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.

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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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Tribute: Carl Reiner

Posted on July 2, 2020 at 2:06 pm

I had the privilege of writing a tribute to one of my all-time favorites, Carl Reiner for rogerebert.com. He was a legend in every possible form of entertainment, as a writer, actor, showrunner, director, and resident wit on social media. From his time in the legendary writers’ room of “Your Show of Shows” alongside Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and his lifetime best friend Mel Brooks to his 2020 appearance in Pixar’s “Forky Asks a Question” series, his mentorship to newcomers Mary Tyler Moore, Steve Martin, Dick Van Dyke, and many others, his affectionate skewering of popular culture, he was a major force in the culture of more than half a century.

I love this affectionate remembrance from TCM.

Here is one of my favorite moments from what Reiner said was his best creation, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

May his memory be a blessing.

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Franklin Leonard is Disrupting Hollywood Gatekeepers with The Blacklist

Posted on September 26, 2019 at 10:07 am

Franklin Leonard had a job in Hollywood reading scripts to find suitable projects to move forward. Fifteen years ago, he sent around an anonymous email to other people with the same job asking them for the best scripts they had, promising to send anyone who contributed the consolidated list. He got some good scripts, he sent what he called “The Black List” around to the participants, and went back to work.

Copyright 2016 The Black List

It went viral. It is now an established annual list, and scripts on the list have now gone on to not just be produced but to receive over 200 Oscar nominations and make over $25 billion at the box office. The last eight best picture Oscars went to scripts featured on a previous Black List, as well as ten of the last 20 screenwriting Oscars. Scripts on the list have included “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Arrival,” “Argo,” “Spotlight,” and “Hell or High Water.” A Harvard Business School study found that scripts on the list were two times more likely to be produced and made 90% more in box office than scripts not on the list.

The Black List is now a website where aspiring screenwriters can upload their scripts, get feedback, and maybe even be discovered by a production company.

Leonard appeared this week at the beautiful new Washington DC screening room of the Motion Picture Association of America to talk about the Black List. He told one story about a script uploaded to the site that prompted a call inquiring about Arabic language rights. The film was first made in Arabic, which led to support for making it in English. And, Leonard pointed out, the screenwriter still lives, as he did when he was writing the script, in Georgia. He did not need to go to Los Angeles to get his movie made. Leonard calls it “a system that allows the industry as a whole to capture its good taste.” He described the “conventional wisdom” approach in Hollywood as “all convention and no wisdom.” This means perpetuation of the same stories and characters, generally ones that look and act like the studio executives themselves. Leonard also talked about disrupting the agents and agencies. “They overestimate the way in which they are indispensable.” The Black List is doing to the Hollywood gatekeepers what companies like eBay, Uber, and Airbnb have done to their industries.

Most important, though, Leonard made it clear that the way to get a script made into a movie is to write an excellent script. Don’t say, “Well, that terrible movie got made and my script is better than that.” Write the best script you can, understand that your first script is probably not movie-ready, get a lot of feedback, make revisions, and then upload it to The Black List and maybe you’ll get a call.

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Interview with the Women Behind the Netflix Series “Unbelievable”

Posted on September 17, 2019 at 8:00 am

“Unbelievable” is the stunning new Netflix limited series based on the real-life case of a young woman who told the police she had been raped, and then, when they decided she was not telling the truth, she was charged with filing a false report.  Three years later, due to the dedication of two police detectives in another state, the rapist was arrested, with incontrovertible evidence showing that the young woman had been telling the truth.

The series is based on an award winning article from Pro Publica.

For the Alliance of Women Film Journalists website, I interviewed three women behind the series, producer Sarah Timberman, writer/director Susannah Grant, and director Lisa Cholodenko.

An excerpt:

What made you decide that this needed to be a series rather than a feature film or, or a small screen rather than big screen?

