PREVIOUS EXCLUSIVE, TUESDAY 2:40 PM: I’ve learned that DreamWorks is finally reviving a once hot project that has barely been touched since its director Steven Spielberg suspended it back in 2008. Conventional wisdom had it that this would be Spielberg’s next Oscar pic. Since then, “every two months it’s been revisited. The title would come up in conversation at production meetings. But it’s just been hanging,” a source tells me. No longer. I’ve learned the studio is moving forward with Paul Greengrass in final talks to direct Aaron Sorkin‘s script The Trial Of The Chicago 7. It’s based on the infamous 1969 federal conspiracy trial arising out of the protesters vs police violent rioting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that transfixed the nation because of its counter-culture and leftist mayhem intended to undermine the U.S. government.
The modestly budgeted $20M-$30M film will start production probably in January. DreamWorks is funding all development with its financial partners, and Disney will distribute. No casting is in discussion yet because the deal isn’t done for Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone). His upcoming Captain Phillips biopic starring Tom Hanks about a sea hijacking by Somali pirates has great advance buzz at Sony. Plus, as a former British journalist and filmmaker attracted to true stories, Greengrass sounds like the right director for Chicago 7 and was considered to helm it back in August 2008.
So here’s the background: On July 12, 2007, Sorkin signed a deal with DreamWorks to write three scripts, the first of which was Chicago 7. Sorkin already was developing the project with Spielberg to direct, and Walter Parkes & Laurie MacDonald to produce. Spielberg just after he finished work on Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was so enthused he discussed it with showbiz folks and journalists every chance he got and was working every day with Sorkin on the script. After the Writers Strike November 5, 2007-February 12, 2008, the pic was given an April start date. But some feared (unnecessarily) that a Screen Actors Guild strike would begin next. Spielberg cited that as the reason he pushed back the start date again and again. Until finally the director decided to move on.
Just before then, Spielberg told Vanity Fair that “we’re in the process right now on Chicago 7 of doing a feasibility study of what actors are available”. News had leaked that he’d approached Will Smith to play Bobby Seale. He planned to meet with Heath Ledger about the role of Tom Hayden. When VF visited Spielberg at his Amblin Entertainment office, on a side table lay “headshots of actors under consideration. Among them Will Smith, Taye Diggs, Adam Arkin, and Kevin Spacey; Sacha Baron Cohen (as Abbie Hoffman) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as civil liberties defense lawyer William Kunstler).” But the only actor confirmed was Baron Cohen to play Abbie Hoffman.
Chicago 7 was next revived later in 2008. As previously mentioned, Greengrass was a possibility as a director that August. Then Ben Stiller, whose Red Hour Films had just worked with DreamWorks on Tropic Thunder which Stiller wrote, produced, and directed. That fall, Stiller labored with Sorkin on the Chicago 7 script with the intent to helm it. “They got together and worked hard on it. And there was even a read-through. But Sorkin and Ben didn’t crack it, the pic was going to be too expensive for DreamWorks, and Sorkin went on to The Social Network,” I’m told.
The pic, of course, is based on the 1968 Democratic National Convention when anti-war, counter-culture, Yippie, Black Panther, and other protesters battled the Chicago Police Department in what became week-long street rioting witnessed live on television by a worldwide audience. A year later the Nixon administration tried the most prominent activists on charges they conspired to incite the violence. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were represented by attorneys William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass of the Center For Constitutional Rights. An 8th defendant, Bobby Seale, co-chair of the Black Panther Party, wound up infamously bound, gagged and handcuffed to his chair by presiding U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman until his trial was severed during the proceedings. Seale was ordered to serve 5 years in prison for contempt of court.
The Chicago 7 trial lasted months and created headlines, especially with many well-known names from the American left called to testify including folk singers Phil Ochs, Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie, writers Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, and activists Timothy Leary and Jesse Jackson. On February 18, 1970, all 7 defendants were found not guilty of conspiracy. Froines and Weiner were acquitted completely, while the remaining 5 were convicted of crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot, and sentenced to 5 years in prison. Two years later, all the convictions were reversed on appeal.