Pablo Larraín is having a good year. The Chilean director, Oscar-nominated a few years ago for his 2012 political drama No, has just released Jackie, featuring a striking Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Also about to be released is Neruda, his complex, semifictionalized drama about the Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda, in flight from the authorities in the 1950s. Both titles are among the most spellbinding and fascinating films of the year.
2016 also saw the U.S. release of The Club, the director’s unsettling 2015 Berlinale prize winner about a house filled with priests guilty of molestation. The movies may be quite different in size, subject and scope, but with their dreamlike narratives and constant stylistic invention, all of Larraín’s films defy expectations. He sat down with us recently to talk about his work.
This has been an incredible year for you, with Jackie and Neruda, as well as The Club earlier this year. It seems like you went from one project to the other very quickly.
How it started was, we were about to make Neruda, and then we had to wait for Gael [García Bernal], who was working with [Werner] Herzog. Then Luis Gnecco, the guy who plays Neruda, had to gain some weight — you know, you can’t have a skinny Neruda — and then we had to finish the financing. So the movie got pushed, which was very disappointing. My brother, who is a producer on everything I do, just showed up and said, “We can’t shoot it. We have to wait six months.”
So I started working with Guillermo Calderón, who had also written Neruda. We wrote The Club really quickly and shot it really quickly. It went to Berlin, and there Darren Aronofsky [president of the jury at Berlin that year], at the afterparty, said, “Why don’t we make a movie together?” I admire him a lot. I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. He called me a week after, and sent me the Jackie script. So one thing led to another in a very unexpected way.
You’ve talked about how odd it was for someone who isn't an American to be approached to make a film about Jackie Kennedy. I’m curious about your position specifically as a Chilean, since you’ve made films that address the destructive effect of American foreign policy on Chile over the decades. So now you’re suddenly going into the belly of the beast.
When we were shooting in the Oval Office, or in front of the White House, I was like, “Ohh! Here we are! Here we are!” But I was doing a movie about a woman, about a mother, about someone under an extreme amount of risk and danger. That tension that might have existed between the United States and my country, I filtered it and sort of tried to transform it. When I met Noah Oppenheim, who wrote the script, the first thing I asked him to do was to wipe away all the scenes that were not focused on Jackie. I didn’t want to deal with all the other characters, because I might have issues with them.
It was better to stay on her, someone I was so attracted to. And then I saw the White House tour that she gave [in 1962], and I see this woman who is melting onscreen, who seems like she’s about to explode. It was so human and beautiful, and also a foreshadowing of what would happen later in the film — she talks about Lincoln and how he was assassinated, and what happened to Lincoln’s widow afterward. If it had been political, it would have been a totally different movie.
But the politics doesn’t feel absent; it feels sublimated. It’s a film about the myth of the White House, the myth of the presidency, the myth of the Kennedys. You don’t need too many logical leaps to get to the myth of American benevolence and supremacy, the idea of how American power is presented to the public.
And how media does the job. You can’t understand contemporary politics if you don’t deal with media. It’s impossible.
Which is what No is about as well. And both Jackie and Neruda seem obsessed with the idea of myth and seizing control of one’s own narrative. Neruda essentially conjures up this playful, fictional cop character, played by Gael García Bernal, who then pursues him. Meanwhile, Jackie helps create the Camelot myth around the JFK presidency.
Yes, there are interesting bridges, and ways you can connect them. When media — whether we’re talking Jackie or Neruda, or Donald Trump or Barack Obama — tries to shape a public image, there’s always a gap between the intent and the result, and that’s where an artist can work. That’s the little door to the kitchen. Get in there and create fiction, because you don’t know what happens in between. It’s an open door, an indeterminate place. And it’s a dangerous place. Everything that’s been said, everything that you’re dealing with, is fiction.
Now I think I’m more conscious of what we did, because I am talking to journalists and reading what has been said about [Jackie], and this subject is so important for you guys in this country. If I had all that information, maybe it would be intimidating for me. But when we were making the movie, it was just going to the set to make a film about this incredible woman. That gave us the freedom to do it. And in the case of Neruda, we were fictionalizing so much, it gave us the chance to play with him.
