Director's Chair: John Curran — <I>Chappaquiddick</I>
Issue: April 1, 2018

Director's Chair: John Curran — Chappaquiddick

A powerful politician with presidential ambitions. A scandal. A death. A possible cover-up and attempt to muzzle the press.

The story behind Chappaquiddick, the new film from director John Curran ( The Painted Veil, Stone, Tracks), sounds like the stuff of fiction, but it’s a true story and recounts the tragic events of the infamous 1969 car accident involving U.S. senator Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne, a young, female campaign worker who died at the scene. Kennedy, the driver, left the scene of the accident and didn’t alert authorities for 10 hours.

What happens over the ensuing days reveals how one of the most powerful and influential political family dynasties in U.S. history orchestrated the truth behind the death of Kopechne. Their efforts to control the story in the press, run damage control and preserve the family’s legacy is a story of the powerful and the untouchable — and a timely, cautionary tale. 

This tension-filled war room became Kennedy’s savior and nemesis, ultimately revealing his vulnerabilities, his damaged relationship with his father, Joe Kennedy Sr., all while testing his integrity and political future. As his brother John’s presidential promise to land a man on the moon unfolds, Kennedy considers his own legacy. This infamous incident will become a defining moment in his career, as he wrestles with his own moral compass, and ultimately puts his future in the hands of the American people.

Directed by John Curran from a screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, Chappaquiddick features an all-star ensemble cast, including Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy, Kate Mara as Mary Jo Kopechne, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan, Clancy Brown, Taylor Nichols, Olivia Thirlby and Bruce Dern. Curran also assembled a stellar team of collaborators behind the camera that includes his frequent director of photography Maryse Alberti, film editor Keith Fraase, visual effects supervisor Fredrik Nord and composer Garth Stevenson. 

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Curran talks about making the film, and why he loves post.

What do you look for in a project and what was the appeal of making this?

“I’m attracted to all kinds of stories and different elements, but this one kind of scared me. I read it first back in 2015, and I’m a big Teddy Kennedy fan, but I didn’t know all the details. I hadn’t talked to the writers yet, and I didn’t know what was factual or invented, but I was really drawn to it. It was very hard-hitting and didn’t pull any punches, and the more I drilled into it with them, the more I felt I had to do it. And then there was the backdrop of reading it during the last presidential primaries, which also made the whole thing feel very timely.”

Relevance to today is always a plus when you’re doing a period piece.

“Yes, but it can get weird. When we screened it at Toronto, people were like, ‘Why this film now?’ There was a lot of head-scratching. ‘It’s nearly 50 years ago now, and Teddy’s dead.’ And then a few months later, it was almost the opposite response — it’s too topical (laughs)."

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“It’s not easy taking a cold hard look at one of your heroes, and I didn’t know him, but the question was, ‘Can I make him human and complex and sympathetic, but also not pull any punches about what happened?’Once you get into all the various accounts of the accident, it seems obvious that Mary Jo Kopechne was still alive after he left the scene. For 30 minutes, for several hours? No one knows for sure. The diver who found her reported she was in a very specific position, and all indications are that she probably suffocated rather than drowning. And then the script had a lot of shifting tones, and I’d be appalled by Teddy’s behavior, and then I’d feel for him, and it’d be this dark drama that turned into a farce. So dealing with all the contradictions of the man, and then juggling all the various tones through the entire shoot, then the edit and into the sound design — that was the big challenge.”

Casting the right actor as Ted Kennedy is obviously crucial. What did Jason Clarke bring to the role?

“When I first got the script, Jason was already attached, and that was another big draw for me, as I’ve known him a long time. He was in my very first film, Praise, for about eight seconds, back in 1998, which I shot in Australia, and he looks enough like the young Teddy that it works. I could see him as Teddy, and I’ve always loved him as an actor and wanted to work with him for a long time, and he’s also a bit of a chameleon. He can fade into the role whereas the idea of having a big name star who’s instantly recognizable just wouldn’t work the same way.”

