On November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to address the nation and the eyes of the world at the Dallas Trade Mart Building when his life was cut short.
About a year ago, UK transplants Cliff Simms and Peter Wood, from the creative consultancy Resident Alien, decided to set those words to sound using the voices of Dallas residents.
The UnspokenSpeech.org project is a compilation of seven videos highlighting the most significant themes of the President’s final address. Simms and Wood collaborated with various directors to work on motion projects creating personal expressions of The Unspoken Speech. Workbook contributors Dennis Murphy, Tom Hussey, and Stewart Cohen had the opportunity to add their respective visions to the project.
We had a chance to speak with Cliff and Pete about unspokenproject.org and working with some of Workbook's finest.
1. How did you two come across JFK's Unspoken Speech?
It starts with Pete. He was working at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1985. A creative director had visited the states and been in Dallas. They had heard about Stanley Marcus’s Unspoken Speech and told Pete.
Why? Peter was trained as a typographer and was a type freak. And the speech? Stanley Marcus commissioned typographer and master printer, Carl Hertzog of El Paso to produce a hand-typeset, bound edition of President Kennedy’s unspoken speech.
Of the 500 copies, the very first was given to the late president's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.
2. I've read that JFK has been a subject of study for you and Pete. What is it about him that each of you gravitate toward? What was it about the character of the man (event anniversary aside) that served as inspiration for creating this project?
In 1963, Peter was at St Joseph’s College, a Scottish Catholic boarding school in Dumfries. He heard the news at 7.30 in the evening. Although young, Pete remembers this well, as he burned his finger on a radiator. The first Catholic president meant a lot to Pete, the faith, and in turn, it’s many congregations.
One of Kennedy’s greatest quotes: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what can you do for your country”…the character of the man resonates with Pete here, in this way: “Ask not what people can do for you; ask what you can do for your people.”
Kennedy was asking us to become a country of givers, not takers. Look around; we are as a city, as a country are big on “taking.” We very rarely give back without exacting a price. As to the project, we wanted Dallas as a population to have the opportunity to give back. I’d like to think that Cliff and I believe these seven films do just that.
3. Is it fascinating to watch the varied interpretations in each segment? Could you go a little further into the collaborative nature of the pieces, as well as working with Dennis, Tom and Stewart (from Workbook)?
Peter and I were very much of the opinion that we wanted this project to be a community-based initiative and that as such we also wanted to let as many creatives be involved as wanted to be included. The premise however, was that you could only work on one segment. By default this meant each would be very different and be unique from the next, which was something we actively encouraged. We wanted people to be expressive and create their own tribute to JFK using the project as the vehicle to do so.
Dennis was great to work with. He's very thoughtful and has a great sense of artistic vision. He instantly understood the project and became absorbed in what we were trying to achieve. His piece, Only An America
, was a particularly difficult one because its all about civil rights. It needed a great deal of sensitivity and thought to make it work effectively.
Tom's piece was part music video, part fashion shoot. His attention to detail, right down to getting the fibers of the muslin cloth to come through in post, really helped give the piece that extra something. Some of the still shots of the model, Julie, are fantastic and really capture the 60s glamour of Jackie.
Stewart had the idea of taking high school students and shooting them in Oswald's actual cell, which we thought was simply brilliant. He was really able to draw out some amazing performances from the kids. Its really moving to hear these young teenagers articulating Kennedy's words about peace through military might in such an iconic location.
4. With interpretation so varied, was there ever a sense of missing the mark with the end product?
Yes, very much so, that is until Cliff came up with the thought that we try and deliver the 2,549 words through seven films. I think we started out with one long one, 2,549 holding a word each, as in our first film. Anyway, to Cliff's point, maybe we could extract the message of the speech in a simpler way. Otherwise it would stretch to forty minutes and after a few minutes, snoring would set in among our audience. The mark would be missed, so to speak.
Cliff broke down the speech by subject. Military Might, Social Justice, and Peace on Earth, to name but three of the seven. The word count was now 388, and the message of the piece in our minds still intact. Now we were able to deliver the overall message of the JFK Unspoken Speech in a more engaging way, and in turn give all of our directors, including ourselves, some focus on the first film without taking creative interpretation away from anyone. After all, the speech is heavy, [about] the cold war.
5. The project seems to hold private moments with the city of Dallas and with Texas itself. Can you speak on that subtle personalization?
Peter and I felt this project had to come from the citizens of Dallas, in their own voices and be expressed in their own way. Because of this approach, I think those who collaborated on the project felt a sense of passion about expressing both what JFK means to them, as well as their home, the city of Dallas. This created some very touching and personal moments that could have only come from people who know Dallas for the city that it has become over the last fifty years.
"Words Alone" The JFK Unspoken Speech Project. Dallas. TX.
from Resident Alien
6. You used the citizens of Dallas to help tell your story. Did you notice a change in them after their experiences with the speech? Did you notice a change within yourselves?
It was interesting to see just how willing everyone was to participate in the project, from folks we literally just stopped on the street and asked to hold a sign, as in our first film Words Alone
, to the people at the Dallas Trade Mart, who were only too happy to let us film where JFK planned to give the speech. It was clear to us from people's reaction to the project just how much they revered JFK and wanted to pay tribute to him. For some, I also think our project, and other projects that are going on in Dallas, represent a coming of age for the city and show that finally after fifty years it's coming to terms with what happened here.
7. It seems like speeches made by public figures today are not regarded as preciously as they used to be. Would you agree and if so, do you have any thoughts as to why speeches of today have less of an impact?
I don't think there as many true leaders in the world today as there have been in the past, and I don't necessarily just mean of countries and in politics. There are very few people who truly inspire and can stir up a passion or pride in people the way JFK did. I think it also comes down to belief. People believed in JFK, that he was going to lead the country through difficult times and keep its citizens safe; he represented the future.
For more on Unspokenspeech.org, click here.
To check out more work from Resident Alien, click here.