Andrew Piddington, The Killing Of John Lennon
After spending the majority of his career working in television, 54-year-old Brit Andrew Piddington has committed the rest of his career to being an independent film director. He began his career working with poetic filmmaker Brian Lewis in 1980, and directed his first solo project as a writer-director, D.H. Lawrence as Son and Lover, that same year. Over the course of the 80s, he distinguished himself with his television work, most notably more biographical dramas about significant cultural figures, such as Under the Volcano, the 1984 profile of Malcolm Lowry and John Huston’s adaptation of his greatest work; Enemy of the State (1987), a film about German artist Georg Grosz; and his television biopic of “fifth Beatle” Stuart Suttcliffe, Midnight Angel (1990), which inspired Iain Softley’s later movie Backbeat. In 1991, Piddington directed his first feature, Shuttlecock, an adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel which starred Alan Bates. He followed it up seven years later with The Fall, a Budapest-set thriller with Craig Sheffer and Jürgen Prochnow. At the same time, he worked prolifically on both prestige dramas like Poirot (1991) and Frontiers (1996), and real-life crime dramas such as Murder Trail (2000) and Supersleuth (2001).
Piddington’s preoccupation with the psychology of killers, his aptitude for biographical portraits, and his poetic and inventive approach to real-life storytelling all collide in The Killing of John Lennon a labor of love which he spent four years of his life (and the majority of his savings) making. It is the first film to tackle the story of Mark Chapman (here played by impressive newcomer Jonas Ball), the Catcher in the Rye-fixated loner who killed John Lennon because he was a “phoney.” Rather than showing just Chapman’s few days in New York before Lennon’s slaying, Piddington shows us the year leading up to the event from his perspective as he stagnates in his Hawaii home, his mental health ever deteriorating. The reasons for Lennon’s death will probably never be known, but Piddington’s claustrophobic and often unsettling film uses Chapman’s words from interviews and court transcripts to narrate the film, bringing us as close to understanding his motivations as we will get.
Filmmaker spoke to Piddington about his struggle to make the film, parallels with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the impact of seeing Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf.
Filmmaker: Do you remember where you were when you heard John Lennon had been shot?
Piddington: I was working in television in London, making an archival programme about post-war England. One of the things I had to do was cover the late 60s. I was in the cutting room, and at the very moment somebody came through the door and told me that Lennon had been shot, I was looking at him as a moptop Beatle on a Steenbeck. That was the only synchronicity I ever had, because I grew up with and liked the Beatles but I was never a huge, obsessed fan of John Lennon or the Beatles.
Filmmaker: When did you first become interested in Mark Chapman’s perspective on the events of Lennon’s death?
Piddington: I came across a book by Fenton Bresler called Who Killed John Lennon? It was a Manchurian Candidate[-style] conspiracy theory book saying that [Chapman] was a Code Orange candidate and that he wasn’t responsible, and that the CIA killed Lennon, which is a theory that is propounded greatly on the internet. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence but absolutely no proof that I could find, but this book contained a lot of documentary evidence — [court] transcripts, psychologists reports, interviews with people on the spot — and I became very interested in that documentation of Chapman and his mind and what he was feeling and why he would want to do it. Everybody wanted to know why, and he still hasn’t given a reason why. That set me off on a journey, and I then started to research on the internet (but couldn’t trust anything…), I got all the books I could. I decided that I wanted to tell the story of the film firmly rooted in the period, so I went onto eBay and bought up all the newspapers from 8 December 1980 right through to August of 1981 and got all this first-hand information. I collected all that I could that would give me a perspective of what people felt and what the story was at that time, and then that material formed the basis of the screenplay.
Filmmaker: It says at the start of the film that a lot of the narration is made up of Chapman’s words. Where did those quotes come from exactly?
Piddington: It comes from depositions and court transcripts and interviews with court psychiatrists and on-the-spot reporting, so it’s all very much of the time. Between 1980 and now, he’s told the story many times and he’s only got one story to tell, but it’s very interesting how it moves and changes slightly depending on who he talks with. He loves to talk about himself, so there’s a wealth of material out there once you start to sift through it.
Filmmaker: What was the process of writing the screenplay? In a way, you must have approached it in a similar manner to a documentary.
Piddington: Basically, I got the narrative skeleton together, and plotted what that dynamic was, and then had to decide where to enter the story. I could have entered it straight as he arrives in New York, but I wanted to give a visual background of paradise, of Hawaii, which for most people is a way of retreating from the world. He went there and just fermented with anger and rage. At that point, in Hawaii, it still wasn’t formed in his head that he wanted to kill John Lennon — choosing John Lennon was a very random act, as it shows in the film. He just chanced across a book, and then everything just coalesced in his mind and this was the mission he was looking for.
Filmmaker: You struggled to get the film funded, and had to shoot it over a long period. This was presumably because this was such an edgy subject that people were very wary of the film.
