Interview with Peter Kunhardt
This is your third film about the Kennedys. Why did you decide to tell Teddy's story now?
Back in the late '80s, I produced for HBO 'JFK: In His Own Words,' and in 1990 'Bobby: In His Own Words'. At that time, Teddy was right in the midst of his career. He wasn't ready for a film that would look back over his life and work; it was still unfolding. But now, he has served nearly half a century in the Senate, and he has been diagnosed with brain cancer. The time had come to take a look back at his life and career, and try to use the same "in his own words" approach that we used in the films about his brothers.
The challenge was not to conduct a brand new interview, but to go back through the archives and piece his story together using his own recorded words. It's like a big jigsaw puzzle with many pieces of his story scattered in many different archives. Unlike our experience working on the films about his brothers, in Teddy's case we realized we were doing something that hadn't been done before when we found out that there was no single large archive to turn to. That was exciting.
Edward Kennedy is still so actively involved in his career that the individual audio-visual pieces have not yet been formally chronicled. So the first step of the process was to gather these many pieces together.
How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
That was one of the hardest parts because, as it turned out, there is such a massive amount of material. Each of his brothers has a rich story that intersected with his story, so we had to resist wandering down those paths. Our rule was to always keep the focus on Teddy. The second thing we did was to seek out material most people haven't seen before or have long forgotten, like coverage of his very early Senate years from when he first decided to run in '62.
Did your original perception of Teddy change as you got deeper into the material?
I didn't have as clear a sense of Ted Kennedy's story as I had of his two brothers' stories. In the interviews he gave over the years, he tried to keep his personal life as quiet as he possibly could and stuck to the issues. What impressed me most was his dogged determination, his ability to continue to fight for what he believed in and to stick to his Senate battles year after year after year, in spite of everything else that was going on in his life. It really is an amazing story of determination.
What qualities do you think differentiate and distinguish Teddy from Bobby and JFK?
I think it's his knowledge of the Senate and how it works. When you look back at JFK, you think of his impact as president much more so than his impact as a young senator. And when you think back to Bobby Kennedy, you think of that '68 presidential campaign and all the optimism and enthusiasm he generated. When you think about Teddy Kennedy's impact, you realize that it spans a much longer period of time and throughout the past half century, his platform has always been the Senate.
Teddy ran for president in 1980, but his real legacy is what he was able to accomplish on that Senate floor. Love him or hate him, he's known as the "Lion of the Senate" for good reason.
What is it about the Kennedy family that holds such an enduring appeal for so many people?
I think part of the attraction is that the public is moved by the fact that this family has undergone so much tragedy. Teddy's story is an emotional rollercoaster. When you look at the film, you realize about halfway through that this man has been bombarded with tragedy and grief in proportions that most of us couldn't bear up under, and yet he continues to rebound and do his work and devote himself to the people. He admits to his own personal shortcomings and moves on. And I think it's this dogged determination to do what he feels is right and to help others less fortunate than he that resounds with the public.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I think Teddy's done something that is quite remarkable, and it's that he has established not only his own legacy, but also worked hard to continue to establish the legacies of his brothers. He devoted much of his career making certain that the unfinished work of his brothers was carried on, was fulfilled. And I think what audiences will see is that Teddy Kennedy was not simply living out his own life during these past decades, he's been doing whatever he can to fulfill their dreams as well.