Sometimes movie kismet brings together an improbable group of disparate artists who deliver magic cinema. Festival hit “Jackie,” which goes behind the scenes at the 1963 Kennedy White House, is the collaboration of three New Yorkers — a neophyte writer, veteran filmmaker/producer, and Oscar-winning actress — with a Latin-American auteur working in English for the first time, whose skill and intuition crafted a unique movie.
The Writer. Six years ago, 32-year-old former New York NBC newsman Noah Oppenheim was working in reality TV and trying to make it in Los Angeles. On the side, he turned his obsession with the Kennedy family into his first script, “Jackie.” He figured out that she was the person to come up with the myth of Camelot, during an interview just seven days after JFK was killed.
“I always thought the great untold story about Jackie was her role in crafting the mythology of her husband’s presidency,” he said in a phone interview. “She’s somebody known all over the world, people are fascinated by her, and think they know who she was, but it’s a superficial impression. Most of the time anything written about her is focused on her beauty and sense of style and complicated marriage. She had an intuitive appreciation for the power of the visual, for the power of TV, and that iconography influences politics and the way people perceive politicians and events.”
Oppenheim decided to relate her experience of the week after the assassination. “She witnessed the murder of her husband,” he said. “She’s covered in his blood, she has to go home, shepherd two young children through the loss of their father, plan a state funeral with the eyes of the world watching, and physically vacate her house. She understood how the funeral would look and impact the way her husband would be remembered. And she caps it off with this interview with a cultural reference to an Arthurian legend.”
Oppenheim imagined, Peter Morgan-style, what went on behind closed doors. He pictured the blood-splattered pink suit that Kennedy wore through the assassination, her trip to the hospital, and flight home, until her return to the White House, where her children are asleep as she goes alone to her bedroom and removes the clothes soaked in the blood of her now-dead husband, takes a shower, and goes to bed.
He wrote the first draft in three weeks. He sent the script to a friend, then-production executive Franklin Leonard (The Black List), who passed it to CAA. They signed Oppenheim and sent it out for interest.
The Producer. Suddenly, Oppenheim got a phone call from Darren Aronofsky, who was then in the midst of releasing “Black Swan.” Owing Fox Searchlight a movie, the director set up a first-look deal with them. And he sent Oppenheim’s screenplay to his Oscar-winning star Portman after he decided not to direct, assuring her and the impatient Oppenheim that he would find the right director. Only while serving on the 2015 Berlin jury did Aronofsky see Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s “The Club” — which won the Grand Jury Prize and went on to a Golden Globe nomination — and decide he was the one.
The Director. Larraín told me he was startled by Aronofsky’s interest. He asked, “Why are you having a Chilean make this movie? What the hell is a Chilean filmmaker doing inside of the White House with all these people?”
So he called his mother. “You go and make the movie, son,” she told him.
“Because she was a woman who, even though I am Chilean and I’m so far away when all this happened, I related to her in a way that happened to me with very few people that I’ve never known before.”
He took the job, but he had to find his own perspective on the story. “It’s the only way you can breathe,” he said. “What are you talking about when you talk about responsibility? Moral? Ethical? Artistic?”
As Larraín read Oppenheim’s script, he kept thinking about how to solve the narrative problem of the assassination. The Zapruder video was so far away, and Jacqueline Kennedy was sitting next to President Kennedy in the open car when he was shot. “That’s why we had to be so close,” he said. “Why would you be away from it?”
When Larraín found video of the First Lady’s 1961 White House tour, he couldn’t stop watching it, and asked Oppenheim to add it to the script. “It’s about a woman who had this splendor,” he said. “She was being protected by others and then she ultimately she was the one who protected everyone.”
But first, the Chilean had to figure out his way into understanding Jackie. “This is not easy for multiple reasons,” he told me. “But the real challenge here for me is to make a movie about a woman. If you look at my films, all of them are dudes … The biggest challenge that the movie had to achieve was just to share a specific sensibility. She went through existential terror and what she did was grab the entire country’s grief and put it on her shoulder. Through the tools of fiction, we play with that fire and see if it can burn.”
