“Parkland” director Peter Landesman focused on emotion over mystery in JFK movie

Colin McLaughlin

“Parkland” is the latest film to examine the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Daily Texan interviewed first-time director Peter Landesman about directing, history and avoiding anything resembling a conspiracy theory.  

The Daily Texan: You began working with Tom Hanks and Playtone by writing a script about Watergate and Deep Throat for them. How did you go from that to writing and directing this film about the Kennedy assassination? 

Peter Landesman: Well, Tom put the book in my hand after that experience, which was really good, and I just became obsessed by all the things I didn’t know, which turned out to be almost everything. I was working on a number of different films at the time and I was still doing journalism, but I was starting to get out of that. The kind of journalism I was doing was dangerous and exhausting, and it was time to find a different way to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I realized we’d been focused on the bullshit for so long, on the controversy and conspiracy and it just seemed like a natural movie to shoot as my directing debut. 

DT: Since the focus of the movie is almost exclusively on the witnesses, did you ever consider not even featuring the major historical figures like Jackie Kennedy or Lee Harvey Oswald and focusing exclusively on the ordinary people that were there?

PL: Well, they’re not really featured; they’re kind of secondary in the movie. Jackie, we had to have because she was in the trauma room, but in the trauma room she was just a woman. She was a wife whose husband had died in her arms. She wasn’t the First Lady, she wasn’t a celebrity, she was specifically a small character. Lee Harvey Oswald is really there to serve the brother’s story. That conversation is really about Robert, not Lee. I humanized Lee because he was a human being. I thought we cast him perfectly. I thought it was just the right amount, not really presentational or distracting. 

DT: Did you let the actors do much research on their characters?

PL: Some did research. Every actor has their own process, but I actually asked them not to do much research because the character they’re playing didn’t do much research. The character they’re playing didn’t know that much. The whole point is that no one knew anything and I wanted them to give a performance that was surprising as the event itself. 

DT: Oswald’s family — his brother Robert and mother Marguerite — end up as some of the most focused-on characters in the film. 

PL: A lot of people didn’t even know he had a brother or that his mother was … bananas. But that’s why the movie works, that’s the role it plays. It’s the power of the everyday reality of it, which is so surprising to people.

DT: The film shows a lot of things that most people didn’t know about the Kennedy assassination. In your research, what piece of information surprised you the most?

PL: What happened in the trauma room was Shakespearean. There was no way to anticipate it. It was incredible. Considering the power of the doctors, what it was like to be a doctor who lost that particular patient. Everything in the movie surprised me. 

DT: There are these shots in the movie, cutaways really, to little things, like a wristwatch someone left on a bench that give this sense of authenticity to it all. The room could have actually looked like that.

PL: We kicked ourselves and killed ourselves to make sure that trauma room was exactly the way it was. We shot it as if it was really happening. The doctor takes off his watch, what does he do with it? He puts it down. He doesn’t give a shit about it right now. What did they do with the roses? There was blood everywhere, and I wanted to create an atmosphere where it was actually happening. Those details happened organically. 

DT: How was it adapting a 1,600-page account of those four days into a 93-minute movie? 

PL: I used the book mostly as an inspiration and launching off point because the book is mainly about data and information and the movie is really about emotion and character. Vince’s book was a great blueprint and a road map. I then went off and did my own research. I always knew that the hospital was going to be the center of the movie. Vince didn’t get in the trauma room much, but if you listen closely to a story, it will tell you how it needs to be told.