“This is a film we’ve wanted to make for a long time,” says David Leaf of THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON, his and John Scheinfeld’s account of the United States government’s efforts to deport John Lennon in the early 1970s. “It’s definitely a forgotten story. The vast majority of the people who lived through that period and knew something about the Lennon case haven’t thought about it in a really long time. For anyone born since then, it’s a probably an unknown story. For the most part, what people under 40 know about John Lennon is that he was in the Beatles; he wrote “Imagine,” which they sang in a choir in school; and he was murdered. Other than that, I don’t think people really have a sense as to the courage with which he lived his life and his and Yoko’s willingness to put everything on the line for what they believed in.”
Early attempts to get the film off the ground in the 1990s were unsuccessful. But the filmmakers found themselves returning to the subject of Lennon’s travails in the wake of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the furor that erupted when entertainment figures spoke out in protest. Recalls Leaf, “We saw what happened when Bill Maher, the Dixie Chicks and other celebrities voiced their opinions regarding the war or the president. We thought by telling this story that took place 35 years ago, we could make a film that was relevant to the dialogue in America today.”
The events of 35-40 years ago were critical to the filmmakers’ conception of THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON. Says Scheinfeld, “This film had to be about the social, political and cultural landscape of America during this period, and what Lennon was stepping into when he took the stance that he did.”
Securing the cooperation of Yoko Ono was key, a matter of both cinematic necessity and principle. “We don’t do anything that’s not authorized,” notes Leaf. “In order to make a film with all the elements we needed – never-before-seen footage, John Lennon’s music, Yoko Ono’s memory, comments and observations on what happened to them – we had to go to Yoko and tell her, ‘Here’s what we want to do.’”
In thirteen years as production partners, Leaf and Scheinfeld have worked closely with great performers and their estates to make comprehensive biographical portraits that highlight the creative processes. Ono was familiar with the team’s work, having sat for an interview with Scheinfeld for his recent documentary about singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson, one of Lennon’s favorite artists and a close friend (Lennon produced Nilsson’s album “Pussy Cats”).
With a thorough understanding of the film Leaf and Scheinfeld had in mind, Ono agreed to participate. They began seeking a production partner and distributor, and approached Lionsgate, which was expanding deeper into feature documentaries with the production of Werner Herzog’s acclaimed GRIZZLY MAN and Lian Lunson’s LEONARD COHEN I’M YOUR MAN. They met with Kevin Beggs, President, Programming and Production for Lionsgate Television and head of the company’s documentary feature development and production arm. Though Beggs is a fan of the Beatles and Lennon, he knew little about Lennon’s deportation fight and was fascinated to learn about the shadowy machinations behind it. Beggs remarks, “The story John and David told was both compelling and relevant. We thought, ‘Wow. What a great follow up to not only GRIZZLY MAN but also to LEONARD COHEN.’”
Lionsgate President Tom Ortenberg agreed. “I thought it was an important story, and I knew David and John would make an informative, provocative and broadly entertaining film. You couldn’t ask for a more charismatic and intriguing subject than John Lennon.”
Beggs notes that the project’s topical nature was a natural fit for the studio that released not only FAHRENHEIT 9/11, but also CRASH and SECRETARY. “We’re committed to supporting controversial, provocative works that challenge the mainstream,” he affirms. “And nobody, now or then, embodies that spirit more than John Lennon.”
Kevin Beggs came to VH1 looking for a production and distribution partner and the cable channel signed on as a co-producer. VH1 will air the film commercial free after its theatrical and DVD release as part of its “Rock Docs” franchise, a series of feature length documentaries all revealing an untold story in the history of rock and hip-hop music, combining never-before-seen footage with a unique and unconventional narrative approach.
“This film is a natural addition to our Rock Docs franchise as we’re committed to providing our viewers with a visual history of some of the most important artists and movements in music. John Lennon was the voice of his generation and his stance against war and the challenges he faced in spreading a message of peace are proving to be a story that’s relevant today and is important to be told,” said Michael Hirschorn, Executive Vice President, Original Production and Programming, VH1.
THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON depicts an era of ongoing challenges to the mainstream as it follows Lennon’s journey from 1966, when he had his first significant brush with controversy in the U.S., to 1976, when he received his green card granting him permanent resident status. The narrative presents both the microcosm of Lennon’s personal experience and the macrocosm of the world in which it took place.
In tackling the larger historic landscape, Leaf and Scheinfeld sought to interview a broad range of notables whose lives were bound up in the era’s events. Leaf describes their criteria simply: “Who speaks with authority and credibility to what happened? Not somebody who was at a remove from it, not somebody who’s studied it, but somebody who was in the thick of it. We wanted the entire spectrum of participants, from the Nixon administration all the way to the far end of the radical left.”
