An interview with Joel Surnow about the show, which debuts this Sunday on Reelz
Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Barry Pepper as John F., Jackie, and Bobby Kennedy in The Kennedys. Photo credit: Reelz.
The terrorists, saboteurs, and corrupt government officials on the TV series 24 never caused its producer and co-creator Joel Surnow as much trouble as The Kennedys. Counter Terrorist Unit special agent Jack Bauer's races against time on 24 now seem like a cinch compared to the real-life fallout generated by Surnow's desire to helm a miniseries about one of America's most famous families.
Last week, The Hollywood Reporter chronicled the rather bizarre (and seemingly unprecedented) back-story of how this high profile, $30 million TV project was abruptly canceled by the History Channel, the network that first commissioned it in 2008. From the moment that the History Channel proudly announced the series, it has been regarded with some degree of special curiosity.
The Kennedys seemed an unusual project for a man whose scriptwriting usually focuses on action dramas and thrillers. But the fact that Surnow is a staunch conservative made his choice of material even more intriguing. Across town, people started asking, Why is Joel Surnow, of all people, now turning his focus on making a TV series about America's Democratic dynasty?
That unpredictable idea alone made a few liberals, at least one influential Kennedy loyalist, and perhaps even members of the Kennedy family themselves, very uncomfortable—even before one frame of film had been shot. But Surnow and key people who worked with him on 24 forged ahead with what Surnow describes as prodigious research and scrupulous writing. When early drafts of scripts leaked, suspicion turned to resistance in Camelot: the late Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy's former speechwriter, campaigned publicly against Surnow last year, calling his project "a one-sided, right-wing script." A freelance website was launched by liberal activist and filmmaker Robert Greenwald to help galvanize Kennedy supporters against the series.
Filming moved ahead anyway and finally wrapped last fall. Suddenly, while the series was still in post-production, the History Channel reneged: It refused to air the eight-part program because, as a press statement put it, the series was "not a fit for the History brand." Making circumstances even more curious, that decision extended only to the American transmission of the History Channel because its United Kingdom version will run the series, beginning April 7.
Was there a power lunch at the Polo Lounge that killed it? As with anything Kennedy, there are a myriad of conspiracy theories. One behind-the-scenes scenario has President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline, and his niece, Maria Shriver, using their clout to pressure members of the Board of Directors of A&E Television Networks (the umbrella company that controls the History Channel) to cancel the show.
Eventually, The Kennedys found an enthusiastic outlet in ReelzChannel. Some reviews have been especially nasty—yesterday The Hollywood Reporter headlined its critic's take on the program as a "dull, unwatchable, hamfisted mess"—but Surnow, who has produced some of the most riveting moments in TV history, believes he's got a resplendent saga on his hands.
I met Surnow at a café in the western end of the San Fernando Valley, close to where Jack Bauer's exploits where filmed, to sort through the coverage and questions about the series that will finally begin unrolling in the U.S. this coming Sunday night at nine o'clock.
At what point did you realize that this series was going to be controversial?
From the day the people at the History Channel said they were going to green-light it. I always felt that my own politics were going to be a problem, and that the Kennedy family wouldn't want a known conservative telling their story. I assume that they would want Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg telling their story, not a guy who's a friend of Rush Limbaugh.
Tell us what happens when you spend $30 million on a series and the network cancels it before it even airs.
First of all, that doesn't happen in this town. There are lots of controversial shows and people out here. And we put together a brilliant, beautiful, classy show. It could be a Merchant Ivory film. But because the auspices weren't acceptable—the auspices being me, a known conservative—this thing got derailed.
As you say, the history of Hollywood is full of controversial projects. But this is quite unusual in the way it's been handled.
I'm still asking myself how it all happened. We've got an all-star cast, award-winning people at every key position in the show. And you don't get Tom Wilkinson, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Barry Pepper to do a show that's some weird, agendized drama. That doesn't happen.
Actually, in 2003, CBS canceled its two-part movie, The Reagans, because of a firestorm of complaints that it was rather scurrilous in its depiction of Reagan.
