A Journey to 'Parkland'

Writer/director Peter Landesman on the untold stories of JFK's death

"When you clear aside the stuff that's been distracting us – the gamesmanship and chess match of it all – and you really look at just what happened those three or four days, the narratives in the movie were screaming to be told." Peter Landesman, director of Parkland, on the emotional heart of the JFK assassination.

When journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman started writing the script for his JFK assassination film Parkland, he knew there was still drama in the oft-told tragedy. He said, "The movie's shocking, not because we don't know the outcome, but because the real journey of how we got there is so interesting and heroic."

Written and directed by Landesman, and produced by Tom Hanks, the Austin-lensed Parkland turns the camera away from President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Instead, it focuses on the people surrounding them on the day of the assassination. Dr. Jim Carrico (Zac Efron), the doctor who tried to save Kennedy's life at Parkland Memorial Hospital; James Hosty (Ron Livingston), the FBI agent who had a file on Oswald; Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), brother to the suspect; And Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), the small businessman forever cursed to be the one man who filmed Kennedy's death.

As with any Austin-shot movie, there's always the fun challenge of working out what was filmed where. Most of the events at Parkland were shot at the Austin State Hospital, and there were many outdoor sequences filmed at Austin Studios (according to Landesman, one tree, planted in the concrete behind the National Guard Armory, stood in for just about every piece of foliage in Texas.) The most eagle-eyed will also spot the corridor behind the Texas Observer offices on West Seventh.

Austin Chronicle: The film is set during the four days from Kennedy's arrival in Dallas to the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald three days later in Fort Worth. Aside from the sequences in Dealey Plaza, you shot the rest in Austin. What was the driver for that?

Paul Landesman: The hospital. The old Parkland doesn't exist, really, and Austin State Hospital, the interior, the trauma room is a dead ringer for what Parkland was. Same era, same kind of tile, same lighting, same kind of claustrophobia. Once we made the decision to shoot that here, we started to look around. The crews here are amazing, and a lot of people who were in the film lived in Austin and worked in Austin. Dallas wasn't working that hard to find us what we needed.

AC: There have been so many takes on the Kennedy assassination and Kennedy movies.

PL: They're telling different stories. Oliver Stone, I don't know what story he was telling. It wasn't about the JFK assassination. It was about the vagaries of [Orleans Parish district attorney] Jim Garrison's documentedly crazy mind. They weren't influences one way or another. These are mostly docudramas of some kind, and none of them dealt with what we dealt with. None of them had the approach we had, so to see them would be, not a waste of time, but it wouldn't help. Movies like United 93, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Deer Hunter, The Hurt Locker to some degree, that was the emotional DNA of this movie.

AC: JFK's assassination has become like a thousand blind people trying to describe an elephant by touch alone. How did you find your own way to tell the story?

PL: I knew I wanted the hospital to be the engine, because I don't think anyone had really thought about what went down after the body left Dealey Plaza. What went down in that trauma room was truly Shakesperian. I really stayed focused on the people who came in and out of that room, their dramas and mini-dramas. A woman who loses her husband. A doctor covered in the president's blood. A rookie, basically a kid. It's not the kind of stuff you can make up, because you can't really imagine that reality can be that powerful, yet it is.

The hospital aside, when you clear aside the stuff that's been distracting us – the gamesmanship and chess match of it all – and you really look at just what happened those three or four days, the narratives in the movie were screaming to be told. Who knew there was an FBI agent who knew who Lee Harvey Oswald was? What I understood about the psychology of Oswald, I started to understand the psychology of his mother, and then the fact that he had a brother, and who that brother was, and what his experience had been. Abraham Zapruder had really been one of the great mysteries. He'd never really spoke to anybody, and his family hadn't spoken to anybody. That film has taken on such historic and pop culture significance.

AC: It also helps you avoid the established, iconic elements of the story. The instant you see Jackie Kennedy in that pink hat and suit, you know what's happening.

PL: Tom and Gary [Goetzman, producer] and I all sat around and made a clear set of rules. There'd be nothing in the movie that anyone had ever seen before. So that immediately took off the table all that stuff. Anything that we had seen before, like the pink suit, we were going to shoot and I was going to show in a way that would make it mundane and ordinary. And everything in the movie has to be verifiably true. Once you have a sat of rules like that, everything just sort of falls in, and certain stuff is going to fall off.

AC: Much of Parkland is about people trying to solve a problem they never knew could exist, things like how to get a coffin on to Air Force 1.

PL: No-one was in control. Given not only the lack of control, but the total panic and out-of-controllness, what do you do when you're trying to get things done? You have to try to save his life, then you have to get him to the plane, then you have to get him on the plane, then the brother has to figure out, what the fuck did his punk little brother do? It's just like pushing through the storm.

One of my models was the first 20, 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Just landing on one end of the beach, and getting to the other end. That's really what this movie is. It takes a very specific piece of geography, getting from one side to the other side. That was always the thought when I was making this. Don't make big, sweeping gestures. Just make small, mundane gestures of survival.

AC: It's really about the journey to two funerals: JFK's and Oswald's, which happened at the same time.

PL: It's worse than that. There was a third funeral happening at the same time. J.D. Tippit, the cop who Oswald killed, also without design, happening at the same time. On the one hand, it's just what happened. On the other hand, it's a delicious irony for any kind of storyteller. The fact that all of planet Earth was watching one funeral. All the world's heads of state were attending, everyone else was watching on live TV, and then in this other little corner just outside of Dallas was this little unpopulated funeral that no one gave a shit about. They didn't even have pallbearers.

Parkland opens today. Read our review and check for listings here.

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JFK, Parkland, Peter Landesman, Austin State Hospital, Zac Efron, Ron Livingston, Paul Giamatti, James Badge Dale, Dealey Plaza, Oliver Stone, John Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, Robert Oswald, Abaraham Zapruder, Jim Carrico, Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Parkland Memorial Hospital

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