Grant: It was less size of screen and, and more scope of storytelling that is made possible in eight episodes. We briefly, maybe I was the only one who briefly thought about the two hour form just because I’ve lived there for a while. But there’s just so much to unpack in this story and so many interesting ideas to flesh out. You just never would have had the time to really play out in a feature film. Just that first episode is almost an hour and you need every minute of it. You feel the impact of both the medical exam and then the police examination and it’s the real time quality of the first episode that I think is part of its strength. And I think if you had to truncate that and fit it into 10 minutes of a film or 15 minutes of a film it wouldn’t have the same impact. Really early on there were just so many things that we were excited about exploring within it. They’re all introduced in that great article. I think it became pretty clear and the reach of what Netflix is able to do with their limited series tremendous. We will be in 190 countries on Friday. There was a nice review that praises the show for showing, not telling. You couldn’t express the tenacity of those two detectives in a feature film. I think that dead ends that they hit are as interesting as finding the rapist. The false leads are as interesting as the things that become legitimate and you couldn’t possibly go down all those avenues if you’re trying to tell the story in a film. Life doesn’t fit into that kind of narrative structure and this piece reflects life.

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Interview: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails of The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Posted on June 22, 2019 at 9:13 pm

Copyright A24 2019
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is stunning debut film from director/co-writer/co-producer Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, who co-wrote the story, based on incidents in his own life, and who plays a character named Jimmie Fails in the film.

The exquisite lyricism and meditative, poetic images give a grand, elegiac quality to the story about Jimmie’s dream of returning to the grand Victorian mansion that was once his family’s home in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco that is making it impossible for lower-income and middle class residents, especially non-whites, to continue to live there. Fails, with Jonathan Majors has his character’s closest friend, Montgomery, give deeply moving performances of quiet power, and it is one of my favorite films of the year.

In interviews, Talbot and Fails, lifelong friends, talked about what their home city means to them and why it was as important to them to tell the story of a friendship as it was to present loss and longing for the home.

Something we don’t see very often in movies is such a beautiful portrayal of a friendship so tell me a little bit about why that was something that you really wanted to have front and center in this story?

JF: I think it was important to see two males being gentle with each other and especially for black men because we always feel like you have to be this masculine tough guy or something or you can’t show your feelings to your friend so I think more particularly with black men that was important to show a friendship like that.

What inspired the beautiful, lush images of the film?

JT: I grew up watching a lot of old Hollywood films, pre-code and noir, with a particular interest in films in San Francisco from the 40’s and then obviously into the 70’s with movies like The Conversation. Actually sort of in getting ready for this film I dug for some lesser-known San Francisco movies that I hadn’t seen like Petulia, one that I love.

There is something about San Francisco that I think lives nationally in the imagination of filmgoers because it is a place that has been filmed for a very long time. But Jimmie and I felt like our side of San Francisco didn’t get that same cinematic treatment in film. We spent what feels like a lifetime walking around the streets of San Francisco. It’s strange because a lot of that’s disappearing. Our favorite places that Jimmie and I would go on these walks through the mission and Bernal and along those routes. Some of our favorite spots have been bulldozed and there have been new condos erected in their place and so as much as we wanted to make it a sort of valentine to San Francisco, the beauty of the city both in the architecture and the people, it was also just trying to document what we loved about it before it was all gone.

That obviously had a big impact on our approach to the way we wanted to show it as being sort of a magical place, and that also came from Jimmie and his character. He loved San Francisco very much and I think in his mind particularly when you meet him in the film it’s going to hold a certain romance for him as much as it can feel like it doesn’t love him back.

It was important to show the city as being lush and having these saturated rich colors partly just because that’s to me what the city feels like, what it looks like. The Victorians lend themselves to that and there’s also a regal quality.

When Jimmie and I first started talking about it we would say sometimes it felt like it’s the story of a deposed prince trying to get back the family throne and he’s on this odyssey-like journey. Every so often, he and Mont, as we see them do in the beginning, they take this journey from the outskirts of San Francisco, literally the furthest corner of the furthest point back into the heart of the city, to the old castle that he once lived in. That’s part of why we shot the scene when Jimmie’s yelling at the Segway tour led by Jello Biafra because that was supposed to show how he’s restored to the throne. Jonathan in his brilliance, when he comes out on the balcony and he says to him you look like King Jimmie each time he waved; that was all improvised by Jonathan but he really understood that scene on a deep level and it comes out in improv moments like that.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Mont essentially directs the guys who hang out on the corner all the time and essentially act as a counterpoint or Greek chorus in the film. He talks to them as though he’s a director giving actors notes on a scene.

JT: It’s funny you mentioned that because that’s another scene that was entirely improvised. Jonathan is wonderful to work with. He really studied the script and he’d quote it back to me, when I would try to change a line. He’d say, “No, we can’t change that line and this is why we can’t change it.” He really absorbs every word. Everything has so much conviction; every line he reads, and he gets very particular about them. But that was a scene where we felt like it just wasn’t working.

