Director John Curran dives deep into the ‘CHAPPAQUIDDICK’ controversy

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Filmmaker John Curran has taken us on journeys through the Orient (THE PAINTED VEIL) and the Australian Outback (TRACKS). The stories he captures are character-driven dramas, exploring hidden depths and dimensions of the human psyche. They are all impeccably understated pictures– a true feat given each of these tales could crumble into melodramatics if not for the precise direction by a master craftsman like Curran.

Not only does his latest picture, CHAPPAQUIDDICK, check all of the boxes above, it provides a thought-provoking rumination of our current state of political scandals, all whilst reflecting on the one of the biggest in our country’s history. Little did Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) realize that by leaving Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) to drown in his submerged car that he’d set off a chain reaction that would haunt the Kennedy family like a specter.

At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the talented director about everything from finding the characters’ emotional throughlines, to the challenges working on the water, to modulating humor.

It’s deeply fascinating to me to see a human portrait of this political figure, who’s family is like American royalty. He’s flawed. Can you talk about capturing this facet with such a light touch? It’s tricky to do.

When you come into it, there’s words on paper and screen directions and whatnot. There’s the actor and he’s got ideas on a living, breathing person. For me, we know where the story goes. Just telling those facts isn’t going to make it interesting. I researched a lot about trying to get a handle on what his state of mind was that weekend, going up to Chappaquiddick. It’s just a year past his brother being assassinated. By all accounts, you read about different anecdotal evidence. He was still suffering from grief and periods of depression – moments where he would drift off and stare into space. There was a heaviness to him and a sadness. That was interesting to me. It wasn’t that I was going to contrive some element for him, but it gave me an anchor on his character.

I come from a family of eight kids – a big Irish Catholic family. I tried to imagine if all my brothers were killed and I was the last one. If there was the same amount of pressure on me to step into their shoes, on top of the grief that I’m feeling for their loss. This was a great anchor on the character and how I directed Jason. I didn’t want him breezy. We’re going to ground you in his existential depression and work from there.

Actors don’t typically judge their characters. I’m curious if you do as a filmmaker and what your biggest takeaway was with Ted after you explored his psyche?

He’s easy to relate to because he’s very flawed. I’m drawn to flawed characters. I don’t know what that says about me, but they’re the ones I can most relate to. If I meet someone who is unambiguously happy, I just don’t trust that person immediately, which says something more about me than them. I think he’s incredibly intelligent and ambitious, but also a complex, flawed person. Watching him in interviews at that time, there’s sort of a spaceyness in his eyes that my interpretation is the weight of expectations tempered by grief. I do think you have to love all your characters, as a filmmaker, otherwise you’re going to create cartoon caricatures out of all of them. He was very enigmatic and it felt important to capture that.

Joe – Ed  Helms’ character – is sort of like Robert Duvall’s character in THE GODFATHER films where he’s struggling between his true moral character and his familial duties. Was that a challenge in bringing this arc in becoming Ted’s true north to life?

To me, he was always going to be Ted’s better conscience with Joe Sr. on the other shoulder. To a degree, I wanted Mary Jo to be on that side with Joe. In my discussions with Ed, when you talk about a beginning, middle and end with a character, he’s got to be Ted’s biggest champion and then become most disillusioned. Joe has the most tragic arc in the film, I think. He owed a lot to the Kennedys and there wasn’t anyone more loyal to them. He was an accomplished lawyer in his own right, but he was the fix-it man. I think Ted treated him like that for most of his life – and this was one step too far.

John Curran directs CHAPPAQUIDDICK. Courtesy of Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.

There’s also humor in the war room scenes. The absurdity of their brainstorming brings with it an inherent comedy. What was that like on set creating that?

It’s hard. You have to be careful on shoots because you can get swept up in the moment. We had some pretty funny guys an it’s very easy for that stuff to tip over into the broad. I encourage actors to go with full guns. I don’t try to censor them too much, but I make sure I get a more subdued take as well. You don’t want to have all the same craziness. You can decide in the edit how to modulate it. It was there in the script. I kind of was worried about it like that it was almost evolving into a farce. When you think about it, there’s going to be a mini-series on this administration and it is going to be the wildest, outrageous, absurdist comedy ever. You couldn’t go too broad on it. When the stakes are really big, people are really desperate. I think people act in ways that are absurd. So I wanted it to be there, but it was more about how to modulate it – like where you believe these guys. That’s Robert McNamara and that’s Ted Sorensen. We don’t want to do…

…Cartoon versions. Like, “Whaaaaaaaaaaat?!”

[laughs]

There are a lot of logistics shooting on and under the water. Was that something new to you? I think there was a boat scene in PAINTED VEIL.

I’ve shot on water before, but nothing too controlled on this. The sailing, we did off the coast of Mexico. We had the worst luck with wind. I really had to cheat a lot of that. We got some wide shots and then it dropped. That was difficult to work around. Water is always a pain in the ass, but we worked in very small, controlled, heated tanks for Mary Jo scenes and a much bigger tank for the bridge. It’s a drag and it’s slow-moving but I loved it. It’s a character – that dark, inky water. When I first took the film on, I thought, ‘Yeah. That’s a big character in this film.’ Surfaces – what’s on the surface and what’s below.

CHAPPAQUIDICK opens on April 6.

Header Photo: CHAPPAQUIDDICK. Courtesy of Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.