David Leaf on the enigmatic Beatle

David Leaf, Director of The US vs. John Lennon discusses his film with Sally Durcan.

by Sally Durcan

The US vs John Lennon is the compelling tale of a man who was passionate about peace and the trials and tribulations he faced during the volatile 60’s/70’s. It enables people to see a different side to the legendary singer and songwriter, John Lennon, and get an up close and personal look at his life.

So, David, why did you choose to make the movie?

To tell the story of John Lennon the peace activist. To show how he used his fame to embark on a campaign for peace, his struggle to get a green card and his run in with the Nixon Administration.

When did you start thinking about making this movie?

We started thinking about making the movie in the mid to late Nineties when the FBI documents were released. We could see the story of John and Yoko was a smoking gun as they embarked on their campaign for peace and essentially got caught in the cross hairs of the Nixon administration. It became very clear that the government, all the President's men, Director General John Mitchell and Senator Strong all believed that John was going to embark on a concert tour in 1972 that was essentially pro-peace and anti-Nixon. They feared it would mobilise a young electorate, because in 1972 it was the first year that 18 year olds could vote. These were a group of people (aged 18-24) that had never voted in a Presidential election before and this group was at the absolute heart of Lennon’s fans The Nixon administration was terrified that John could/would encourage them to vote against Nixon.

Did this face off between John and the Nixon administration inspire you to tell this story to a new generation of listeners, or had you always had a passion for John Lennon and his music?

As a baby boomer I grew up worshipping the Beatles. They were gods - the Beatles were essentially a religion. I went to school in Washington DC during the Nixon administration and the campus I went to was only five blocks away from the White House. It was probably the most centrally located campus in the world for watching the anti-war demonstrations which meant we got tear gassed if we wanted to or not.

The army was on our campus more often than might have been considered a casual passing through. For this reason, it was both the most important music of my life and the most important politics of my life. It is a tremendous intersection and opportunity as a storyteller when you get the chance to talk about the things you really care about.

So when you were a young lad growing up, did Lennon inspire you to tell stories or to make a difference?

I don’t think so. I was too young and naïve to understand why I liked John Lennon so much and the idea of making movies had not even occurred to me. I was a sports writer and didn’t even know you could write about music when I was younger - it was hardly considered a profession.

I don’t think that John and Yoko’s campaign for peace or their other activities resonated with me in a way I really understood. As I said, I was so young and naïve at the time and maybe even more naïve than young, that I didn’t understand the courage it took for them to use their fame to encourage peace and put it all on the line when they didn’t need to. John had nothing to gain from it. He knew he was making a fool of himself by getting in a bed and saying "We are not going to leave the bed until there is peace," and all those things. He knew he was being ridiculed.

When did it occur to you that you wanted to tell this story?

We put together a very elaborate proposal in the late Nineties and we called it in those days "The Secret War Against John Lennon". In those days we were talking to the television studios, as documentary then was much more of a television form. The topic didn’t resonate with anybody and they simply didn’t see the importance of it. And then tragically, in a post 9/11 world, peace became a much more important subject that people were once again talking about - where the government intimidate people and eavesdropping and immigration issues became a hot button issue for America. So unfortunately for all of us, the issues that John Lennon confronted 35 years ago are very much apart of the world we live in today.

I think that is what made this a very easy movie to sell in in the last few years. The response was "Sure we want to make this movie. This is a story of one of the world’s contemporary artists of the twentieth century, so let’s make it." Lions Gate, who were behind us from the moment we walked through the door, jumped at the proposal and allowed us to make the movie we wanted to make.

Why was nobody interested in making the movie in the late Nineties?

Everyone was interested. There are three key reasons as to why now. Firstly, in the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11 theatrical documentary making suddenly had a place in the world. Secondly, because of world events in recent years it has made this particular story meaningful. Thirdly I think that as filmmakers we had proved ourselves.

I don’t think anyone thought we were the right people to make the story when we originally wanted to and I don’t know that Yoko would have wanted to participate until we had built up a track record. For what I understand from the people at Lionsgate, from our past experience of directing films of a similar genre, people saw that we had the ability to tell a story about iconic figures that would hold the attention of the audience for 90 minutes or more. So a combination of all those factors came together and now the movie has been made.

