When History Channel greenlit the ambitious THE KENNEDYS mini-series, controversy was expected, but nothing like the kind that stirred up when that cable network decided to drop the project entirely earlier this year.
After being shopped to various networks, Reelz Channel ultimately acquired the eight-episode mini-series. Episode Three airs tonight on Reelz and the remaining episodes air nightly throughout the rest of the week.
Written by Stephen Kronish, executive produced by former 24 co-creator Joel Surnow and directed by longtime 24 director Jon Cassar, the project follows the life of the Kennedys throughout the 1960s and features Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jackie and Barry Pepper as Robert Kennedy.
ASSIGNMENT X spoke with Cassar on Friday in this exclusive two-part interview on the evolution of the mini-series, how certain material was chosen, why certain cable networks passed on it and getting a better understanding as to why this mini-series has become such a lightning rod of controversy. Cassar also shares with us exclusive, never before seen behind-the-scenes photos during the making of THE KENNEDYS.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you choose what to cover and not cover in the Kennedys life?
JON CASSAR: All the choices that were made and the historical elements that we did decide to cover and recreate are all really based on the growth of JFK as a President, that’s why we chose them. All the things we chose were to continue that story of this young man that became a President at a very young age.
AX: Did you sense there would be problems when it was done, or did you feel secure History Channel was going to run it?
CASSAR: We felt secure, but look, it was under scrutiny right from the beginning in every single stage of production. Even in the editing stage, [History Channel] were still making us take out lines. These were lines that they had approved in the script and they were still coming back saying, “we’ve changed our minds, we don’t want that line there and we want it cut out.”
So the scrutiny happened right to the very end. It was a surprise a little bit to us [that History Channel canceled it] because we did make all the changes they wanted. We triple sourced everything. The funny thing was, we were already half way through finishing all eight episodes, so four of those episodes were absolutely complete. There was a part of us that knew someone else would pick it up because we had seen it. We knew what we had. It’s not that History Channel said “look, we’re shelving it, no one would ever see this.” That would have been a different scenario altogether, except for the effect it has on the Canadian airdate and 20 other countries who were going to see it. From our point of view, we knew what we had, we had a big of confidence someone would pick it up.
AX: Honestly though, and I want to convey it to our readers who probably feel the same way I do, I still don’t why this is such a hot button thing – it’s history from 40 years ago. Why are people so afraid of it?
CASSAR: The biggest problem is you’re doing a true story. When you’re doing a true story, you have to dramatize some of the things, because you don’t know everything for a fact. And if you played everything out, the way it played out, it would be a documentary and it would be boring. It wouldn’t be drama. You have to find the drama in the true stories. If you look at three of the top contenders for Oscars this year – they’re all being scrutinized. THE SOCIAL NETWORK, THE KING’S SPEECH and THE FIGHTER all have a bunch of controversy around them. Filmmakers have to take a little big of license this way or that, so when it’s a true story, people are going to polarize one way or another.
Now, when you do a political true story, that’s even worse. When that political true story happens to be done by Joel Surnow, people just jumped on it in a way there is no reason it should have been jumped on like that quite honestly. So that’s what’s happening.
If you look at our reviews, it’s almost comical. People are either saying it’s the best thing that’s ever been done on television or it’s the worst thing that’s ever been done for television. I’ve never read such varying degrees of reviews, because they are reflecting what’s happening in America now and it couldn’t be so polar. We’re virtually just a victim of that I think more than anything else. More reviewers who are seeing it without any political agenda are all saying the same thing – “really, what is the fuss about this?” There is no political one way or another. It’s just an interesting story about this family. Just take it for what it is, but because of the politics of it, everyone made it more controversial than it needs to be quite honestly.
AX: The other thing I would like to clarify, the History Channel says, “we don’t want this,” and you start taking this to other places and you read stories that “eh, we’re kind of scared of it too” So why? What are other networks scared of it?
