Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain is one of the most politically important filmmakers of this generation. His Chilean films, such as No, Post-Mortem and 2016’s The Club and Neruda, show how shifting ideologies within the country were constantly stalled by outside countries and how that stifled revolution reverberates in many different areas of expression.
Jackie—which chronicles the days after JFK’s assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) attempts to give her husband a respectful burial—is Larrain’s English-language debut. Jackie is a perfect entry point for Larrain because the fractured narrative shows the White House in a moment of prolonged grief before the USA began meddling in many unpopular foreign affairs, such as aiding the coup of Chile’s democratically elected official in 1973.
In addition to portraying the shock of an assassination, Larrain uses Jackie Kennedy’s famous White House tour video—where she took the White House into American homes on television, to show many of the restored pieces that she brought back to the White House—as a narrative device. This and her interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) show Jackie Kennedy as carefully reconstructing an American legacy that now feels very distant. Everything changed after JFK’s assassination and Larrain is able to create a reverberating film from the shards of his narrative.
After the film had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival, I got the chance to sit down and talk with Larrain about his narrative approach to Jackie, working with composer Mica Levi and why he left the Scarface reboot.
COLLIDER: I know this project came to you through Darren Aronofsky. What was your prior knowledge of Jackie Kennedy?
PABLO LARRAIN: I had a very sort of silly opinion of her. I guess it was an uninformed, ignorant opinion about her. I just had this idea of this woman who was just after fashion and style. I had a mostly superficial view of her. But I thought this script was unbelievable. I actually went back through the records to see if it was actually all true and I couldn’t believe it. Then I dug and dug a bit more and I discovered a woman that captured my heart, my imagination. She was just someone who had a fascination for beauty, for style, for fashion but also was a very sophisticated woman on every level. She was a very educated woman, a woman with an intelligence very few people had and someone who had a sensibility in terms of politics and communication that I wish some of the contemporary politicians would have. She was a mother and a wife and as the First Lady she became someone who took the entire country over her shoulders and walked [with them].
Your first English-language film takes on a pretty iconic American period, how did being an outsider help in making this film?
LARRAIN: What I can tell you is that there were multiple things that were in the script that you needed a background on to understand. The script would assume things that most people probably know in the United States that I didn’t so in order to understand it I needed to clarify things so I wouldn’t assume anything that the audience already knows. That probably made the movie a little bit more compressible for people that would see this movie all over the world. For example the whole camera thing, the camera myth. The White House tour video started after our interview. It was something that I needed to understand, why it was so important, and so I asked Noah [Oppenheimer[ to explain it in the script. Once I got the context of why it was important, then we managed to do it in a way where it’s organic and beautiful and it doesn’t seem overstated. When I understood it, culturally, then I was able to do my job properly.
So you asked to add the White House renovation broadcast?
LARRAIN: Yes that was the first thing I did. Before meeting Natalie I got the script and I went to Google and I just got in there and I saw this incredible White House tour video. I thought she was doing something that was very incredible. She was not a TV personality and she was hosting a standalone segment on TV. And it came from her head. She got into all this restoration (of the White House) and she was very criticized for it. I think the criticism was wrong because people thought they spent their money from the government on the restoration and that [the Kennedys] would chose restoration to reflect her own taste—but it wasn’t like that. Jackie Kennedy was looking for stuff all over the United States, to bring back furniture and items that used to be in the White House but for multiple reasons was sold or given away. So she did a historic restoration of the United States in the White House. That has a lot of value.
She was an expert on every single room (in the White House) and what it meant. What it had and who was there. She restored the White House and she explained it to the American people in a very beautiful way but she’s about to explode when she’s doing this television program. There a fragility in this television event that I thought was fascinating and I completely fell in love with her.
I’m a fan of your previous filmography, especially your unofficial Pinochet trilogy, I was wondering, were you ever thinking about the fact that the Kennedy story is bookended by Nixon—like Nixon debated JFK and then his presidency followed LBJ’s after JFK’s assassination, and then Nixon’s involvement in Chile installed Pinochet as your country’s leader. Was this connection in your mind while you were making Jackie? And did it help as an outsider to have a connection to your previous films?
LARRAIN: Of course, these countries are intertwined. At some point my country was socialist with a president that was democratically elected (Salvador Allende) and they supported him. But the CIA assisted the coup because they were anti-socialist and then we got Pinochet. 17-years later the CIA helped to pull him out so of course it creates a lot of paradox inside of me. But that’s why I didn’t want to relate too much of American politics because as a Chilean it always goes back to Pinochet and what he did to our country. But I didn’t want to follow that thread because ultimately this story follows a woman who had very strong beautiful human intentions. I do honestly believe it I would never done a movie about America where I felt like I was hiding something that I knew, or making a fake portrait. I think this woman is very interesting for every citizen of the world because of what she did in a tragic moment. She became a mother—a big mother—not just for her own children or for this country but as someone who could bring people together and open a huge umbrella and protect everyone.
Was the script ever chronological or was it always sort of fractured?
LARRAIN: It was fractured already, but when i got involved I started working with Noah to fracture it even more. I worked to have even more timelines to sort of create this combination of timelines.
I adore Under the Skin…
LARRAIN: Me too.
So I was very glad to have another score from Mica Levi. How did you collaborate with her?
LARRAIN: I loved Under the Skin, but also I just felt that it would be interesting as well to have a woman playing music to this film. I think she is one of the greatest composers today. She’s just fantastic and beautiful. I’m a big fan and I was very lucky to be able to work with her.
You have said that she would send pieces for specific scenes but then you would place them elsewhere. Viewing Jackie it sounds like the score is going opposite of the scenes in a very interesting way.
LARRAIN: It’s just a different color an opinion where to put it. Mica and I would never work on having a specific eye-match and then that eye-match would trigger a specific emotion and then supporting that emotion or idea with music. I don’t like that type of score, like everybody is sad so let’s play sad music. What we tried to create a visual moment and then the parallel thing is music and sound and those two elements will create a new plane of splintering of grief. A vacuum of thoughts.
I know that there was a period at least that you were hired to do the Scarface script remake. I know they hired a new writer, but is your script still in play?
What did you attempt with that story when you were brought aboard?
LARRAIN: Universal had a script and then they wanted to change the script. We worked for a while and I just found that we didn’t have the same vision for that movie so I left the project. They were always very nice and respectful and we all understood that I wasn’t the right guy for the movie. It’s just a creative difference that’s all.
Do you have any plans to make another English-language film?
LARRAIN: Not at the moment, I don’t even had another plan to make another Spanish film at the moment.
Well, stateside you had three films released in 2016 so you deserve a break.
LARRAIN: I’m just doing this now. Talking about those films.
Jackie is currently playing in select cities and will expand this week and the following week. Pablo Larrain’s Neruda opens December 16 in limited release. And his other 2016 film, The Club, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.