The Canadian director of The Kennedys says he made changes to the miniseries whenever the History Channel asked him to and was stunned by its recent decision not to air the shot-in-Toronto project.
“We were very surprised,” Jon Cassar said Tuesday night at a Fox network press event for TV critics. “The actual product takes no political stance one way or the other.”
Cassar, who was raised near Ottawa, was an executive producer on the Fox series 24.
The U.S. History Channel announced last Friday that it would not air The Kennedys, which it commissioned in partnership with Canadian specialty channel History Television, owned by Shaw Television (formerly CanWest). History Television has confirmed that it plans to go ahead and air the eight-part miniseries in Canada beginning March 6. The show was shot in Toronto.
Cassar thinks friends of the Kennedy family likely lobbied the parent companies that own U.S. History, including Disney, Hearst and NBC Universal, to pull the project.
“I doubt they’ve even seen it,” says Cassar. “They were objecting to it before it started. They were objecting to the idea of it.”
A red flag apparently went up in the Kennedy camp when an early draft of the script focused on sexual misadventures in the White House.
“The show is unrecognizable from the first draft, totally unrecognizable,” says Cassar.
The Kennedys has also been under the microscope because executive producer Joel Surnow (co-creator of 24) is known for his conservative views.
Cassar insists that “every time the History Channel wanted a change, or a lawyer wanted a change, we did it.”
If there originally was a scene or two “that went a little too far,” he added, “we pulled it back.”
The History Channel released a statement Friday stating it found the finished product a “dramatic interpretation” and thus “not a fit for the History brand.”
Cassar says the miniseries sticks to the facts and at its heart is really about “this very tragic family and the love story between Jack and Jackie.”
Greg Kinnear plays former president John F. Kennedy, with Katie Holmes as his wife. Barry Pepper (as Bobby Kennedy) and Tom Wilkinson (as Kennedy patriarch Joseph) also headline the cast.
“All of these people became these people,” says Cassar, who says the cast did their own research into the real lives of the Kennedys.
“The actors came to the set with books in their hands. Everything was double-checked and triple-checked.”
The miniseries was timed to mark the golden anniversary of the short-lived Kennedy administration, which began with the 35th president’s inauguration 50 years ago this month.
There is speculation that another U.S. network will air the miniseries. While HBO has officially said no, Showtime is reportedly taking a look [Ed. note – Showtime has passed on the series as well]. Officials from that CBS-owned premium cable channel are scheduled to appear before TV critics on Friday as part of the semi-annual network press tour.
Cassar says the project was shot in Toronto for several reasons. For one, he and Surnow shot Nikita there several years ago and were familiar with local cast and crew members.
“You don’t want to be warming anybody up,” says Cassar, known for bringing shows in on time. “You need guys who are going to come in and know how I work, and I know how they work.”
For another thing, there was already a White House Oval Office set in Toronto, left over from the 1997 Wesley Snipes movie Murder at 1600. The Emmy-winning director says his local design team did a great job recreating the Kennedy White House, right down to the pencils on the desk.
Cassar feels The Kennedys has been caught up in polarizing times in U.S. society, referencing the recent shootings in Arizona and the political and media reaction to that tragedy.
“America seems to be wanting to play sides on everything right now,” he says.
He’s proud of The Kennedys and hopes this controversy will eventually lead to more curiosity about the miniseries.
“People have been calling me non-stop asking to see my copy.”