Interview: Producer Ryan Donnell Smith on History and Timing in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

One of the best movies of 2020 was The Trial of the Chicago 7, which earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s lofty recreation of a grand hearing with massive political implications features a tremendously talented cast. Awards Radar had the chance to speak with producer Ryan Donnell Smith on history repeating itself, working with Aaron Sorkin, and an unexpected but positive relationship with Netflix.

Q: Congratulations on being part of this really successful and incredible film.

A: Oh, man, thank you. It’s a great honor. One of the best projects I’ve had the honor of working on in my career, so definitely excited to be a part.

Q: How familiar were you with this history before coming on to the film?

A: Probably a year prior to jumping in to the project, I was talking to Tyler Thompson at Cross Creek. I would say I knew a little bit of basic history, very vague, of the actual historical events around the project. When they shared it with me, I was at AFM and really dug into the true history and thought that this is a really unbelievable story process, a group of people inspiring a group of people, and relevant to society and the history of where we are and where we were in our country. I knew this was a project I wanted to jump in and be a part of. The genesis of this project prior to reading the script was just the basic, hey, there’s been a project floating around for quite a while with Spielberg, and then I dove in and that was the end of the story. 

Q: Had you seen – or have you since – watched any of the other movie or TV versions of this story?

A: You know, I had not. I started my deep dive at AFM when I found out about the genesis of the project, and read some of the historical context. I started interviewing some friends and family members that I know, and just found out that this is a story that we need to tell and we want to tell, and that’s when I really started the deep dive. I didn’t want to prejudice my opinion of other content or influence my decisions on my involvement in the project of different ways of telling it. What I did watch was interviews and documentary-type footage of true, factual coverage.

Q: What surprised you most in your research?

A: What surprised me most was the way that history repeats itself, and unfortunately the way that we struggle with issues today that we struggled with years and years ago. This was a good number of years ago, but you can go back with example after example, hundreds of years, and you see history repeating itself. What surprised me also inspires me, because it’s such an inspiring story of people who are willing to take a stand and go against the grain. They stand up for what they believe in, for what they feel in their hearts is the right thing to do. While at the same time it’s frustrating, the circumstances we can’t control like where we live geographically, it’s inspiring to see that, within that, there are communities and groups of people that believe and are passionate enough to have their voices be heard, and to stand up to that in a way that they’re willing to sacrifice of themselves to do so.

Q: Have audiences responded to that recognition of repeating history and becoming inspired to effect change?

A: Well, we sure hope so. I think where we stand today in the United States, with the current administration that we have, nobody knew at the time. What we knew was that if we made the film on the project timeline, that it would be released around the election. When we greenlit the film, I worked with Cross Creek and Paramount on the timeline as we were putting together the financing. We did not know the exact specific society of what would be going on in the year. We had no clue what was going on with that in that sector.

Q: You’re obviously working with someone with a bit of experience doing political writing. What was it like collaborating with Aaron Sorkin?

A: It’s a great honor of my career. I truly believe that Aaron Sorkin is one of the greatest creative minds that I’ve ever known. It’s an absolute honor to be a part of the project that can help bring that vision to life. I know that this story had many iterations over the years and it took a long time to put it together. He waited this out over a decade span. His career evolved through that as well, through other projects and directing, other things from the genesis of his conversation with Spielberg years and years before to the evolution of the timing of making the film in 2019. Watching that, I think he’s a brilliant creative, a brilliant director, a brilliant writer. To bring that to life, again, like I said, no one knew what our country would be going through at the time of release in October of 2020. When we greenlit the movie, call it a year before that, maybe at the end of 2018, as it was just transpiring, nobody knew how it would fall in line. Working with Aaron is one of the greatest achievements of my career. I hope to do it over and over again.

Q: There is a truly superb ensemble here. Is there anyone you particularly wanted to see in these roles or enjoyed having the opportunity to work with?

A: I think this cast speaks for itself on screen. It’s a cast where you have movie stars and then you have this ensemble cast where, in my opinion, everyone came together on this project. Much to Aaron Sorkin’s vision and to the credit of each actor and actress on the project. Everyone collaborated and worked together. Yes, you have some of the best actors in the world on this movie, but I truly believe that it was the collaboration and working together that makes this film what is special. I know there were some iterations and different conversations and people throughout the year that were going to be involved but couldn’t be involved, but I think everything works out for a reason. The timing here with the project just could not have been better. It came together on screen in a very magical way.

Q: Was there anything that was difficult or unexpected about this process?

A: Again, you have a project that took over a decade to bring to life. And so, when you have that at any point, so many of the great films, especially films that tell a story – which is what I’m passionate about – I want to tell stories of historical events, of true lives and lessons that we’re learning and can learn in the future, you have to fight for that sometimes. Of course there were challenges, all the way through and through, especially in the distribution. The image when this film was created, when the cameras were rolling, was for it to be a very wide theatrical release available for everyone in theaters around the country and the world. The world gave us a different version of that, right? Definitely the challenges of how do we share this message, how do we spread this story, how do we put eyes and viewers to have Americans watch this great film? Thankfully, Netflix stepped up in an unbelievable and huge way, and made that possible for us to get it out in a timely release. What you mentioned earlier – we want to impact culture. The timing of the release prior to the election, we do hope that, if nothing else, we inspired people to stand up for what they believe in, whatever that may be.

Q: Looking at this year’s Oscar lineup, there are a lot of really incredible films. There’s also one that shares a character with this film, and that’s Judas and the Black Messiah, with Fred Hampton appearing in both films. How do you feel about that film existing at the same time and people seeing that very different film, as well as the rest of the slate?

A: No, it is, it is. Again, it’s part of the creative narrative. People expressing themselves in whatever medium and story that may be. What I can say is that I’m so thankful for the awards and the opportunity to be present in the awards because it’s a nod to filmmakers, to creatives, and to viewers. But at the same time, I’ve said this a couple times, while we’re so honored by that, for The Trial of the Chicago 7, the benefit, the big win, was to share the movie with the audience. Above any accolade and any award that anyone can take or get, the ability to do that is, in my personal opinion, so much more impactful than anything else around the awards. It’s wonderful that we’re nominated for so many great awards. There’s a lot of really amazing content out there.

Q: What projects do you have lined up next?

A: Oh, man. We’re working. I just wrapped a film called One Way with Machine Gun Kelly and Kevin Bacon, an unbelievable action-packed project that we filmed in the midst of COVID, under COVID regulations, down in Thomasville at our studio. Very thrilled to have that quick shoot wrapped. We are stepping next week into preproduction on a film called Supercell starring Alec Baldwin, it’s kind of a tornado, action-packed film as well. A lot going on. With Cross Creek and our partnership there, we announced The Pale Blue Eye, which sold at EFM to Netflix, so excited to collaborate again with Netflix and Christian Bale and Scott Cooper on that one.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is streaming on Netflix.


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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