Pablo Larrain On Making The Beautiful And Haunting ‘Jackie’

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It’s noteworthy that this year’s most talked about film about an American political figure – right smack in the middle of a new, even worse era of political strife – is made by a Chilean filmmaker. But maybe that’s just what Jackie needed, a look from a bit on the outside at one of the most important figures of the 20th century. Actually, once you see Pablo Larrain’s haunting, beautiful Jackie, it’s evident that’s exactly what the film needed because it just all works so well. And we haven’t even gotten to Natalie Portman’s done-deal, going-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance as Jackie Kennedy.

Told in flashback a few weeks after the assassination of her husband, Jackie features Natalie Portman absolutely transforming herself into Jackie Kennedy. The film crisscrosses back and forth from Jackie Kennedy giving a televised tour of the White House to the day of the assassination, which includes, from Jackie’s perspective, maybe the most brutal cinematic depiction of that event put to film. Ahead, Larrain explains the nuances involved with bringing Jackie to fruition.

It’s an interesting time to be making a movie about American political figures right now.

It is, yeah. It was very unexpected. But, yeah, it ended up being like that. I never thought that I would ever make a movie about Jacqueline Kennedy actually really until Darren Aronofsky had this wild idea of bringing a Chilean into this project. But it’s been a very beautiful experience.

Back in September, Jackie kind of came out of nowhere. It’s rare when there’s not a lot of early hype.

I think a movie should fight for their own interest on the cinema first, and then you get to talk about it if people are interested. But I think if you really trust a movie, you have to play it and you have to play it in the cinema and you have to trust the film. And that’s what we did, I guess. Instead of sort of talking out loud about the film before it went out, we trust the film and we protect it until it was ready to go and we show it and share it.

Hype can be detrimental.

Yeah, and I think it’s an unpredictable movie and that unpredictability is what makes it interesting somehow. Because it’s a movie about a woman, it’s a movie about one of the biggest crises in the history of this planet, and it’s a movie about a private person that later became an icon. And I couldn’t agree more with you. I think it’s been a fascinating process and I have learned a lot, I have to say.

Your movie depicts maybe the most horrific recreation of the Kennedy assassination I’ve ever seen. And it’s from Jackie’s perspective, which made it more horrifying.

I remember when I got the script and then I got into the Warren Commission Report. The script was amazing and then the Warren Commission Report would describe how he was assassinated: like one bullet here and one bullet there, third bullet in the skull. And at the end was, “Jacqueline Kennedy, his 34-years-old wife, was sitting next to him.” And we were like, why don’t we think for the length of this film that he was sitting next to her. And so that’s why our approach is only her perspective all the way in the film. And why would we go away from her in that specific moment, you know? And it was fair to the story and the point of view that we had that if we’re going to show the assassination, we’re going to show it from her perspective. And she was very close, man. So why would we go away from it? And yeah, we wait until the right moment shows up, because this is a movie about memory and memory is very random and it’s associated to emotions. And it felt better when we cut the film to put it there because that was the moment she would probably remember it strongly, you know? And we had to be close and graphic because we need to share that emotion so people will understand what she went through.

It also makes you realize how lucky she was to have survived that day.

Yeah, of course. Oh, yeah. That bullet could easily have gone through to her. Whoever shot that bullet was of course a good shooter, you know?

It’s interesting you said “whoever.”

Oh, you know, I never got into who shot that bullet and why.

I only ask because you said “whoever,” which I thought was interesting.

Yeah, because what happens is that this is a very large discussion around the subject, and I never wanted to get into there, because that was not her issue. It’s not her story, you know? If we would be making a movie about that, I would probably answer that with more sensibility.

This is a weird question, but can a performance ever be too good? At times it felt like I was watching the real Jackie Kennedy.

It was one of the challenges. When you make a movie about somebody who’s so famous with somebody that’s also so famous like Natalie, it’s like how many minutes it takes to the audience to say, “all right, that’s Jackie.”

Very quick. It does not take long.

And I think that’s why the film started with a black image and the music flows for 15 seconds over a black image. And then a close-up of Jackie that lasted for a while while she walks. And I think there’s something in Natalie’s eyes, man. Of course she has the intelligence, the beauty, the sophistication that resembles Jackie – but Jackie Kennedy was a very mysterious woman, and there’s a lot that’s been written about her. If you go on Amazon, type her name and you get a hundred, maybe a thousand biographies.

I remember when she was alive, as Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and she was very mysterious. No one ever knew what she was doing.

But not just because she would take care of her own privacy, but just look at pictures of her. Type Life Magazine and you will see her pictures, her color pictures, see her eyes, and there’s something in those eyes, man, that has an incredible amount of mystery. And that’s what Natalie does so well, too. And that’s why you were like, oh, she’s Jackie, because I can’t answer the question who she is. That’s the trick, the level of mystery that involves her.

You brought up the music cues. The score for Jackie is tremendous.

Well, the score is amazing. I think Mica Levi is very much a genius. What happens with scores is that, most of the time, the scores are like sort of repeating the idea that is in the image. So just like if it’s sad, then you’ll play sad music. What we try to do here is to bring another sensibility, another emotion, another expression with the music so that, combined with the image, it would create a third idea that is more hard to describe.

One of the most haunting scenes I’ve seen this year is after the president is shot and we watch Jackie holding him while the car is speeding down the highway on the way to the hospital.

Well, I think what happens is that most of what has been done around the subject, it’s from when they get into the motorcade in Dallas and they drive around until the assassination moment, right? But then I discovered that there was this moment from the assassination to when they got to Parkland – which is the hospital where Kennedy actually died – and it was six and a half minutes. And I’m like, what? Can you imagine that she hold his head on her lap for six and a half minutes.

That’s a very long time.

It’s an eternity, man. And I was like, we have to deal with that.

You’re right. No one’s ever really explored those six minutes.

I was like, why hasn’t anybody focused on these minutes that must be an eternity for her? And that’s why we stayed there. And I tried to shoot it in different angles with different intentions and then we used it and set it up in the editing as you see in the film, because it’s an important moment. Those are the moments that stay with us. And I think that was a very tough moment for her, because that’s the moment, those six and a half minutes, she’s saying, he’s going to die, I’m a widow, my life has changed, I’ve got to leave the White House, what am I going to do, this is horrible, this is too sad. Like all those things. What’s going to happen to my children? What’s going to happen to this country? Are we in war? How many questions can you ask? Millions of questions and all that is just so sad and distracting and horrible. And you need that to understand how strong she was, because later she would put the entire country’s grief, her own grief, and her family’s grief on her back and she would walk and push, which is what she did.