How the Edit Played a Pivotal Role in Pablo Larraín's Cubist Portrait of the Iconic First Lady
Jackie, the first film in English by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is not and was never intended to be a traditional biopic.
In Larraín's hands, and with Natalie Portman in the title role, the White House and marriage Jackie Kennedy meticulously refined—but never controlled—becomes a kind of existential hell as she feverishly plots to preserve her husband's legacy and ensure her young family's escape. Buñuel's Exterminating Angel hovers nearby but the director has a much more personal and fragile internal story to tell. Jackie swirls with undetonated rage and is organically closer to Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, a film Larraín greatly admires. It's a startling, original take on a cherished myth made more visceral by an outsider's point of view, from the freshly widowed first lady to the director and his crew.
Editor Sebástian Sepúlveda, who with producer Juan De Dios Larraín, the director's brother, were the only other Chileans among the film's mostly French crew, says that perspective became a driving force in what he characterizes as a multi-faceted portrait of a very real woman trapped within a relentless Greek tragedy. "This was not just Pablo's first film in English but also his first film with a woman protagonist," he says. "When we worked on The Club, we played up the black humor comedy and that defined the edit. For this, we wanted to really get inside Jackie's head: what she was feeling and how she lived through those extraordinary moments in time."
The unsettling, dirge-like soundtrack of up-and-coming composer, star DJ and Micachu and the Shapes founder Mica Levi swiftly set the tone. "When we started to cut with her music, it was very important," he says. "Mica's music brings a very passionate and raw archetypal feminine power to the images, and it matches Jackie's emotional state and determination as her world vanishes and shifts beneath her feet. Our main idea throughout the film was always to build the structure of the images, edit and sound to convey the emotional disorientation of the character. She's like an alien lost in space. A very beautiful alien. Pablo didn't want to make a TV documentary. He wanted to give Jackie, a woman very much of her time, a voice."
Sepúlveda knows what it's like to be a disoriented outsider in your own home. Chilean by birth, he and his family left the country in exile following the 1973 military coup led by Augusto Pinochet that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende. He grew up in Paris, Venezuela, Switzerland and Argentina, returned to Chile at 18, then left again to study directing and editing in Cuba and, later, screenwriting at La Fémis in Paris. "It was difficult coming back to Chile then and it's still difficult for me now, living in Santiago, because I don't always feel like I'm 100 percent at home here," he says. "But it has been very good for my career. I was always a stranger in every new place we moved to, but it's a good thing to be a foreigner. It makes you a better observer of other worlds as you try to figure out how to fit in. For me, it was a very beautiful experience."
Though Larraín never left Chile, his previous films' surreal and daring dissections of Pinochet's legacy drew the pair together artistically, says Sepúlveda. "After finishing the Argentine film La León, my first project as an editor, Pablo invited me to come and give feedback on the first version of his film Tony Manero," a savage political morality tale about an unemployed man in early post-coup Chile whose senseless criminal acts escalate alongside his obsession with John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. "I thought it was incredible, an amazing film," he says. "But I also knew that this was a very provocative, strange and uncommon kind of film to be making, especially in Chile, because it captured the raw emotion of a time people still didn't talk openly about. I also think it was really the moment where Pablo started to sign his films as an auteur. He started to play with the medium and with his voice. And I was enthralled with his vision. There was so much to talk about and those discussions really brought us together."
When Sepúlveda moved back to Chile one year later, Larraín and his brother invited him to work with them at Fabula, their Santiago-based production house, first as a script doctor for their International HBO series Prófugos, and then as a screenwriter and editor for Marialy Rivas' Young and Wild, which the Larraíns also produced. "I jumped from one job to another, and like my other training, it was a very good school," he says. "I first studied editing in Cuba because I thought to become a good director, you must really understand the edit. If you don't, it's like you're blind. When I started to work as an editor, I became very aware I didn't have the knowledge to build the structure of a film. When I worked on a scene or moved it to another place, I wanted to know why. And when it didn't work, I also wanted to understand how to fix it. But when you study scriptwriting, you really understand exactly what it is that you want to tell and show on film."
