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Kelly Masterson on Writing 'Killing Kennedy' and 'Snowpiercer' and Why We Revisit History's Most Painful Moments

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire November 1, 2013 at 5:4PM

Playwright turned screenwriter Kelly Masterson has had three of his works make it to screen so far, and they're an eclectic, impressive bunch.
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National Geographic Channel Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin in 'Killing Kennedy'

Playwright turned screenwriter Kelly Masterson has had three of his works make it to screen so far, and they're an eclectic, impressive bunch. The first, 2007's crime drama "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," became the acclaimed final film for Sidney Lumet, featuring some very fine performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei. The second, "Snowpiercer," is an adaptation of a French graphic novel that's serving as "The Host" director Bong Joon-ho's English-language debut, and has become the center of an ongoing controversy as U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company has announced plans to snip 20 minutes for the film's release here.

The third is headed not for the big screen but the small -- "Killing Kennedy," National Geographic Channel's second foray into the assassination of a president following "Killing Lincoln" earlier this year (both films are produced by Ridley Scott and based on nonfiction books of the same name by Bill O'Reilly). Directed by Nelson McCormick, "Killing Kennedy" is anchored by Rob Lowe as John F. Kennedy, though it's relative unknown Will Rothhaar who steals the show as Lee Harvey Oswald. The film, which premieres Sunday, November 10 at 8pm, follows the final years in the lives of both the President and his killer as they converge at Dealey Plaza, and is the highest profile of a slew of movies and specials set to air as we approach the 50th anniversary of JFK's death. After spending some time visiting the sites of Kennedy's last day in Dallas and Fort Worth with Masterson on NatGeo's press day, Indiewire caught up with the writer by phone to talk about picking the right moments from history to highlight, Oswald's psychology and the amount of collaboration allowed to a screenwriter.

Kelly Masterson in the 'Killing Kennedy' Dallas premiere

You've mentioned having always been a Kennedy buff, but the amount of historical material that’s out there about someone like JFK, whose life has been so intensely documented, has to provide a challenge for you as a screenwriter in terms of deciding which moments to take.

Yeah, a big challenge, and I will tell you the truth -- I was so confident, I was so cocky when I got the job. I though "ah, this is my dream job." I thought I knew the material backwards and forwards, I could just knock this out of the park. I sat down and started writing, started working on the outline to figure out what to include and what not to include, and I got frightened with the process because it's really overwhelming -- the amount of material that's out there and the sheer breadth of what his presidency was.

Even the Bill O'Reilly book is pretty big in scope in terms of what it wants to achieve. I found that what was important to me was to move beyond just O'Reilly’s choices, because I wanted more personal choices. You might recall in the movie, there are several intimate moments in each of their lives, and those weren’t necessarily in the book, and that required a lot of research. So it was very challenging, but also very rewarding once I had turned in that script and they gave a green light to it, to face that challenge and get close to getting it right.

And on a platform like National Geographic, there's a certain amount of expectation that you're going to include those big, historical, moments. Was that something you sought to balance out with these personal moments?

We wanted to hit all of the important signposts along the way. There were some iconic things that we absolutely wanted to include, like John-John saluting -- moments like that are really touchstones for memories of people. But at the same time there were things that I didn't want to include over and over, like the Zapruder film. I certainly didn’t want to recreate the assassination because I knew we couldn't do a good job of it, and I didn't want to recreate JFK's campaign cause I knew I couldn't do a good job of that. It was a matter of finding some archival footage that would help us touch the stones but also go behind all of that and find something about JFK we didn’t know, and Lee, who is not as well known to American public.

Watching "Killing Kennedy," I felt like the story belonged to Lee Harvey Oswald. There are many ways in which you can frame Kennedy's life, but these definitely feel like the big moments in Oswald's life, and as you said, he's the unknown quality. Do you see him as a driver in the film?

Will Rothhaar in 'Killing Kennedy'

Yes, absolutely, and I don’t think it started out that way. In O'Reilly’s book I think it's maybe 60/40 weighted towards Kennedy because he has a tremendous love and affinity for Kennedy. It just jumps off the page -- the thing that drew me to this project was just the enthusiasm for Kennedy but, as we started working on it and I thought to find things that are going to be surprising to bring to the American public -- that was Lee Harvey Oswald’s story.

