For 14 years, Aaron Sorkin has labored to tell the story of a sensational slice of 20th-century history: the trial of seven famed antiwar activists charged with inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (an eighth was removed from the case). But like his subjects, the writer-director wasn’t going to let anything — not even a global pandemic — stop him from getting his message out ahead of a pivotal presidential election.
“We would have hung a sheet in the parking lot and projected it against that,” Sorkin says with a laugh of his all-too-timely film.
Ahead of Chicago 7’s Friday debut on the streaming platform, EW had a in-depth conversation with Sorkin about watching current events begin to mirror his 1968-set film, being determined to get out ahead of the election, and wishing he was currently making one of his beloved shows (it’s not what you’d expect).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Trial of Chicago 7 has been a long journey for you. So let's begin by going all the way back to the origins of this project.
AARON SORKIN: I was asked over to [producer] Steven Spielberg’s house on a Saturday morning, and he said that he really wanted to make a movie about the 1968 riots in Chicago and the crazy conspiracy trial that followed. And I said, “Sure, count me in.” As soon as I got in my car, I called my father and said, “Dad, do you know anything about these riots in 1968 or a crazy conspiracy trial that followed?” I had no idea what Steven was talking about, I just said yes to working with him. I remember Steven saying, “I really think it’s important that this film come out before the election.” The election he was talking about was 2008.
And here we are, 12 years late, but still arriving ahead of a pivotal election.
That’s right. I wrote two drafts and the day after I turned in the second draft, the WGA went on strike. So nobody could really meet for a couple of months and by the time we got back, we all had things on our schedule, so we had to keep pushing Chicago 7. There was a time when Paul Greengrass was directing it, there was a time when Ben Stiller was directing it. About two years ago, I had directed my first movie, Molly’s Game, and it sufficiently pleased Steven, so he thought I should direct and that the time to make Chicago 7 was now.
Other than working with Steven, what was it about this story that grabbed you and then made you want to stick with it for this long?
At the beginning, it was a courtroom drama, and I love courtroom dramas. And it was a piece of history that I thought should be told in a feature film format. But then as time went on, it’s funny, I've been asked, did the script change at all to mirror the times? And no, it didn’t; the times changed to mirror the script. When we started shooting, I thought it was relevant, and we didn’t need it to get more relevant, but it did. The president was nostalgically talking to crowds about the good ol’ days when we carry them out on a stretcher, punch them in the face, and cops wouldn’t be so polite. He was talking about 1968. Then, protests got demonized as being un-American, Marxist, communist — all things they called the Chicago 7. There’s a black-and-white photograph I have of protesters and counterprotesters in front of the courthouse and there’s three signs in the photograph: “America, love it or leave it,” “What about white civil rights,” and “Lock ’em up.” Watching recent coverage of protesters clashing with police, all you had to do was degrade the color a bit and it would look exactly like the footage from 1968.
What was the research part of this like? Did you get to meet any of these men? Unfortunately many of them had long since passed away.
Most of the research involved reading all of the books that have been written about the riots and about the trial, including the transcript of the trial. I did get to spend time with Tom Hayden, who died in 2016, and that’s how the story suddenly got organized in my head, that I would be telling three stories at once: the courtroom drama; the evolution of the riot, how does it go from being a peaceful protest to a violent, bloody clash with the police and National Guard; and the more personal and emotional story of Tom [played by Redmayne] and Abbie Hoffman [Cohen], which I never would have got from a book or trial transcript. It was two guys who rubbed each other the wrong way, to say the least, but who came to respect each other by the end of the trial.
Amid this really serious situation and case, there is a lot of comedy, especially with Abbie and Jerry Rubin [Jeremy Strong]. Was that all sitting there for you in the transcripts, or did you have to add some of that color?
The trial was outrageous, the defendants were colorful, and the judge [Frank Langella] was either a bad judge, in the pocket of the prosecution, or experiencing early senility — but he was making things much crazier. That said, actual trials aren’t quite like they are in movies or on television, so usually writers have to make them a little bit more entertaining than they are. But certainly the colorful characters were sitting there waiting. And it’s obviously a serious story, but I think if you can tell a serious story being funny, then you’re doing yourself a favor.
