Natalie Portman and Pablo Larraín on the set of Jackie.
As a retelling of the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jackie presented a unique challenge for director Pablo Larraín: How to shed new light on one of the most heavily investigated moments in American history?
“One key thing about Jackie Kennedy is that we know very little about her, even though there are tons of articles, books, and movies about her,” Larraín told Vulture last month in front of a live audience at the Director’s Guild of America Complex. “And the reason for that is not only because she really cared about her privacy, but also because I think she was a very mysterious woman. If you look at her in pictures and videos, she could be talking, but you look at her eyes — you don’t know what’s going on inside of her. And I think Natalie [Portman] has that too. We had those eyes to work with. And those eyes were a door to an unknown space.”
Over the course of the interview, Larraín and his brother, producer Juan de Dios Larraín, discussed the challenges of filming their English-language debut in France, how Portman grasped Jackie’s Kennedy’s signature breathy accent, the process behind Mica Levi’s unsettling score, and why every scene in the film had to reinforce “what Jackie went through.”
1. Jackie is the Spanish-speaking Larraíns’ first film in English.
“If I really thought about what I was taking on with this film, it would have been paralyzing,” Pablo told Vulture. “But maybe the biggest challenge was this was my first movie in English. Most of the actors were American or European and we were in the middle — these two Chileans,” he said with a laugh.
Because the movie was shot mostly in Paris and all the interiors were also built in France, the majority of the crew spoke French. So was that default language on set? “We do not speak much French, so there was a lot of ’English, please!’” Juan said. “Basically this movie is the story of two Chileans producing an American movie in Paris.”
2. Noah Oppenheim’s script blends fact and fiction.
“Something I admire about America is that you guys have records of everything,” Pablo explained. “You can get a minute-by-minute account of everything that happened the day that JFK was shot. But of course once the doors closed, nobody knows what happened. And those were the doors for fiction.” There’s a particularly powerful montage that shows a bereft Jackie walking around an empty White House trying on evening dresses, drinking vodka, and listening to the soundtrack from Camelot. “Did Jacqueline Kennedy do that? I don’t think so, honestly,” he said. “But there are some moments as a filmmaker when you just can’t stick only to reality. Not every human emotion is portrayable on film.”
One key historic moment purposely omitted from the film was the heartbreaking image of young John Jr. saluting at his father’s funeral. “It’s so iconic, so important and so well-known that we took it out,” said Pablo. “We actually shot it and it was beautiful, but there were two problems. The body was moved from the White House to the Capitol, it stayed one night there and then from the Capitol went to the White House. And then that’s when they walked with it to St. Matthews. From St. Matthews was a mass, then it was taken to Arlington Cemetery. In the montage of the funeral, if we went to St. Matthews, it would like take another couple of minutes and it was very hard for the rhythm of the film. That’s one of the reasons we removed it. And then the other one is we really wanted to keep the focus on her. That’s also the reason we decided to shoot the assassination in the way that we did [with an close aerial view of JFK’s bloody injuries], which is very harsh and violent. Usually, this moment is seen from far away because of the Zapruder film. But we had to be responsible with the style and the point of view — go closer and experience what she experienced; load the film with that emotion so we would understand what Jackie went through.”
3. The film’s JFK look-alike was cast from social media.
“It was very important from the beginning to find great actors,” Juan explained. “But we were also looking for actors who were simple. We brought talent from all over the world, Europe and the States. The actor who plays JFK is a Danish actor named Caspar Phillipson, and we found him on Facebook.”
4. There were no rehearsals.
“Personally, I never do rehearsals. I’ve never done it,” Pablo revealed. “I have a theater background and it’s very hard to really help an actor prepare without the makeup, the costume, and a camera. The camera brings the tension I need. If we don’t have that, then it’s very hard.”
5. Portman’s accent was so spot-on at times, it seemed over the top.
“We worked with a speech coach called Tanya Blumstein who helped a lot because there are characters in the film from California, Dallas, Boston, and New York. I really wanted to do it right,” said Pablo. “Sometimes I see movies that are in English but you can tell that the director is not a native speaker. I wanted to avoid that. Specifically with Natalie, she had Jackie’s voice from the very beginning. The first day of shooting, I have to admit when she started talking, I was like, ‘What?’ Wow.’ Our first sequence was the re-creation of the 1962 White House tour, which was two steps ahead in terms of the accent. Very exaggerated. Jackie had a TV voice and a public voice. At first I thought, This is too much, but then we played the original and it was exactly right.”
6. There’s a reason some shots in the film feel like they came from The Shining.
“I’m a huge [Stanley] Kubrick fan,” said Pablo. “I would say there are three shots that were made with a Steadicam and have a height and a distance with the character that were obviously unavoidably homages to Mr. Stanley Kubrick, for sure. And we used some similar camera lenses [as he did] as well.”
7. The score was composed largely over Skype and email.
“A couple years ago we saw a movie called Under the Skin,” Juan recalled. “The score by Mica Levi is incredible. I think it was when we were doing the prep in Paris that I got in touch with her agent and everything started from there.”
“Mica is very, very special,” Pablo said. “She lives in London, she’s like 28. And she would do everything by herself, then record it with more people. I’d send her scenes while we were shooting and she’d send back music for that specific scene. I’d call her back and say, ‘Sorry, it worked very well, but not there.’ And then she would send something else for another scene. It became like mechanics working! This was all over Skype and email. Then I went to London and sat down with her before she was going to record the music, and we reorganized, reshaped it, and then we mixed it in Paris. She’s an extraordinary artist. Most scores in cinema are usually supporting the same emotion that you’re seeing, but she composed something totally different. A third idea; something that’s not exactly there and is very hard to describe.”