But in trying to shape a public image, you can also get a very different result. That’s why we included the mannequin scene at the end of Jackie, where she’s looking at a store display and they’re putting up these mannequins up of her.
Like they’re rolling Jackies off an assembly line…
I didn’t invent this! You can go to Google and put “Jackie Kennedy mannequin,” and you will see these amazing pictures. I think they were taken here, in New York. They’re unloading Jackie mannequins off of a truck and into a store. I was Googling and saw this. I called Noah and said, “Man, we have to do this!” What would it have been like for Jackie to see her own mannequin in a store? It's a merchandising product, and commerce starting to use her body. And when that happens, you’ve lost total control of your public image. You’re already a toy, a plastic thing.
Was the plan with Neruda always to fictionalize that story? I know you were working on it for a long time.
We started with a more conventional approach to his life, and then over the years it developed into what you saw. It was a process of looking to combine material elements into the film that we wanted to make. There are a lot of things from Jorge Luis Borges. Also, we like to think that the film is cubist. That’s why Picasso is in there briefly, like a little key.
What has the response to Neruda been in Chile?
Every single thing that you could say about a movie has been said, which is great. I think my country has been shaped and explained by poets more than anybody else. If you check out people like Neruda, or Gabriela Mistral, or Vicente Huidobro, or Nicanor Parra, all those incredible writers … it’s essential to our culture. So if you make a film about him, it will create friction, whatever you do. And that’s good, that’s healthy. Why not? There were people writing letters, columns saying this and that. All this public discussion was fascinating.
What was the most surprising thing you saw or read about your film in Chile?
One of the people that was against Neruda back in the day was a guy who has the same name as I do. So the writer of one column assumed that this Larraín was a family member of mine, and he imagined this historical family plot against Neruda that had lasted over 100 years. He was wrong, but it was fascinating — so incredible and ridiculous. People kept telling me, “You have to write back!” And I was like, “This is the best! I’m gonna frame it in my bathroom!”
How do you develop these elliptical narratives in your films? Jackie and Neruda have different screenwriters. In one case you were developing the film for years, in the other you came on board relatively late. How much of this is done in postproduction?
I never know how the movie is going to be, and I don’t want to. I used to be very anxious about it, and it gave me a lot of stress and anxiety. Now, it’s just that I work on every scene and I try to disconnect them a little bit from everything else we’re doing. I bring it to the cutting room, and that’s where we really assemble the film. Specifically with these two movies, which are very particular cases. You are basically making movies that are just flashes of memories, pieces of ideas.
One is a piece of a poem, and then a cop thinking something, and then a man at a party, and a man with a woman. It’s a cop going into someone’s house, it’s children crying, it’s a bullet in the head, it’s a nightmare, it’s a sip on a bottle of vodka, it’s somebody yelling something, it’s a political problem. It’s just slices of memory. I think that’s one of the things cinema has that no other art form has: that you can take these pieces and put together something that can ultimately can get into your bloodstream.
I notice, especially in Neruda, you’ll have a scene with ongoing dialogue, and suddenly you’ll cut to them somewhere else, but the dialogue is uninterrupted. And you’ll just keep doing that, jumping from setting to setting to setting. Is that in the script, or do you just shoot the same exchange in different locations and then figure it all out later?
Some of them were described, and some of them were not. I just got used to doing that. We did it in No a little bit, and then The Club a little bit, but in Neruda, it was massive. At some point, the space just becomes psychological. What happens if we were just talking like this and then we just [smacks his hands together] and suddenly we’re in a desert? Or a bar in Hanoi. Or a boat in the Russian sea. That’s something that creates a psychological atmosphere. The sensation of time changes, and the perception of time, and then you feel that what you are seeing is not realistic. And I love that, because I am not into realism. I can’t help but think about Andrei Tarkovsky, who wrote this book…
Sculpting in Time?
