Academy Award winner Aaron Sorkin talks to Awards Daily about what the courtroom was like in real life in Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and how the relevancy of his film changed in 2020.
In many ways, no film this awards season feels more relevant than Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. With protests breaking out in 2020 and an insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021, director Aaron Sorkin’s film might be a historical drama, but it says so much about our current state—which as I learned, was his intention. There’s a reason why Creedance Clearwater Revival isn’t blasting on the soundtrack, why you’re not hit over the head with ’60s wardrobe—it’s because Sorkin wanted Chicago 7 to be a film about now.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sorkin about writing and directing Chicago 7, including managing that A-list cast, what the real-life courtroom zoo was like (apparently even more bonkers than what you experience on screen), and what Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) might have thought about riot inciter, Donald Trump, if he were alive today.
Awards Daily: It’s such a diverse cast, and there’s no real lead, as everyone has a balanced set of time. What did you do as a writer/director to manage this ensemble and make it so balanced?
Aaron Sorkin: In ramping up to shooting, in the months leading up to shooting, one of my big concerns was how do I make sure everybody’s in the same movie, and how do I keep a group of people, many of whom are used to starring in their own movie, from not being part of a balanced ensemble? How do I keep them happy? And it turns out neither of those things were problems at all. This was a cast that was incredibly supportive of each other and just wanted the film to be good. They like to pass as much as they like to shoot, so it was great. Every morning, when I came to work, I felt like I was getting tossed the keys to a Formula One racecar. All I had to do was not put the car in the wall and these guys were gonna win the race.
AD: The courtroom scenes can be pretty hilarious and out of control from what we’re used to seeing in courtroom dramas. At times I thought, am I watching a drama or comedy? In your research, was the real-life courtroom situation as unconventional as the way you depict it?
AS: The real-life courtroom situation was considerably more of a circus than what’s depicted. First of all, that trial went on for almost six months. I move it along, but I mean, Arlo Guthrie tried to sing all of “Alice’s Restaurant” on the witness stand. Allen Ginsberg tried to recite all of “Howl” on the witness stand. The defendants acted a little crazier than I actually had them act, because I needed to maintain the tension of a courtroom drama, and if it appears as if one side doesn’t care if they win or lose, then you’re not going to have that tension.
AD: The film doesn’t feel entirely like a period film. Sometimes you forget it’s in the ‘60s. Did you veer away from making it feel period on purpose? Or do you think it’s a reflection of how style comes back around?
AS: No, I made it clear to everyone, all the designers and department heads, every day that the film wasn’t about 1968: It was about today. At the time, we didn’t know how much about today it would end up being. Obviously, we’re gonna be true to the period, but don’t lean into the ’60s. We’re not gonna flood the frame with peace signs and psychedelic aesthetic and the score is not going to be source music, it’s not going to be the ’60s protest score we’re used to, with “Fortunate Son” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” I wanted to put as little as possible between the audience and what was happening on screen.
AD: So much of this film debates who started a riot, and we now have a former president who’s being impeached for the same thing. Have current events made you look at your film differently? Do Tom Hayden and Donald Trump have anything in common?
AS: (Laughs) That’s a very interesting question. That sound you just heard is Hayden rolling over in his grave, but rolling over in his grave because he was probably afraid you were going to say that. First of all, like I said, we always wanted the film to be about today, not about 1968. We thought when we were making the film last winter, that it was already plenty relevant. It didn’t need to get more relevant, but in May  it did, with the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Protests in cities around America (Portland, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C.) being met by night sticks and tear gas. We watched astonished as news coverage on CNN looked like all you had to do was degrade the color a little bit and it would look exactly like the archival footage from ’68. And then as you point out, the former president stood up at a microphone on January 6 and did exactly what the Chicago 7 were on trial for doing, except it wasn’t an insurrection. (Laughs) Second of all, they weren’t there to attack anyone or attack any buildings; they were there to protest the Vietnam War. And two different commissions, including Ramsey Clark’s justice department, found that it was the police and not the protestors who started that riot. I think that as much guilt as Hayden might have for dropping “our” from the statement, which caused the confusion, he would say that what happened on January 6 was exactly what Donald Trump intended to happen while what happened on August 28, 1968 was a calamity of that Mayor Daley and the Chicago police department were responsible for.
AD: During the riot scene, how did you want to depict it? What did you do to create a sense of chaos?
AS: The two riot scenes, what we call the first riot and the real riot—I don’t have a reputation as an action guy. Mostly I write people talking in rooms. My first movie was A Few Good Men, and there’s a scene where Tom Cruise is driving down a street in Washington, pulls over to a news stand, gets out of his car, buys a magazine, gets back into his car, and drives off. Until Chicago 7, that was my action scene. Staging riots was going to be a big deal under any circumstance, but the riots had been a big reason why it took 14 years to make the film, because those riots were budget busters. A film like Chicago 7 has to fit into a budget that the studio feels is proportional to what the audience’s appetite is gonna be, which is a long way of saying, you don’t get a big budget to make The Trial of the Chicago 7. So we had to figure out a way to do those riots and what I used, what we used—we as in Phedon Papamichael our DP, Alan Baumgarten our editor, and I—we used tear gas for wide shots, to show you something in the foreground and let your mind imagine what was in the background, and very tight shots—just your eyes, right before a night stick cracks into it, blood, a tear gas cannister being loaded in—and weaved those two things together with stock footage from ’68, which we were able to use because we shot those riot scenes where they took place in Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue in Chicago , so they matched. You just keep tasting it and come up with the right recipe for the combination of those three things.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available on Netflix.