In Discussion with Emilio Estevez, Writer and Director of Bobby
by Roger Durling
Bobby re-imagines one of the most explosively tragic nights in American history. By following the stories of 22 fictional characters in the Ambassador Hotel on the fateful eve that presidential hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot, writer/director Emilio Estevez — in full career resuscitation mode — and an accomplished ensemble cast including Demi Moore, Lindsay Lohan, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Freddy Rodríguez, Martin Sheen, Anthony Hopkins, and Laurence Fishburne among many others forge an intimate mosaic of an America careening toward a moment of shattering change. The different characters navigate prejudice, injustice, chaos, and their own complicated personal lives while seeking the last glimmering signs of hope in Kennedy’s idealism. I sat down with Estevez to chat about Bobby, which opens in Santa Barbara theaters on Friday.
Why did you feel compelled to write about Robert F. Kennedy? I was a child of the ’60s, even though a small child. And 1968, specifically, was in many ways the year the world shifted, when you think of the events that transpired during that year — starting with the Tet Offensive, then [Walter] Cronkite going to Vietnam and saying on national television that the war isn’t winnable, then Johnson saying, “Well, if I don’t have Cronkite, I don’t have the American people,” and then Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the Paris riots, Bobby’s assassination, the Chicago convention …
The world was indeed upside down. I was six in 1968 and I looked to my parents for comfort, for some explanation, and they were as confused as I was in many ways. They couldn’t give me answers. [Then] I was asked to be on a photo shoot at the Ambassador Hotel in 2000. In between the photo sets, they asked us if we wanted a tour and I said, “Yes, of course.” They took us downstairs and through the kitchen and into the pantry and behind these padlocked doors — we walked and stood where Bobby fell. My childhood came back to me in that moment.
I remember where I was that morning I heard the news. We were in Ohio and we were staying at my grandmother’s house and I remember seeing it on the news, running upstairs, and waking my father, remembering how he wept for two days until the news came that he had passed on.
The following year in 1969, when we relocated from New York to Los Angeles, the first stop we made was the Ambassador. I remember holding my father’s hand, walking through the lobby, walking through the Embassy vault room, and I recall him saying, “This is the place. This is where it all happened. This is the place where the music died.” So, cut back to 2000, standing in the Ambassador, and my childhood literally came back to me, and I thought to myself, “Why hasn’t anybody made this story?”
Why did you choose to tell this story in vignettes as opposed to a linear narrative? I wanted to focus on the people who were affected, the ordinary unknowns. What I wanted to do was create characters who were emblematic of the times and put them in this hotel. And the hotel would serve as a microcosm for what was happening in the country at the time. And in the tradition of The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, we took this hotel and turned it upside down, capsized it. In many ways, it’s a disaster movie.
The characters on the screen were based on real people? Inspired by. For example, the photo of the busboy holding Bobby’s head, moments after the shots, inspired Freddy Rodríguez’s character José.
For me, the women’s stories in the movie are so compelling. How did the stories of the different women come about? It’s really the voice of my mother. I listened to her. I paid attention. My mother is not a things-and-stuff person; however, she missed having dinner with LBJ in 1965 because she couldn’t find the right hat. She tells the story and she’s embarrassed to tell it, but it’s true. My father was a table away from the president having a steak, and meanwhile my mother is back at the hotel trying seven different hats and missed the whole event. So she is in many ways the Helen Hunt character. I would listen to her tell stories of her growing older and not feeling sexy. And I laugh, and meanwhile I’m taking notes — this is great material. So, thank you, mom.
You speak of your mom as an influence but how much was your dad, Martin Sheen, an influence? We all know how political he is. You couldn’t grow up in our house and not be politically aware. My father was involved when I was growing up, but certainly not as committed as he is now. But it was unavoidable.
Some of the scenes were shot at the Ambassador Hotel before it was demolished. A few of them were. We shot there the first week of production. The schedule was a total of 37 days, so the first five were there. And I thought it was important for the actors to stand on that ground to absorb a certain sentiment that first week for the other locations. Our agreement with the L.A. School Board was that we wouldn’t get in their way and they wouldn’t get into ours and that the building would come down. So it truly was by the grace of God that we were allowed there. We had to jump through all sorts of hoops and they allowed us those five days which I thought was miraculous.
When you speak about Robert F. Kennedy, you’re so passionate. Well, I believe that the death of Bobby Kennedy was the death of decency in America. I believe it was the death of formalism, mannerisms, poetry. The death of a dream. For me, I am unapologetically optimistic and idealistic and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Time magazine attacked me this week for being — what did they call me? — hyper-earnest. When is that a bad thing? When is idealism a bad thing? I think that what we saw happen in this country recently on Election Day is a call for change. I believe people want change.