×

‘Parkland’: Will Audiences Want to Relive JFK Assassination?

Peter Landesman's film aspires to historical accuracy of national nightmare

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.)

More Film

  • The Lion King

    ‘The Lion King’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Lion King.” Ads placed for the remake had an estimated media value of $5.64 million through Sunday for 1,290 national ad airings on [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez Takes Down Wall Street Crooks in New Trailer for 'Hustlers'

    According to Jennifer Lopez, basic pole dancing movements all revolve around a few foot positions. But as she tells her stripper student Constance Wu, it’s not just about the dancing. In the new trailer for “Hustlers,” Lopez and Wu swindle a number of high profile Wall Street clients in an effort to bring their white [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Leaders Warn Members About Contact With Fired Agents

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America are warning members about being contacted by their former agents — asserting that such efforts are an attempt to undermine the WGA and its members. The missive, sent Tuesday from the WGA negotiating committee, came with the guild in a bitter three-month standoff with talent agents that appears [...]

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

  • Harry Styles to Play Prince Eric

    Harry Styles in Talks to Play Prince Eric in Disney's 'Little Mermaid'

    Harry Styles is going under the sea. The former One Direction frontman is in early negotiations to play Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action adaptation of “The Little Mermaid.” Halle Bailey will portray the Ariel, a mermaid princess who dreams of being a human, while Melissa McCarthy is playing her evil aunt Ursula. “The Little Mermaid” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content