At first, Grandpa doesn’t take it too seriously. After all, Pete is just a kid and he does feel back about taking the room. But then there is one prank too many and someone who knows what a real war is (“It’s not like a video game”) is in. But first, some rules of engagement. No collateral damage (no one else in the family can be affected, like that’s possible) and no tattling.

Each party is advised by friends. Pete has his pals from school and Grandpa has his buddies Jerry (Christopher Walken) and Danny (Cheech Marin), and later a pretty store clerk (Jane Seymour). But none of it really makes any sense and some elements are unnecessarily sour. If Arthur is an architect, can’t he figure out a better way to use the space than sticking Pete in a rat and bat-infested attic? In fact, Arthur serves no role whatsoever in the story except to try to prove that he deserves some respect, which would be nice if he actually earned some. How can this family afford a crazily over-the-top Christmas-themed birthday party for a child including artificial snow? Even if it made sense for Grandpa to agree to a war, why would he let Pete pick the battleground for the supposed winner-take-all? It never gets past the idea that there is just something uncomfortable about a kid picking on his sad grandfather this mean-spirited and selfish way, while insisting that he loves him and expecting us to like him.

That’s a lot more thought than this movie deserves. Even the A-list cast can’t win the war with a dumbed-down script, awkwardly staged stunts, and lackluster direction.

Parents should know that this movie includes comic peril and mayhem with a lot of pratfalls and injuries but no one seriously hurt. There is also some potty humor, along with references to puberty, a school bully, crotch hits, teen making out sessions, some schoolyard language, and implied nudity.

Family discussion: Why did Pete declare war? Why did Ed agree? Were those the right rules of engagement? What would you advise that family?

If you like this, try: the book by Robert Kimmel Smith, “Spy Kids,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the various versions of “Freaky Friday”

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