“I don’t see how we could have made the film now had we not shot in Chicago,” writer and director Aaron Sorkin says of his new film “Trial of the Chicago 7,” now streaming on Netflix.
Five decades after it took place, Aaron Sorkin tells the story of the seven defendants who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy after protests broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Accused of inciting riots, Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (“Succession’s” Jeremy Strong) were among those who stood trial along with Black Panther member Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Sorkin assembled an all-star team in front of and behind the camera for the powerful story that draws strong parallels in today’s world as it places a microscope on systemic injustice.
Sorkin recalls that 14 years ago, “Steven (Spielberg) said to me, ‘I want you to write a movie about the Chicago 7 and release it before the election.’ He was talking about the 2008 election. I feel like the 14-year wait was worth it and we have been on a 14-year collision course with history.”
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“I certainly feel there’s never been a more relevant time to release the film,” says Sorkin.
PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRIAL
Aaron Sorkin: I knew very little. I had a vague sense that there had been some civil unrest in Chicago with the convention in ‘68. I had a vague sense that Abbie Hoffman was a leader in the counterculture movement in the ‘60s. All I knew about Tom Hayden was that he’d been married to Jane Fonda for a little while, and that was it. I had a lot of learning to do.
The full trial transcript was 21,000 pages. There are a dozen or so good books that had been written, but what I couldn’t have gotten from the transcript or the books was what I learned from spending time with Tom Hayden.
He was still alive when I started working on the film and I learned about the personal attention between Tom and Abbie, and the film organized itself into three stories that we were going to tell it one; one was the courtroom drama; the evolution of the riot and what was supposed to be a peaceful protest that turned into such a violent clash with the police National Guard, the third was the story with Tom and Abbie. These two guys were on the same side, they want the same thing, they hate each other, and each one thinks the other is damaging the cause.
Alan Baumgarten: I had an awareness of civil unrest and collective knowledge. I knew a little bit about Abbie, Jerry and Tom because I was a little older, I was 11 years old.
I had also done some of studying American history and just knowing a little bit about the names Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden, of course and knowing a little bit more about his political involvement in California. I do remember having a sense, even at that age, that something was very wrong, because of the images on TV and the National Guard. I remember thinking it was very dangerous.
I remember as a child and paying attention to the world of politics, that with the Vietnam War going on and Martin Luther King that something was very wrong and there was this potential for great violence, but I didn’t really know any of the details.
Phedon Papamichael: I grew up in Europe and was only introduced to it through school, and I wasn’t that informed by it.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SHOOTING IN CHICAGO
Sorkin: We scouted several other locations first. We knew we were going to build the courtroom in New Jersey, so the most economical and efficient thing to do would have been to find an exterior location there that would serve as Grant Park, but there simply wasn’t anything accessible, and we had to fit into a budget.
But our producers, (Stuart Besser and Marc Platt) figured out a way for us to spend three and a half weeks in Chicago. As a result, not only did we get the authenticity of being in the actual place, we got what I needed, which was the specific perimeter of this park.
Every scene that takes place in the park is about trying to get out of the park. We needed that to be laid out and we needed to be able to see the four sides of the park.
By shooting in Grant Park, Alan was able to find a beautiful way to use the footage that Phedon had shot with archival footage, and it became this beautiful mixture, which we would not have been able to do really well if the two had not matched.
Baumgarten: It was fairly seamless to weave in the texture because the original footage matched so closely.
Sorkin: There was a piece of archival footage that Alan had found that looks like it was a continuation of the original shot that Phedon shot and we simply turned it into black and white. I don’t see how we could have made the film now had we not shot in Chicago.
Papamichael: It’s not just the geography of having the hill and the statue. The sequences of taking the bridges, that was all original.
When we recreated the riots, we tried to maintain and find the same energy that was recreated in the archival footage [that existed].
The actual event had 10000 people, and we had 250 people. I told my camera operators to get into the crowd and pretend you’re making a documentary. Luckily there was tear gas and we could mask a lot of things with smoke.
It was less about cinematic shots and more about capturing the feeling of what it was like to take that hill in Grant Park. We got on the field, smoked it up and let everyone run loose.
Sorkin: There were only a few times with visual effects that we had to erase a modern building that wouldn’t have been there in 1968, but most of it is the same time. Grant Park is the same as it was.
CUTTING TO THE TENSION
Baumgarten: The structure and framework are all there, it was a dream. I could have stayed in the courtroom and watched the drama unfold there, but Aaron chose to jump out. The cuts varied, and sometimes it was just about cutting with dialogue.
Other times, he used it to illustrate a point. Abbey would be describing something about the club and we’d cut to that to show it. As the film went on, we eased into the riots more and more, and when we got to the riots, we played it out.
The archival footage came in later. It was not planned. Even though we shot in the original location, we didn’t know that we would use it because it wasn’t in the script per se. There was specific archival footage in the opening and that’s where it existed in the script.
We had pulled the footage for research and to have on the side, but I don’t know if Aaron knew all that time, but I think it wasn’t until the second pass that Aaron suggested exploring the footage.
We didn’t want to overuse it. We wanted to use it to heighten certain moments and give us a bit of energy in some places.
Sorkin: I lean on the DP and the editor more than most directors would. A cinematographer lives at the intersection of arts and science. I know nothing about the science of camera and lenses.
With my editor, I’m used to watching the first cut with my eyes closed and listening to it to see if we have the rhythm of the language. So, I need them to be co-authors and co-directors of the film.
Papamichael: It was amazing to watch Aaron sitting in front of a monitor with his eyes closed just listening to the poetry. We’d cut and he would say, ‘That sounded great,’ and I realized how important that pace and language was for him and to give him that moment. My responsibility was to give him the moments that were important to him.