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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 5:04PM

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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Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin in 'Killing Kennedy'
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
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'
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'
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.

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