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Camelot Revisited: The Creators of ‘The Kennedys’ Speak Out

By David Itzkoff  of the New York Times

Before a frame of “The Kennedys,” a television mini-series about that political clan, has been broadcast, here is its track record so far:

Months prior to filming, it was criticized for its perceived inaccuracies by historians (including Theodore C. Sorensen) who were shown early drafts of its screenplays by a left-leaning filmmaker, Robert Greenwald.

In January, the History Channel, which had ordered and produced the mini-series for $25 million, announced that it was dropping the project, saying only that the mini-series did not fit its brand. Concerns about the accuracy of “The Kennedys” had persisted throughout its production, and there were reports that Kennedy family members had reached out to the History Channel board, seeking to stop it.

In February, ReelzChannel, a film-oriented cable network, announced it had acquired “The Kennedys. On April 3 its first episode will be shown there.

The mini-series, which stars Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy, Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy and Tom Wilkinson as Joseph P. Kennedy, is produced by Joel Surnow, a co-creator of the Fox series “24″ and an outspoken political conservative, and written by Stephen Kronish, a “24″ producer who identifies himself as a liberal. Mr. Surnow and Mr. Kronish spoke recently to ArtsBeat about the controversy surrounding “The Kennedys,” their experiences working on the mini-series and the inherent challenges of making biographical films. These are excerpts from that conversation.

Q.

How did you learn that the History Channel had decided it was not going to broadcast “The Kennedys”?

A.

JOEL SURNOW It was conveyed to me on a very regretful phone call from the executives at the History Channel. I don’t even remember the time right now, was it January? Early January. They had let us know that the network wasn’t going to be airing it, but that they would be trying to help us sell it to another network.

Q.

In its statement announcing that it would not show “The Kennedys,” the channel said the “dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Were you offered a fuller explanation of what that meant?

A.

SURNOW That statement was a fiction. They mentioned the words historical inaccuracy – there’s zero historical inaccuracy in our show. We’ve had approvals on all the scripts and on all the cuts so that was just a press statement.

Q.

In The New York Times, we reported there were concerns about the historical accuracy of the mini-series that persisted after it was filmed and produced, and that these concerns played a role in the History Channel’s decision to drop it.

A.

SURNOW That’s not true. That’s a fiction that you printed. And Steve Gillon [the resident historian of the History Channel] approved all eight scripts, and we have proof of it. And the network approved all the cuts, so that’s a fiction.

Q.

It has also been reported that the Kennedy family or its surrogates used their influence to get the History Channel to drop the mini-series. Do you have reason to believe this occurred?

A.

SURNOW I believe the Kennedy family did not want this seen, but I have no blame and nothing negative to say about the Kennedy family. Any family who’s going to have a show done about them has every right to want to protect the image of their family. The blame lies squarely on the people who canceled the show.

Q.

Before ReelzChannel picked up “The Kennedys,” were you concerned that it might not be shown anywhere at all?

A.

SURNOW Yes, of course I was. It would have been, really, a calamity if we had spent two and a half years making this brilliant show and no one saw it. It would be really unfathomable.
STEPHEN KRONISH I also think that the fact that this is going to be seen in 40 countries around the world, were it not to be seen in the United States would have been, in a way, embarrassing.
SURNOW John F. Kennedy was our president. He was my president and Steve’s president, too. That’s not something this country really does, which is prevent people from expressing themselves.

Q.

Is that what you feel happened here, that you were prevented from expressing yourself?

A.

SURNOW My ability to express myself was fine. But once we did express ourselves, they decided to cut us off at the knees. This had a lot to do with my known politics, and it was very sad that whoever decided to protect the Kennedys didn’t watch the show and see how reverential and patriotic the show really was before they made a determination whether a known conservative could be a producer about a show, and be even-handed and intellectually honest, which we were.

Q.

Given the outcry over “The Reagans,” which was dropped by CBS after complaints by political conservatives, should you have expected that you would take heat for being a conservative making a film about a revered liberal?

A.

SURNOW What about Steve’s personal politics? Steve is the writer.
KRONISH That would be like saying, well, a white man can’t write about black subjects. A black man can’t write about white subjects. The purpose of this mini-series was to neither deify nor destroy. We’ve seen all the valentines and they’ve been done. Our goal here was to try to be honest about who these people were as human beings. And we all know that they have flaws. Everybody does.

Q.

