Interview: ‘Chappaquiddick’ Writer Taylor Allen Drops Details On His Film And More
A few weeks ago I saw a commercial about a movie called Chappaquiddick. I knew all the stars of the movie, but I honestly had no clue what this “true story” has never been told. You hear a word like Chappaquiddick and figure it will be a movie about some ghost who haunts an apartment, then a family moves in and all boring scares kick in. This was not the case at all, thankfully.
I Googled the movie and found out something radically changed the history of the United States political history. I had no idea about any of it at all. I thought I new a lot about the Kennedy family, but not something as crazy as this. It turns out one of the writers for the movie Chappaquiddick was as in the dark about the history as me before he went and looked into it further. What we got from his curiosity was a great new film, and a wonderful interview with Taylor Allen.
When did you first hear about the Chappaquiddick incident?
I was living with my best buddy and now writing partner, Andrew Logan, in an apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills (literally, was robbed at gunpoint on my doorstep in what turned out to be a neighborhood crime spree), and we were actually already pondering why we’d never seen an actor play Ted Kennedy.
We’d seen a number of actors play JFK and a handful of RFKs, but never once saw Ted play a significant role in the Kennedy films to date.
It was 2008, and there was a presidential primary going on. Ted Kennedy had just unexpectedly endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in what the punditry class had already deemed a potentially game changing moment in the election. That weekend Andrew and I were watching Real Time with Bill Maher and Bill was proclaiming that Ted Kennedy had “changed presidential history yet again.”
“He probably would have been president in 1972 had it not been for Chappaquiddick.”
And then Bill just moved right along to the next segment. Which I thought was crazy because, “What’s a Chappaquiddick?” So then Andrew and I hopped on the Google machine, probably misspelled Chappaquiddick, and did what any millennial would do:
We read the Wikipedia.
We were shocked, horrified, and devastated all at the same time. I honestly don’t remember feeling that same sort of unease again until the USO photo of Al Franken came out. These were both men that I had long admired. But with Chappaquiddick, part of my queasiness came from the fact that despite being incredibly politically engaged I had never heard it spoken of before.
My mom got quite the animated phone call from me the next day with me demanding to know why this had never come up before.
Did researching the incident and looking further into the Kennedy family change any opinion you had on their legacy?
The other day, I heard Jim Gaffigan (who plays US Attorney Paul Markham in the film) say, “Good art should challenge your preconceived ideas.”
And I would say that the process of researching Chappaquiddick definitely did that. It changed my opinions about this particular dynasty in many ways. For better and worse.
The final film focuses on the seven days from the Friday when the accident happened to the next Friday when Ted gave a nationally televised statement explaining what happened.
But that laser focus was something that only came after realizing that instead of a more conventional biopic (with a cradle to grave structure), we could use this seven day period to talk about the themes that resonated most with us about Ted Kennedy as a character. Those themes only came clear after reading about a lot of the great things he did from his autobiography True Compass as well as the excellent book by Last Lion. But beneath those great works was always a man struggling to define his own legacy in the shadow of his older brothers who all tragically died too soon leaving him carrying the torch.
When we realized that the story of the Chappaquiddick incident was a turning point in his life that could encompass all those themes was when we knew we had a movie. Once we found out that it was a reunion of RFK campaign workers on the weekend of the moon landing, before the accident happens, we felt the character might be at a point of existential crisis that felt very human and relatable.
What was your process in doing the research into the story of what happened? (talking to family, people involved, news articles, etc.)
We were very fortunate that once we had focused our story on Chappaquiddick there was a wealth of information to be had. In fact, people in the Vineyard refer to it as “the most well documented car accident of all time.”
The reason for that is because six months after the accident happened all the key players returned to the island for a court proceeding to determine if a crime had been committed. The transcripts for “The Inquest into the Death of Mary Jo Kopechne” have under oath testimony from Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), Ted’s cousin Joe Gargan (played by Ed Helms), and even Ted Kennedy himself. Using this as a primary source, we were able to avoid the scurrilous innuendo and rumor that plagues Wikipedia and many other books on the topic, and instead try to get to as much objective truth about the incident as possible.
It didn’t hurt us that Andrew’s father was a lawyer and helped guide us along the way. Like Ted and his father Joe Kennedy Sr, Andrew wanted to make his dad proud with this one.
When this project eventually got produced, was there any blowback to try to keep it from being made? For example, if I was going to write a movie like Spotlight, I would expect to get threats or criticism from the Catholic church.
Funny you should mention the Catholic Church! They were one of the most concrete sources of pushback that we got during production. Our illustrious director John Curran wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, and so for the funeral scene, he wanted an actual Catholic priest to play the role. But when he went inquiring, the Boston diocese explained that the Kennedy family remained very important to them and that they would not be participating.
I assume we ended up finding a Lutheran.
As to the Kennedy family themselves:
“To the best of our knowledge they have not seen the film; but we have found audiences, regardless of political preference, incredibly supportive and responsive to the film.”
The above is the on the record response I’ve been told to give.
Off the record, there is one major character in the film that has had their name changed and that is by no means an accident. We went into the process of writing the film never once expecting anyone to make it. We wrote it as a writing sample that we hoped would get people excited about us as writers. And then when it went out on the town, we suddenly got one piece of feedback from a very powerful person in the industry involved in the story. It is a testament to the power of the story itself and the amount of enthusiasm the script generated that the movie got made at all despite some serious roadblocks.
Sidestepping a bit, can you give me a bit of what it’s like to work on The Simpsons? I think not asking would make me regret it forever.
Working for The Simpsons is such a dream job that I still do it to this day! I was an unabashed fan from the first episode going on near thirty years now. So many people that work on the show feel the same way that I do, which means that even though I’ve worked there for twelve years I am still “the kid.”
