Director John Curran has a varied career as a filmmaker. His previous film, Tracks, followed a woman (Mia Wasikowska) undertaking a solitary journey across the Australian desert. He’s probably best known for 2006's The Painted Veil, a period drama starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts about a doctor dealing with marital strife while fighting a cholera epidemic in a Chinese village. Now, Curran turns to Ted Kennedy and the coverup of a car crash that killed his young campaign strategist, Mary Jo Kopechne, in 1969.
“I guess I’m attracted to flawed humans in character studies... They’re usually about someone trying to achieve some sort of grace and failing miserably,” the director says with a laugh. He’s in the lobby of the Standard Hotel in Miami Beach ahead of the East Coast premiere of Chappaquiddick at Miami Dade College’s Miami Film Festival. The film opens theatrically this Friday.
Curran goes on to explain that, beyond flawed characters, he likes a story with enough depth to maintain his interest throughout what is usually about a year and half of work, including both pre- and postproduction of a movie. He says the script for Chappaquiddick, written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, surprised him. He knew there was a coverup of the deadly crash but wasn't familiar with the details, including the fact that there was a witness and that it had happened during an important turn of events in history: the first moon landing.
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Actor Jason Clarke was already attached to the project when Curran was approached with the script. The two had worked together on Curran’s first feature, 1998’s Praise. “You’d never do a movie like this if the casting wasn’t right, and I did have faith that Jason could pull it off,” says the director, adding that no makeup was used beyond restyling Clarke’s hair and using false teeth to help transform the actor. “I knew he could disappear into this role, and I thought he looked the same [as Ted Kennedy]. He had the same kind of square face and build.”
Curran says he was surprised with some of what he read in the script, and during some fact-checking, he was impressed to find much of it was true to the historical record. The main source for the writers was the inquest. He says the only time the dialogue had to be made up was in capturing closed-door meetings between Kennedy and various advisers. “All it was ever going to be was an impression of the truth,” Curran says of those scenes, "the truth as well as we could tell it because of the nature of the coverup. There’s misdirection and there’s spin and there’s a bunch of stuff that’s out there that we had to kind of wade through, but it’s always gonna be there. You’re never really gonna know.”
As a self-described liberal, Curran admits he had some apprehension about realizing this story for the big screen. “I felt like I was taking down one of my own team members to a degree. I think it’s sort of vital now, particularly with politicians. We should hold them to a much higher standard, and you get what you vote for.”
Curran says he wasn’t out to make a movie to smear the late politician but to stimulate some thought in voters about the people being elected into office. “I admire Ted Kennedy. As far as senators go in my lifetime, there isn’t anyone that has accomplished more than Ted Kennedy. Having said that, I read this script in 2016, during the presidential primaries of this previous election, and was pretty thoroughly disgusted about people turning a blind eye to candidates on both sides of the aisle, and I just feel I can’t expect someone to take a hard look at their candidate if we’re not prepared to do the same.”