Most ensemble dramas are these sprawling films with the cast split up and telling different stories in different places. But a lot of your movie takes place in a courtroom with all your actors and hundreds of extras. What was it like experiencing that every day for an extended period of time?
I was especially nervous about that. Well, I was nervous about everything going into the movie; I had never done anything like staging the riot scenes. But I was also nervous about having four weeks in the courtroom of, as you said, the entire cast, plus a hundred extras, plus the crew. And most of these actors are used to starring in their own movies, they’re not used to “For the next three days, you don’t have any lines in these scenes. It’s coverage, and the coverage is important.” They couldn’t have been better — completely professional, completely devoted to the movie, absolutely there for the other actors if it was somebody else’s big day. It was just a great group of people to work with.
Speaking of the actors, how did you go about putting together this fascinating and unconventional group? I’ve read that at various stages it was going to be solely unknowns, or essentially all major movie stars. But you ended up with a nice mix here of A-listers, actors on the rise, character actors, and even some people I frankly hadn’t even seen before.
We put the best actor up for the role in the role. Yes, as it laid out, there are some Oscar winners who are household names, and there are some people like Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is about to be a household name, and Jeremy Strong is well on his way. But it was the best actor for the role, and once the cast was put together I felt like every morning I was getting thrown the keys to a Formula One race car.
You mentioned that filming the riot was unlike anything you’d done before, so can you take us through putting that brutal sequence together? You slow-played showing the actual protests that these men are on trial for, and it ended up making it that much more affecting when it came time.
That was three weeks of almost entirely night work in Chicago, right off Lake Michigan, so it was pretty cold, and the scenes we were shooting take place on the hottest night of the summer in 1968. So I had a lot of sympathy for the extras. One of our biggest problems was, I don’t know if you’ve heard but Chicago is windy, so laying down the smoke for the tear gas, it was constantly blowing away. But if those are the biggest problems you’re having, you’re doing well. Obviously we had planned out those riots down to the inch beforehand. And playing the Chicago police officers was mostly off-duty Chicago police. And many of those off-duty Chicago police officers were the children of Chicago police officers who were involved in the riots in 1968.
Why was it important for you to intercut real footage from 1968?
Listen, we had to be clever because this was not a big-budget film and we didn’t have the kind of budget where we could really stage the fullness of the riots ourselves. So we had to get creative with mixing stock footage in with original camera footage. There’s a lot of footage to choose from, that’s the good news, and we were able to shoot the scenes exactly where they took place and they look the same as they did 50 years ago. So we didn’t want to pretend that stock footage was our footage, we wanted it to be clear it was stock footage, so when it’s stock footage it’s black-and-white, and when it’s us it’s color. And the end result, which was something we did out of necessity because we just didn’t have the money, ended up working beautifully as kind of a bridge between 1968 and today.
And that’s the real point that I want to make with you, which is that the movie is not intended to be a history lesson, it’s not intended to be an exercise in nostalgia, and it’s not intended to be about 1968 — it’s about today. I don't know if you noticed, but I leaned away from ’60s iconography in the movie. Obviously the sets and costumes are period-correct, but I stayed away from kind of the hallucinogenic aesthetic, tie-dyed peace signs, that sort of thing. And the music is all original score, it’s all film score, it’s not that ’60s protest soundtrack that you’re kind of expecting in a movie like this, because I didn’t want there to be anything to come in between the story and a contemporary audience.
You say this movie is about today and not 1968, and sadly that has been on full display over the last few months. So what were you thinking after you finished shooting and then you’re sitting at home and watching as events begin to play out so similarly to what you’re showcasing from 50 years ago?
Well, I can tell you this, none of us were calling each other, saying, “Hey, isn’t this great for the movie?!” We were as horrified as everyone else, as chilled as everyone else. And, as a group of people who may be taking a slightly closer look at 1968 than the average person because we made this movie, we can’t believe how these events, which you’d think could never be repeated, are being repeated as if they’re in a script that’s being performed, with Donald Trump this time in the role of Mayor [Richard J.] Daley — including actually the crime that they were charged with. Conspiracy to cross state lines in order to incite a riot is a crime that no one has been charged with before and no one has been charged with since, and in a tweet a couple months ago, Trump threatened [protesters] with that.