There's a big difference. On The Reagans, the advertisers pulled out. With this series, the advertisers pledged to follow it. That's the metric by which all things are judged out here. Our advertisers never backed off. Plus, Nancy Dubuc, the History Channel executive who developed the series, kept her credit on it. That speaks volumes about how the History Channel people regarded this series—they were our allies all the way through to the bitter end of our run there.
It's a little challenging to believe that at this point in time, with all the principals from the Kennedy family deceased, that survivors were able to get the series canceled by the History Channel. How does this happen?
I don't know. To me, that's the real story.
Did Maria Shriver oppose this series?
I've read that she did.
Did you make any overtures to any of the Kennedys about the series?
No. It never occurred to me to do that. The characters are public figures.
Early on, liberal activist Robert Greenwald launched a website protesting the project. Was he the one who alerted the family to this project?
That's when the problems started. He got early drafts of the scripts. In television, one typically goes through 16 or 17 drafts—for a hundred different reasons. But Greenwald dropped the dime.
What's your view of what Greenwald did? Did he declare war on this project?
That's a good way of putting it. I think he tried to shut it down.
Did the History Channel people see this series before they canceled it?
Yes. But understand that the History Channel didn't turn down the series. To the best of my knowledge, the people there were as heartbroken about the loss of this show on their network as we were. The series became an issue with the A&E Television Networks Board of Directors—that means the decision was made above History Channel executives.
Was the project that you pitched to the History Channel different from the one your team delivered?
No. There weren't any surprises. The series represents all the scripts they approved. [pauses] Actually, there was one thing to which they objected, and it was a scene of a rifle on the wall of the Oval Office. The History Channel people asked, "Why would the President have a rifle?" Then we showed them an actual photograph of JFK sitting in the Oval Office with a rifle displayed on the wall. That gives you an idea of the subatomic level that the History Channel was vetting this thing. We had an answer for every question that they leveled against us and they were pleased with the final product. Off the record—well, I don't even have to say "off the record": the History Channel was one hundred percent supportive.
You're a super-successful writer/producer. How did these events impact you?
It makes me very sad. Hollywood is extremely concerned about civil liberties. I can't tell you how many movies and projects have been produced about the McCarthy era. Where's the outrage for what happened here?
Even though people in Hollywood are mostly liberal, I thought the real master of this town was the bottom line—TV ratings and box office ticket sales. With The Kennedys, you've got subject matter and stars who almost guarantee viewers. Doesn't that trump political or personal loyalties?
One would think so. But do you think the news business only cares about the bottom line? If so, why isn't everyone in the news business emulating the Fox News Channel? Because most people who work in media have one worldview, and it doesn't care for a conservative outlook. Look, I'm an agnostic filmmaker. I don't put politics in my entertainment. Never have. I've been a journeyman doing this for 25 years. 24 was never considered a problematic show—until there was a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer that reported that I was a conservative.
In 2007, she wrote that you described yourself as a "right-wing nut job."
Well, Jane Mayer is out of her mind. But that's fine. There was an animated cartoon called "Jib Jab" that depicted a John Kerry character saying to a President George W. Bush character, "You're a right-wing nut job," and that phrase came up in conversation. It's haunted me ever since. I'm not a right-wing nut job. But I am right-wing—or certainly center-right.
But you're saying that it was that story that changed things for you?
Until Jane Mayer's article was published, 24 was a series loved by the right and left. Barbra Streisand, who is a staunch Democrat, went on the Ellen program and said 24 was one of the greatest shows she'd ever watched. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein used to call my office for copies of series. She was a massive fan.
It's obvious that you're very displeased with Mayer's story.
I was inexperienced. I was also flattered by the idea that the New Yorker was going to publish a story about what I thought it was like to be a conservative in Hollywood. But the article turned out to be a hit piece. It made me look silly and sound like a right-wing nut job, which I'm not.
I remember the press reporting that Sen. Ted Kennedy spent his last few days eating ice cream and watching 24. So he liked your stuff.
Yes. But as soon as it became known that I knew Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh, 24 become a problem. I didn't write every script or divine every single dramatic moment on that series. I had a staff of people who crossed the barriers of left and right. To me, what's happened is close to some of the things that went on in the 1950s. Instead of asking, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?," this seems like, "Are you now or have you ever been a friend of a conservative?"
