'The Kennedys' Creator Defends His Controversial New Series

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Would you have voted for Jack and Bobby?

I can't answer that. I was six years old when JFK was elected.

Oliver Stone's film JFK, which is focused on the assassination of the President, basically asserts that Vice President Johnson had the President murdered. What's your take on Stone's history? I really have no opinion about JFK's assassination. What's more on point is Oliver Stone's take on Richard Nixon because that's the parallel experience that I've had. The right didn't think that Stone could do an honest depiction of Nixon because Stone was deemed too left-wing. But I thought his movie Nixon was a brilliant and honest picture. There's some of the same judgment at work with this project. People on the left think that a known conservative can't tell a fair story about a liberal family.

In your view, what are the best political films?

Nixon sets the standard. I also love Gore Vidal's The Best Man. I think All the President's Men is pretty great, too.

You filmed this series in Canada. Is that because it costs less to make a picture there than it does here in Hollywood?

A lot less.

But as someone who works in Hollywood, don't you think—

Look, it's a shame we can't figure out ways to shoot film cheaper in California.

Is that because of the unions here?

It's a business question. I know filmmakers get more bang for their buck if they go out-of-state. Canada is just one of the places. We needed a specific time and place look. We couldn't have filmed this in Vancouver, for instance. We needed urban and Eastern seaboard and we were able to get Hyannisport, Boston, and Washington—all in Toronto.

You produced The 1/2 Hour News Hour comedy series, which aired on the Fox News Channel. Why didn't it succeed?

I think it did. We generated as many viewers as The Daily Show—about 1.2 million per episode. But the series was expensive. Plus, a comedy series isn't the business of the Fox News.

Would it have worked on another outlet?

Yes. Because it wouldn't have been restricted by being part of a news organization's programming.

You mentioned that you're friends with Roger Ailes, the president of the Fox News Channel. Can you be objective and tell us what makes him different from other executives in news?

He's the smartest and funniest person I've ever met. He sees through the matrix, and knows exactly how the media works. He knows how the American public thinks. He's an anomaly. Roger made a documentary on Fellini in the 1970s. He was carrying camera bags around Europe.

But what do you think separates Ailes from others who do the same kind of work?

He knows what people want. It's as simple as that. Roger knows there's an audience that wants news that isn't slanted against America. And he knows that the public wants that news delivered by smart, attractive people.

Do you watch the Fox News Channel? MSNBC?

I'm not a news junkie. And I don't really watch much TV. If I want to see something, I'll get it on Netflix or iTunes. I watched the AMC drama Breaking Bad over the holidays. I think it's the best thing ever on television.

Better than 24?

Well, it's like 24—only it's about real people as opposed to larger-than-life people. I think Breaking Bad is sensational.

24 wasn't just unique because of its storytelling technique. From a business perspective, it was one of the first weekly dramas where the reruns couldn't be syndicated in a traditional way because of the way the story unfolds. Was there resistance to 24 because of this?

Yes. But 24 had two things happen to it that made it successful. The 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and that was tragic. We were a political thriller that premiered about two months later. The second thing was DVDs and the advent of TiVo. Those made the show deliverable on demand. They opened up a revenue stream. If 24 had started two years earlier, I don't think the series would have made it.

It was also unique because it had a cliffhanger at the end of every episode.

ER was the most successful show in the history of television. They produced twenty-two episodes per season, but the average ER viewer only watched eight of them. Executives asked, "How can you make people watch twenty-four episodes?" We said, "By cliffhanging each one."

And you certainly didn't mind killing off main characters. That was a huge shock.

One of the most important things on 24 was when Jack Bauer's wife dies at the end of the first day. That basically announced that the show is a tragedy. We were telling viewers, This is not a feel-good show where the good guy always wins. He pays a price. It also told viewers that anything could happen. Hour dramas are usually comfortable old shoes where one goes and sees characters do the same thing week in and week out. 24 was a different animal.

There's a certain romance, sexiness, and even a mythological quality to Democrats that often seems to elude most Republicans, even Ronald Reagan, who came from Hollywood. Why are Democrats so much better at mythmaking?

The Kennedys had youth, glamour, and good looks. That's not hard to mythologize. Reagan was sixty-nine years old when he was elected. He was a grandpa. He wasn't a forty-three-year-old movie star-looking guy. Kennedy was killed, tragically. If you want to keep the myth going, be good-looking and die young. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe live on forever.

Do you really think that's the secret?

It would be hard to mythologize Richard Nixon even if he was a lefty, right? In a sense, Sarah Palin's success is because of her great looks—so maybe the right has been able to capitalize on these things a little bit. But you should never underestimate America's love for beautiful people.


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John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

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