These eight men on trial are tied together but are far from the same. How did you go about showcasing so many different sides of this story? Even at the defense table, it’s obvious that people like Tom and Abbie are being unfairly treated, and yet it pales in comparison to what is being done to Bobby Seale [Abdul-Mateen].
Right, and Bobby makes that point in his scene with Kuntsler [Mark Rylance] and Tom. And I thought that was a good point for Bobby to make. There are several sides to this story, actually, even within the defense, and I tried to show right away in the prologue when the characters are being introduced that they are not all of the same stripes. They may all want the same results, but they’re coming from very different places, and that kind of mirrors some of the intramural friction in the Democratic Party between the left and the further-left. And then there’s Bobby’s story, and Bobby and Fred [Hampton, played by Kevin Harrison Jr.] are in a very different position than these other defendants, even though right now they are all sharing the same boat. And then Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, Richard Schultz, the prosecutor, who is plainly ambivalent about this whole thing, he understands his job. As he says, he represents the people without passion or prejudice, but he knows that they’re making a mistake by doing this. He needs to win but he hates having to do it, and that’s why he gets his moment at the end.
As the film cuts to black, we hear protesters chanting, “The whole world is watching.” Why was that the message you wanted to leave the audience with?
Because I couldn’t have said it any better. The whole world is watching. This country is meant to be an example and leader in democracy and human rights, and when we’re not, when that light goes off, it’s a terrible thing — not just for us, but for the whole world.
You began this journey by wanting to have this movie out before the 2008 election, and circumstances almost stopped it from being released before this election. How determined were you to get this out before Nov. 3?
There was no chance [we wouldn’t]. Netflix or no Netflix, we would have hung a sheet in the parking lot and projected it against that. [Laughs] We are very lucky that Netflix came along; it’s sort of like being saved by a lifeboat that has VIP cabins on it. Netflix is a great studio that is doing a great job of rolling out the movie, and we’re very happy to be with them. We wanted to get it out before this election because right now I think is when we’re all talking about this, when we’re all thinking about this, when we’re seeing it every day on the news, and I’m not saying the film has a shelf life, but it should be out now… I think after Nov. 4, we're going to be too exhausted to want to see this. Listen, we’ll be okay on Dec. 4, but we are going to need a water break.
Ahead of this pivotal moment in our history, what do you hope possible voters take away from Chicago 7?
When I write anything, a movie, a play, an episode of television, I’m not looking for more than captivating you for however long I’ve asked for your attention. Beyond that, given the times that we’re in, it will be impossible for people to miss the parallels. People are going see that language and actions have been recycled, 50 years later. Generally we look at these moments in history and say, “Wow, thank God we got through that. We’re better now than we were then.” But we’re not.
On the flip side, after this decade-plus journey, what did you take away from this experience?
I’ll tell you, I have a great respect for protesters and protests. I don’t find it the least bit unpatriotic or anti-American — it’s the opposite. Whether it’s almost four years ago with the Women’s March to any of the protests that we’ve seen since George Floyd was killed, I have an enormous respect for people who take that responsibility on their shoulders and go into the street peacefully.
For a recent cover of EW, you reunited with the cast of The West Wing. During these tumultuous and depressing last few years, do you often find yourself wishing you were still writing The West Wing or The Newsroom? Or are you glad that you don’t have to try and make any sense out of all this nonsense?
No, there are times that I wish I still had The West Wing or The Newsroom. Not so I could grab headlines… and again, with Chicago 7, I know it seems like it was ripped from yesterday’s headlines, but, as you know, it started 14 years ago. Sure, I wish I had those shows, especially The West Wing, just the look and the sound and the confidence. The West Wing was about a group of public servants who saw public service as a calling, they weren’t part of the deep state. Whether you agreed with them ideologically or not, there was no doubting that they got up in the morning trying to do good. They reached high and they slipped on banana peels a lot, but they were the good guys.
To be honest, considering what’s happened recently in sports, notably the NBA players boycotting games in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting, I even couldn’t help but think about what Sports Night would look like in this moment.
That’s a great point. What’s happened with athletes in just the last few weeks has been astonishing and inspiring. And you’re right, if I could pick one of those three shows, I think I’d pick Sports Night right now.
—Additional reporting by Chancellor Agard.
A version of this story appears in the November 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on sale now and available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.