In 1968, the Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago at a time of deep political unrest following the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Thousands of activists filled the streets, resulting in scenes of chaos that led to eight individuals (Black Panther Bobby Seale was later disentangled from the case) being charged by the FBI with inciting a riot. The case was tried in 1969, as depicted in Netflix’s six-time Oscar nominee The Trial of the Chicago 7.
Parallels with today’s world seem obvious now, but as writer-director Aaron Sorkin said during the film’s virtual panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film: The Nominees awards-season event, it was Steven Spielberg’s prescience that saw the film go into a production a year before unrest returned to America’s streets in 2020.
“I always wanted the film to be about today and not 1968—it was just that none of us had any idea how much about today it would end up being,” said Sorkin, joined on the panel by Oscar-nominated co-star Sacha Baron Cohen, editor Alan Baumgarten and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.
“It was 14 years in the making, and what finally got the film made? It wasn’t that my 32nd draft was so much more brilliant than my 31st draft, it was that Donald Trump got elected president. He’d have rallies, and at his rallies there’d be a protester, and Trump would start getting nostalgic about the good old days, when [security] used to carry that guy out of here on a stretcher.”
Aside from Trump’s rallies, there were the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the U.S., plus the seemingly never-ending pitched battles between police and protesters in cities like Portland.
“We thought that the movie was plenty relevant when we were making it [in the winter of 2019],” said Sorkin. “We didn’t need it to get more relevant, but obviously it did last May, with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. [At] the protests that followed in cities across the country, those protesters were met again by riot clubs and tear gas. And as if that weren’t enough, on January 6 [this year], Donald Trump stood at a microphone—and so did Rudy Giuliani and a number of other people—and did exactly what the Chicago Seven were on trial for doing. I’m sure we all would have preferred that the film not be as relevant as it was. In those 32 drafts, I never made any changes to reflect what was going on in the world. I was just rewriting the script the way a screenwriter would—to keep making it better in the hope that we’d make it someday. What happened was that the world started changing to reflect the script.”
For Baron Cohen, nominated for his performance as co-defendant Abbie Hoffmann, the film was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play one of his heroes. In fact, speaking of changing worlds, his passion for the project almost scuppered the making of his other Oscar contender, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
“When I found out that Aaron was going to make it,” he said, “in the winter of 2019, I was shooting the [second] Borat movie, and I said, ‘I’ve got to shut down production to make this movie.’ My co-producers said, ‘You’re crazy. We’re making Borat so we can release it prior to the [U.S.] election. I said, ‘I have to play Abby. I’ve wanted to play him for 30 years. Just trust me. We’ll make it in time.’ The producers said, ‘No, we won’t.’ I said, ‘It will be fine. We’ll be just in time. What I didn’t realize was the pandemic was going to occur when I got back…”
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