‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Writer-Director Aaron Sorkin on His Production Crew: ‘I Consider These People to be Co-Authors of the Film’

“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” about protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and  the ensuing trial, features great work by writer-director Aaron Sorkin, who is quick to salute his below-the-line colleagues: “They’re not there to take my instructions; they’re there to top my instructions. I consider these people to be co-authors of the film.”

Alan Baumgarten, editor

“In the opening seven minutes, we wanted to do two things. One is to set the context of a nation coming off the rails, with temperatures rising on both sides. I also wanted to introduce our main characters and show that they are four distinct groups. Alan has a habit of making things look easy.

When Alan and I were done with our first cut, there were three or four places where my heart sank; the dramatic impact wasn’t landing somehow. With a few quarter turns of the screw, like adding a reaction shot or two, the scene suddenly comes alive. I thought we didn’t get it, but we did. And Alan found it.”

Phedon Papamichael, cinematographer

“Filming riots was new to me, and we had to get creative on a limited budget. We shot those scenes in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue, where they took place. To cover the fact that we didn’t have thousands of extras, we used extreme close-ups — blood trickling, a tear-gas canister getting loaded, a pair of eyes, things like that — plus master shots and archival footage.

We also knew we would be in that courtroom a lot, so there was going to have to be variety, texture. I wanted to make sure that it doesn’t look like a 1970s television show. Shane [Valentino] built big windows, offering different times of day and different weather, so we had a number of options — and Phedon used the whole palette.”

Susan Lyall, costume designer

“Susan is great. I admit I handcuffed her a bit. I told her, like I told other department heads, ‘This movie isn’t about 1968; it’s about today. Let’s not go crazy with the peace signs, the tie-dye and the psychedelic aesthetic. Be true to the period, but as little as possible.’

Susan was able to do that. Everyone looks fantastic without it looking like ‘Laugh-In.’ I made it clear, I was not looking for impersonations of these characters. I wanted to simply keep clear differences between Abbie Hoffman [Sacha Baron Cohen] and Jerry Rubin [Jeremy Strong], with [Tom] Hayden [Eddie Redmayne] and Rennie Davis [Alex Sharp] — they’re not all of the same stripe. I wanted Susan’s clothes to keep showing that, which she did expertly.”

Shane Valentino, production designer

“The real Chicago courtroom had that postwar junior high school feel to it. I wanted one that was bigger, imposing, so the audience could feel the weight of the government coming down on the defendants. It should feel like the whole world was watching, so I also wanted a gallery full of people.

The exteriors were Chicago, most of the interiors in New Jersey. There were a lot of sets; we had to be smart and creative because we couldn’t afford a company move to a lot of locations. Shane built the courtroom inside a church in Paterson, New Jersey, and he built other sets, like the Black Panther headquarters, inside other rooms in the church.”

Daniel Pemberton, composer

“Daniel is one of the MVPs of the film. I needed him to score three sections of the movie — the prologue and the two riot sequences, but I told him everything else would be dry.

I wanted an orchestral film score, and not use the usual 1960s protest songbook. However, I wanted a period song at the conclusion, when Hayden starts reading the names. But in the editing room, the song didn’t work. I threw it out and told Daniel we needed a final cue, and he came through with flying colors. He then started sending me little pieces of film, with a theme he’d written. He talked me out of keeping the rest dry, and suddenly I couldn’t get enough score.

On his own, on spec, he wrote a song, ‘Hear My Voice,’ with Celeste co-writing the lyrics. It’s a great song, and he teases it a little throughout, when you hear Celeste humming it.”

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