I was initially drawn to this subject matter for both political and cinematic reasons. I wanted to make a film that would remind people about the importance of exercising one’s constitutional rights. I found my source of inspiration in the story of the Chicago conspiracy trial and the 1968 Democratic Convention. I have long admired the courage and resilience of both the protestors and the defendants and I wanted to make a film that celebrated their actions and allowed a new generation to witness a story about how far people will go to have their voices heard. The events in Chicago happened nearly 40 years ago, which basically suggests that most Americans under the age of 50 have never seen these images. My goal from the beginning has been to reintroduce this chapter of recent history to a new generation, for they are the ones who will hopefully benefit the most from this story.
The challenge was to make a film about the ’60s that would appeal to a contemporary audience. Most historical non-fiction is presented as memoir or as a recollection. I like the idea of allowing the audience to experience events as they unfold. This means eschewing talking head interviews and omniscient narration. I think it is important too, when dealing with subjects like Abbie Hoffman, to reveal them as they were seen at the heights of their fame, to preserve the integrity of their youth.
I also didn’t want to make a film that read like CliffsNotes to an era. With eight defendants representing three political organizations and a political convention with three candidates, all set against one of the most complicated political landscapes in recent history, my biggest fear was overwhelming young audiences with a bunch of names and faces that they had never heard of. At the same time, I didn’t want to trivialize the era by giving passing mention to some weighty issues. I knew that this would be somewhat controversial, but once I decided to free myself from the chains of history, I felt that I could make the movie I wanted to make.
As I did my research for the film, I became increasingly inspired by the work of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. What I most admired was their sense of theatrics and their ability to expose injustice through humor and charm. I felt that their approach to politics and sense of imagery would resonate with people today. Although the issues that my film deals with are quite serious, I never wanted the film to become too earnest. I wanted the film to have a sense of humor and playfulness while at the same time expose the brutality and violence of the courtroom and Convention week.
When I started this project I knew that I wanted to interweave the events in the courtroom with the events a year earlier. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to deal with the trial as there was no footage of the proceedings. I knew that I wanted the audience to “experience” the courtroom rather than hear about it, so that ruled out talking head “eyewitness” interviews. Since I was going to be intercutting between archival material and the courtroom material I knew that the characters needed to look nearly identical, which in essence ruled out dramatic re-enactments with actors in costume. Then one day I read a quote from Jerry Rubin where he described the trial as “a cartoon show.” It was so obvious. By animating the trial I would not only avoid all of the clichés of historical non-fiction, but I would also be able to make a statement about the circus-like nature of that courtroom.
Ultimately I tried to make this story universally appealing. By shedding the layers of historical context and focusing the narrative on the characters’ battles with authority, I feel I was able to craft a story about courage and honor and the refusal to be silenced, themes that I hope will resonate with a broad audience.
Brett Morgen, Director
Brett Morgen is an award-winning filmmaker whose documentary about boxing, On the Ropes (1999), won the Directors Guild Award and was nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Academy Award. Morgen also wrote and directed a biopic about legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, in 2002. The film was cited as "one of the best films of the year" by more than 50 film critics.
Morgen executive produced and created the Peabody award-winning series Nimrod Nation for the Sundance Channel. He also directs commercials for Anonymous Content. He has directed dozens of campaigns including spots for ESPN, Budweiser, Southwest Airlines, Kellogg’s, and Nike.