Interview: ‘Kennedy’ Director Talks New HISTORY Docuseries

Key art for 'Kennedy' on HISTORY

Nov. 22 marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Because of the shocking and mysterious nature of his death, this terrible date has loomed large over JFK’s legacy. But HISTORY’s new eight-part docuseries Kennedywhich airs over three consecutive nights beginning Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8pm ET—is a vivid reminder of the full scope of his life, from his formative years traveling the world as the son of an ambassador to his transition from author and journalist into one of the most iconic political figures of the century.

Like his film’s subject, Kennedy director Ashton Gleckman has already amassed an impressive resume at a very young age. The 23-year-old has already directed two films, and he runs a popular YouTube channel focused on film composition, another one of his passions. Ahead of the Kennedy premiere, we had a Zoom call with Gleckman, which touched on his interest in JFK, his technique for scoring his projects, and why he decided to include Conan O’Brien in his new documentary. 

DISH: What are some of the lessons we can learn from Kennedy in 2023?

AG: I’ll give you one example. A lot of people know Kennedy as supporting the civil rights movement, which was a very critical movement that was taking place at this point in American history. And basically, as we explore in the series, Kennedy had to grow into that arena. He did not come into the White House being some kind of advocate or public official who was just going to sign a civil rights act right when he got into office. He was someone who had to be driven by the movement, the actual heroes that were on the ground doing the work, and [Kennedy] had to be receptive and listen to what was going on. So Kennedy, by 1963, becomes the first President in history to call civil rights a “moral issue” on TV. But that didn’t happen without Martin Luther King Jr. and without the people that were on the ground. So Kennedy was someone who had to learn, and he also had to be receptive to the movement and the people at that time.


Why did you decide to interview Conan O’Brien for this and what was that like?

AG: So I knew that Conan O’Brien was from Brookline, Massachusetts, because I’m a big Conan O’Brien fan myself. His sense of humor is just so singular. So I knew that he was from Bookline, which is where Kennedy was from. And then I started looking into him, and he went to Harvard University, he was on the board of the JFK library foundation for many years, and as soon as I reached out to him through his agent, it was like 3 or 4 hours before I got the response: “I’d love to talk about Kennedy, I’m super-interested in this stuff.” And so I went out to Los Angeles and I spent the day with him interviewing him. 3:20 – I was so fascinated at how this person, of course that we know as being this brilliant comedian, is also, like, a historian himself. And so I’m excited for audiences to turn on this show, hopefully, and see Conan O’Brien there and be like, ‘wow, that’s Conan O’Brien in a historical documentary series.’ So we’re very glad to have him.


How do you decide who to interview?

AG: One of the biggest things is just looking at the books that have come out, or looking at the articles, or looking at some of the experts in different fields. So, for example, I was looking into, who are the cold war experts? Who are the experts on the Berlin crisis? Who are the experts on the Bay of Pigs invasion? So a lot of the people I interviewed weren’t necessarily Kennedy biographers, but they were people who studied parts of history that incorporate Kennedy, or are part of the context of Kennedy. So that was a really critical point, to try to get that perspective, which often meant talking to people who didn’t have that direct connection with Kennedy, but they themselves have a parallel connection to it. I think that helps to round out the context of Kennedy’s life, because he lived through so many of these pivotal moments that I tried to bring alive in this show.


You also edit and score your documentaries. When you’re composing, do you have an idea in mind when you go into it, or what’s your process there?

AG: I think for me, I often have a sense for what the feeling of the music’s gonna be, what the emotion’s gonna be, what the music’s trying to say. Often what I try to do is…I don’t try to score exactly what’s on screen, because we often call that “Mickey Mousing.” When someone’s walking up the stairs, you put a string sound [going up], and then someone walks down the stairs, you put a string going down. I wanted to make it so that we were trying to capture the subtext of the moment, trying to capture Kennedy’s perspective with the score. And often that meant, if there was a tension-filled moment, you have that suspense and tension. And then if it’s a moment of reflection, where Kennedy’s having a moment of sort of solemn reflection—like in episode 8, before the assisination sequence, when he’s playing with his kids in the Oval Office, and they’re all dancing on the floor, it’s a very powerful moment—there’s just a piano track that I composed. And it’s a very simple little piano piece. But I just tried to capture that intimacy, so that we always feel like we’re following Kennedy.

Kennedy airs Nov. 18-20 on HISTORY. Not a DISH subscriber? Follow this link to find the best offer and subscribe to DISH today!