CASSAR: First of all, they’re scared of it for the same reason that History Channel is scared of it. Nobody in any of those places can make the decision that [Reelz CEO] Stan Hubbard made. Reelz is a family owned operation. He looks at it and says, “you know what, I’ll buy it.” Nobody else could do that at any of those networks. If you just look at the Histyory Channel chain alone, it’s unbelievable. It’s History Channel owned by A&E, owned by ABC, owned by Disney.
CASSAR: That’s the problem. If you do Showtime and HBO it’s the same thing. The higher you go up that corporate ladder, the more politics start to get involved and the more it takes a massive group of people to say “yes” and then advertisers drop out. No one wants to be associated with anything that doesn’t seem politically correct – not in today’s America.
AX: But there are also these stories out there that was political pressure from this person or that. What pressure?
CASSAR: It’s frustrating and it doesn’t sense. History Channel alone played a movie about the conspiracy led by LBJ to kill JFK. It was in the paper today. That was fiction obviously. The funny thing is, it’s such an old story in terms of today, it doesn’t make sense it should have this much hoopla around it.
The other thing too, people don’t realize, is everyone was saying “no” for different reasons. Everyone just guestimated they were saying “no” because the project wasn’t any good or politically hot. A lot of what our requirement was, because we had an international airdate, we had people who were interested in it that we couldn’t sell it to because they couldn’t air it before April 10. You don’t realize, some of these people have these schedules booked for a year. They would say, “maybe we could buy it, but we’ll air it a year from now.” The problem was, we didn’t want America to be second to airing in Canada and the rest of the world. What we needed when we went to sell it, “somehow you have to fit it into your schedule before April 10, before the Canadian premiere, otherwise you won’t have the exclusive premiere, you’ll be playing it as a second tier show.”
Reelz Channel had a flexible schedule. Showtime didn’t. Showtime loved it, but it also has to fit the channel. For Showtime, there wasn’t enough sex in it. They said it’s not what they do at Showtime. It’s pretty obvious what they do now and without that sexual quotient in it, they’re not interested in it. Break them all down. HBO, generates their own thing so not in a million years are they going to pick up someone else’s throwaway. It wouldn’t fit their profile. There’s no way the networks could do it, because they couldn’t get an airdate for it. They have bigger corporate structures than History Channel had, and way more politics than the cable stations. It eliminated them instantly. Basically it became these guys like Stan Hubbard who could make a decision without putting the flag up the corporate ladder.
AX: Once you got out of the woods with the History Channel, did you adjust or change the project or is it the same project?
CASSAR: It’s pretty much the same thing. Remember four of the episodes were absolutely complete. They were done.
AX: Is Reelz available everywhere?
CASSAR: It’s on DirectTV and Dish for sure, and a variety of big cable companies have it around America, but not all of them. There are sections of America that won’t be able to see it, which is unfortunate. If you go to Reelzchannel.com, you go in there put your postal code in, it will tell you what channel you can see it based on what part of the country you’re in. Most people get it free. You don’t have to pay for it.
AX: Your next project is TERRA NOVA?
CASSAR: Yes, and we’re putting the final touches on the first two episodes and as you can imagine there’s lots of CG – a record for TV show. Alex Graves directed those and did a wonderful job. We’re putting those together and pretty soon I’ll be on my way to Austrailia to start Episode 3 and 4.
AX: It sounds like the show be done like 24 where you’re doing two episodes at the same time?
CASSAR: We just decided that last week. It’s called cross-boarding. We’re going to do that. We did the same thing with THE KENNEDYS and it was on slightly harder scale because we did all eight episodes at once. We will be doing two at once on TERRA NOVA.
AX: Anything else you want to say about THE KENNEDYS?
CASSAR: It’s basically for everyone to make their own decision. The critics to say one thing this way and one thing that way. It’s up to the people. It’s very much like an election, if you want to compare it politics. Everyone can keep talking, but it’s the people who get to vote. I encourage everyone to see it with an open mind, as opposed to some of the reviews that are out there.
To find out more information on THE KENNEDYS on the Reelz Channel – CLICK HERE