There you go. Sculpting in time: That’s what cinema does. Every movie is a sculpture of time.
Who are some of the other influences in your work?
It depends. I go through periods. But I’ve been obsessed with people like Stanley Kubrick, Pier Paolo Pasolini. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. When I was a little boy, I saw Back to the Future, and it was shocking! And then I saw Fitzcarraldo, from Werner Herzog. I just thought it was insane and so poetic and beautiful, and a big metaphor for cinema. When you make a movie, it’s the absurdity of pushing a boat over the hills.
You mention Tarkovsky, which brings to mind Andrei Rublev. Something struck me, in both The Club and in Jackie. Very often, when people are talking to someone, they look straight into the camera — which is not something you’re supposed to do. That kind of frontality reminds me of religious iconography.
In The Club, we shot with lenses that Tarkovsky would use. Same brand. An old brand from the Soviet Union called LOMO, and I bought those lenses. For the frontality, it’s funny you mentioned it, because we did something unusual in cinema. We put two cameras at the same time, one next to each other, each pointed in the opposite direction. So the operator had to be on the other side, and the actors couldn’t look at each other, because there would be these cameras between them.
They would only listen to each other, and they would have to look very close to the lens, so we could create the illusion that it’s almost like they’re talking to you. It’s something that’s very powerful on the big screen, because it creates an enormous amount of intimacy, and you feel that the characters are very unprotected, and they’re right in front of you, whether or not they’re strong or weak, whether they are being attacked or attacking. You feel sorry for them.
And you can have a much more direct relationship with them as a viewer, which, in The Club, a film about priests guilty of molestation, makes it very unsettling.
Yeah, you don’t want to be there! And that also happens because, when you shoot like that, there’s a lot of footage that you don’t plan to use, where one actor is just looking or is just listening. But then you go into the cutting room and you see that, while the other actor is talking, the actor that is in the frame would do things that are unexpected, and you’ve captured that.
Within the context of Jackie, where you’re focusing on such a limited period in a character’s life — really, just a few incidents — how did you and Natalie Portman build a character? Was a lot of additional research required?
First off, we didn’t rehearse at all. We just sat down and talked. She had Tanya Blumstein, this incredible dialect coach, who also helped me a lot. I had characters from Dallas, from California, from New York, from Boston like the Kennedys, all with accents. I would usually look at Tanya after every take, and she’d say, “You have to do it again.” Or: “You’re gonna dub this guy later.”
But one of the traps here is that people are so concerned with the way Natalie speaks. And of course that’s very important, but it’s not what I think gets you into the story. I think it’s in the way she moves, something in the way she performs. There’s something in the mystery that Natalie has — an unexpected desire that you can find in her eyes, and I think that’s where the key is. My approach with her was different from all the other actors.
I would try to be very specific with the others — with Billy [Crudup] and Peter [Sarsgaard] and Greta [Gerwig] and John [Hurt]. But with Natalie, I would be more open and not very specific. Or sometimes I would be very contradictory: I would say one thing in one take, and then I would say something totally different. And she’d say, “What?!” And I’d say, “Action!” And she would just go on. I would try to surprise her and try to put her in uncomfortable places.
We shot on film, and a film magazine is 11 minutes, and sometimes we would just sit in silence for 11 minutes, and I would say nothing. And she would just be sitting in front of the camera, and then she would just start walking around and doing things. The camera was super close to her most of the time — like this close, man [holds his hand about a foot away from my face]. It really bothers you. You’re very exposed. But if you get used to it, it’s like, “OK, all right. I live with these people in here.” And then it starts to capture something that I can’t explain.
It is interesting that people focus so much on the voice, and the accent, because so much of her performance is wordless.
It became very silent, and that’s the key. That’s why I tell you, I have no idea who Jackie Kennedy was. Because she is so mysterious. And the more mysterious she is, the more the audience starts to create their own Jackie, which is what we wanted. You, the audience, will determine what she is looking at and who she was. Not us. And that mystery, that unanswered question, that’s the key of Natalie’s performance.