Jon Cassar Sets the Record Straight About 'The Kennedys'
by Chris Jancelewicz, posted Apr 12th 2011 1:00PM
Jon Cassar, director and producer of seasons 1–7 of '24,' took on a new beast when he wrangled the miniseries 'The Kennedys' onto prime time as director. Inherently contentious and polarizing, documenting the Kennedy family for TV was bound to be a button-pusher and divider of critics. 'The Kennedys' did just that; TV pundits fall on one side of the fence or the other, and viewers either love it or hate it.
AOL Television caught up with Cassar to set the record straight about numerous rumors dogging the production and presentation of 'The Kennedys,' from the allegedly doctored viewer numbers to why the History Channel pulled out at the last minute.
TV Squad: Why 'The Kennedys'? What drove you to this project?
Jon Cassar: My fascination with the Kennedys was part of the reason for my involvement. My father was very into the Kennedys -- so much so that, for a family vacation, we went to Virginia to visit JFK's grave.
There have been many rumors about why the History Channel didn't pick up this series. What's the real story behind that?
We don't really know what the real story is. We know just about as much as everybody else knows. We have one press release, and no other insider information besides that. People have rumored that it's gone up the ladder a bit, into the corporate world, right up to Disney -- again, these are all rumors. No one has proven anything yet. Me, the executive producers ... no one has any idea.
Some people have even gone so far as to say the Kennedys themselves got involved.
They're truly just rumors. I haven't read anything that's proven it, so it's just conjecture.
You can understand how people would naturally go there, though – assume that the Kennedys had a say in this ...
Oh, sure. And the timing was really strange, because we were finished four of the episodes. Not only were they shot, the editing, music, sound effects were all done. It was ready to go. We were halfway through it when they shelved us ... OK, they didn't shelve us, let's get that clear. They didn't say, 'No one's ever going to see this show!' They said, 'It doesn't fit us, we're ready to sell it.' We knew somebody out there would be very attracted to this and buy it, and Reelz [in the U.S.] and History TV [in Canada] did just that.
Is there any sort of message or anything you're trying to convey with this series?
Politically, no. What attracted me to the story was because there was a human side I'd never seen before. You've seen all the TV movies, you've seen all the feature films -- no one ever humanizes these people. Reading this script, right from the beginning, realizing that Jack [Kennedy] was going through the chronic pain that he was going through, and he was still this amazing president -- that was amazing to me. I thought, What a story! You look for this kind of stuff when you're writing a fictional story; in this, you don't have to look for it. It's real, it's there, it's already built in! The Kennedys were unbelievable.
The sternness of Joe Sr., the rivalry between the brothers -- where did you find that stuff out?
It's all documented. Look, two conversations between guys in an office, that's not in a book, but the books can tell you what the people around them at that time were saying. We can base those scenes on that kind of information. If you were a Kennedy, and you came in second, you were punished. It goes to show you the competitive environment these kids were brought up in. At those infamous Kennedy football games? People would get hurt all the time! They played at 100 all the time.
What sort of research process did you and your writers go through?
The main writer, Stephen Kronish, was fascinated with the Kennedys from when he was very young, and supposedly has an unbelievable collection of books on the family. He was our expert right away. From the History Channel point-of-view, they wanted everything double-sourced and triple-sourced. If we found something in one book, they wanted us to find it in one or more other books.
The Kennedys are very polarizing, even at the best of times. Were you anticipating any backlash?
No doubt, it was controversial right from the beginning. The producer, Joel Surnow, is a renowned conservative, so everyone thought it was a slam job. Then Robert Greenwald started his Stop the Kennedys Smears campaign because he thought that exact thing. I really didn't think 'The Kennedys' was going to be as polarizing as it's turned out to be. I think we're already victims of what's happening in America today anyway; nothing happens in America nowadays where one side doesn't go all the way to the left, and one side goes all the way to the right. No one meets in the middle anymore.
We're an exact representation of that -- reviews for 'The Kennedys' are either one side or the other. People say we're the best or the worst. I know we fall somewhere in between.
Did any cast member go above and beyond the call of duty for their role?
They all did, but Barry Pepper did an amazing job. He had an iPod, and everyone thought he was just listening to music, but it was actually full of wall-to-wall Robert Kennedy speeches. He listened to them right up to the point when I said 'Action!' and then he'd just throw it in his pocket and shoot the scene. He did a crazy amount of research and study.
There has allegedly been some discrepancy with the viewer numbers from the premiere (Sunday, April 3 on Reelz). Do you know anything about that?
I saw that. I'm not sure what that is. I don't know anything about that, quite honestly. People estimate what they think they're going to get based on some early projections, and sometimes it's really off, sometimes it isn't. It happens all the time. That's all it was. I don't think anyone was trying to cheat. In fact, we got over 2 million with all the repeats.
What are you up to next?
I'm doing the Spielberg/Fox show 'Terra Nova,' shooting in Australia. It's with all the people I worked with on '24.' Sci-fi, dinosaurs, time travel -- just like 'The Kennedys'!
'The Kennedys' airs on Sunday night at 9PM on History Television in Canada and aired on Reelz in the U.S.
Follow me on Twitter at ChrisJ_AOL.