On Nov. 15, the Santa Barbara Cinema Society hosted a discussion panel with the principal cast and director of the recently released Netflix movie “The Trial Of The Chicago 7.” Interviewed by Chief Executive of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Roger Durling, “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” actors Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin), Sacha Baron Cohen (Abbie Hoffman), Eddie Redmayne (Tom Hayden), and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Bobby Seale) alongside director Aaron Sorkin gave specific insights into the acting, writing, directing and scoring processes of the eerily relevant and unsettling film.
Sorkin mentioned that during a visit to director Steven Spielberg’s home in 2006, Spielberg revealed that he was considering writing a movie about the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention and the subsequent trials. Sorkin continued his research, reading over a dozen books on the topic, an entire court manuscript, and watching hundreds of hours of riot, lecture, comedy, speech and trial footage, “the film organized itself,” Sorkin said, “into three parts: the courtroom drama, the evolution of the protest, and finally the personal story between Tom [Hayden] and Abbie [Hoffman].”
Sorkin remarked, “I wanted viewers to feel the weight of the federal government coming down” on those in the courtroom. Compared to the historical courtroom, which Sorkin suggested resembled a “middle school classroom,” the courtroom in “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” is furnished with dark wood paneling, chandeliers, and stern, painted portraits of previous honored judges. Designed by Shane Valentino, who “built the entire set inside a church in New Jersey,” Sorkin remarked that “there needed to be some visual interest” in his depiction of the courtroom.
According to the federal government at the time, the film’s radical antihero protagonists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin allegedly sparked the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. As featured actor Jeremy Strong observed, Rubin and Hoffman “used dissent … and gorilla theatre to give a platform to their ideology.” Commenting on his own theatrical portrayal of Rubin, Strong felt that it was “liberating to be in Jerry Rubin’s shoes,” whom he described as a “merry prankster.” While Strong’s past acting roles have often been “controlled and internal,” Strong appreciated the opportunity to be “expressive” and to embrace Rubin’s “politics of ecstasy.” Furthermore, Strong was inspired by Rubin’s anti-establishment character, because Rubin “found something life-affirming about protest.”
Sasha Baron Cohen’s regard for the character of Abbie Hoffman was profound and well-informed. Born to Jewish parents, Baron Cohen wrote his undergraduate thesis at Christ’s College, Cambridge, on “Jewish radicals’ [lawyers, philanthropists, and social justice leaders] involvement in the African American civil rights movement from 66-67.” Cohen discovered Hoffman during his research, and has been “inspired by Abbie Hoffman since the age of 20.”
The proper, less flamboyant Tom Hayden, played by Eddie Redmayne, acts as a foil for Hoffman and Rubin. Redmayne described Hayden as having “a quiet charisma,” and “a lyrical monotony when he spoke to a crowd,” as opposed to the provocative, boisterous style of speech like that of Hoffman and Rubin.
Regarding the ideology and message of the film, Sorkin remarked, “This film is not about 1968, it is about today, but we didn’t know how much like today it would be when we started writing it.” Because Sorkin “didn’t want to lean into the iconography of the 60s,” he commissioned Daniel Pemberton to write a contemporary score for the film. Beyond refusing to use music from the period, and to tie the ideology of the work to the present, Sorkin also refrained from utilizing classic symbols of the 60s like tie-dye and peace signs.
Instead, viewers witness protestors in the film wielding signs with graphics of fists screen-printed on them, mimicking the Black Lives Matter movement symbol in contemporary America. Long before the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the widespread protests in response, Sorkin predicted that the American public would be in need of a film depicting an armada of historically accurate heroes who fearlessly exercised their constitutional right to protest. Maybe Sorkin’s apparently prophetic ability is why, during the panel, Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen both repeatedly described Sorkin’s script as “perfect.”