The filmmakers had already begun work on the film in April 2005 with an interview of John Sinclair, whose 1969 sentencing on marijuana charges led to the benefit concert that would ultimately changed Lennon’s life. By July 2005, Leaf and Scheinfeld were well into production, and they conducted a remarkable series of interviews into the winter of 2006. The roster includes radical leaders who were targeted by the FBI (Professor Angela Davis, Black Panther founder Bobby Seale, Yippie Stew Albert), as well as two former FBI agents who participated in the bureau’s surveillance operations; former Nixon White House staffers G. Gordon Liddy and John Dean, as well George S. McGovern, Nixon’s Democratic opponent in the 1972 election; Walter Cronkite, the CBS News anchor voted “the most trusted man in America”; and Geraldo Rivera, whose legal representation of the New York Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords jump-started his journalism career at WABC-Television in 1970.
Leaf and Scheinfeld wanted very much to interview former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who began his legal career in 1958 and served as New York’s Secretary of State from 1975-1978. As it happens, Ortenberg had come to know Cuomo when Lionsgate released the documentary FAHRENHEIT 9/11 in 2002. “I was fortunate enough to become friends with Governor Cuomo through our distribution of FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and we’ve remained good friends to this day,” says Ortenberg. “When this project came to us, I immediately thought of the Governor, who would likely have some very important things to say about that time in American history.”
Ortenberg phoned Cuomo about appearing in the film, and one day the Governor telephoned Leaf and Scheinfeld. Cuomo had concerns; he hadn’t known Lennon and admitted he wouldn’t necessarily know one Beatles song from another. Recalls Leaf, “He said, ‘Why do you want me?’ I said, ‘We want you to be our Cicero. We want you to talk about the Constitutional issues.’”
Interviews would sometimes take surprising turns. Leaf cites their session with Vietnam veteran/antiwar activist Ron Kovic, the subject of the film BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. “When Ron Kovic came for his interview, we had no idea how passionate he was about John Lennon,” Leaf notes. “But we knew who he was and what he had been through, and he brings a moral authority to the story because he actually went to Vietnam and lost the use of half his body because of the experience. He turned out to be, to us, one of the most important people in the movie because he makes such an emotional, visceral connection between the Vietnam War and what happened to John.”
But the closest perspective on Lennon’s private life comes from Yoko Ono, his partner before, during and after their campaign for peace. Ono sat with Leaf for extended interviews on three separate occasions, the most recent of which took place in March 2006. Comments Scheinfeld, “She really came to trust David and opened up. She is the one person who not only can speak to what happened, but why it happened and what their motivations were, what pressures they felt. Part of the subtext here is a great love story between John and Yoko, and she speaks to that as well.”
Ono granted the filmmakers unprecedented access to the Lennon estate’s archives, which yielded a tremendous amount of never-before-seen audiovisual materials. THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON reveals a couple very much in love, with a playful rapport and a shared dedication to ideals of peace. Notes Scheinfeld, “From almost the time John and Yoko got together officially as a couple, they had cameras around. We had access to a number of unfinished films; finished but unreleased films; home movies; and private wedding photographs. These materials give an idea of what their daily life was like. One of the things you see in this film is the journey that they took together.”
Beyond Ono’s archives, Leaf and Scheinfeld scoured archives, libraries and private collections all over the world searching for unique audiovisual materials to illustrate the film. They turned up pieces of footage from an outtake reel in Vienna, and local news clips that had not been seen since their initial broadcast more than 30 years ago. They unearthed revealing moments featuring Presidents Johnson and Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. They acquired footage depicting the film’s various interview subjects in the 1960s and 1970s, and then interwove those archival sequences with the guests’ contemporary interviews. Some searches took months on end, as was the case with the footage of Lennon receiving his green card.
Lennon himself is the film’s paramount witness, seen and heard in its footage and on the soundtrack. The vast majority of the film’s songs – 37 out of 40 – are culled from his post-Beatles career, and serve to advance the narrative and offer commentary. Comments Leaf, “The songs allow John to speak musically to how he was feeling and what he was thinking at a specific time.” Ono also allowed the filmmakers to use Lennon’s music, stripped of vocals, as underscore.
By the time they completed the film, Leaf and Scheinfeld had discovered new wrinkles in a saga dating back several decades. Says Leaf, “When we started, we knew what had happened, but we didn’t know exactly why. Why had the U.S. government targeted John Lennon? Why did they see him as such as threat? What was so dangerous about what he was saying? What can we learn from what happened to John Lennon? This movie is an adventure story about what happened to the most famous person in the world when he decided to use his fame to launch a worldwide campaign for peace.”