Proving your chops as a new director is hard enough. But tackling one of the most monumental and emotionally charged events of the past half century ratchets up the pressure and audience expectations that much more.
Former journalist and novelist Peter Landesman, the screenwriter and director behind the upcoming release “Parkland,” about the events leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath, is quick to acknowledge the burden that comes with telling a true life tale that’s as accurate as it is compelling.
“The assassination is the Rosetta Stone of what America came to be — live TV was born that day,” Landesman said in an interview. “We felt missionized to get it right.”
The sub-$20 million indie picture, which was financed by Exclusive Media and the American Film Co., is tentatively slated to be released Sept. 20 after its worldwide premiere at the Venice Film Festival and North American debut at the Toronto fest — corresponding with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963.
Landesman adapted the film, which stars Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver and Paul Giamatti, from Vincent Bugliosi’s massive 2007 tome “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” which documents the chaos that ensued at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital after Kennedy was rushed there and later pronounced dead.
Landesman decided that the first day of production would be in Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was gunned down in an open limo while riding with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The director started by filming scenes with Giamatti, portraying Abraham Zapruder, a man in the crowd in Dallas whose 26 seconds of homemovie footage of the event became the most closely examined piece of celluloid in history.
“It was a spiritual experience for me,” recalls Landesman. “Paul was just masterful, and that really set the tone for the rest of the shoot.”
The director did not film at Parkland Hospital, which no longer resembles the site as it was in 1963.
After the first day of production, the rest of the film was shot in Austin over 24 days, where the filmmakers located an ideal stand-in for Parkland.
“We found an abandoned psychiatric hospital that was perfect,” Landesman explained. “My cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, was obsessive about making it look exactly the same, down to the tiles and curtains.”
The origins of the movie rest with one of its producers, Bill Paxton, who played a unique role in the project’s beginnings. Paxton was 8 years old when he joined his older brother and father to watch Kennedy give a speech in Fort Worth outside the Hotel Texas, just two hours before the assassination.
In 2007, Paxton saw photos of himself on a man’s shoulders at an event on display at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza, and subsequently purchased “Reclaiming History,” by “Helter Skelter” author Bugliosi.
That led to Paxton suggesting to Tom Hanks at a Los Angeles Dodgers game that he should make a film based on Bugliosi’s book.
Hanks and his producing partner in Playtone Prods., Gary Goetzman, agreed, and the three originally set up the project up as a miniseries at HBO. Paxton, at the time, was starring in Playtone’s HBO series “Big Love,” and had starred with Hanks in Universal Pictures’ 1995 movie “Apollo 13.” Paxton, Hanks and Goetzman declined to be interviewed for this story.
But Bugliosi said the initial plan with HBO simply didn’t work out. In the spring of 2012, Hanks approached Landesman (who had written a script for Playtone about Watergate’s “Deep Throat”) about writing and directing “Parkland.”
“I agreed to option the book after Tom Hanks told me I’d be able to vet the drafts,” Bugliosi said. His book,“Reclaiming History” makes the case that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone — in stark contrast to conspiracy theorists such as director Oliver Stone, whose 1991 film “JFK” had considerable success in furthering that version of history.
Naturally, Bugliosi, 78, hopes the movie, which he has not yet seen, will turn public sentiment his way, but it remains to be seen whether the film can sell anywhere near the amount of tickets that Warner Bros.’ “JFK,” which grossed $205 million worldwide, did 22 years ago.
“Parkland” could face some serious marketing challenges, which Exclusive Media, whose fledgling releasing arm is distributing the movie domestically, declined to discuss.
Landesman asserts that the movie doesn’t have a point of view as to whether Oswald acted alone.
“What we’re looking to do is start a different conversation about historical events,” he explains. The writer-director also believes that “Parkland” will carry plenty of resonance with moviegoers, adding, “Fifty years later, people are still very emotional about that day.”
(Pictured: Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, whose film of the Dallas shooting has sparked endless debate.)