Chappaquiddick tells the story of a tragedy—the life of a promising young woman that was lost too soon when the car she was riding in drove off a bridge located on that titular Martha’s Vineyard island. It was an accident. And yet, the driver didn’t report what had happened until nine hours later. The victim was Mary Jo Kopechne. The driver was Senator Ted Kennedy.
It’s this last fact that has led to my Twitter mentions being clogged with baffled barbs and slung arrows from both sides of the aisle for the past month. Believe it or not, the film is actually a non-partisan reexamination of the facts of the case. Facts that can be found by anyone willing to read a thousand pages of court transcripts and testimony from all the people involved. Try telling that to someone with the username @BeckyandJesus who is simply convinced that the film is part of Hollywood’s masterplan to distract from the crimes of the liberal elite. Or try to explain to a skeptical Jake Tapper of CNN why the movie is being advertised during the network’s much hyped documentary series The Kennedys.
These days, the one thing that seems to unify people on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum is their shared surprise that a major motion picture would be made out of this story. But no one, and I mean no one, is more surprised by this movie’s upcoming wide release than me.
For you see, it was never part of the plan that someone out there would be crazy enough to actually make this movie. And unbeknownst to me, from the beginning, that attitude was always the secret to the script’s success.
Going all the way back to the beginning, the journey to writing Chappaquiddick was one paved with failure. Failed sketch writing packets. Failed spec TV scripts. Failed pilots. I had gone down every avenue I’d heard might lead to “living the dream.” The only thing I’d never tried was writing a feature screenplay. The honest reason for this was fear. Fear of making a bad movie. But what’s there to be afraid of if you don’t actually intend on having a movie made? What if instead, you just want to tell a great story?
There’s something incredibly freeing about not preordaining an outcome at the start of a creative process. There’s nothing better than sharing that feeling with your best friend (not to mention half the success and half the blame). Enter my writing partner Andrew Logan.
We had a shared experience of watching those from our film school graduating class move on too quickly to financing their first feature as writer/director. Too often, the love of the work leads great talents to take the leap without looking, as long as there’s a finished movie to be had. And while that can be a great learning experience (if you’re going to fail, fail quickly), Andrew and I always wanted our failures to be as maximally private and as minimally pricey as possible.
Instead of writing a movie that we thought could get made, we decided to write an interesting story that appeared to have clear road blocks to the silver screen. The stated goal was to write something that “people-who-weren’t-our-moms” might like to read and, if we did a good enough job, maybe they’d like it enough to share it with other people who read scripts. If we were really lucky, maybe one of them might hire us to write a movie that could actually get made.
What happened next was a series of decisions built on that principal. At the time, we were simply guided by instinct. But now, with a little Monday morning quarterbacking, we have distilled those instincts down to a set of guiding principles that fully apply to our future approach to screenwriting.
Story Matters Most… Always
As movie makers, it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the components that go into making a movie. Great lighting. Unique camera angles. The perfect edit. Even as a writer, you fall in love with a big structural gamble, certain scenes, or a particular turn of phrase in your dialogue.
A simple well-told story, however, is the fundamental building block of making a film. Until you have that, it’s a fool’s errand to start working on getting the rest of it. In fact, as you race towards finishing your movie, you’ll actually be fighting back against all these flourishes that will end up getting in the way of your simple story being told as effectively as possible.
Choosing the story you want to tell is the most important step in the entire process. It should be something that you will remain endlessly fascinated with for many years. That’s how long we’ve been working on Chappaquiddick, which, relatively speaking, is lightning fast. But it’s not just due to a matter of endurance that you should be able to love your story for that long. If you’re able to stay fascinated with a story for years, it’s also a great sign that many others out there could probably be fascinated for at least a few hours. There’s your movie’s audience.
But what captivated Andrew and me about the story of Chappaquiddick in the first place? We both grew up in Dallas, where the Kennedy legacy continues to looms large. And yet, despite all the class field trips to the Sixth Floor Museum, neither of us had ever even heard of the Chappaquiddick Incident until Ted Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008. That night, we were watching Real Time with Bill Maher when Maher described this endorsement as a game-changing moment, proclaiming that Ted Kennedy was “altering presidential history yet again.” “He probably would have been president in 1972 had it not been for Chappaquiddick,” Maher said. And then he just moved right along to the next segment.
Andrew and I stared at the TV stunned. After seeing so many films about the other Kennedy siblings, we’d already been asking ourselves why we’d never seen a Ted Kennedy biopic. And here by complete chance, we were presented with what might have been the perfect central question for a film about a senator we’d long admired but never fully understood: Why had Ted Kennedy never become president?
Familiar But Full of Surprises
Sitting there in our apartment, Andrew and I began what would eventually become our journey to writing Chappaquiddick. The first phase was dominated by online research. Once the mysteries had begun to reveal themselves, we took the logical next step: calling our parents.
“How could you have never told me about this?!” I shouted at my poor mother who is way too gracious in these situations. “I just assumed you knew,” she probably said. I blame the public school system. The truly fascinating thing about this conversation was that as I relayed facts that I had just learned minutes ago from the Wikipedia, I found that my mom who lived through the incident was equally surprised by some of what we had been learning.
Facts like: From the moment of the accident sometime after 11 PM, it took Kennedy over ten hours to report what had happened to the police. Before that, at 2 AM, Kennedy had complained to the owner of the hotel that he was having trouble sleeping. Meanwhile, the only person to actually see Mary Jo’s body inside the sunken vehicle described her holding herself up with her face turned upward, as if “to get a last breath of air.”