Most of the directors I work with started in some capacity in those early seasons and so many of them have multiple absolute classic episodes under their belt that it’s always fun to pump them for behind the scenes stories while we’re working on the latest.
It’s not exactly like the beginning or end of Bart’s visit to the Mad Magazine offices, but it’s incredibly fun.
When I retire, experience tells me that I will be Simpsonsized for my going away card at which point I might die and go to nerd heaven.
What I always wondered about a ‘Based on a True Story’ film is how the dialogue is written. How do you craft the language if only so many people were in the room? Hearsay? First-hand knowledge of someone in the room who can recall it? That’s always escaped me.
There’s two parts to this:
1) The court transcripts gave us many great ideas for dialogue in scenes. Because it was under oath it’s even better than hearsay!
2) You can’t make a movie out of court transcripts. But you know where many of these people stood on the various arguments they were having. Ultimately, we tried to capture the person’s character and capture their essence. So for former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, we knew that he was brought in to aid with the aftermath of the incident and that things did not go smoothly. But to find his voice, I went to bed many nights watching and rewatching Errol Morris’s The Fog of War. Falling asleep to McNamara defending himself about Vietnam seemed to help.
Did you get to hang out on set to observe the production and rewrite dialogue on the fly if it was necessary for a scene?
Andrew and I were executive producers on the movie as well as the writers and so we were really fortunate to spend a lot of time on set. And it was pretty valuable time, not just time spent at craft services.
One of my favorite moments of the production was realizing how great Taylor Nichols was at playing Ted Sorensen and how important the character would be in the final film. I grew up loving Whit Stillman’s movies (Barcelona especially), and so it was a real thrill to get to work with him. But his character didn’t have a real button at the end.
So we came to the director with the idea to have Ted request Sorensen right before he goes live to read a speech for the entire nation. John loved the idea and the final scene is one of my favorite in the movie but as Taylor’s character says, “History is usually the final judge on these things.”
Being named with Andrew Logan as part of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters To Watch of 2017, did that blow open the door to even more opportunities for writing other projects you never thought possible?
It’s so hard to say. I think Andrew and I just try to keep our nose down and do the work and a lot of times we don’t even get the sense of what people know about us before we meet them.
Having said that, the experience of getting the honor at the Whistler Film Festival along with the other Screenwriters to Watch was one of the best experiences of my life. Writing features can be very lonely (even when you have your best friend Andrew Logan as a writing partner) and so it was so great to meet other people at the same point in their career.
The writer of Clint Eastwood’s most recent movie and me are now great text buddies which is a thing I never thought I’d say.
What was the most difficult thing about writing this screenplay that you hadn’t anticipated until you were deeply invested into it?
We had an outline. We had the first few scenes. Things were feeling really great. And then we got to the scene that sets up why everyone is on the island in the first place.
When we started the research process, I don’t know that I could have told you a regatta was a boat race. I knew it had something to do with boats, but my point is that I knew nothing about boats.
I still don’t know that much about boats. We took two weeks off writing the script for Andrew to visit the Austin Yacht Club and figure out how we could have the sequence be about hubris. The first week was just him learning about knots and which way was starboard and which way was port. But then he connected with a gentlemen named Bill Records who really helped us craft that sequence into what’s on screen.
He was a set photographer on a lot of movies and said that they always got sailing wrong. So he was really excited to help us get this scene right.
It was two weeks of additional research we had expected for what adds up to two minutes of screen time, but with Bill’s help I think it was well worth it.
What is your writing process? I remember hearing The Simpsons legend John Swartzwelder would chain smoke and write in a diner booth until it shut down, then he just bought the section of the diner he wrote in and put it in his house. I’m sure your process isn’t as extreme… unless it is?
My first job on The Simpsons was actually on The Simpsons Movie getting the writers lunch. So I was fortunate enough to bring Swartzwelder his bacon cheeseburger and fries every day for months. No one is cooler, smarter, or funnier than Swartzwelder. He was also the most relaxed guy in the room whenever I was in there.
So needless to say, my writing process is not nearly as cool as his.
What are some movies/TV show/book writers that inspire your writing?
My favorite movie of all time since the day that I saw it in 1996 is Fargo. I absolutely adore the Coen brothers and one of the things I love about their writing (in that film especially) is their ability to love their characters, treat them like real human beings, and still find room for dark humor about universal foibles.
That ended up playing a big part of the writing of Chappaquiddick. The film is so dark that particularly in the second half it’s nice to be able to find moments of lightness with the dark humor.
Andrew and I also absolutely adore Aaron Sorkin. In the way the Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Jake Peralta with Die Hard, I can basically quote all of A Few Good Men from memory (and often do to entertain Andrew and myself when we’re stuck on a scene).
Are there any future project that you’re working on that you’re allowed to drop any information about?
We’re working on a couple of projects that I’m really excited about. One is the story of the Augusta National, the club where they play The Masters. And if a movie about a golf course doesn’t sound like the most obvious follow up for the writers of Chappaquiddick, I can tell you that what drew us to the story was a similar shock that we’d never heard about the systemic abuses of power in this case in the world of sports.
And our other project is based on a book called Taking Aim at the President that we’ve optioned from its wonderful author Geri Spieler. She’s a journalist who had twenty plus years of correspondence with one of (if not the) only female would be assassins in United States History. It’s sort of a Donnie Brasco meets Taxi Driver story with a rich female lead, which is something I’m kind of dying to see.
Chappaquiddick arrives in theaters on April 6th.
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Jeff Sorensen is an author, writer and occasional comedian living in Detroit, Michigan. You can look for more of his work on The Huffington Post, UPROXX, BGR and by just looking up his name.