Piddington: It’s a very edgy subject because this film has never been made before. You have to ask yourself, “Why?” The reason that this film has never been made is that John Lennon is a sacred name and it touches people’s nerve endings. If you’re a John Lennon fan, the last thing you want to see is a film about his killing. And yet, at the same time, he was a public figure and in the same way that Gandhi and Martin Luther King and [John F.] Kennedy [were public figures], his life was in a glaring spotlight and so was his death. So it’s perfectly valid to look at those events and try and understand why, because the issues it raises about celebrity stalking and private security are far more pertinent now than they were in 1980. In 1980, you could get right up close to anybody and pull the trigger. As Al Pacino says in The Godfather (Coppola is one of my favorite directors), “If history teaches us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” And it’s true. You can get close enough, and you can pull the trigger. John Lennon was the first rock ‘n’ roll assassination and he was the first one to suffer that tragedy. Consequently now we’ve had a whole raft of people who’ve been killed and a whole slew of people who have injunctions out on personal stalkers. Everybody wants to be famous for nothing these days. You have all these reality shows on TV and it teaches people that you don’t have to have talent to be famous and make a lot of money. These issues are worth exploring.
Filmmaker: There are strong parallels between your film and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both of which deal with obsession with celebrity and the killing of an icon.
Piddington: I really find that quite interesting, because people have mentioned this to me before. I haven’t actually seen the film but I’ve read various things about it, which I find absolutely fascinating, and some of the things have said that Casey Affleck based his character on Mark Chapman. That’s pretty interesting if that’s the case.
Filmmaker: Unlike a lot of movies, both your film and Andrew Dominik’s deal with the repercussions of the assassination, rather than stopping at the moment of the death, and tackle the aftermath in a really revealing way.
Piddington: I’m really pleased to hear you say that, because there was a lot of pressure on me to stop the film at the killing. If you do that, all you’re doing is retelling the events that everybody knows up to the point where it became public. For me, the validation of making the film is in exploring the aftermath, because the aftermath is so revealing, psychologically and pathologically, about the character. Those are the areas that I really worked on and wanted to have a meaning and a point.
Filmmaker: A fascinating aspect was that you used all the real locations for the film.
Piddington: I can’t claim credit for that. It was first done in In Cold Blood, the Truman Capote movie that was made in the 60s. Because I had to do research in these places just to make sure I knew what I was going to be recreating or just to get a feel for the place, it struck me that because we were so small [a crew], we were a core of five people, moving around wasn’t a prohibitive thing. Once this became effective and I knew that I could shoot in the difficult areas, then that became a principle. In the film it doesn’t really matter, but as a subtext on the set it’s wonderful for the actors to know that they’re walking into the office where [Chapman] actually worked, and the cubicle that he keeps his stuff in is the actual cubicle, and the flat that we shot in was the actual apartment that he lived in in Hawaii. It’s quite extraordinary how we managed to secure all these locations.
Filmmaker: We have to also talk about Jonas Ball, because the success of the film hinged so heavily on you finding the right person to play Chapman, who’s not only very demanding to play but appears in almost every shot of the movie.
Piddington: If he wasn’t any good, the film wouldn’t have worked. Jonas Ball is a magnificent young actor who’s fresh out the traps and he’s got a fabulous career ahead of him because he’s got what every director wants: he can hold the camera in close-up. On a big screen, his face is just full of tiny nuances of emotion, ripples of reality go across his face and he has that quality of stillness. Because this film was shot over four years, it required an enormous amount of focus for me, as a director, and Jonas, as the actor, because he had to maintain a performance and I had to maintain the vision of the film. It was extremely difficult, because the longest downtime we had was a year between shooting and we had to go back and shoot stuff that was going to be cut right next to [footage] I’d shot a year ago. So the continuity problems were absolutely enormous. Every time we met, we either had to cut Jonas’ hair or put hair extensions on him, and we had to go very carefully into the material to make sure it would match.
Filmmaker: Those gaps were because you ran out of money, and then had to go find more in order to finish the film. How stressful was that for you?
Piddington: It was extremely stressful, particularly in the year when we had nothing. I’ve had a very high profile career in television making a lot of interesting dramas, but my first love has always been cinema and I decided I was going to do this or bust. It was very stressful because I’d basically spent all my savings maintaining the film. I couldn’t take any other work because I [might] be needed to go off and shoot again. Then it was just a question of getting through it, and it took longer than it should. It’s not the way to make a movie, but it’s an interesting process to do one, that’s for sure.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?
Piddington: As a filmmaker, one of the common maxims in making films when you’re under pressure is to survive it. If you survive making a film — because everybody wants to pull you down, everybody wants your job, everybody wants it to fail — then you can walk proud. The smartest decision I ever made was to just believe I had the talent and just struggle through until I had enough stuff under my belt to prove to people that I had it.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst out laughing on set?
Piddington: I was weeping when the money ran out, that was more the case! [laughs] I suppose you’ve got to laugh at that.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
Piddington: I don’t know, but the first one that made an impact on me without a doubt was Hour of the Wolf by Ingmar Bergman. I found that so disturbing, I couldn’t look at the screen. I was in my teens when I saw it, and I had no experience of films of that kind before. Because I’d grown up on American movies, I hadn’t seen many interesting movies. I never saw a film as powerful as Hour of the Wolf because it emotionally disturbed me so much. I’ve never seen it since because I think the impact of seeing it that once was enough to stay with me, to show me in my own head just how powerful film can be.