Dead On

Come November, you might discover JFK's real (fake) Assassin

Interview with the Assassin will not go into wide release till November--it opens in New York and Los Angeles on the 15th, in Dallas on, dear Lord, November 22--but it will arrive in theaters with worthy buzz. In May, when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, Variety praised it as a "potential Blair Witch Project for the conspiracy-minded [that] should have some real box office [success] on the indie circuit." Earlier this summer, Filmmaker magazine, which caters to the art-house crowd, included Burger on its annual list of "25 New Faces of Independent Film," along with Aaron Stanford, the star of Sundance hit Tadpole, and Coleman Hough, who wrote Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal.

Ironically, distributors weren't much interested in Interview with the Assassin when producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien--both of whom wrote and directed the forthcoming movie Knockaround Guys, starring Vin Diesel and John Malkovich--started shopping it around earlier this year. There was some interest from Miramax and its boss, Harvey Weinstein, but Burger heard the distributor wasn't terribly interested in a perceived "anti-government" film, especially when trying to make a deal in the shadow of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Koppelman, who met Burger through their respective wives, and Levien insist they never encountered such criticism.

"For us, that has nothing to do with it," says Koppelman, a former music executive who helped bring Tracy Chapman to Elektra Records in the late 1980s. "It's not an unpatriotic film. That just doesn't make sense to us. For us, it's just a really well-executed film about a period in our country's history..."

This is Walter Ohlinger. He killed John Kennedy. Not 
really.  It's Raymond Barry.
copy; Magnolia Pictures
This is Walter Ohlinger. He killed John Kennedy. Not really. It's Raymond Barry.

Levien interrupts: "...the great American mystery, really..."

Koppelman continues: "...and I don't even know how to speak to that. You never know why somebody passes on something in the end. Nobody said that specifically to us. We heard from the agents who got involved in presenting the film that now might not be a good time to suggest that the government keeps secrets or something, but we moved ahead."

"What were we gonna do?" asks Levien.

"Apparently, Harvey was tempted," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which acquired Interview last spring. "I won't say the film's anti-government, but creepy paranoia wasn't sitting well with people. And then, everyone was saying the same things: We've been changed forever, we'll never be the same, irony is dead. And some of us were saying, 'Give it six weeks, guys.'"

The trick for Magnolia is to market the film not as novelty, but as the masterful film it is. There might be the temptation to Blair Witch it to death, to try to trick people into thinking it's doc and not mock, but Bowles insists to do so would make no sense. The conspiracy theorists would turn up their noses at such fraud, and the non-assassination-obsessed audience would likely dismiss it as a slight goof. Besides, the movie is not at all interested in "proving" Walter's the killer; that would have been dull and not a little pointless. Rather, it's concerned more with how Walter and Ron need each other and use each other to make names for themselves. They're nobodies desperately trying to be somebodies: Walter needs Ron to validate him, while Ron needs Walter to jump-start his moribund career. "They're both having a crisis of identity," Burger explains. "They both feel like they're nobodies, and they're hitching themselves to each other's wagons to try to drag themselves to something more important."

Not that Burger, a one-time ad man, wasn't considering trying to put one over on audiences. Early on he thought about doing away with any credits--still, they appear only at film's end--and was close to casting as Walter a former Marine sniper with 50 kills and "the sort of dead look in his eye, like he had done and seen some very, very bad things," Burger says. But the rigors of shooting quickly (in 22 days) and inexpensively (it cost about $750,000) made it difficult to use a rookie, especially when he would appear in nearly every frame. In the end, they went with Barry, who's still unrecognizable enough to lend the movie a freaky kind of verisimilitude. "We decided it was more important to have a great compelling actor than a gimmick, basically," Burger says.

In the end, the filmmakers decided to sign with Magnolia precisely because Bowles promised not to sell it like a stunt, as opposed to one distributor that wanted to premiere the film in Washington, D.C., which Burger considered at once tasteless and pointless. So there will be no Web site with a phony back story insisting this really happened; there will be no made-for-TV specials or tie-in books documenting the life of Walter Ohlinger, Kennedy killer. Magnolia will simply open the film as it would any would-be art-house hit and hope word of mouth does its job, and it should: You can't see Interview with the Assassin without wanting to show it to a dozen friends, if only to see if they think it's the real thing.

"If Blair Witch never came along, I think we'd be in a much better spot," Bowles says, laughing. "The comparison to Blair Witch cheapens it in some ways; it makes it look like an imitation, and this film is really an original work. It's a really sophisticated piece. We're not selling this as something that says, 'This is as it actually happened,' but there are gonna be some people who go in with not that much information about the film, and this has happened, and think it was real. It didn't dawn on them until either very late in the film or when the credits rolled that these were actors. One reviewer said, 'Oh, my God, I thought the whole thing was real!' But he was from High Times."

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