Originally he was supposed to cross the street and perform a magic trick as a distraction and on some level he did essentially the same thing. He took on the energy that was coming to Kofi but he always felt like Montgomery is observing the world as theater; everything is theatrical to him and of course an hour and a half of observations throughout the film all of that comes out then finally and expressed by him in his play.

I think in that moment it was a beautiful idea that Jonathan had that what if he cross the street and he treated them like performers because in a way we all in our own ways are performing something and in that moment it’s a toughness. I think those guys have more layers than what we see in that moment even though the guys were sort of leading the bullying of Kofi all have complicated feelings about that inside. Some of that confusion by them was somewhat genuine because there was no script to look to about what he might be doing.

Jimmie, your character wears pretty much the same clothes throughout the film. What does that hat and shirt tell us about the character?

JF: Joe made it. It grew on me. I didn’t necessarily like it but it was supposed to be reminiscent of a different era a little bit like kind of the old school sort of thing. I was very inspired by Brando in On the Waterfront with the beanie hat, the kind of longshoreman sort of look and there were a lot of longshoreman in San Francisco, black longshoreman, so it was kind of supposed to be like that sort of thing.

The magnificent Victorian house is so important to the film, really a character in the film. What was it like to be inside it?

JF: From the moment you step into that house it’s like everything outside doesn’t even exist. We were trying to find Victorian because we couldn’t use mine (the actual house the story was based on). It took us a while to find the house because all the places we went would be like Victorians on the outside and we go inside it would just look all new and it didn’t have the old sort of Victorian style inside. S o when we found that one and the owner was so nice to let us in.

Did you have a favorite room in the house or a favorite detail?

JF: The library for sure. The books he has in there — it’s insane. He has National Geographics that go back to like 1800 and something, like he literally has it’s insane what he has in there; I think it was like some of the original copies.

It must have been a challenge to take a story that is in part based on the real life of the person who is writing and performing it and then say, “Well, that may have happened but we can’t do it that way in the movie.” How did you navigate that?

JT: It’s interesting because I feel like everything I’ve ever made even going back to our first movies as teenagers came from something that happened in our lives. One of the first movies that Jimmie and I made with my younger brother Nat was about two friends who wind up in the suburbs for the weekend and they are lured out to the suburbs by two girls that they meet and I’m in it and Jimmie’s in it and it starts to go very wrong very fast.

It’s about two city kids who were very weirded out by the suburbs and we end up fleeing back to San Francisco in the end but that was basically something that had happened to me. So in a way it’s all natural that we would be talking about Jimmie’s life as we often did or with my life and then that would somehow end up being turned into a movie.

I think for this in particular some of the stories are pulled directly from Jimmie’s life; the scene with his mother is something that actually happened when he saw her on the bus after having not seen her for a long time and the character Mike Epps plays, Bobby, was a guy who drove off with the car that Jimmie and his dad was living in, they didn’t really acknowledge it.

Through a collective imagination, part of the film was not just retelling things that had actually happened but imagining different ways to tell them or to elaborate on them so thinking, “What if this guy drove off with Jimmie’s car never really acknowledged it even years later and still sort of said that he was just borrowing it and even if he picked Jimmy up and drove around town?” It was funny to think, “Who could do that so well?” Mike Epps is one of the funniest people in the world.

Even for the scene with Jimmie and his mom, it was like wanting to shoot that in a way that both felt honest and real. That was his real mother playing his mother in the movie. Part of what’s important about that is they look so much alike, he’s really his mother’s son in some ways, but also wanting to show in the way we shot them like that, shot reverse shot, a very stylized look, that there’s a distance between them as the world is sort of whirring past them both.

So I think that was actually from me and Jimmie as kids that first bonded on telling stories to each other, that was one of the most fun parts of this, how to take these real events and spin them into something that was partially fiction and partially true.

Jimmie always says for him every scene was emotionally true, even if the events and the characters were changed.

What has been the most gratifying of the reactions that you got from the film?

JF: Just people saying, “Thank you for being vulnerable.” It’s the best thing I could hear. People say a lot of beautiful things about the cinematography, about the actual art of it but when people thank me for that it means everything. It was hard for me to put myself out there, so that means everything to me.

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