INTERVIEW WITH ZACHARY SKLAR, CO-WRITER OF THE MOVIE "JFK"
Zachary Sklar is a journalist and a professor of journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. He is also a contributor to The Lies of Our Times, a monthly journal dedicated to exposing the truth behind twisted and censored reports in the mainstream media. Recently, he collaborated with director Oliver Stone on the screenplay of the controversial movie "JFK", which has been trashed by the very same mainstream media exposed in the Lies of Our Times. This interview was conducted by Frank Morales and Paul DeRienzo on January 14, 1992:
SHADOW: How did you first become involved in assassination research, when did you first meet Jim Garrison, author of On the Trail of the Assassins, how did you meet director Oliver Stone and what possessed both of you to do this film?
SKLAR: I had not been what you call an assassination researcher --I was fifteen when the assassination occured, and of course it deeply affected me, as did the other assassinations that followed. I didn't take any particular research interest in it, I did become a journalist, and I edited a number of books about the CIA for Sheridan Square Press, which publishes books by former CIA agents who have become disillusioned with the agency. Sheridan Square Press approached me in 1987 with a manuscript from Jim Garrison that had been rejected by another publishing house. I worked on that book for about a year and a half with Jim Garrison, we re-structured and re-wrote it, and that book became On the Trail of the Assassins, that's how I got into the assassination.
When that book was published in 1988, on the 25th anniversary of the assassination, Ellen Ray, one of the publishers, met Oliver Stone in Havana, Cuba, at a film festival where Stone was getting an award for "Salvador", and said "here's a book you might be interested in". He read it and liked it a lot, but he was going off to the Phillipines to film "Born on The Fourth of July". Then he called three days later from the Phillipines and said he wanted to buy it, he requested someone to help with a first draft, and they suggested me because I was familiar with the material, so that's how I got into the project.
SHADOW: In the December, 1991 issue of Premier Magazine, Stone states that "history, in its original Greek sense, `historia', means inquiry', and in that light, my film, any film, any work of art, has the right to re-explore an event." The New York Times, among other major media which has heaped criticism upon the movie, refers to the film as "an outrageous distortion of history which mixes fact and fiction". What have you to say to this criticism? Is the film in essence fiction, or revisionist history?
SKLAR: Those abstractions are difficult to deal with. I see it as a movie. I am a journalist, that's my background. If I felt that the film were untrue to history as I've researched it, I would feel very uncomfortable and I would have withdrawn. I don't feel that the film is untrue. On the other hand, there is a difference between a movie and a documentary. This is not a documentary, this is a feature film, and therefore, certain things have been done, such as creating composite characters, changing what was known in 1969 to incorporate material learned by researchers since 1969, when the Garrison inquiry was happening.
There is some speculation in the film, which is a necessity, because so many records are still sealed. The most important records are sealed not only by the House Select Committee on Assassinations and the Warren Commission, but also by the CIA and FBI, whose files are some of the basis for those two committees, but we've never seen those files. So, of necessity, since we don't know who killed the president, we have to do some speculation, try to come up with some alternative possibilities of who killed the president and why. That's what JFK attempts to do. Although some people, in the New York Times for instance, have complained that they can't tell the difference between what's real and what's not real, what's fact and what's speculation, people polled coming out of theaters didn't seem to have that problem. It seems that it's only the owners of history at the New York Times and places like that who seem to have this difficulty.
SHADOW: Representative Stokes is now seeking to re-open the files based on the flood of mail that he and other members of Congress have received regarding this movie and the desire of the public to re-open these files. The essential authenticity and facticity of this movie has reached the public and the public is responding.
SKLAR: I think that what the public has responded to is a clear demonstration visually which you can't do in print, of the implausability of the explanation that the Warren Commission gave us -- that Lee Harvey Oswald by himself was able to shoot three bullets within 5.6 seconds with world class precision with a lousy bolt-action rifle, that the "Magic Bullet" was able to inflict all seven wounds in Kennedy and Connally and emerge pristine. These things you can read on a page and it doesn't really register, but when you see it in a film and you see a demonstration of what that means, I think it hits people with far greater impact. I think that's what people at the New York Times and places that have criticized the film are responding to, the fact that audiences are actually getting quite outraged when they see that the explanation doesn't hold up and they want to go further.