But there are two really important things for me that took it to that. The first was that I found that Lee was such a fascinating character in motivation, in ways that Kennedy was not, necessarily. JFK, we know his story, we know his character arc. It's of a significant man who does great things -- which is a wonderful story, but not as interesting as an insignificant man who travels down the road that Lee travels on and becomes one of the greatest villains of all time. Psychologically, I just found that story more interesting.

The other driver for me was that there's a thriller aspect to this story. Heart-pounding, trying to get away, making plans, working in the shadows, hiding behind Edwin Walker's house -- the kind of things that give tension and suspense to a story. All of that is in the Lee Harvey Oswald story, more so than the JFK story. So I think at the end of the day, we came up with a parallel story -- maybe it's 70% a Lee Harvey Oswald story, which is a good thing to hear you say because I think that's ultimately what we decided we wanted to do.

The film includes scenes of Oswald talking to himself in these imaginary press conference -- where did they come from?

He wrote an imaginary press conference, which gave us the inspiration to write those scenes. When he left Russia, he was on a ship with Marina [his wife, played in the film by Michelle Trachtenberg] and his daughter, and he wrote out questions for himself and his answers. He would ask himself questions like "Are you a communist?" And then he would write down answers for himself like "Yes, I am a communist, I believe in Marxism." Then he’d write another answer, such as "No, of course not." He wrote both sides to those answers, which is fascinating. Those exist to this day, so I used them to illustrate these illusions of grandeur.

He thought he was going to get questions from these reporters, so he practiced answering them. That confidence he had inside his head was just delusion. The other [scene] we made up, about Edwin Walker -- in the movie it's just a voice-over as he's stalking Edward Walker. We wrote potential answers and questions to what he’d respond if he ever got caught. And of course the final one, you just imagine it, it's him in that final scene when he's being let out and he's got that interior dialogue where he answers the reporter's question in his head -- but the amazing thing is that grew out of the writings of his.

Michelle Trachtenberg in 'Killing Kennedy'

We spent time going around Dallas, visiting these historical sites, ones the city at first wasn't sure what to do with, though clearly there's a deep interest for people in revisiting them and having contact with this dramatic moment in U.S. history. What are your thoughts on retracing these sites and these moments, considering how painful they are?

I'm so conflicted over it, because it brought over such emotions in me. I think of events like the Challenger and 9/11 -- events that move us so much that we never quite get over them. So it's important to go back and relive those feelings in order to remember how important those events were to us.

Certainly for me, having been around for the JFK assassination, it's different going back to Dallas. It was moving to me, especially Oswald's grave, The Sixth Floor Museum [in the former Texas School Book Depository], were very moving. At the same time, I was horrified by others who treat it like it's tourism. At Dealey Plaza, I was surprised to see people grinning, taking pictures and having their thumbs up. Being a historian, I think it's important to know and remember these things and being a dramatist, I know it's important to tell human stories -- all of that's important to me. But as a tourist, watching as a bystander, I've got to tell you that made me feel uncomfortable.

This is your third screenplay to be produced.

Yaaaay!

Do you still work as a playwright? What has the transition to working for the screen has been like?

Yes, I still do. It's been a pretty good transition. I had written for the theater and didn't know that I knew how to write for film. Ultimately, I think it's just trusting your voice, trusting your characters and then telling them in a different medium. I wrote a few unsuccessful screenplays before I wrote "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." I wrote them as television plays that never got made. I'm glad I wrote them -- I think it was a good experience. Now I think it's more difficult to write for the theater. My vocabulary has become more cinematic.

I find it easier to move from Dallas to Washington D.C. in a matter of three pages, which is obviously something you can't do on stage. And I love what I'm able to do in a film that's difficult to do on stage. The three [films] that have been produced are all interesting, structurally, in ways that I could never do on stage. Stage is so important because it teaches me how to convey character with words -- how to convey how a character reacts by the way they appear on stage. I can usually tell a playwright from someone who has never written for the stage. Did the character work, did the dialogue reveal who the character is? I try and write a play every year to just keep at it.

Weinstein Company 'Snowpiercer'

You and Bong Joon-ho are both listed as screenwriters for "Snowpiercer" -- was that process collaborative?