All of that came into play during Jackie's production and post. "In this industry, most people want to look at you and say, 'You are an editor. You are a screenwriter. You are a director. And that's all you do,'" he says. "But Pablo and his brother have always very freeing in terms of that. They put me to work in different ways in the past, and that was amazing to me. It was the moment I really learned how to work on films." They've also produced Sepúlveda's first feature as a director, 2014's award-winning Las Niñas Quispe. "So it was very comfortable for us to edit Jackie and touch on all of our various skills."
In fact, the film's entire third act was built during the editing process. "For the climax, after the president's funeral, we decided to depart from the script," he says. "When we discussed it, I felt there was too much dialog in these final scenes. We needed something more cerebral. Pablo had the idea to take a scene intended for earlier in the film, when Jackie is alone in her bedroom trying on and discarding dresses as she listens to the musical Camelot, and turn it into a montage for the end. This way, we are always in the mind of our main character. The fact that the editing can show the mind dealing with trauma, in a fractured, impressionistic way, like memory, was very interesting to me, and I embraced it."
He was not an initial fan of using the musical number, however. "For me, it is not very beautiful music. It's like the music you hear when you're shopping in a mall! But Pablo told me, 'No, it needed to be heightened and theatrical because it's what she's doing to America and the world's memory as well.' To me it was still bizarre, but I tried it. When we finished the edit, it still felt very strange and I didn't like it. But I went home and three hours later I called him and said, 'Man, you were right. She says at the end how people like to believe in fairy tales, so we needed to finish with the one in her head.'"
The producers, led by Darren Aronofsky, who tapped Larraín to direct, gave the filmmakers the freedom to explore multiple options. "We Skyped with them in New York every week from Paris and they brought us a lot of ideas and really helped the film a lot," says Sepúlveda. "Sometimes you get too closed off during the edit, so we brought different versions to them. They were very open to the way we diverted from the script at the end. And [cinematographer] Stéphane Fontaine's gorgeous images of the White House interior, recreated with precise care by the production design team, were such an honor to work with. I've been a huge fan of his work for some time."
The scenes with Kennedy and her priest, played by John Hurt, were also shifted for dramatic effect. "When we put that scene into the timeline, it made no sense," says Sepúlveda. "We had too many layers and it was a mess to understand. The priest is in the future, because he is going to bury Jackie's two miscarried children. The film begins classically, with the interview, then you have these flashbacks, and he was to come at the end. But we decided to present him talking to her almost out of time, coming after Bobby tells Jackie she should speak to a priest.
"It was very complex to work with that scene. You can't make two presents and two pasts. That would be a mess. So it was intentional not to explain where they are. It makes it more spiritual and slightly surreal. And I think it's very beautiful. It's a film about grief, and she tells him things she can't tell anyone. By the end, you understand they met after she completed her interview with the journalist. But it's not a problem by then, because it works with the fractured structure. As producer Ari Handel told me, 'It's a very Cubist film. There are a lot of Jackies in it and every scene shows you a different side of her.'"
Did Sepúlveda ever worry that certain scenes, especially the arch performance within a performance during the televised White House tour, ever tipped the balance? "When I first saw the rushes of those scenes, I did think, 'Oh no. It's too much.' But I understood that Jackie was terrified underneath that public, televised mise en scene and was creating a public persona as well. Then I received other scenes, like the ones with the priest, and I said, 'OK, OK. In every scene, to Natalie Portman's credit, too, she is completely and utterly different. Pablo wanted to create a character that you can't understand so easily and is very complex, like real life public figures who have very different public and private lives, but also like very beautiful, enigmatic cinema."
Although in film school he learned to edit on a Moviola, Sepúlveda eventually taught himself how to use Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut. "When I finished my studies in the late 1990s and was back in Chile, I couldn't work because I didn't understand computers," he says. "That was the moment when everything went digital." Unfortunately, much of Chile and Latin America migrated to and continue to cut on Final Cut 7. "But it's too old and difficult to use seriously any more," he says, "so I got comfortable working in the Avid for various projects in Paris and Chile. When Pablo called and I got the chance to go to Paris to cut Jackie, an Avid project, I was ready."
Portman and Larráin on set.
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