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Building a Mystery: Pablo Larraín on "Jackie"

When we think of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, we cannot help but immediately remember her unmistakable style and grace. Even standing there as Lyndon B. Johnson was being sworn in as president following the assassination, her husband's blood still staining her clothes, she maintained a degree of poise that seems almost incomprehensible. And yet, what was going on with her beyond the brave front that she presented to the public in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s murder? 

That is the question driving “Jackie,” a new historical drama that presents a psychological portrait of her over the course of the first few days following the assassination. During this period of time, she tries to care for and console her children, plan a funeral, lay the groundwork for defining her husband’s enduring legacy and deal with the unimaginable trauma of having seen her husband murdered in such a violent, public manner. Anchored by a stunning performance by Natalie Portman in the lead role, “Jackie” offers viewers the chance to observe one of the most infamous events in American history through a heretofore unseen perspective. The result is an absolutely fascinating work that, while not a traditional biopic by any means, gives a more detailed look than practically all of the biographies and magazine articles that have been written about her over the decades.

“Jackie” was directed by Pablo Larraín, the Chilean-born filmmaker behind such acclaimed works as “Tony Manero” (2008), “No” (2012) and this year’s “Neruda.” That latter film, a drama focusing on the political persecution of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda in the late 1940s, has been widely mentioned as a possible nominee for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. If that happens, the almost certain nominations for “Jackie” will make Larraín the rare filmmaker with two different titles up for Oscars in the same year. 

In town last month for the Chicago International Film Festival (where he presented both films), Larraín sat down with me to talk about “Jackie,” making his first film in English and the challenges of directing a movie about a woman who, despite her worldwide fame, remains an enigma to this day.

Before you began working on this film, what did Jackie Kennedy represent to you as a person?

I probably had a very superficial idea of her—very banal and silly on my part. I thought she was someone that was into fashion and style and that she was basically the wife of a very important person in the history of the United States. That is why I was so surprised when I got that call from [producer] Darren Aronofsky. I remember that I read the script and then immediately started researching. I was very surprised and a little embarrassed for myself because I discovered someone that I had never imagined existed.

It is strange, though, because even though she would become one of the most famous women in American history, she still remains an enigma to many people. Nowadays, for example, we more or less expect the wife of the President to take on some kind of public role. But back then, when she did the televised White House tour that serves as a recurring motif in your film, that was literally the first time most people actually heard her voice.

That was the first thing that I found, actually. That was not in the script and I suggested to the screenwriter [Noah Oppenheim] that it be included afterwards. I Googled and I found the video on YouTube and played it and I could not believe what I was looking at. At first, it feels as if she is performing and then when you watch it again—and I admit that I must have watched it about 50 times—you understand that it is a woman who is doing something very historical and important in terms of the history of the United States. More interesting, to me, it is like watching a woman who is about to explode or melt. Her eyes and her voice are just filled with passion and love and she is just pushing something that I consider so beautiful. 

At the same time, those were the years of splendor. What I mostly connected with was that was somehow foreshadowing what would come next for her. It was like a secret map that was predicting what would happen to her. She would keep talking about Abraham Lincoln and what the White House did to him when he was assassinated and talk about Lincoln’s wife, who died destitute, and how she had to pawn silverware and sell furniture in order to survive. She was very concerned about that and she was also concerned about how Lincoln’s widow was criticized at the time for spending too much money on restoring the White House. This was a very interesting and strange reflection of herself. And then two years later, it was exactly what happened to her. I felt that it was an incredible part of the story and through that, I learned how strong she was. It feels sometimes that here in America, there is not enough connection with the international world and what is going on overseas and she was aware of that. She spoke four languages—I was amazed by how good her Spanish was and how educated she was. She had an incredible sensibility for politics and communications.