Yes, very collaborative. He is such a gifted director. He plucked me right out of the atmosphere. He had seen "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," called me and wanted to work with me.

Had you seen his work?

I had not, and so he sent me "Mother" and "The Host." I watched "Mother" and called him up and told him that I would work with him on anything.

It's an amazing film.

It's such an amazing film, and he's such a great guy. We had met once -- he was a judge on the jury at Sundance a few years ago, so we met when he was on his way to L.A. Then we would Skype every Monday morning. He’d be in Seoul, where it's seven o'clock at night, and I'd be in New Jersey where it's seven o'clock in the morning. We talked every Monday morning and worked on it for about six months -- a very collaborative, wonderful experience. I'm very proud of the film -- and horrified that Harvey Weinstein doesn't want the English-speaking world to see Bong's beautiful movie. I just have my fingers crossed that they will solve their problem and that some way we will get to see Bong's cut of it.

THINKFilm 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'

Being a screenwriter involves a certain surrender of control, because ultimately the director determines what ends up on screen. What's that been like for you so far, and do you have any interest in directing?

No interest in directing, necessarily, I think what would interest me about directing is just holding on to that control. Luckily, my involvement in all of the films has been really great. The great Sidney Lumet -- what a wonderful director -- he didn't want to collaborate too much with me, I'll be honest, but you've got to love him, he did such an amazing job. He didn't really want me around the set -- he made a few changes and shot it and did a terrific job.

Bong -- as I've said, it was very collaborative and we worked closely together. I'm very glad how that turned out. Nelson McCormack on "Killing Kennedy" was really terrific because I wrote the script and he had some terrific ideas. We went over the script together and I was with him on set. So it was a collaborative effort. I've been fortunate in all of those, and I know that that's a very rare occurrence for screenwriters -- so far, so good for me.

And you have a TV show in development. Can you reveal anything about it?

It's an hour-long drama on ABC called "Limelight." It tells the story of people that are involved in a major murder case. One year ago we had Hurricane Sandy. I've set a murderer into that hurricane to kill her husband -- or so she is accused, anyway. And a young lawyer and a young journalist are changed by touching the case. I pitched it as Casey Anthony as a show, and it's exploring what happens to people when they’re inside the hurricane of those murder cases.

You're writing that right now?

Yeah, I'm writing the pilot for it -- knock on wood, it will be on ABC next year.

Have you done pilots before?

I have. I did a pilot a few years back for AMC, which was the genesis of my relationship with Ridley Scott. He produced a show I wrote for AMC, which didn't get on the air, but I began a relationship with [Scott Free Productions] and they put me onto "Killing Kennedy."

"I'm not always interested in Hollywood norms and boy-next-door kind of characters."

We keeping hearing about TV getting more cinematic, with projects like "Killing Kennedy" and these very ambitious dramas that some see as pulling attention away from film. Having worked in both, do you think that's the case?

Yes, I would agree it’s the golden age of television. "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Rectify" -- just great and wonderful, innovative stuff being done on TV. I will tell you that I'm a bit of a snob. I love film and I would like to work in film, and I'm disappointed that indie film is as hard as it is to work in now. It's hard to get things done, but that sort of work is being done on TV. That's what I do, that's what I write, it's what I love, and hopefully that's what my future's going to be.

And are people more receptive? It seems like there's a hunger for smarter dramas now.

Oh yeah, there are so many things -- cable TV understands innovative structures and storytelling, flashbacks. It's changed so much. If you look back, before "Breaking Bad" or "House," you would not have had anti-heroes in series. Those are the kinds of characters I'm interested in. You heard how passionate I was talking about Lee Harvey Oswald. I'm not always interested in Hollywood norms and boy-next-door kind of characters. So TV is more interesting now.

And in terms of receptiveness to more interesting structures -- it sounds like this is going to be the case for your new project?

Very much so. It’s told sort of "Rashomon" style -- we have in the pilot a point of view of the prosecution and a point of view from the defense and they're two completely different stories. So it's exactly what I like to do because then you don't know what the truth is in telling it in two different ways. I think it will be great fun and something very different and unusual for TV.

This article is related to: Television, Interviews, TV Interviews, National Geographic Channel, Killing Kennedy, Kelly Masterson, Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Sidney Lumet, ABC, Limelight