The Trial of the Chicago 7
by writer/director Aaron Sorkin
On a Saturday morning in 2006, I was asked to come over to Steven Spielberg’s house. He told me he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago 7 and I told him I thought that was a great idea and count me in. Then I left his house, called my father and asked him who the Chicago 7 were.
After a year’s worth of research, I found out. There were a dozen or so books to read and a 21,000 page trial transcript, but the most valuable research was the time I got to spend with Tom Hayden. Hayden passed away in 2016, but while he was alive I was able to get from him a personal insight into his relationship with Abbie Hoffman and the friction that existed between the two of them.
After research comes the climbing the walls phase. Months of pacing around and trying to figure out what story to tell and how to tell it. Trying to figure out how to make the movie more than just a dramatized Wikipedia page. Ultimately the film organized itself into three stories that I’d tell at once. The courtroom drama, the evolution of the riot and the personal friction between Tom and Abbie—two guys on the same side who can’t stand each other and who each think the other is doing harm to the cause. I delivered the first draft 20 months after the original meeting, and the next day the Writers’ Guild went on strike.
That would be just the first of over a decade’s worth of obstacles to making the film. Then Donald Trump happened. First as a candidate and then as the president, Trump was telling his rally-goers about the good old days when “they’d carry that guy outta here on a stretcher” and “Punch him right in the face” and “Beat the crap out of him.” And everyone would cheer. Once again, our country was deeply divided and protest was demonized as un-American. People with darker skin than mine were being told to go back where they came from.
Steven decided enough was enough and the time to make The Trial of the Chicago 7 was now. I’d directed my first film in 2017—Molly’s Game—and Steven was sufficiently pleased with it that he thought I should direct Chicago 7 as well. Photography began in October of 2019 and we wrapped just before Christmas. Editing, scoring and sound mixing took us into April (we were able to finish remotely during the shutdown and recorded the full orchestral score one instrument at a time) and we locked picture in late May.
And then, after the shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arberry, protestors took to the streets in Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Kenosha, Lexington and Washington, D.C. And the protestors were met by tear gas and clubs. And they were called anarchists and communists and un-American. At one point, the President tweeted that these protestors should be charged with Conspiracy to Cross State Lines in Order to Incite Violence. That’s a federal crime and a charge that’s only been brought once. It’s what the Chicago 7 were charged with.
So in 14 years, the film went from a chance to work with Steven Spielberg, to a story I thought could make a good movie, to a movie that was no longer about 1968, it was about now. We thought the film was plenty relevant when we were making it. We didn’t need it or want it to get more relevant, but it did.
Because of Covid, most people who watch The Trial of the Chicago 7 will watch it in their homes, and I’m grateful to Netflix for giving the film that opportunity. But there’s no substitute for an audience. There’s no substitute for being in a theater with a big screen, a world-class sound system and a group of strangers as the lights go down. So I’m also very grateful to Landmark for providing that experience.
I hope you enjoy it.