The initial press coverage of this project made it seem as though the Kennedy family was almost an obsession of Joel Surnow.
None of those reporters ever bothered to ask about the main writer of this series, Steve Kronish, who is a Kennedy-loving liberal from New York. And where is it in my history that I've been an agendized political filmmaker? I've never even written about political things. I'm a storyteller. It's as simple as that. The real irony of this whole thing is that by the time the series concludes, the Kennedy family is going to hold this up. This is their Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg miniseries.
If you screened this series for the Kennedy family and the program didn't have your name on it—
I think they'd love it. They would be thrilled and honored to have this as the film that depicts their family. It's the beginning, middle, and end of Kennedy drama. You'll never see a better JFK than Greg Kinnear. You'll never see a better Jacqueline Kennedy than Katie Holmes.
What attracted you to this subject matter in the first place?
I fell in love with this great family story, starting with Joe Kennedy as a young man who got rejected by the Porcellian Club at Harvard, all the way through the 1930s when he was Ambassador to England, through the deaths of different children. He was this staunch immigrant whose belief was, We can take this country and make it ours. The story was fascinating before one even got to Jack and the 1960s.
Did you have Greg Kinnear in mind for John F. Kennedy from the beginning?
No. But I was playing golf with a friend and Greg's name was on my friend's golf bag. I asked, "What's that?" He said, "Greg is one of my best friends and I have his bag." I thought, Greg Kinnear—he's perfect. Our mutual friend texted Greg from the course, "Would you be interested in a miniseries?" Greg replied, "I'd be open to it." And three months later we signed him.
In January, The New York Times reported that you altered a scene where Chicago mobster Sam Giancana is called to help John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. How do you depict this relationship?
We show a meeting between Giancana and Joseph P. Kennedy that was brokered by Frank Sinatra. There's a wiretap recording that we play that basically puts Giancana and Joe Kennedy together. F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover played the same recording for Bobby Kennedy. The actual history was that Giancana and Joe Kennedy met in a judge's chambers in Chicago. Instead, we play this scene in a restaurant. That's dramatic license. But the meeting occurred nonetheless.
Journalist Richard Reeves, author of the book President Kennedy, has been very vocal with his criticism. He focuses on a scene set during the Cuban Missile Crisis where you have Jacqueline Kennedy telling her husband that she's going to leave him because of his infidelity. Reeves claims that Jackie stayed.
There are certain things that we know to be true. For instance, it's pretty likely that Jackie was aware of Jack's extramarital affairs. We can only assume these bothered Jackie. If they didn't, then I don't know what kind of human being she was. It's very cynical to say that Jackie Kennedy was unfazed by Jack's behavior. Therefore, we have a logical scene where she responds to his unfaithfulness.
There's a moment in Dallas, just before the assassination of President Kennedy, where Vice President Johnson comes off as a bit of a subservient character. He's trying to make sure he's on the reelection ticket. But everything I've always read about Johnson indicates that he was anything but submissive.
Well, Lyndon Johnson was very unhappy as vice president. He felt diminished. He was always deferential to JFK, the president. But he goes head-to-head with Bobby Kennedy all the time. I just think Johnson was miserable. When we depict James Meredith, the black student who's trying to get admitted to the University of Mississippi and is being blocked by white supremacists, we show Johnson as frustrated. He says, "I know Southerners. I know what Scotch they drink and the kind of rum they put on their barbecue. Let me get involved." But he was never able to get front and center on some of these issues that he understood better than Jack Kennedy did.
Marilyn Monroe is depicted in this series as well. There have long been allegations that the Kennedys had something to do with her death. What will your viewers conclude about her demise?
We went out of our way to make sure that association wasn't made.
But there is an association of a romantic relationship between JFK and Monroe, right?
We never show the Jack-Marilyn relationship. We show the Bobby Kennedy-Marilyn Monroe relationship.
So what is fictionalized in this series?
