Lifestyle

Chappaquiddick’s screenwriters on stumbling unwittingly into Kennedy controversy

(Source: www.vox.com)

When rookie screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan decided to write a movie about Ted Kennedy and the 1969 car crash at Chappaquiddick that killed Mary Jo Kopechne and sidelined Kennedy’s presidential hopes, they had no idea what they were getting into.

For Americans of a certain age, Chappaquiddick is a lightning rod of controversy, with people’s opinions about who was at fault often falling along largely political lines. But the story seems to have faded into legend for many people — particularly liberals — who weren’t adults in 1969.

Related

The Kennedy family built up a public mythology. TV and movies are taking it apart.

By writing a movie that waded into the story, though, Allen and Logan, both self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool” liberals, managed to resurrect the controversy and have been hearing from people on all sides of the issue since the movie’s theatrical release on April 6. I talked to the screenwriting pair about how they approached material they originally knew nothing about, what they’ve been hearing from people on Twitter since, and what they learned from tackling the stories of Ted Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne, and Chappaquiddick.

Alissa Wilkinson

So how did you approach this material?

Taylor Allen

It started as a series of phone calls between me and Andrew, with nobody asking for the script at all — no outside interest, no outside money. Just two guys with a lot of passion for the Kennedy family, and specifically Ted Kennedy, because he was the youngest, and always the most relatable Kennedy for that reason. (I’m the youngest.)

In the runup to the 2008 election, Bill Maher did a segment in which Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama. Maher was like, “You know, that’s crazy — Ted Kennedy is changing presidential history for a second time. He would have been president had it not been for Chappaquiddick.”

Me and Andrew were roommates at the time. We looked at each other, and I said, “What’s a Chappaquiddick?”

We hopped on the Google machine and misspelled it and were led to a Wikipedia page that did not have nearly the accuracy and facts that, ultimately, we were able to find.

Alissa Wilkinson

So you really hadn’t heard this story before that? Had you heard rumors at all? Did you have any impression at all before then?

Andrew Logan

No, we really didn’t. When we heard that on Real Time, we were really shocked about it. Going through the process of writing it, our innocence was one of our greatest assets because we didn’t know what questions not to ask.

When we started the project, we very clearly defined to ourselves that we didn’t want this to be a conspiracy movie. We wanted to write a character study of Ted Kennedy, but we wanted the truth to be our North Star. I think that was partly influenced by the fact that I’m the son of a lawyer.

With that pursuit of the truth, we ended up discovering that there had been an inquest into the death of Mary Jo Kopechne about six months after the incident happened. All the people who were involved reconvened at Martha’s Vineyard and went under oath. So Ted Kennedy, Joe Gargan, Paul Markham, and all the “Boiler Room Girls” went under oath to tell their version of what happened that night.

Those court transcripts were about 1,000 pages long, and Taylor and I pored through them. I think we’ve read them at least three times each. On the third reading of 1,000 pages, you really start to understand the nuance of what’s being said.

That was our primary resource. That’s what we used to make sure we had our facts correct when we were writing the scripts.

Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick

Alissa Wilkinson

Obviously there’s been a lot of speculation over the years about whose version of the facts are the real ones, and, as you say, also lots of conspiracy theories. Did you read up on those as well?

Taylor Allen

Well, when you tell people at a dinner party that you’re writing a movie about Chappaquiddick, you find that people are really excited to tell you their favorite conspiracy theories. But that was the great thing about being very naive about the story, not realizing this was somewhat of a third rail in Democratic American politics for a while.

We had never been to Martha’s Vineyard until the movie was actually getting made. What we found when we went there was that it was impolite to bring Chappaquiddick up in conversation casually. That was how verboten it was to talk about it.

Andrew Logan

Even to this day!

Taylor Allen

I think that’s the reason why we were able to start with, as Andrew said, primary source court transcripts where people are under oath. The great thing is we would go to a party and people would be like, “I heard that Mary Jo was asleep in the back seat.” Because we read these court transcripts, I can tell you the reason people think that is because the officer who saw the vehicle said that he saw “two or three people” in the car — and that “third person” was a purse.

Andrew Logan

He even says in his testimony that the object could have possibly been a handbag.

Taylor Allen

Yeah, and then that purse didn’t belong to Mary Jo, so everybody wants to assume that that person who had the purse was in the car. Then you find out that under oath [the owner of the purse] said, “Oh yeah, I went back to Edgartown around 8 pm to get a radio for the party so that we had some music. And I must have left the purse in there on that trip.”