What were the main challenges of the shoot?

“You’re dealing with these iconic locations, and there’s such a specificity about where this all took place, and you can’t really fake that, so I wanted the environments to be authentic. And when you go out there and see Chappaquiddick and the bridge where it all happened, you realise just how remote and dark it is, even though it’s not the original bridge anymore. So we did some location work and spent two days shooting the ferry, the road and the bridge in Chappaquiddick, as well as several weeks in the North Shore of Boston. Getting all the authentic locations was invaluable, but it also forced me to make cuts elsewhere because of the limited budget and schedule. And we knew we’d have to do all the water work somewhere else, so we built a section of the bridge in a water tank down in Baja Film Studios in Mexico. In the end, we had to cut it down from 40 days to a 32-day shoot, so the pace was pretty grueling.”

Do you like the post process?

“I love it and to be honest, it’s my favorite part of the whole thing. First of all, it’s saner — just me and the editor actually making the film, and you’re not being bombarded with a million questions a day like you are on the set. And I love the whole building part of post — editing and adding all the layers like sound and VFX and so on. It’s the most creative part for sure.”

Where did you post?

“It was all done at Chimney in LA. They’re a Swedish company who also do great VFX work which we did at their Stockholm facility, and we edited at Chimney LA.”

This was edited by Keith Fraase. Tell us about that relationship and the editing challenges. 

“I always shoot in a way where I give myself a lot of options in the edit, and I always find the film in the edit, even when it’s a very tight script like this was. We shot it a bit different from the script, and then edited it a bit different from the shoot material, so when you compare the final film with the original script, in essence it’s the same, but it’s structurally different, and the emphasis is in different parts. In the end, the script was more nonlinear than the final film and for various reasons — partly because of changes I’d made at the start and then during the shoot — we couldn’t get that nonlinear approach to work in the edit. So we retooled it and it was much cleaner and flowed better as a linear story. But I resisted doing that till I’d exhausted every possibility. And finding the right tone was a challenge too. I was appalled to find myself laughing in places, because Ted becomes almost infantile, but I wanted to embrace all that and make it work. I’m very heavily involved in the edit. I’m there every day. Keith and I began cutting when I got to LA. and we spent a good six months on it. For me, the editing never stops, and I could just keep going and going. They have to kick me out of the room in the end when you just run out of money. As they say, you never really finish a film — you’re just forced to abandon it.” 

Period films always have a lot of VFX. Who was the VFX supervisor and what was involved?

“It was Fredrik Nord at Chimney and he was very skilled, and we got these great, seamless shots, mainly background stuff and cleanup, especially on aerial and wide shots. The big sequences were fixing the bridge, which doesn’t look like it used to, and doing all the car shots, mostly with green screen.”

Talk about the importance of music and sound to you.

“I’m very hands on with sound design, like with the edit, as I know the film by then, and I knew all the mood shifts and tempo shifts and what they needed. And I didn’t want to have the usual source-driven soundtrack, so I brought in composer Garth Stevenson who did Tracks for me, and he records a lot of sounds in analog and then in post manipulates and bends them, and gets this great in-between result. And then we did all the sound design and mix on the lot at Warners in LA.”

Where did you do the DI?

“At Chimney with colorist Mats Holmgren who was really great, like everyone at Chimney. It was a great collaboration with them.”

What’s your view of Ted Kennedy today?

“I’m so disenchanted with all politicians (laughs). I come from a family of eight kids, with five brothers, and I can’t imagine having them all killed in the line of duty, and then being expected to step up and carry the mantle — and in ’69 that’s where Teddy was at. He was a slam dunk to be the Democratic nominee, but I don’t think he had that burning desire to be president like his brothers did, but he understood all the expectations — and then fate stepped in. And after all the tragedy in his family and this whole thing, I think he just committed himself to being the best senator he could be.”