When you're telling a 40-year story and compressing it, a lot of times you have to meld different characters into one. Every time we have a conversation with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy at home, we're basically creating a scene that takes us to a scene that we know actually happened. That's the dramatic part.
So you're saying that you're not letting the facts stand in the way of the truth.
We were more vigorous than that—because the facts are unbelievably dramatic. After the scene where President Kennedy decides against air cover for the Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, he goes to the residence and anguishes over the men who died because of his decision. He's in Jackie's arms. That's a fictional scene, but it's not a stretch to think it could have happened. We've played everything close to what would be obvious reactions to the events at the time. If we were trying to assert that JFK is a sociopath who couldn't care less about those men, we would have shown that. This series says that these are deeply caring, emotional people who had to make difficult decisions.
In your view, was John F. Kennedy a good president?
I don't know enough about what it was like to be a middle American in 1962 because I was eight years old. I think President Kennedy made lots of people hopeful. He was emerging as a stronger president toward the end of his term. Was he legendary? He didn't serve long enough. But the Kennedy presidency was meaningful for two reasons—because of the way John F. Kennedy and his family looked—they were movie stars—and then there was a tragedy. Those things have kept this family alive.
Isn't it curious how this many decades after John F. Kennedy was sworn-in as president, this family continues to hold sway?
Well, it's mostly with people more than 45 years old. My teenage children don't have a clue about the Kennedys, or what Camelot means. It's not their life. At what point do the Beatles become Benny Goodman—just some relic of the past that has no relevance to one's life? The Kennedys have almost reached that point. In the year 2050, do you think people will give a shit about the Kennedys? I don't think so. Obama will be the fascinating figure by then.
How do you compare the public's fascination with Ronald Reagan to that of the Kennedys?
Ronald Reagan had a love for America, and the America he loved is the one that conservatives love. The country that Reagan believed in so deeply is the same country that some of us see eroding. He takes us back to a time and belief in a leader who championed the great American spirit. For people who aren't even political, Reagan made them feel that spirit in a kind of subliminal poetic way. Plus, he was able to unapologetically implement his ideas. One of the first things he said after becoming president was that our new policy toward the Soviet Union would be, "We win, they lose." That was it—very clear, profound. How can you not love that? It's what a leader does.
Back to the Kennedys for a minute. There have been scores of books, TV movies, and films about them. What are you going to show viewers that they haven't seen before?
The public has read about the Kennedys, and they've seen JFK in action. But this is really a story of the personalities. Our idea was: let's strip away the iconography and get to whom these people really were. Everyone knows the stories of Joe Kennedy, bootlegger, and Jack and Marilyn Monroe. But who were these people in a flesh and blood way? This is really a story about a father living out his ambition through his sons. This is Joe Kennedy, who wanted to be the first Irish Catholic president and was foiled because he opposed U.S. involvement in the coming world war.
There's a scene in the series where the character of Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who is stationed is London, is fired by the Roosevelt administration. He hangs up the phone and exclaims to his wife, "I'm out, Rosie! Roosevelt's Jew boys wanted me out." Did the real Joe Kennedy hate Jews?
No. He just talks the way rugged guys talked in those days. He was little bit of an Archie Bunker type. We wanted to convey some of that attitude.
He was certainly against American involvement in the war in Europe.
I don't think Joe Kennedy had the kind of mindset where he was "anti" anything. He cared about himself and his family. Anyone who was against him was just an asshole.
Were the Kennedys good Catholics?
Rose Kennedy was devout. So was Bobby. Joe and Jack were fairly agnostic. I think they were about their family. Their church was Hyannis Port.
Where has Hollywood made mistakes in its depictions of the Kennedys?
They just didn't dig in. There has been a glamorous, Camelot view of the Kennedys, or a view that looks at them from staggering world events, be it the Cuban Missile Crisis or the assassinations. Those stories are in different places. What we're trying to do here isn't really a political story—it's politics driving the personal.
Who is the hero of this series?
Robert Kennedy. He becomes the evolved Kennedy. In a strange way, he's almost like Michael Corleone. Bobby was the one who suffered, and he emerges at the end wanting to always do the moral thing.
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?
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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