Director Aaron Sorkin admits he didn’t know much about the “Chicago 7” when Steven Spielberg first asked him to write a film about the infamous anti-war protesters charged with starting riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention.
The project, Sorkin said, was delayed for “all kinds of Hollywood reasons. But last month — 14 years after the initial meeting with Speilberg — Netflix released The Trial Of The Chicago 7.
While it took more than a decade to finally be distributed — and the film was ultimately directed by Sorkin rather than Spielberg — the story has many parallels to social unrest of today.
“Suddenly, the movie started feeling relevant,” said Sorkin, whose work includes creating The West Wing and writing the screenplay for A Few Good Men. “The demonization of protest, whether it was athletes kneeling during the national anthem or the women’s march, the Black Lives Matter movement, all of that was happening.”
Since the crew began filming the movie last winter, Sorkin said the subject matter only became more relevant as protests unfolded across the country this summer in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
Reset talked with Sorkin as well as Lee Weiner, one of the “Chicago 7” about the making of the movie and why it is relevant today. Here are a few highlights from the conversation.
On the film’s parallels to today
Aaron Sorkin: With protesters in the streets of Chicago again and Seattle and Minneapolis and Kenosha and Lexington, Kentucky; and Washington, D.C., with protesters again being met by police with tear gas and nightsticks, it began to become chilling. You’d watch the news at night, CNN’s coverage of any of the clashes between protesters and police, and you’d think, if you just degraded the color on that a little bit, it looked exactly like footage from 1968.
On filming in Chicago
Sorkin: We started in Chicago, we were there for four weeks before we moved … we had built a courtroom in Paterson, New Jersey. We were four weeks in Chicago shooting the riot scenes and a couple of other scenes. But I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we’d get in Chicago. This was a very painful moment in the city’s history. And I wasn’t sure how much people would appreciate reliving it. The answer is we got an incredibly warm and enthusiastic reception, particularly from the off-duty Chicago police officers who were playing Chicago police officers in 1968. Some of whom were the sons of Chicago police officers in 1968.
On the story the movie is telling
Sorkin: I made it clear to everyone, we’re not making a movie about the ‘60s; that’s just too big of a subject to make a movie about. And the movie is supposed to be about today, not about 1968. This movie isn’t about Abbie Hoffman. He’s obviously a central character in it. But my point is, you shouldn’t try to get as much of Abbie Hoffman in there as you can … You just, you’re telling the story. There’s an intention and an obstacle. And in this story, what I got I mean, I mentioned that I got to spend time with (Tom) Hayden and what I got from Hayden was that personal story between Tom and Abbie, two guys on the same side, they want the same thing, they clearly can’t stand each other and they each thinks the other one is doing harm to the cause. And that was a critical part of the story.
On what lessons 1968 can provide
Sorkin: I learned a couple of things. One of them is I have a great deal of respect for protesters, for people who walk the walk. … Whether you’re kneeling during the national anthem or marching in the streets, it’s not anti-American. It’s the opposite. It’s patriotic. But the other thing, and someone much smarter than I am will have to answer this question, is: did we boomerang back to 1968 or did we never move forward?
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Press the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.