The Star. Portman screened Larraín’s movies, from Oscar nominee “No” to this year’s Chilean submission “Neruda.” “His films were incredible and had a unique, specific vision,” she said in our video interview. When they met, “he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do. He’s open to discovery.” The filmmaker told her, “You’re either diving into this right now — or walk away. You commit and you go for it.”
Which she did. Even though she was “terrified,” she said at the Toronto Q & A. “I thought it was probably not a wise choice to take on because it’s very easy to fail, I think, but I like things that scare me and usually end up doing the things that scare me the most.”
It was having to play such a familiar figure that scared her the most. But Larraín allowed her to give up the baggage of the Kennedys as revered royalty. “When an audience watches the film, you have to cross the threshold of people believing who you are,” she told me. “Pablo was interested in what she was like as a human being, not an icon … He allowed us to play them as human beings with strengths and flaws.”
So Portman “focused on that determination to be the author of her own legacy, and that of her husband,” she said. “She was very aware of the splitting of selves between the private and public — who the public wanted her to be and how the public perceived her — all these different selves. Pablo allowed this refraction of her character into all the possibilities.”
The Production: When Larraín arrived on set, he still didn’t have a visual sense of how to film the movie, which he’d decided to shoot in 16mm after shooting Portman’s costume fittings with a range of cameras. And he was also nervous about the soft, whispery, girlish way Kennedy talked in public, but decided just to accept it: “This is the way she is,'” he said. “At the beginning, it felt superficial and weird to me. It took me a while for me to figure out how I could be part of the emotion.”
The filmmaker is in awe of what Portman did with the voice. “You have to put that voice in a space that is human and fragile and that is about to explode,” he said. “And when you see that she is breathing and shaking and it’s so beautiful because it’s indescribable, you’re in the right place, I think.”
Portman watched interviews on YouTube and listened to audio interviews that revealed Kennedy’s deeper intonation with intimates. Working with dialect coach Tanya Blumstein, she nailed the accent. “It’s a diagram of her upbringing,” she said. “A Long Island, New-Yawk accent mixed with prep and finishing school, with the cosmetic aspirational mid-Atlantic thing.”
On the first day of shooting, one long shot of Portman wasn’t working. So the director moved to a medium shot. “Let’s get closer,” he said, until the camera was close on her face. He decided, “Let’s start visualizing the film through her humanity, her presence, the way she breathed, be connected.”
The filmmaker figured out that the door into the mystery of Jackie was Portman’s eyes. “We’d get closer and start to capture something that we could not describe. The doors of those eyes would bring you into the unknown, undetermined cosmic space.”
Larraín came up with the idea to imagine what Kennedy would do in her bedroom as she bid farewell to the home she shared with her husband. “She’s trying on all her dresses, drinking and smoking, walking around by herself,” said Portman. “She’s trying on all these identities and roles she’s had and the identity crisis she’s left with when she’s no longer her husband’s wife and the First Lady of the country, and all the ways she’s defined herself. She has to reconstruct her identity.”
Portman developed an intimate relationship with the cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, who operated the camera, and his focus puller. “They lit the space so we could move around freely,” she said. “It gave us the freedom to improvise as you would in your own house. When the camera is that close … you have someone to communicate with, as characters in the scene.”
The Music: The director admired the score of “Under the Skin” and used it as a temp track, and finally brought in its composer, British musician Mica Levi, who is influenced by John Coltrane, to work with him. “She’s very special and works alone,” he said. “She had an interesting approach; she just wanted to have music at some moments, that were unsettling at one moment and then very emotional. I don’t like scores that support the emotion, to push something that is telling the audience, ‘This is what you feel.’
Next Up: Oppenheim is back in New York, running NBC’s The Today Show. Aronofsky is in post-production on his latest untitled movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence. Larrain is weighing his many, many options. And Portman, who has shot Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” and is doing Xavier Dolan’s next movie among other projects, is in this year’s heated race for the Best Actress Oscar. They will be smiling on Oscar nominations morning.