Although some have described “Jackie” as being a biopic, it really isn’t quite that since it is devoted almost entirely to the first few days immediately following the assassination of JFK. Watching it, I was reminded of your film “No” in the sense that both are movies interested in observing galvanizing historical moments as they are happening—in this case, we see not only the assassination and its immediate aftermath but observe Jackie as she begins to lay the groundwork for molding the Camelot myth into a legacy for her late husband. It is an interesting approach, because while we all know what happened in the broad strokes, we do not necessarily know all of the details and machinations that went into making it all happen. What is it that intrigues you about that particular approach to this kind of historical material?

I think that it is about people shaping history and trying to build something. In the case of “No,” “Neruda” and “Jackie,” I guess those three films are connected on that level and I appreciate what you are saying. There is something that is so interesting and that is the fact that when you are trying to build a legend and establish something that you want to stand the test of time, something different happens from what they actually wanted. There is a gap and that is where I think we can work. That is a sort of black hole, where no one knows what happens in between those intentions and what actually ends up happening. That is where fiction can be brought in as something to work with, to create something that you are not completely sure of how it happened. In the case of Jackie, she was someone who set out to protect his legacy and give it shape. And by doing that, she made him a legend and without knowing it, she became an icon and ultimately a mannequin. Those are the things that I consider to be interesting, because it is a history of crisis and people trying to protect themselves and what they love.

“Jackie” marks the first time that you have made a film in which the central protagonist is a woman—was that part of the appeal of choosing to do this project?

It was frightening but at the same time, that is also what makes it exciting and why you are attracted to it—to go to an unknown place rather than do something that you have done before. You want to try to control something that is uncontrollable and to do that, I just felt like I had to work with a few keys. One of the main keys is that once you understand that Jackie Kennedy is probably the most unknown of known women ever, then you realize that you will never really get her, no matter how many biographies you read or movies you watch or people that you talk to—people never really knew who she was.

Even when they do films about JFK, she often winds up be shunted off to the side.

Until now. That is what we tried to do but what happens is that once you understand you are not really going to be able to completely capture her, that gives you a lot of peace. Because you know that you will never be able to trap the ghost but by trying, you will still come up with something that might be interesting. 

I guess that is just my sensibility and Natalie has that and that is why I said to Darren that we had to have her in this movie. He said he would set up a meeting to see what we could do. I met her and said, “I want to make this movie with you and I want to suggest the screenwriter wipe away all the scenes that you are not in and I want you to be in every scene and every moment.” There is no way, at least in front of a camera, that people can really know what is going on with you and she has that in front of a camera as well. Natalie could be telling you, while playing a role, everything that she feels and thinks and what is going on with her and you could look at her and still not know what was really going on. That mystery is the key to this movie and also the key to cinema. She not only has the sophistication and elegance that Jackie had, she also has the mystery that is ungrabbable. That sort of cosmic mystery works very well in the film because then you have an active audience that is questioning and wondering what is going on.

The experience of watching it is emotional, intellectual and spiritual and it makes you feel active. We had a wonderful script and when we cut the movie with [editor Sebastián Sepúlveda], we were sort of shaping the structure in a way that would be based on a tone and a mood and an atmosphere that would somehow create what you would ultimately think she was. It is very hard to determine that because, as I told you, I did a lot of research on a movie called “Jackie” and I still don’t know who she was. That is the whole point—you will never get there but there is something so interesting and charming and beautiful about that. She is like the sea—she will always come back to you.

“Jackie” also marks the first film that you have shot in English with a largely American cast and you wound up shooting most of the interiors in France. 

I had an incredible French crew and they were all extremely high-level artists. Then I had all these American actors in front of the camera and I was in the middle with my producer, who is also from Chile. My English is okay but my French is not good, so it was hard. But we all connected because of the kind of movie that we all wanted to do, which was to recreate the White House. They did it so well that when I walked onto the set when it was all done, I could hardly believe it. When Jackie did the restoration of the White House, most of the things like the curtains and fabrics were made in France, so our production designer went to those companies that were still open and were ultimately able to find the stamps and remake all of it for us. The scale was 1:1 so it was all done in the same size and space. It really gave us the feeling that we were there. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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