'What we’re seeing today is the demonisation of dissent': Aaron Sorkin on upcoming film, news media, and courtroom dramas
In a conversation moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Sorkin discussed his film The Trial of the Chicago 7, directing a starry ensemble cast, and the “demonisation of dissent” in Trump’s America.
This one-on-one conversation between filmmaker Aaron Sorkin and film critic Elvis Mitchell was part of a Special Industry Event at TIFF 2020.
1968 was a year of seismic political and social upheaval in the United States. Americans, young and old, took to the streets to protest against Vietnam War and racial discrimination. Amid the growing turmoil of this deeply divided country, civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr and presidential hopeful Robert F Kennedy had become beacons of hope. But their assassinations within two months of each other only reinforced the notion that the country was coming apart at the seams. In this context, it is easy to understand why the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which unfolded in Chicago, had become the focus of the entire country’s attention. Following Lyndon B Johnson’s withdrawal from seeking re-election, party leaders nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey for the top of the ticket. Humphrey’s support for the Vietnam War meant he lost the support of liberals and young Americans, who instead flocked to the Windy City to protest in peace. But the city exploded in violence after the mayor called in about 23,000 police and National Guard troops to suppress the protests with billy clubs and tear gas. Among the protesters were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner, who were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot.
Their subsequent trial is now the subject of Aaron Sorkin’s new film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which releases worldwide on Netflix on 16 October. The film gains fresh urgency in an election year marked by protests and demonstrations across America, which is still reeling from the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Dion Johnson. In a conversation moderated by film critic Elvis Mitchell at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Sorkin discussed the film (which began as an idea pitched by Steven Spielberg to Sorkin 14 years ago), directing a starry ensemble cast (which includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Daniel Flaherty, Michael Keaton, and John Carroll Lynch), and the “demonisation of dissent” in Trump’s America.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
On the project’s origin
“It was in 2006. Steven Spielberg asked me to come to his house on a Saturday morning, and he said, ‘I really want to make a movie about those terrible riots in Chicago in 1968 at the convention, and then the crazy conspiracy trial that followed.’ And I said, ‘That sounds great, I’m in.’ And I got in my car, and on the way home I immediately called my father and said, ‘Dad, do you know anything about riots that happened in 1968 and the crazy conspiracy trial that followed?’
I had a vague sense that there was civil unrest at the convention in ‘68. No, I had never heard of this trial. I kind of vaguely knew that Abbie Hoffman was a counterculture figure. What I knew of Tom Hayden was that he was once married to Jane Fonda. And I knew that Bobby Seale was the head of the Black Panthers.”
On how he went from writing a play to directing a movie
Because of the riots, this movie was going to cost more than anyone was going to want to spend. So I said, ‘Okay, let me try writing it as a play.” But then it went back to being a movie and what got it made were two things happening at once. I directed my first movie Molly’s Game, and Steven (Spielberg) was sufficiently pleased with it. He said, ‘You know, you should direct Chicago 7.’ That happened at the same time that Donald Trump was holding huge rallies and was getting nostalgic for how in the old days they used to take that guy out of here on a stretcher. They used to beat the crap out of him, punch him in the face, talking about protestors that way. Trump started telling people to go back where they came from.
There are parts of the movie which would work well as a play. Those opening entrances...and it’s also a courtroom drama. But in the end, I wanted to show the riots really is what it came down to.
On how the movie tells three different stories
There’s the courtroom drama, there’s the more personal story between Abbie and Tom, and then the third is the evolution of that big riot on the final night of the convention. How did it go from what was supposed to be a peaceful protest into a very bloody clash with police, state police, and the National Guard. Staging that was something I was pretty scared of. I had only directed one movie before this – it had 11 people in it. This movie was going to have tear gas and riots, but I got a lot of help, including a lot of help from the Chicago Police Department.
On the role of news media during the clash and the trial
In 1968, when Walter Cronkite said something, that was understood to be the truth. Also, he wasn’t given to hyperbole at all. He was kind of the consummate newsman. For Walter Cronkite, to say ‘the Democratic Convention is about to begin in a police state. There just doesn’t seem to be any other way to say it’, that was a huge deal. That wasn’t a guy trying to get ratings by pumping something up.
When I saw that clip, suddenly I knew that the film was going to have a prologue and that clip was going to be at the end of it. I wanted to show a prologue, something that moves very fast and didn’t just introduce our characters but showed kind of a whole country coming off the rails in 1968. With the escalation of the draft, with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and how the temperature got so hot by the time they got to the convention in Chicago. But that Cronkite clip was kind of a gift.
On the narrative impact of a breathless prologue and his love for courtroom dramas
I like to, if I can, kind of parachute the audience into something that’s already going 90 miles an hour and that feeling of having to sit forward and then catch up to it. It’s exhilarating for an audience.
I’ve got a sweet tooth for any kind of courtroom drama. It just feels good being in those four walls where the rules are so clearly laid out, and the intention and obstacle.
On how 1968 echoes today’s political and social turmoil
By a grim coincidence of scheduling, we shot a particular scene on the 50th anniversary of a particular event that occurs in this movie. For whatever reason, that’s the day I felt the reality of it. And this was before Breanna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and George Floyd. The similarities between what goes on in this film and right now are chilling. The movie was relevant when we were making it. We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did. Somebody just asked me a couple of days ago, ‘Did I change the script at all to mirror events?’ Of course I didn’t, but the world changed to mirror the script, is what happened. In terrible ways.
There’s a black-and-white photo of both Chicago 7 supporters and Chicago 7 haters and in this photo were three signs, and this was in 1969: ‘America Love It or Leave It,’ ‘What About White Civil Rights?’ and ‘Lock ‘Em Up.’ So we just thought this is relevant. This isn’t a history lesson; this is going on now. And as I said, the world just kept more and more mirroring the events of the movie.
On the timing of the film’s release ahead of the 2020 US presidential election
That first meeting I remember Steven (Spielberg) saying I think it’s important that we try to get this film out before the election. And he was talking about 2008. We would say that again before 2012 and 2016. And it’s happening now.
What we’re seeing today, once again, is the demonisation of dissent. It’s not just someone who disagrees with you, it is someone who wants to see the destruction of America. It’s what makes it so disheartening is that we had been looking back at 1968, and saying, ‘That was awful, but thank God we got through that and we’re better. Right? We don’t have to do that again.’ It’s like building a house, having it almost finished and then a gust of wind comes and knocks it down.
On casting British actors as American counter-culture figures
Starting with Sasha (Baron Cohen), I really can’t think of anybody better equipped to play [Abbie Hoffman’s] part. He also studied Abbie Hoffman when he was in college. He wrote whatever their equivalent of a senior thesis or a graduate thesis would be on the intersection of Black people and Jews in the civil rights movement. And Sasha would have earbuds in, listening to Abbie Hoffman speeches on tape until seconds before I called “action.” Mark (Rylance) is in sort of a class by himself. He’s a phenomenal actor. And he, like really everyone else in the cast, they’re sort of like Formula 1 race cars. You really don’t have to press on the gas very hard to get them to go fast. They don’t require a lot of direction.
If it’s been cast, it’s cast by the government, not cast by me. It’s cast by the government like a great caper movie. You couldn’t have asked for a better posse to put together for that kind of thing. It’s as if the government foresaw that there would be a movie about this one day and they wanted it to be good.
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