First-time writer-director Andrew Piddington was dealt a huge blow when he learned, two years into shooting The Killing of John Lennon, his portrait of Mark David Chapman in the months leading up to his fatal shooting of Lennon, that another film on the subject was in the works (Chapter 27, with Jared Leto). Stretching a tiny budget and determined to shoot everything on location (including Hawaii and the Dakota), Piddington pressed on with his haunting, intensely impressionistic account. I spoke to him about the experience as he prepared for his North American premiere at Tribeca.
What drew you to Chapman as a subject? I came across a book called Who Killed John Lennon?, a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government killed Lennon and that Chapman was programmed to do it. The book was full of evidence, but no proof, and I realized that there was a very interesting story here that I knew nothing about. I started to research it in great depth; the concept behind the screenplay was that a story or a statement didn’t go in unless I could corroborate it three times. The first thing you have to do when you make a film of this nature is take a position on truth, and whether you’re going to use the facts to create a parable, or tell it as it is.
You used Chapman’s actual words for his narration and almost all of the dialogue, but you never spoke to him directly, correct? No, I never spoke to him, and I wouldn’t want to speak to him. I wanted to tell the story from a 1980 perspective. I wanted to show it as it was, and how it affected people at the time.
Do you think Chapman is insane? It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? He chose not to plead insanity, which would have been the easiest thing, but he had this vision from God, and God told him to plead guilty, so he was never tried.
He made an insane decision not to plead insanity. Right. I mean, he’s certainly not normal; he’s not right.
His life and his impulses all seemed to be ruled by pop culture and a thirst for fame. If fame is the ultimate goal, wouldn’t the ultimate punishment be oblivion? Do you mean should he have got the chair?
I was thinking more of not having movies made about him. Well, this film does not condone or exonerate Chapman. If anything, it does the reverse, because the journey he goes on in the film is a very specific, premeditated stalking and killing. I have no sympathy for him whatsoever. His parole has been denied five times already, but if he does get out, someone will put a bullet in his brain and that will complete the perfect arc of the story.
The scene of the murder is very graphic. Did you consider whether or not to dramatize the shooting? I decided to make it a graphic act because I wanted it to be brutally realized and to shock people. The thing that clinched it for me was when I saw the album that Yoko Ono released in 1981 [Season of Glass] and on the cover were John Lennon’s blood-spattered glasses. She got a lot of flak for that, and her response was, “Well, if you think that’s bad, you should have been there; there was blood everywhere.” That validated my approach.
You don’t use any Beatles music. If I could have afforded some John Lennon music I would have used it, but the film doesn’t actually need it. In fact, what the film needs more than anything else is Todd Rundgren, because that was Chapman’s total obsession.
Really? Yeah, can you believe that? There’s an album of his called Deface the Music that is a complete rip-off of the Beatles. But it would have confused people.
Have you seen Chapter 27? No, I haven’t seen it. From what I have read, what they tried to do was fictionalize the character, which to me is complete anathema to the story. You can’t fictionalize the story because it’s a misuse of the facts. I would imagine there’s only one film you can make about Chapman because there’s only one journey and only one story.