Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín are both students of history. But neither was interested in making “Jackie” a typical biopic.
First lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, like much of the world, was thrown into shock and grief by an extreme act of violence on Nov. 22, 1963. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Larrain, who set three of his films during Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship in the director’s homeland of Chile, would be most drawn to Jackie’s humanity in the midst of horror.
In the aftermath of the assassination, “it seemed as if the world had tilted off its axis,” Oppenheim says. Jackie, her blood-splattered pink wool suit testimony to her proximity to the gruesome tragedy, had reason to be fearful for everyone in the president’s inner circle. “They didn’t know if it was the first shot in the coup. They had no idea what was going on,” he says.
The film, opening here on Dec. 9, focuses on a few days just before and after the assassination. It imagines Jackie (Natalie Portman) as she deals with the murder of her husband, revealing the gulf between her public and private faces. Acting decisively, she orchestrates his funeral and insists, despite security warnings, that she walk behind the horse-drawn casket. She also sits down at the family compound in Hyannis Port with journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) and shrewdly authors JFK’s, and her own, legacy by appropriating the Camelot myth, defying fate by having the last word.
For the filmmakers, that was key to understanding her.
“She was sitting next to her husband at the moment he was murdered. She then has to go home and guide two young children through the trauma of losing their father; she has to vacate their home physically, without knowing where she’s going to live or how she’s going to support herself; and she has the eyes of the entire world upon her. She also has the presence of mind to recognize that this is her last chance to decide how her husband will be remembered. She comes up with this Camelot analogy in that moment. And she’s only 34 years old, ” says Oppenheim, a producer for “The Today Show” who wrote the screenplay six years ago.
His script languished until Darren Aronofsky, who once planned to direct “Jackie” himself with Rachel Weisz set to star, asked Larraín to take a look. Portman, who won a best actress Oscar for the Aronofsky-directed “Black Swan,” signed on after Weisz dropped out. She approved the change in director after meeting Larraín.
“Darren had the insight that a Chilean filmmaker would be the perfect match for this quintessential American piece of material,” says Oppenheim. “The first thing Pablo said was, ‘I want to hear the record of the [“Camelot”] musical.’”
Larraín, making his first film in English, worked closely with Oppenheim on rewrites so that Jackie became the focus of every scene. “We wanted to show what she went through; her strength and her power; and how she was able to shape a country’s identity and protect [JFK’s] legacy,” says Larraín.
Larraín’s films are notable for what he describes as “a mood and a tone that grabs the audience. It comes together in the editing.” He turned to his frequent collaborator and fellow Chilean Sebastian Sepúlveda, who edited Larraín’s “The Club” (2015), about Catholic priests sent to a secret “retirement house” in Chile. That acclaimed film boasts Larraín’s signature mix of surreal and politically incisive material.
“I studied history for four years and I saw [Oliver Stone’s] ‘JFK’ film. But I had a light idea of [Jackie] that was like a mannequin, a crystal bouquet,” says Sepúlveda. “We worked all the elements of Greek tragedy that this story has. It is a horror movie; that week is a nightmare.”
Larraín and Sepúlveda constructed the film “like fragments of memory” with quick cuts that jump through time to convey “the emotional path of the character,” Sepúlveda says. Their goal was “an emotional film; to show not ‘reality’ but what she felt; to be in her mind in this moment of trauma,” he says.
“Jackie” also upends expectations because the filmmakers rely on fresh images. There’s no “John-John” saluting his father’s casket; rather, we glimpse the little boy peering from a car window as the funeral procession passes into the cemetery.
“That shot is awesome. I called Pablo in to see that take and we both were like, ‘Wow, that’s incredible,’” says Sepúlveda. “The best part of shooting in 16 millimeter [film instead of instant video] is you have those beautiful surprises.”
The other surprise about “Jackie” is how, in the wake of the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, the past informs the present.
“When Pablo invited me to work [on ‘Jackie’], I read the script; we talked about it and I said, ‘Man, it’s important to tell the story of this woman who acted in a moment of political crisis,” says Sepúlveda. “Now, with this election, the place of women, I think, is the worst part of all of it. We have to look forward to the future. Women are not second class. I have two daughters; I know this [election result] is not a good thing.”
For Oppenheim, “Jackie” is “a reminder that the White House is occupied by human beings who make decisions in every moment that impact this entire country. There have been moments of upheaval in American history that turned the world upside down and created uncertainty and, for some people, fear. We have always, as a country, managed to get through to the other side.”
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.