TORONTO — Just as Jimmy Breslin did in his famous column about Clifton Pollard, the Arlington National Cemetery worker who dug President Kennedy’s grave, former journalist Peter Landesman looked on the ground and in the shadows to find the ordinary people affected by the enormous events of Nov. 22, 1963 for his debut feature, “Parkland.”
Landesman, who wrote a controversial New York Times exposé on sex trafficking in the United States (“The Girls Next Door,” 2004), adapted a section of Vincent Bugliosi’s 2008 book, “Four Days in November.” He compared “Parkland” with “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” another recent film that offers an epic view of history from the bottom up. “That’s where the story is: undigested, not gussied up. It’s just raw,” he says.
Interviewed last month during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where “Parkland” screened after premiering to mixed reviews at the Venice Film Festival, Landesman explained why he agreed to tackle an adaptation of Bugliosi’s work. “For 50 years, we’ve all been distracted by the murder-mystery of the JFK assassination: Who did it and why,” he says. “With the 50th anniversary [of the assassination] approaching, [‘Parkland’ producer] Tom Hanks put the massive book in my hands. It was a window that no one had opened. I made it a launching pad to delve into the emotions of the ones to whom this happened: the accidental witness, the man who woke up one morning to find that he was the brother of the devil, the doctors covered in the president’s blood.”
The film boasts an all-star cast of Oscar winners and nominees including Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, and Paul Giamatti. Landesman says Weaver, the Australian actress who starred in “Animal Kingdom” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” was the first one he contacted to play Lee Harvey Oswald’s oddball mother. “I told her that if she didn’t do it, I didn’t think I could make the movie,” Landesman says. “Once she committed, then many others wanted to be part of it.”
Weaver says she relied on videotapes and Jean Stafford’s book “A Mother in History” to re-create Marguerite Oswald, arguably the most jarring presence in the film, with her heavy eyeglasses and affected Southern drawl. “A lot of her dialogue is verbatim from recordings. Obviously she was deluded and narcissistic. Nothing [in the film] is exaggerated,” said Weaver during a TIFF press conference.
Less known is Doris Nelson, the capable head nurse at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, played by Harden.
“Parkland was a teaching hospital so these young doctors depended on the nurses,” says Harden in a phone interview. “I loved the camaraderie I developed with Zac Efron (who plays Dr. Jim Carrico). The fact that [the patient] was JFK only had an impact before he entered that trauma room and afterward. When [the doctors and nurses] rolled up their sleeves, he was just a man and they were fighting to save his life.” One of Harden’s proudest in-character moments in the film occurs when suspect Lee Harvey Oswald is rushed into Parkland with gunshots just two days later. “The same hospital, the same hospital team, but Doris Nelson drew the line at the same trauma room. She says, ‘He’s not going to live or die in here.’ That was a true story. These events were Shakespearean.”
Another character given ample screen time is Abraham Zapruder (Giamatti), the unassuming, Russian-born clothing manufacturer whose now-infamous 8mm home movie of the assassination thrust him into an unwanted spotlight and forever haunted him. In one scene in “Parkland,” Landesman depicts Zapruder’s horrified reaction to his footage, which is reflected in his eyeglasses. “I didn’t want to show the film as you can see it on YouTube,” says Landesman. “I wanted to show it as he saw it. . . . Zapruder’s story is also super tragic. It was the epitome of the American dream, only to be shattered. It’s a cautionary tale of witnessing; the messenger is often blamed for the event.”
The very private Zapruder family (“Many of them changed their names,” says Landesman) cooperated with the making of “Parkland.” “I reached out to them many times. I wanted to tell the inner story with integrity,” he says. “When Paul agreed to do it, we told them, ‘Here is one of the greatest actors,’ who eerily looked like [Abraham Zapruder] once we shaved his head. The family then was enormously helpful and supportive.”
“I was struck by his heavy, New York Jewish accent. He was an outsider in Dallas,” said Giamatti of Zapruder during the TIFF press conference. “Peter wrote this wonderful thing about his immigrant experience, now this trauma. There was a sense of free-floating guilt — that he was responsible for this horrible thing, that children would forever be able to watch the president getting his head blown off.”
Landesman says that if he did his job as writer-director, “viewers will experience the assassination as if for the first time. Tom Hanks and I discussed this at length: If we knew it or we saw it before, we’d cut it. We had no agenda other than to tell an emotional truth. And everything had to be verifiably true. We had to know that we could depend on what we were looking at.”
Landesman said it was seeing the film with an audience that made it “feel like a patriotic act. I know that can sound high falutin’ and silly, but this event in history has taken on the guise of so many things. We wanted to change the dialogue and get down to what was real and honest and raw.”