Now, let me say one word of caution about opening the files. I am personally of the belief that most files that would be crucial to our understanding of this could possibly have been shredded. We've seen this happen during the Oliver North business, with the Iran Contragate, we've seen the CIA fabricate files, E. Howard Hunt has admitted in court that he fabricated cables from the State Department implicating President Kennedy in the murder of (South Viet Nam Premier) Diem in Vietnam. A CIA memo was disclosed in 1981, under a Freedom Of Information Act suit, which described how Robert Blakey (of the House Select Committee on Assassinations) came to the CIA, spent about a half hour looking through file cabinets. The memo states that he did not go into another part of the building where there are other files. It also states that there are 16 file drawers about Oswald and the CIA that he did not examine, so as far as the CIA is concerned, there's a lot of stuff that the House Select Committee has never seen. I don't know whether the Warren Commission saw that stuff or not, but it is clear to me that the CIA did lie to the Warren Commission.
David Atlee Phillips, who was the Western Hemisphere chief of the CIA, admitted in a public forum in Los Angeles that the CIA had fabricated the so-called evidence of Oswald being in Mexico in September-October 1963 going to the Cuban embassy and Soviet embassy, that the CIA offered to the Warren Commission--tape recordings and photographs of someone obviously not Oswald. It's a real hall of mirrors when you try to get to what the intelligence community may know about this situation. Just opening the House Select Committees files is not going to do it, in my opinion. What we really need to do is open the CIA and FBI files. Those have been closed supposedly on the grounds of national security, it's been a long time, the Soviet Union is dissolved, it's hard to imagine any conceivable reason why releasing this information would affect our national security at this point.
SHADOW: Why should we care about who assainated Kennedy 30 years later? Some critics of the film are asking why Americans should beat themselves up over a done deal.
SKLAR: It's important in a government that describes itself as a democracy that people have free access to information and to the truth about what actually happened and what their government agencies were up to. Institutions do not inherently have trust in the United States -- they have to earn that trust by being open with the people and disclosing what they've done, in an honest fashion. If you just sweep it under the carpet, clearly, it doesn't go away. Otherwise, I think this wouldn't even be an issue today. I think until we come clean and get to the bottom of this, it's difficult to move on. It lurks there like a raw wound. I think people in Congress and people at the New York Times are frankly shocked that people have such strong feelings about this 28 years after the fact. Why should they? Well, they should because they care, because they haven't gotten the truth. The media and Congress are implicated in that and they understand that their own credibility is at stake here, and that's why I think a lot of them would like it to go away, but I don't think that means that the American people want it to go away.
SHADOW: The movie presents Garrison as a hero. Is this an accurate portrayal? Was it in the best interest of the truth to have him presented this way?
SKLAR: Jim Garrison is not portrayed in documentary fashion. Jim Garrison is used as a vehicle. The story is a story of the transformation of one man's consciousness from believing totally in the Warren Report, which Garrison did. He was a District Attorney, he had been in the military for 23 years, he was an FBI agent, he was not a flaming radical in any way. And he, like most people who believed in the government at the time, trusted the Warren Commission when it came out with its findings. The film traces the development of his consciousness as he discovers various things that contradict the Warren Commission Report in his jurisdiction. His investigation took place from 1967 to 1969. A lot has been learned since then, and Oliver made the decision that he wanted that information to be incorporated into this film, rather than sticking with a pure documentary approach to the Jim Garrison investigation of the l960s
. I also think that Oliver made a choice about how he would portray Garrison. I think he portrays him with certain flaws in the film. He is shown as rather arrogant, he makes comments about Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General at the time, saying he couldn't earn a place on his staff. He is shown as someone who is stubborn, who goes against the advice of some of his closest staff people. He is shown as a man who is willing to bring a case that he knows is not as strong as he would like it to be, and he is shown losing the case. All those things are true. On the other hand, he is shown as someone who genuinely cares to find the truth, who has the guts to stand up and fight the federal government on this and endures numerous obstacles, including a total trashing of him in the press, the FBI bugging his offices, tapping his phones, following him everywhere he goes, infiltration of his staff, the CIA helping Clay Shaw in the trial -- all that stuff is also true. And it's part of the reason that Garrison had such a weak case. I don't think that Oliver has been untrue to the essence of Garrison in that sense. He's shown some of his warts; he's also shown the essential heroism of the man which is that he, alone, of any elected prosecutor in the United States, had the courage to stand up and take this on.
