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'Parkland' director on JFK, Dallas

Posted 12:00am on Thursday, Oct. 03, 2013

Peter Landesman may be a first-time filmmaker, but he didn’t tiptoe into the wading pool of Hollywood. He plunged in headfirst, writing and directing a movie on a still-controversial topic — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — with a large, sprawling cast that includes Zac Efron, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver and Paul Giamatti.

The resulting film, Parkland, set in Dallas in the days immediately following JFK’s death, is one of the more talked-about films of the season, especially in North Texas.

The film, inspired in part by Vincent Bugliosi’s nearly 700-page book Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, shows how the event impacted ER doctors, federal agents, the family of Lee Harvey Oswald and Abraham Zapruder (who shot the infamous footage of the killing). Yet it’s being met with mixed reviews. The Hollywood Reporter labeled it “engrossing,” while Variety dubbed it an “inadvertently tacky restaging of events.”

But Landesman, a former reporter who has worked in war zones from Kosovo to Pakistan and Afghanistan, has a thick skin when it comes to being talked about. He fell into a thicket of controversy a decade ago with a New York Times Magazine cover story about sex trafficking in the U.S., “The Girls Next Door,” that subsequently became the basis for a 2007 film, Trade, starring Kevin Kline, which Landesman executive produced. Some claimed that Landesman exaggerated the extent to which sex trafficking exists.

We recently caught up with Landesman when he visited Dallas, at the downtown Adolphus Hotel, not far from Dealey Plaza. He talked about Kennedy, why Dallas isn’t his favorite city and TV news anchor Bob Schieffer who, at the time of the Kennedy killing, was a Star-Telegram reporter who ended up driving Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, to her police interview.

What got you interested in this topic?

It’s one of two seminal events in modern American history, for starters. That and 9-11. But mostly frustration with what I knew was a fairy tale, the conspiracy mythology, the nonsense and thinking to myself, we don’t really know what happened, and not about the murder-mystery. We always knew it was Lee Harvey Oswald if you look at it closely enough. But in thinking about who this really happened to — that was the driver, to find ordinary people who were the real heroes of this moment.

You tell it from the point of view of several different people. Why so many?

To some degree it’s four little movies with some intersection. I thought for a minute to make the entire movie about the hospital. But Zapruder, [brother] Robert Oswald and [FBI agent] Jim Hosty were stories that were too powerful to ignore. They really demanded to be told.

How did your views on the Kennedy assassination change through all of this?

I couldn’t believe how much of a Shakespearean drama went down in that trauma room. And the brother, who knew that he had a kind of spiritual essence like that? All that shocked me. But none of the solutions shocked me. Lee Harvey Oswald to me [being the assassin], that was a foregone conclusion. This other stuff is all surprising.

Some of the reviews have been mixed.

Europeans universally love this movie because they don’t carry the baggage. … There’s been an enormous amount of support, but the criticism when it comes, I read these articles and they almost have nothing to do with the movie. They’re talking about the movie that’s in their heads and what they’re saying is, “This isn’t the movie I expected, so I’m not accepting it.”

Do you think many people haven’t come to terms with the assassination?

Yeah, 70 percent of Americans think it was a conspiracy. The gay Cuban-Italian Mafia-CIA [conspiracy], as Bugliosi said, where did this conspiracy meet? Madison Square Garden? They don’t know what it means. I feel like, if the movie does anything, the movie tells us what this really meant.

And what do you think it meant?

How arbitrary and scary life is. How an ordinary person can leave their house on an ordinary day and something huge, otherworldly and the biggest thing in the world can happen to them. It felt like that to me on the morning of 9-11 in New York. I lived in lower Manhattan, near the towers, when they went down. I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan a couple of weeks later.

Why did you shoot in Austin?

It was a very practical reason. I shot Dealey Plaza, but I needed a hospital and I needed that hospital, Parkland 1963. And there’s Austin State Hospital, which is an exact replica, same era, same kind of hospital, and it’s still standing.

How did this come about as your first feature?

It was something I was working on for a long time, not to direct, but to write. But this kind of subject matter is very natural to me.

There’s a scene where one of the agents, after loading Kennedy’s coffin on the plane, looks around and says, “What a [crappy] place to die.” Was that meant as a slap at Dallas?

Not at all. A couple of things: [Agents] O’Donnell and Powers were Kennedy’s best friends from boyhood. They had to convince him to come. He didn’t want to come to Dallas. They kind of twisted his arm, so they felt a lot of responsibility. Look, that area right around Parkland at that time was pretty rough. So from their point of view — and they didn’t know Dallas — they’re standing there looking out at this grim industrial wasteland, and in a box at your feet is the president of the United States. You can understand why they said that.

Have your impressions of Dallas changed?

I know Dallas pretty well. I used to be married to a woman from Dallas, so I came here a lot for 10 years. Dallas is pretty much what it is. I wouldn’t choose to live here, but I wouldn’t choose to live in a lot of places. I don’t connect to Dallas. I don’t feel Dallas viscerally. I’m from New York, I live in L.A. … It’s like a relationship with a person — you feel it or you don’t.

Do you miss your days as a reporter?

Not at all. They were hard, lonely, impoverishing. I was overworked, underpaid, but it was my university. … I have no regrets. But this is the next phase of my life, next chapter.

Was the reaction to your sex slaves story one of the reasons you left journalism?

Not at all. If anything, it made me more emboldened, more motivated, more defiant. … I did more journalism after that. It was an infuriating experience because I realized how small and petty intelligent people can be.

I was looking for Bob Schieffer in the movie but he wasn’t there.

You know, he almost was. That’s a great story, his story with Marguerite. That’s what I mean. There are 10 movies you could tell here.

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