It’s just like, oh, well that kind of clears it up, doesn’t it?

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of the things various people say about Chappaquiddick seem to stem from people getting pieces of the story thirdhand and fourth-hand, and because it’s an older story, it’s had time to grow and change depending on who you’re talking to.

Taylor Allen

You said grow and change; I also think these things just sort of metastasize. The story sort of snowballed in a way where, because nobody was willing to talk again after this inquest, the rumor became the truth that was printed, and that was very unfortunate for everyone involved — Mary Jo especially.

Andrew Logan

When we went out and we started researching, I talked to my grandparents, because they were adults at the time this had happened. I casually asked them, “What do you know about the Chappaquiddick incident?”

Their response was, “We know Mary Jo. She was this floozy. She was cheating with this married senator, and she shouldn’t have been there.”

I was kind of taken aback, like, Why are they blaming Mary Jo? That’s very interesting.

One of the things we really discovered in our research — and something that became very important for us to tell in the movie — was who Mary Jo was as a person. She was this incredibly bright young woman who had this really promising future ahead of her as somebody who was working in politics. She was a tireless worker on the Bobby Kennedy campaign. She helped him write speeches. For us, it was really important to make sure that her legacy was honored in this. We felt like her name had been dragged through the mud for almost 50 years.

Alissa Wilkinson

Were you able to talk to people who knew some of the others who turn up as characters in the film?

Taylor Allen

As first-time screenwriters, writing about an extraordinary family — American royalty, the Kennedys — until we had a first draft, we didn’t have the guts to pick up a phone and try to reach out to any of these people. But as soon as we had that draft, we did start to reach out to people that had really important pieces of the puzzle. Like John Farrar, the diver, who is actually the only person who saw Mary Jo in the vehicle. He is the one who suggested that she might have lived for an hour, or up to two hours, breathing air from an air pocket. So we talked to him.

We also got a phone call from Esther Newberg, who’s one of the Boiler Room Girls. And we asked if she would like to talk to us on the record a little bit about her experiences, and she declined.

But for all the Boiler Room Girls, this was obviously a very traumatic experience and probably one of the greatest sadnesses in their life — that one of their friends was killed. They don’t like to relive it.

I hope, now that the movie is out, that they can see that we tried to show them in the best light possible, and show that their reputation deserves more credit than it got in 1969.

Alissa Wilkinson

So as you wrote the movie, you obviously were coming to understand how controversial the story was. At what point did you start to understand how political it is, and how much many people’s opinions about the story had to do with their own politics?

Taylor Allen

I had never really searched Twitter for the word “Chappaquiddick” until the movie was actually being advertised. Even before that, it was clear to me that Chappaquiddick is the original source of whataboutism.

The story had been a hobbyhorse on the right for a long time, but Andrew and I and our director, John Curran, are all dyed-in-the-wool liberals. So we were trying to examine the story as an investigation into tribal culture. Once a person gets put up on a pedestal, how did they get there? Is it right for them to remain there? We continue to have questions about that even now, but certainly I think that we never expected, as liberals, to make a movie that would be so wildly embraced on the right.

When my aunt calls me and tells me that Rush Limbaugh won’t stop talking about the movie, I have very mixed feelings.

Alissa Wilkinson

Were you thinking about that while you were working on it? That it might bolster or cut into your own political side?

Andrew Logan

As I said, we had had very early discussions about not wanting to be a conspiracy movie. But we also didn’t want it to be a politically partisan movie either. We think there’s real value in facts and real value in the truth. So writing this was our pursuit of the truth — to figure out what had happened, and why.

Taylor Allen

We looked at it as an opportunity to be self-reflective, as members of this party. The truth would set us free. So for us, we hoped it would be clear that truth has no political party. That was true in 1969, and that should very well be true even today, on either side of the aisle.

Alissa Wilkinson

As you were researching and writing, did it feel like anything had shifted in the political landscape since then?

Taylor Allen

The movie went into production in September 2016, and at that point, Donald Trump was the Republican nominee for president. It was already clear that he was known to tell a tall tale or two. The Access Hollywood tape didn’t come out until right as we were finishing production.

But we were always wanting to write about how powerful men are able to have a different justice system or have different standards, based on tribal politics. That was inherent in what we were interested in talking about.