What would you like people to take away from the film?

One of things that has been most gratifying is that the under 40’s audience and certainly the under 30’s audience have embraced the film, for the simple reason that the Beatles are historical figures that you remember your parents talking about. I think the average person knows that John Lennon was in the Beatles, that he wrote the song Imagine and that he got killed. They may not know anything more than that and especially may not understand why the anniversary of his death still brings people to tears and why Lennon is still held in such high regard and the reason why his message still matters.

John is very clear during the movie that our work has just begun. He says "So what? Flower power didn’t work so we start again. Apathy is not the answer." He is very clear that you can’t expect others to do it for you. This was John and Yoko’s biggest message - don’t expect leaders to solve your problems; it is up to each of us. When they campaigned for "The War is Over If you Want it" they specifically meant it that it is up to you and you and you to get out there and make a difference.

Another thing is people have forgotten the sheer magic of John Lennon and the charisma, the wit, the charm and the sheer brilliance of his artistry, and this is one of the key things we wanted to get across in our film. We wanted the film to put people in that place where they can experience it and for some experience it again and in a way be reminded. More than 35 years after he wrote the song Imagine, it is still relevant.

How do you respond to people who say there is nothing new to be seen in this film?

The people who say there is nothing new in the film and that they have seen it all before are quite frankly full of shit. The movie is full of stuff that no one has ever seen before. Not only rare footage, but stories and perspectives where we, as the filmmakers, connected the dots to create the story.

Is there a great revelation in the movie? No. Are there tabloid stories to get out of the movie? No. But has anyone ever told this story about John and Yoko, about this part of their lives, in a coherent and contextual way? No. For people to say there is nothing new is a really flippant comment. All the people we interviewed are saying things that have never been heard before. There are John Lennon recordings in the film that we did remixes on that have never been heard in this way before. Plus, Yoko has never talked publicly the way she does in this movie ever before.

I think the baby boomer generation may not like being reminded that we had an extraordinary opportunity to change the world and maybe we didn’t do everything we said we were going to do. No one likes to be reminded of their youthful passions that didn’t lead to concrete changes. It is easier to be 25 and believe you can change the world then and be 50 and look back and say "I used to think that way but I don’t think that way anymore." That is an uncomfortable feeling.

Do you think that the film will help Lennon’s work reach a new generation of listeners and viewers?

Sure, I really think that I am a proselytiser for artistry; there is no question about it. If you look at all my work I am passionate about the artists. I fall very deeply in love with a small group of artists and believe they are really important and want to share that. I am hopeful that the film will open people’s hearts and minds to John Lennon’s work. The political songs of John are very different to his greatest hits collection. These songs give you a sense of the passion and anger that he wrote and sang with.

Did you find Yoko’s ongoing love affair with Lennon shocking?

I certainly hoped for it and expected it. Whether it was going to happen when the cameras were rolling was a completely different matter. But when it does we filmmakers really love it because you can’t make people reveal themselves on camera, all you can do is create an environment where they feel that they can trust you and that you are working with integrity and are not going to take what they say and adapt it. Given the treatment that Yoko has received in the press for nearly 40 years it was magical that she candidly told us her stories and opened up her archives. No one has ever seen her speak like this before.

Do you think people will see Yoko in a new light?

You get a real sense of the love they shared but also the artistic collaboration they shared. You get a sense that this was not a one sided thing; it was two against the world, and that I think comes across in the movie in a way we have not seen before either. I don’t think we would have made the movie if Yoko had not agreed to participate.

Yoko Ono has been quoted as saying "of all the documentaries that have been made about John, this is the one he would have loved" - how does this make you feel as a director?

It is the ultimate compliment. There was really one person in bed with John and it really is her story too. So for her to lavish that kind of praise is very rewarding. To also know that the trust she placed in us was not misplaced is great.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Honestly the only creative thing that I wish we had of done differently is I wish we had filmed Liverpool and Japan being bombed so that the audience would have understood how John and Yoko had developed their passion for peace. It was very personal to both of them. They had grown up with the war and they saw the damage and futility it caused. During John’s childhood growing up in Liverpool he would walk passed bomb craters. He didn’t just wake up one day and say Peace is better than War.