Stephen, could you talk about how you conducted your research and compiled the biographical materials you used to write your screenplays?

A.

KRONISH Steve Gillon basically decided what sources he would accept, and they had to be sources that were written by people whose journalistic credentials were beyond reproach. They were not quote-unquote popular biographies. They were not stuff in People magazine. They were volumes that had been written by people like Robert Dallek, Richard Reeves and Evan Thomas. There were probably 40 some-odd sources that we used. We certainly benefited by the fact that on the Internet there’s access to material that heretofore you would have spent years in a library to try to glean. We took a library of material, based on Gillon’s instruction of what would be acceptable as source material, and that’s what we used.

Q.

Is it fair to say that all biographical films have to rely on a certain amount of reconstruction, and creating scenes where there’s no record of what was said or what occurred?

A.

KRONISH Of course. For example, the scenes between Jack and Jackie in the bedroom, where nobody knows exactly what was said, but we do know what the attitudes were and we do know, for example, that she knew about several of his affairs and was deeply distressed by them, but she stayed with him. Although she would periodically leave, she would always return. We know that. That is historical fact. And so we used those facts to create scenes that had that basis in mind. You’re compressing 50-odd years of a family’s history into eight hours. That compression is going to have to show somewhere. It doesn’t mean that the facts are changed or invented.
SURNOW And having said that, we were still vetted microscopically. They saw dailies of a scene that we were shooting in the White House, where there was a rifle in the Oval Office. We got a call the next day: why is there a rifle in the Oval Office? We had to then call our art department, produce a photograph of J.F.K. sitting in the Oval Office with a rifle behind him in 1961. That is the level of detail that they were concerned about.

Q.

The mini-series also uses composite characters, including a female aide to Joseph Kennedy who, it is suggested, is having an affair with him, with Rose Kennedy’s knowledge, and who is later fired by Rose Kennedy after Joseph has a stroke. Is that based in historical fact?

A.

KRONISH She was a composite of several people who were in Joe’s life. But again, we did not invent the situation. We did not invent the situation in which Joe Kennedy had a physical relationship with women who worked for him, who were known to Rose. This, I think, gets at one of the most fascinating aspects of the relationship between these characters. Because what does that say about Rose Kennedy? Do you say that it is her religious faith that enables her to accept that behavior?
SURNOW It resonates in the Jackie story as well.
KRONISH As women they were very different, but they did share that aspect of their lives.

Q.

Is there a factual basis for the scene in which Joseph Kennedy tells Jackie he will give her a million-dollar trust and allow her to divorce Jack if he doesn’t win his presidential race?

A.

KRONISH Absolutely. Absolutely.

Q.

Coming off a year in which the Oscars race came down to two biographical films, “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech,” that both employed degrees of dramatic license and contained scenes for which there was no factual basis, do you feel that “The Kennedys” is somehow being held to a different standard?

A.

SURNOW I would say yes. I think we were probably vetted much more carefully than either of those two.
KRONISH And I think that’s as it should have been. Yes, the King of England occupied a very important position 80 years ago. Nobody remembers really much about that period – at least Americans tend not to remember much about that. But these were people who were very much a part of American history in the 20th century, and I think their impact remains for a variety of reasons. I think it would have been grossly irresponsible for us to even attempt to play fast and loose with the facts, and that’s not what we intended to do. We intended to make the best drama we could while living up to a historical standard that we imposed upon ourselves, and that the History Channel imposed upon us as well.

Q.

Do you think it’s possible that sensitivities remain because of who the Kennedys were and are, and because people who lived through that era want to remember it in a certain way?

A.

KRONISH I think that’s completely true. The manner of someone’s death quite often has a lot to do with how they’re remembered. Even for those of us who lived through that period of time, [John F. Kennedy] is frozen in time. He embodied a sense of hope and optimism, not only for the Democratic party but for the United States, maybe for the world. The construct [of "The Kennedys"] was that you would see growth in these people, that they would change over a period of time. The guy who was riding in the car in Dallas on that day was very different than the guy who turned around and found himself confronted with the Bay of Pigs. I still believe this mini-series leaves you feeling, maybe things would have been better [if Kennedy hadn't died]. And that I think is the thing that makes the Kennedys so enduring, because it’s an unknowable question. What they constructed was certainly not made of whole cloth, but it hid a few things. The image that was created was not the full picture of them as people. Images never are.