The cantankerous, nondescript old guy living across the street calls the recently unemployed cameraman over to his home and tells him he has the story of a lifetime: He was the real killer of John F. Kennedy, the second shooter on the grassy knoll on November 22, 1963. Thus begins Interview with the Assassin.
A dark, creepy, hyper-realistic docudrama,Interview With the Assassin is one hell of a film. Written and directed by one of Filmmaker magazine's Top 25 New Faces of Indie Film, 39-year-old New York native Neil Burger, and shot in digital video in just 22 days on a $700,000 budget, the result is a harrowing and disturbing trip. Is Walter Ohlinger telling the truth? Photographer Ron Kobeleski isn't sure, but knows that if it's true, he stands to break the unsolved murder of the century. With visions of fame and fortune dancing in his mind, Ron sets out with Walter on a journey across the country that rapidly descends into uncertainty, paranoia, and fear.
Filmed on location in Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington, the film does not try to solve the murder of JFK. "That movie is pushing a certain theory about what happened," director Burger tells HT when asked if he'd like to see a similar brouhaha around Interview With the Assassin as that raised by Oliver Stone's JFK. "My movie is a much more personal movie. Stone's movie wrapped all these conspiracy theories into one, which is an amazing accomplishment and a great movie, but mine is a much more focused story about these two characters and how they navigate the world, a world where truth is subjective. It's about how they bring meaning to their lives in a world where these things gone so long unexplained, and how they find their way through that." That said, the story as told by Walter involves a military sniper team firing the fatal shot into Kennedy's head, and a set-up patsy named Lee Harvey Oswald.
It isn't only Ron who isn't sure about the truth. The viewers too are left wondering throughout the film about whether or not he has gotten himself hooked up with a crazy man or the real second shooter. There has to be some proof, he tells Walter, or else you are nothing, a nobody, and the story is worthless. Walter first takes Ron to a bank vault to show him a spent rifle cartridge which turns out upon inspection to have been fired at about the right time to have been used to kill Kennedy.
In one classic "don't go up the stairs" scene, Walter takes Ron to a gun shop to look for a rifle similar to that used in 1963. He insists that Ron buy the rifle and a pistol too using his own identification, then tells him to take the rifle to his own home. "The whole movie is walking a fine line between ‘is Walter telling the truth, is he crazy, or is he somehow setting Ron up for a fall,'" says Burger.
The two travel to the desert home of an old Marine buddy of Walter's named Jimmy Jones, played by Jared McVay, a former Marine who was in real life one of a 12-man team sent into Cuba during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion back in 1961, and is now a full-time actor. There, Walter shows off his skill with the rifle. On the visit they discover that Walter's former Marine commander, the man he alleges set up the hit and the only one who can verify his story, is still alive.
The plot of Interview With the Assassin is lent credence by a real, peer-reviewed report published March 2001 in Science and Justice, a quarterly publication of Britain's Forensic Science Society. The author, D.B. Thomas, reported there was a higher than "96 percent probability" that there was a second gunman firing from the grassy knoll after conducting extensive acoustical testing of sound recordings made back in 1963 on the day of the assassination. When Walter takes Ron to Dealey Plaza and walks him through his version of that fateful day, miming the shot from behind the picket fence at the top of the knoll, the movie takes on a surreal air.
"Dealey Plaza is an intense place. It is exactly the way you imagine it. Nothing's really changed there in 40 years," says Burger. "It still feels very much the way it must have been then. It's kind of on the edge of downtown so it's quiet and not that trafficked. There's this eerie, powerful feeling to the place. The place is haunted in a way with this tragic momentous event. It was intense to shoot there."
The movie opened Nov. 15 in Los Angeles and New York City, to be followed by 35 other cities around the US by the New Year. This winner of the NY Independent International Film and Video Festival's awards for Best Experimental Film, Best Director, and Best Actor, (for Raymond Barry's portrayal of the troubled assassin) is a low-key yet intense viewing experience. "There's been a vacuum of truth, and a lack of an answer," Burger explains. "So into that vacuum flows conspiracy theories. They exist to explain or give some sort of structure of meaning to random, tragic events, in sort of the same way that these guys are trying to find meaning in their own lives." The movie is a mystery story, just like the JFK assassination itself.
Does Burger doubt the official version of the assassination? "I think we all do," he tells HT. "In fact, that sort of skepticism is completely ingrained now, since the Kennedy assassination, since Watergate, since Iran-Contra, I mean, the whole thing completely erodes your faith, certainly in authority. It is not a good thing. They've totally abused the American people's faith." So, is Walter really the assassin? "I'll leave that up to the viewer to decide," he replies.