The origin of “Interview with the Assassin,” a mockumentary investigating the claims of a dying man to have been the fabled second gunman of the John F. Kennedy assassination, itself had a curiously conspiratorial tone. In a recent Dallas conversation, writer-director Neil Burger explained that the germ of the script came to him when he was just starting his career. “It happened actually in Fredericksburg, Texas, where the museum of the war in the Pacific is,” Burger explained. “I was down there like twelve years ago, interviewing World War II veterans, and I was just a couple years out of school, and I was over my head in that job. I’m down there alone, eating at a bar after the day’s shoot, after the day’s interviews, and this guy, this old guy, struck up a conversation with me. He asked me what I did, and he construed that to mean I was a reporter, and said that he had this story that was going to blow the lid off of everything. Whatever ‘everything’ was. And it actually took a while to find out what ‘everything’ was, because he was incredibly evasive and tight-lipped and very strange. But eventually he told me that he knew somebody that had been involved in the Kennedy assassination, which was an unbelievably bizarre, startling thing to hear. And I actually didn’t believe it–I just thought he was a crazy old guy, either that he was crazy or pulling the leg of some young guy who was obviously not from Texas. He just got up and sort of moseyed across the room–I thought he was going to the bathroom–and just never came back…I didn’t believe him, but as with everything else with the Kennedy assassination, there’s a shred of a possibility that he was telling the truth, and that little possibility has obviously haunted me ever since, and was the seed for the original idea.”
Shot in gritty, hand-held style, the picture recounts how Walter Ohlinger (Raymond J. Barry), a gruff ex-Marine who claims to be dying of cancer, asks his neighbor Ron Kobeleski (Dylan Haggerty), an out-of-work news cameraman, to film his confession to the crime. Before long the two men have become curiously co-dependent, with the older man using the other to insure he’ll be remembered and the younger grabbing onto the story as a means of salvaging his career; they travel east to track down people who could confirm Walter’s story, and when mysterious figures seem to be following them, Ohlinger becomes increasingly menacing and unpredictable. “To me that’s the heart of the movie,” Burger said. “These two guys who feel like they’re nobodies, trying to empower themselves and do something to make their lives, or themselves, feel more meaningful. That for me is the heart of the movie–how far you’re willing to go to empower yourself.” The mockumentary format, he said, emphasized the other main element of the film– the issue of reality itself. “The whole hand-held, documentary thing is very tied up thematically in the story. A documentary is, you know, supposed to be ‘the truth,’ but obviously it’s got its own point of view and it’s edited and all, and that all speaks to exploring those questions of what do you believe, how you know what’s true. So hopefully the technique is all tied up with the narrative and the thematic questions…It’s not offering up a theory [about the assassination], it’s more about how you exist in a world where truth is subjective.”
Despite its intensely naturalistic style, however, much of the success of “Interview” comes from Barry, a character actor with a long and distinguished resumé who uses his skill to make Ohlinger a frighteningly realistic figure. “I knew who he was, and he was initially presented to me as somebody that would be great for it, and I knew he would be great for it,” Burger recalled, “but to me he was too recognizable. I wanted to do it with all unknowns, so there would be no association by the audience with this character–because I wanted to explore these questions of reality, of what’s true. I really wanted to push the envelope on ‘Is this real or is it not?’ So we did a nationwide search for an unknown guy, and found some very interesting guys–and some very scary guys–who could have been the guy, but ultimately they couldn’t do the complexity of the part. It is a multi-faceted role; he’s kind of balancing all of these things in his psyche at the same time–he’s proud, he’s humiliated, he’s crazy, he’s not, he’s leading Ron on or not, he’s genuine or not…all happening at the same time. These guys couldn’t quite do that. Once we realized that we couldn’t get this unknown guy to do it, then I was like, well, it’s got to be Ray. He’s perfect for the part…and he’s a great actor, and he got it and really went deep into it. And we decided that the idea of having all unknowns was less important than having a great actor at the center of the movie.”
And Barry’s professional status certainly hasn’t undermined the movie’s power to convince. “Initially there was a handful of people–and I really mean just a few people in early screenings when we were showing it to people, kind of to get feedback…there were just a couple of people that would come up and ask, ‘Was that real?’ And then we’ve been having word-of-mouth screenings, and we had a screening in New York about three weeks ago for about four hundred people–it was a screening series that Jeffrey Lyons puts on. And one of the first questions was, ‘Did they do an autopsy on Walter? Did he really have cancer?’ And at first I thought the person who was asking wanted a title card at the end that spoke to that. But he said, ‘I don’t care about a title card, did they ever do an autopsy on him?’ Then Jeffrey Lyons said, ‘I think he thinks it’s true.’ So I said, ‘Oh, it’s not true–it’s fiction.’ And he put his hand down. Then they asked the audience how many people thought this was true–this is a New York, upper-west side, reasonably intelligent, mature audience–and there were like fifty people out of four hundred that raised their hands and said they thought it was real…I was actually rather surprised, maybe alarmed.” Burger now wonders whether that percentage will hold up as the film moves into general release.
“Interview with the Assassin” premieres in some cities–including Dallas–on November 22, the anniversary of the assassination, but Burger insists that’s accidental. “It wasn’t what we intended, I must say,” he said. And then he added, in a choice of words that’s perhaps psychologically revealing, “It wasn’t what I was shooting for.” But whenever it opens, it’s still an intriguing little film.