In preparation for the world debut of The Kennedys on ReelzChannel April 3, EW talked exclusively to Joel Surnow (24), the executive producer of the miniseries that was dropped by The History Channel in January. Before production on the 8-parter even began, a movement spearheaded by a Hollywood documentarian began to stop the miniseries.
When you first began developing the miniseries, did you worry your political bent could affect the project? “I knew that the fact this was going to be about the Kennedys and that there was going to be a known conservative involved in it might be a problem down the line for someone. It didn’t escape me that could be an issue. But it was never a political show. This was never about anything other than telling a family story.”
Didn’t historians vet the miniseries? “History has in-house historian Steve Gillan, who was there from the beginning and he vetted the script at every step at the way. After he was done, they brought in another historian named Robert Dallek who was highly respected and who has written books on the Kennedys. Historical accuracy is not the issue here. It has nothing to do with why this miniseries got canceled. Every script was approved. Every cut was approved. There was never any conversation like `we have a problem with this or that, let’s change it.’ This simply had to do with things other than what was said in the press release. In terms of trying to follow the story of historical accuracy, that’s not where this story lives. This story is about why a miniseries got canceled because of the political bent of some of the people involved. Or in this case one person’s involvement.
“If anyone has known my work for the last 25, 30 years, I’m not agenda-ized, I’m not even a political writer. I’m an agnostic filmmaker, I’m an agnostic writer. I go where the story is. It really felt like discrimination to me at the end of the day. I have no problem with the Kennedys. The Kennedys are absolutely in their right to want to protect their family as they see fit. It’s when the people who are inside our business, the ones making decisions who bend to that and cave to that, even when there is nothing valid about the objections being leveled against us, you have to start thinking about discrimination and censorship.
“The people who canceled this had the opportunity to see all 8 episodes. This wasn’t about the [Kennedy family], these are the people on the corporate board above the History Channel. Again, don’t look at the Kennedys. The Kennedys have very little to do with this. They can’t cancel a miniseries. The only people who can cancel it are the people at the highest corporate levels.”
A spokesman for A&E TV Networks, which owns History, would not comment other than to refer to the company’s original position on the miniseries: “While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand. We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling and commend all the hard work and passion that has gone into the making of the series, but ultimately deem this as the right programming decision for our network.”
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