Carmel’s Own Ashton Gleckman on His Latest Documentary Series ‘Kennedy’
Back in July 2017, I had the immense pleasure of meeting Carmel resident and founder of Blackbird Productions Ashton Gleckman, who was featured in Carmel Monthly. A legitimate musical prodigy and gifted composer, Gleckman, now age 20, was in the early stages of his film and directing career when we first spoke.
To date, Gleckman has recorded multiple albums, written and directed feature and short films, composed scores for multiple feature and short films and has recently wrapped up filming for his latest project, “Kennedy”—a six-part documentary series that explores the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States.
The Road to Producing “Kennedy”
For as long as he can remember, Gleckman shared that he has been fascinated with the subject of John F. Kennedy and with American history in the 1960s.
“It has always been a subject that I’ve wanted to explore,” Gleckman expressed. “I can remember being super young and hearing Kennedy’s inaugural address and the famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ I figured what better time to make the most detailed exploration of this time in American history than now—60 years after JFK’s inauguration.”
As Gleckman was gaining invaluable experience with his previous projects, “We Shall Not Die Now” and “The Hills I Call Home,” he was all the while preparing for his work on “Kennedy.”
“I figured that before I got into creating “Kennedy,” I needed to get my hands dirty in a few other projects,” Gleckman acknowledged. “My first feature film, “We Shall Not Die Now,” was a Holocaust documentary, and I was able to travel around the world interviewing Holocaust survivors. I did around 25 interviews for that film, and it was almost entirely self-funded and very resourceful in terms of how it was made.”
In addition to directing and shooting the film, Gleckman also edited and co-scored the film alongside Grammy-nominated composer Benjamin Wallfisch and Austria-based composer Michael Frankenberger. The film premiered at the 28th Heartland International Film Festival on Oct. 12 and won the audience choice award for the Indiana Spotlight category.
Gleckman’s second feature film, “The Hills I Call Home,” was completed in 2020. The film explores everyday life in one of America’s poorest towns, located in Central Appalachia. This was released toward the end of March this year and is distributed internationally by Gravitas Ventures. The film screened at the Beaufort International Film Festival, supervised by “Forrest Gump” actor Gary Sinise.
An Authentic and Thorough Exploration of JFK
Gleckman began his research for “Kennedy” while he was making his last feature film.
“I was researching for over a year, reading every single book I could find on the subject,” Gleckman said. “The John F. Kennedy presidential library in Boston has an insane amount of resources and tens of thousands of documents that I sifted through. When we wrapped up production [of this series], we had filmed a total of 93 interviews.”
Gleckman and his team commenced production in Boston on March 12 and wrapped up production this past May. He is back home in Indiana, where he currently is in the editing process.
“We filmed back-to-back every single day,” Gleckman shared. “We would do a couple of interviews in a day, fly somewhere else that night and do some more interviews before flying somewhere else the next day. It was nonstop for four months.”
The biggest priority for Gleckman throughout this process was being able to capture the story of JFK from every single perspective that he could imagine.
That meant not only interviewing historians and biographers but also members of the Kennedy family, politicians who were inspired by Kennedy, TV/media personalities and civil rights activists.
“I spoke to Conan O’Brien at his studio in Los Angeles,” Gleckman said. “What many people don’t know [about O’Brien] is that he went to Harvard [University] and studied literature and history. He is a full-on historian as well as being one of the funniest guys in the world. There were a lot of similarities between Conan and Kennedy—it was a really exciting interview.”
As part of the 93 interviews, Gleckman also interviewed Anthony Shriver (Kennedy’s nephew), Jeff Shesol (speechwriter to President Clinton and author of “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War”), The Honorable Richard Neal (member, U.S. House, from Massachusetts), Sen. Tom Daschle (Senate Majority Leader, 2001–03), Timothy Naftali (presidential historian, CNN commentator and author of “One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964: The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis”) and several other influential people who were acquainted with and/or were personally impacted by JFK.
“I also interviewed a lot of civil rights historians and/or civil rights activists who participated in the Birmingham Campaign in 1963,” Gleckman said. “They are still participating and are sharing their stories. The whole idea was to try and get as many different kinds of backgrounds in terms of stories told to help me craft the narrative.”
The Man Behind the Legend
The “Kennedy” documentary series reveals to its viewers who JFK was as a president, a statesman, an advocate and a man—flawed and fragile just as much as he was influential and iconic.
“It’s what makes the story so tragic and mysterious,” Gleckman said. “While we get older and age, the image of John F. Kennedy will always remain that youthful figure. It’s important to realize this guy was flawed and made mistakes up until the day he died, and that’s what makes him multi-dimensional and so fascinating. In this series, we’re trying to capture every single aspect of him: his character, his political career and his family life. When people finish watching the series, they’ll have a better understanding of who he was. But in order to do real justice to his story, audiences will need to understand his motivations and the complexity of his character. We have to deconstruct the myth and really look at the man.”
Gleckman and his team at Blackbird Productions are aiming to release the “Kennedy” series in the fall of 2022 and are currently securing a platform for its impending release, though he shared he is hopeful that the series will debut on Netflix.