SHADOW: To some critics the film assigns seems to assign Garrison to the heroic myth of a heterosexual, family man while the evil guys who kill the president have a bizzare, gay lifestyle. How do you answer those critics?
SKLAR: Those same critics are criticizing us for deviating from the truth. In this case this just happens to be the truth. Garrison was married and had five children, his wife did nag him because she felt that hewas neglecting his family because he had become obsessed with this case. A lot of people say that Sissy Spacek's character is a set back for feminism. Well it happens that in the early 1960's in New Orleans that was the way a lot of southern women saw their role and that was true of Garrison's wife as well. As for David Ferrie and Shaw, that also happens to be true. It happens to be true that they were homosexual. I think it's not fair to say that this film portrays a homosexual cabal or gay conspiracy--I don't think that's what the film focuses on at all. You see Lee Harvey Oswald with his wife, he's not shown as gay, he's arguing with his wife. He's involved in a conspiracy, to a certain extent, although he's not shown actually killing the President. Jack Ruby is shown, though he's not shown in any way at all about his sexuality. Some of the people who are higher up, Guy Bannister, again he's not shown at all as being gay, nor are any of the people in Operation Mongoose, some of the Cubans and some of the higher up people in the Penatgon.
I myself had a little discomfort with the very quick portrayal of the dressing up and so forth and the homosexual scenes. I thought that it was a bit gratuitous but on the other hand the milieu that Shaw lived in and Ferrie lived in, how these people made their contacts is of some importance and it also goes to the question of Shaw's credibility. Unfortunately Shaw on the witness stand, under oath, claimed that he never knew David Ferrie. There are photographs of him with David Ferrie in these bizzare costumes and there are numerous witnesses who were homosexuals who Garrison chose not to put on the witness stand precisely to avoid the whole issue of homosexualtiy.
Garrison considered homosexuality totally irekevant to the case and went on his way to get out of it. But as a way of showing that Shaw did know Ferrie, it was important to show the viewers there was evidence gleaned from various homosexual sources that they did know each other in that context. To me one of the things that the film tries to do, I don't know if it succeeds, there's one scene where David Ferrie is shown in a hotel room in which he is really flipping out. What it really shows is his dilema, that he is being blackmailed by Shaw because of compromising photographs. I think what that attempts to show, and I hope the audience feels some empathy for David Ferrrie, that he is trapped because his homosexuality has been used against him by the CIA. I think this gives us a little insight in to the way the agency operates.
SHADOW: The movie utilizes a "Mr. X", who is played by Donald Sutherland, to explain the overriding motive for the assassination. Could you explain to us who "Mr. X" represents and what is being portrayed there in terms of Kennedy's Viet Nam policy and what the assassination represented vis-a-vis that policy?
SKLAR: "Mr. X" is based on a real-life person named Fletcher Prouty, who was a colonel in the United States Air Force and worked in covert operations -- so-called "black" operations in Southeast Asia, that is, assassinating foreign leaders, rigging elections, propaganda, and overthrowing governments. Fletcher Prouty worked in that area for nine years of his life and was quite high up in the Pentagon. Garrison did not actually know Prouty at the time. This is one of the situations where we've taken information that was only learned later and inserted it into the film.
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