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Editing ‘Jackie’: How a Classical Biopic Became an Elliptical Ghost Story

Editor Sebastián Sepúlveda talks about how he created emotional bridges that brought the film into a world of disorienting grief.

"Jackie"

“Jackie”

Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


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Sixteen minutes into “Jackie,” a reporter (Billy Crudup) asks the recently widowed First Lady (Natalie Portman), “What did the bullet sound like?”

A gunshot rings out on the soundtrack and the film cuts to a series of visceral shots of President Kennedy’s motorcade racing down the empty highway, the last of which gives the audience a brief glimpse of the recently shot President, dying or dead, on his wife’s lap.

READ MORE: Xavier Dolan on ‘Jackie’: ‘It Left Me Artistically Intimidated and Wonderstruck’

The film then makes a jarring cut to an extremely tight close up of a distraught Portman wiping blood off her face for close to a minute of screen time. Not until the film cuts to a wider reverse shot do we realize she’s on Air Force One with her husband’s corpse and the soon-to-be President Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch).

“You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know where you are, but it doesn’t matter because you are so alive in Jackie’s emotions,” said the film’s editor, Sebastián Sepúlveda.

"Jackie"

“Jackie”

Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

When director Pablo Larraín first talked to Sepúlveda about the need to create “emotional bridges,” the editor admits he didn’t quite understand. He soon realized, especially in assembling this sequence, that Larraín wanted to remove much of the “classical” biopic information and jump into the middle of a new scene, or more specifically a new emotion.

In this example, the editor and director realized that if they removed the scene set at Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy is declared dead — that scene would later be repurposed to create a sense of Jackie’s lack of control — they could more effectively and efficiently enter the character’s shock.

Watch: ‘Jackie’ Director Pablo Larraín Discusses ‘Movies That Inspire Me’ in New IndieWire Video Series Presented by FilmStruck

The film would be pieced together based on an emotional arc, rather than a traditional narrative one, and by removing context they could ground the audience in Jackie’s haze following the assassination.

“She’s very often in shock — not just the assassination, but having to tell the kids, leaving the White House, putting together a funeral,” said Sepúlveda. “Understandably she’s unprepared for all of this and by removing information, the audience connects with her being constantly one step behind and in a state of shock.”

Natalie Portman & Pablo Larrain

Natalie Portman and Director Pablo Larrain on the set of “Jackie”

Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

According to Sepúlveda, Larraín shot plenty of traditional coverage that would allow for a more classical approach to editing, but like with the shot on Air Force one, the collaborators found tremendous power in Portman’s close ups.

“Pablo wanted to use big ellipses, but part of it is choosing shots,” said Sepúlveda. “By going straight to a close up, rather than wider ‘this is where you are’ shot, the audience could access her emotions, while sharing in her disorientation.”

READ MORE: For ’20th Century Women’ and ‘Jackie’ Standout Greta Gerwig, Playing Real Women Is Its Own Reward — Consider This

The close ups also gave Sepúlveda and Larraín access to an aspect of Portman’s performance that added another layer to the film.

“Natalie has this painful soul, that became hypnotizing the more we watched it in those closer shots,” said Sepúlveda. “Pablo and I loved that. It’s like you are in a strange nightmare, almost like a horror movie in a sense. So we started to cut certain scenes to give it that feel, that sense that we are floating through this nightmare.”

Sepúlveda says he is a big believer, as many filmmakers are, in the power of an actor’s eyes to access the character’s emotions. Yet the complexity of Jackie’s character in Larraín’s direction and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim’s script was such that she’s never a character the audience can fully obtain.

“The eyes are a way to the soul, but this character is cubist, in the sense that she has so many sides,” said Sepúlveda.  “In each scene she’s different, because she’s always playing. Pablo was very big on this theme of the difference between her public and private world.”

When Larraín was on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he explained that Kennedy’s efforts to control her image was what fascinated him and that he thought of making “Jackie” as attempt to “catch a ghost,” as she was the “most unknown of the known women of the 20th century.”

READ MORE: Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: Pablo Larraín On Catching Ghosts to Make His ‘Neruda’ and ‘Jackie’ (Episode 17)

This was built into Oppenheim’s unique script that set up this crosscutting pattern between Jackie’s worlds. With the Priest (John Hurt), she shares her naked thoughts. With Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), she fights to salvage her husband’s legacy; with the reporter, it’s her need to control that legacy. With friend/assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), she reveals her more traditionally feminine side as mother, and with the TV tour of the White House we get a glimpse of her performing in the pre-assassination role of First Lady.

“The brilliance of the script is these layers and concept of how to tell Jackie’s story, what Pablo wanted to do was play with that and find different combinations — how much could scenes contradict or sometimes predict if tried in different combinations,” said Sepúlveda. “It was this constant reinvention of Noah’s beautiful plan based on what Pablo and Portman created in the shooting.”

The key was how far could Larraín and his editor go in cutting up and stripping the narrative without the film becoming too experimental and too opaque for an audience to enjoy. In particular, he had to ensure the audience wasn’t completely removed from a sense of a timeline.

"Jackie"

John Hurt as “The Priest” and Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie”

Photo by Pablo Larrain. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Three months into their five-month editing process, the two collaborators received a large and liberating gift: composer Mica Levy’s hypnotic score.

“Mica sent us the first few tracks and we instantly thought, ‘Oh that’s too much, that’s from another planet, we can never put that in,’ but then we did,” said Sepúlveda.

When the editor cut Levi’s music into the scene where Jackie leaves the White House for the last time, he was amazed.

READ MORE: How Mica Levi Created the Amazing ‘Jackie’ Score: Awards Spotlight

“She starts to walk down the corridors and with the music it feels like a ghost film, so powerful,” said Sepúlveda. “I remember we played the music and I looked at Pablo and we were like children, ‘Woooow, that’s really incredible.'”

According to Sepúlveda, Levy had been able to access the emotional haze of Portman in the close ups and suddenly he and Larraín felt more confident in making bold juxtapositions.

“It becomes emotionally bigger with Mica’s music and you are more grounded in the scene and we were less worried about losing the audience,” said Sepúlveda. “Narratively, the music is dangerous in a way, you are listening and you don’t know what the next world the music will bring us into.  It’s not a safe, familiar place, but that anticipation gives a sense of narrative movement which was freeing to us.”

Cutting to Levi’s music, the collaborators went even further in pushing the boundaries. Soon, every week they started outputting new versions of the film for their producers, including filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who brought Larraín on to “Jackie.”

“Arronofsky saw the cut and was like, ‘Wow, man, that’s wonderful, but at the same time [maybe too] ‘wow,'” said Sepúlveda. “We realized we cut too far and needed to build some things back in.”

Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“Jackie”

Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Mostly, that meant restructuring the opening. They moved the brutal assassination out of the first act and into a new climatic end.  They also rebuilt a more classical opening that grounds the audience with the White House tour, and a sense of the world that was lost, and by introducing Crudup’s reporter as a more traditional framing device to motivate flashbacks.

“The more classical beginning is a good thing because you need to invite the audience in and ground them,” said Sepúlveda. “Then we hear the gunshot and enter the elliptical nightmare.”

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