That’s when I knew that we were on to something.
For as long as there have been movies, true stories have always been a popular sub-genre. If you’re an unproduced writer wanting people to read your screenplay, it really helps break through the clutter if your script is based on a famous (public domain) true story. It’s even more important that, while the story is famous, people simply think they know what happened. In reality, your script still has a lot of surprises.
And it’s for this reason that a movie is coming out with a title as difficult to spell and pronounce as Chappaquiddick. It’s also for this reason that (somewhat controversially) the film is being marketed as “The Untold True Story.” As someone who had no idea these events happened until as recently as ten years ago, I feel that it’s certainly an undertold story. And it’s that “basic familiarity with major gaps in popular knowledge” that made the Chappaquiddick incident the perfect sort of true story to adapt.
Follow Your True Compass
With true stories, you have the added responsibility of writing about real people with real lives and real families. It’s always important to be very respectful and mindful of that from the start. For that reason, when Andrew and I began the project, we asked a somewhat philosophical question: Who owns this story?
A) The Subject—When approaching a film like Hidden Figures or Stronger, your script should honor your subject. They own their story. It’s what they experienced that matters most. We’re currently developing a script about a pioneer in a specific civil rights movement and it’s crucial that her point of view and her experience should guide the film. Stray too far and you might find yourself in a Million Little Pieces situation. No one wants Oprah upset with them.
B) The Audience—Unlike Chappaquiddick, some stories are so famous that the questions being asked are more about perception than reality. Oftentimes, it’s about looking behind the curtain or offering a more visceral or experiential look at a subject rather than tracking down an objective set of truths. With Chappaquiddick, it is the audience that owns the story. They’re as much a part of the conversation the film is trying to have as the subjects.
C) The Truth—Some stories aren’t guided by the subject or the audience, they’re guided by the objective truth itself. From day one writing Chappaquiddick, that search for objective truth, free of scurrilous rumor, was our North Star. The coverage of the incident (as seen even today on the Wikipedia) was marred with conspiracy theory and conjecture. We knew for this story to be one that people would be excited to read, it couldn’t be our dramatic invention of what may have happened, it needed to be our dramatic interpretation of the best research of our lives (web browsers officially closed).
Visiting Martha’s Vineyard, where the Chappaquiddick incident is often referred to as “the most well documented car accident of all time,” we found the best resource imaginable for writers wanting reliable information: A court transcript.
Six months after the accident, an inquest was held to determine if a crime had been committed. The local DA gathered back and put on the stand all the key players: Ted’s cousin Joe Gargan (in the movie played by Ed Helms), US Attorney Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and even Ted Kennedy himself all went under oath and recounted in detail their perspective of that night.
Totaling over one thousand pages, Andrew and I read and re-read those transcripts until we understood every nuance. Using that as a primary source, we were able to do our best to let the truth own this story.
But a true story unartfully distilled, no matter how interesting, has no lasting value in Hollywood. For this reason, Andrew and I made one of our chief focuses in the writing of this script the pure craftsmanship of it. After all, we wrote it to be read. Thankfully, a paying audience can now simply enjoy that hard work we left on the page via the sharp visuals on screen.
At the recommendation of the podcast Scriptnotes, we downloaded a cheatsheet with synonyms for the word “walks.” There was bound to be a lot of walking in our screenplay and we didn’t want to rely on a word as bland and unmotivated as “walks.” These are the sort of things that can really drive you crazy when you’re just getting started with screenwriting. By setting the bar high or even beyond your reach as a writer, the product turns out vastly better.
This dedication continued beyond even the words on the page. When we sent it out to one of the few development executives we knew, the feedback we got was loud and clear: “How much of this could possibly be true?!” One long phone call later, the answer was obvious to him. We’d done our research and stuck to the facts. His only advice, however, was to attach a bibliography or works cited. This suggestion felt completely unartful to us. Where’s the craftsmanship in that?
Knowing that film is a visual medium, we decided to create some visual flourishes that would feel completely of a piece with the reading experience. These flourishes would also serve the dual purpose of communicating that this script was based on well-documented facts. We commissioned artist and filmmaker Yen Tan to create six chapter pages for our script. With an eye for graphic design, Yen made a beautiful collage of the court exhibits, photos, and headlines we had come across through our research.
I truly think these pages tipped the scales for us in the minds of many readers. I doubt I’d be writing this article if our eventual producers didn’t see the craftsmanship we tried to present at every stage of our writing process.
Don’t Be Afraid
I doubt that any of this would have ever happened if I hadn’t overcome my fear in writing a feature. For me, I knew from the beginning that I would need a great friend typing alongside me and a mutual understanding that what we were writing was for the page and not the screen. Our greatest asset, however, was just how naive we were. We didn’t know this story existed until we started. If we had known more, the fear might have crept back in. Sometimes what you don’t know can be as helpful as what you do know.
Now that we’ve been through the process of making Chappaquiddick—rewriting for a lost location, adding new dialogue on set, or restructuring the film in the edit—it’s hard to be completely naive about any of it. But now that the process has been demystified, it will be a lot less scary to write the next movie I make, on purpose. MM
Chappaquiddick opened in theaters April 6, 2018, courtesy of Entertainment Studios.