Can you share a personal experience that you have taken away from making this film?

We shot all the interviews on a green screen and when Gordon Liddy sat down to do the interview he looked at the green screen and said "What are you going to do, put a picture of Satan behind me?" I said "No; Richard Nixon," which was fine for him. I was laughing to myself because to my generation Richard Nixon was something of a Satan but to him Nixon was not - he worked for him, he was passionate about him and he was still defending him. It was ironic.

Another magical moment was going to Dakota and showing Yoko the rough cut of the movie. She was watching the film like it was not her life – she was cheering on different parts of the movie and was so enthusiastic about the way the story unfolded. In the end she was reminded of all the things that had happened over her life. It was really moving. Oh, and of course when George McGovern broke into song during the interview singing Give Peace a Chance.

These are moments when you look at the cameraman and say "You had better have enough tape in the camera!" because you know it is going to be magical.

You knew from the very beginning how you wanted to make this film. Did seeing some of the archive material make you want to change any elements of it?

I don’t think what we found changed the movie dramatically so much as it made us make the movie dramatic. We outlined the story very carefully in terms of story points.

I will say that there were story points that we wanted to make but we didn’t include in the story because we could not find the material to correspond with it. For example, on election night we knew that John and Yoko had gone to a party at someone like Abby Huffman's and that John had either gotten drunk at the party or before the party and he was very angry and felt betrayed by the landslide by which Nixon had won. Of course Nixon had won 49 out of 50 states. He was really angry at this party and he hooked up with a woman who was not his wife, according to a source, and consummated their relationship. Yoko talked about it and someone else at the party talked about it in the film but we had no way to show it and no footage to help visualise the story. So in the movie what you see at that point is Nixon celebrating his re-election and Yoko talking about how John and her were distressed about the outcome. That plot point is telescoped into 20 seconds in what would have taken about three minutes.

We wanted to talk about the so called 'lost weekend' a little bit and what happened – we had no way to visualise it so this was dropped from the movie. So yes, the footage you find does shape the decisions you make in a positive way sometimes. For example, up to the last month we were desperately looking for footage of John getting his green card. We had people telling us on camera who were there, what had happened; we had photos of it, we knew what John had said but we didn’t have him saying it. Thanks to our archival team that footage finally turned up and it is a wonderful moment in the movie where someone says to John "Do you hold a grudge towards attorney general John Mitchell?" and John says this very charming and self deprecating thing that really personified the public John that we all love. Having that footage enhanced the moment, but we would not have been able to drop the moment should we not have gotten the footage.

Did you speak to the surviving members of the Beatles about the film?

We would have loved Ringo and Sir Paul to participate because we needed to understand where John's rebellious passion came from, and who better to talk about it? Unfortunately we didn’t get to speak to them. The Beatles choose to participate by allowing us to use key songs within the movie, we didn’t have permission until near the end and that is part of the nerve racking element of doing this work.

Anything else you want to share with us?

I just hope that when people see the movie that if they didn’t already know that John Lennon was a hero they do now.

Share this with others on...

The magnificence of the heroine Maria Tatar on fairy tales and The Heroine With 1,001 Faces

Moving trees Salomé Jashi on the emotional draw of her documentary Taming The Garden and her approach to filming it

Flight and fight Shaunak Sen on making his documentary about two brothers' bird hospital in Delhi

On the rocks Nicolaj Kopernikus and Kim Magnusson on the Oscar-shortlisted Stenofonen

Sundance announces awards Nanny, Utama, The Exiles and All That Breathes take Grand Jury Prizes

The Outfit to open 18th Glasgow Film Festival Full film line-up revealed

More news and features

We're currently bringing you coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.

We're looking forward to the Glasgow Film Festival.

We've recently covered the French Film Festival UK and Tallinn Black Nights, plus DOC NYC and the London Korean Film Festival.

Read our full for more.

Visit our festivals section.


More competitions coming soon.