Initially, though, we thought that the movie would just be relevant, but cathartic, after Hillary Clinton was elected. Then Trump was elected. Andrew and I were queasy for political reasons about that, but it was an odd fit for us, writing this in the Obama years and then releasing it in the Trump era.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m the same age as you, and the number of people I’ve talked to my age and younger who thought Chappaquiddick was more like a Pizzagate-style story was pretty astonishing. My family is from Massachusetts, so I knew about it. They had lots of opinions about the Kennedys.

Andrew Logan

That makes a lot of sense, but it’s crazy that it gets related to something as wildly conspiratorial as Pizzagate.

Taylor Allen

Yeah, that’s a real bummer. You can quote me on that.

Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick

Alissa Wilkinson

So what have the responses been like since the movie came out? Have you been surprised?

Taylor Allen

There’s two ends of the spectrum here. What I have heard a lot of on Twitter — in my mentions but also in my unfortunate decision to open my direct messages — is a lot of people criticizing us for advertising in places that we chose to advertise that I thought were very logical, such as CNN’s The Kennedys miniseries.

I feel like that’s a prime audience that might be interested in another Kennedy story! And yet people thought we were trying to own CNN and troll the libs.

I honestly had never even considered that. If somebody had been like, “Should we do this cautiously?” I’d be like, “Nah, it’s a great idea! Kennedys miniseries!” So that’s been interesting.

Then there was a woman who went on quite the Twitter rant mentioning Andrew and I. As you might imagine, she was a proud conservative — not that there’s anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld. But she was convinced that Chappaquiddick was being put out to distract from the “crimes of Bubba and Hillary Clinton,” that the movie was a liberal subterfuge to avoid addressing more modern problems.

Obviously, I’m not that capable. Even if I was that dastardly, I am not capable of doing that.

Andrew Logan

We’re really lucky that Byron Allen is our fearless distributor because he’s been on the record as saying he’s been getting calls from “very powerful people” to stop this movie from being played. His response when he heard that was, “Well, I’m just gonna increase the ad budget.”

Alissa Wilkinson

Yet the movie doesn’t feel hot or overblown in any way. It feels just kind of like a sad story about how justice doesn’t treat everyone the same way.

Taylor Allen

We wrote the movie as a character study. It’s also a thriller; it’s also entertaining. But we were just very interested in Ted Kennedy the man, the human being — someone who had had tragedy overwhelmingly laid on his shoulders. What interested me and Andrew about Ted was that it wasn’t like he was ever expected to carry the torch of the Kennedy legacy into the next century. … Tragedy after tragedy ended up with Ted having this burden, and afraid for his life as well. And that was a great setup for someone making a lot of sometimes difficult-to-understand decisions.

Andrew Logan

And also, as two people who really admired who Ted Kennedy was and what he stood for in the Senate, we think the seven days that we show in the movie helped define who he became. He wouldn’t have necessarily become the “lion of the Senate” had this not happened. He would have always carried those presidential aspirations, and then maybe not have taken on third-rail issues like health care and immigration, because that would have affected his goals for achieving higher office.

I think that was one of the things I learned through the research process and writing this movie — that this was a defining moment for him, in a way that he was able to become the senator that he was.

But I’ve now read a lot of articles on Ted Kennedy’s legacy, and the thing that I find interesting is that the thing I remembered Ted Kennedy for as a senator is something that I have not actually seen people bring up a lot: that he was such a dogged fighter for the Supreme Court justices, especially in the hearings about [Robert] Bork. I thought that perhaps because he wasn’t running for president, he could engage in a way that other senators looking toward the Oval Office might not be able to.

Alissa Wilkinson

What’s the most important thing you learned from this whole project?

Andrew Logan

I knew 80 or 90 percent of what I know about Mary Jo Kopechne the day we finished the first draft. But there are even more details now that the movie has come out. It was a great honor to get to show her family the movie. It was the most nervous I felt before a screening, because I wasn’t sure how Mary Jo’s family would react. But I saw them do press later, in which they said that Ethel Kennedy offered Mary Jo the opportunity to be the governess to Bobby’s children after the assassination.

That’s what is so hard for people to realize about Mary Jo: Everybody’s got a lot of co-workers, and anybody might work for a boss that they admire, but this was much closer than that. The bond was almost like family. And that’s why, I think, this is such a huge tragedy too — it’s some very close friends, with very close relationships.

Taylor Allen

I couldn’t have said that better myself.

More Info: www.vox.com

Advertisements