Noah Oppenheim, like most of us grew up fascinated with the Kennedys. He recalls as a young child, he’d see photos of her in magazines and was intrigued by who she was. It wasn’t until he studied American History later in life that he saw there was a story about Jackie that was waiting to be told, a story that was different from those that came before it.
In his story, Oppenheim wanted to make Jackie the central narrative and show us how she build her husband’s legacy. Listening to tapes, Oppenheim pieced history together and filled in the gaps to create the script for Jackie. The screenplay would end up on the 2010 Black List and there was early interest from Fox Searchlight. A few years later, the project came to life again, this time with Pablo Larrain at the helm, and Natalie Portman tapped to play Jackie Kennedy. The best things come to those who wait. Larrain had wanted Portman to play the role and when she agreed, the film was born.
I caught up with Oppenheim recently in LA to talk about crafting the narrative behind Jackie.
Awards Daily: How did you know Jackie was the story you wanted to tell?
Noah Oppenheim: I’ve been fascinated with her as well, ever since I was a kid. My mom was an admirer of hers and had saved a lot of papers and magazines from the era. I had grown up visiting my grandmother’s house and would go through magazines seeing photos of her at the funeral and the veil, and I was always intrigued by her.
As I started studying politics and American history I always thought there was an untold story. People around the world feel like they know her, she’s one of the most famous women of the twentieth century, but if you ask them to describe her or talk about her, they’ll say, “She was beautiful” Or “She had the most extraordinary sense of style.” I didn’t think people truly appreciated the substantive role that she had played in shaping how we think about her husband and his presidency. Like a lot of women in history, she was peripheral to the central narrative and I thought there was this great opportunity for a film and you have this person who people are fascinated with, or think they know, and yet there’s this whole untold story of how she’s the architect of the Camelot mythology and how she protected and defined her husband’s legacy under the most trying of circumstances. I thought it was good material for a script.
AD: How do even approach the story with all that in mind?
NO: When I found out that she had coined the Camelot mythology in this interview that she gave right after, I knew there had been this struggle over what the funeral should look like, and that she had very purposely tried to model it after Lincoln’s in order to send a message to the world about her husband’s significance. I thought here’s this incredible seven days. We’ve all seen the story of the assassination dissected from fifty different angles, but oddly, we had never really seen it through her eyes. When I realized that you could break down her character in this incredibly intense moment and say, “Let’s explore what it’s like for her as a mom while she had to guide her children through the tragedy of losing their father.” What’s it like to be a wife having lost a husband in this sudden and violent fashion? What it’s like to be a First Lady having to bear the nation’s grief on your shoulders and somehow stand up and try to guide the country through to the other side. She’s juggling all these various roles in one week, and I thought we could say a lot more about her character by focusing on that one narrow period of time rather than try to tell this sprawling story about her whole life.
AD: What research goes with that because a lot of it you fill in this black hole while inter-cutting it with events where we know what happens?
NO: I did a ton of research and I’ve been reading about them my whole life and did a refresher just when I sat down to start writing. That’s the creative joy of tackling a story like this. It’s balancing the factual story we all know and the artistic challenge of trying to imagine what it was like emotionally for her and what it was like behind closed doors in those black holes where we don’t necessarily know what happened but to try to capture what her frame of mind might have been.
I think what you do is immerse yourself in as much research that exists and you try to produce something that is true as you possibly can, and I mean that in an emotional sense.
AD: After I saw the film, I actually watched the White House tour film and realized that was probably the first time we really heard her voice. Was there anything helpful in your research aside from that?
NO: I listened to as many recordings of her that I could get my hands on. There are interviews with Arthur Schlesinger and there are oral histories that the Kennedy library collected with people like Nancy Tuckerman who was there at the time, so it’s a combination of input from a lot of sources.
The important thing is, we are not laying claim to one definitive version of who Jackie Kennedy was. We’re trying to show different slices of her character and glimpses of the various faces that she presented to the world depending on her circumstances. There’s the Jackie when she’s alone with her kids. There’s the Jackie who is dealing with Nancy Tuckerman who knew her from when she was a schoolgirl. There’s the Jackie dealing with the reporter. There’s the raw and unfiltered Jackie when she’s dealing with the priest. I think all of those combined give you a sense of who she was. Unlike the biographies, no one is saying this is a definitive account of who Jackie is.
AD: So, this script was on The Black List in 2010. How did it go from there to Darren Aronofsky getting involved?
NO: It’s a long and sad story. [laughs]. As I’m sure you know from covering Hollywood, it’s the nature of the film business. I got very lucky at the beginning and the script attracted Darren’s interest and got set up at Searchlight. There was then a long period where it was stagnant. Darren was patient about waiting for the right director to hand it off to. He gets enormous credit for having the outside-the-box idea, having this great idea for Pablo Larrain do it, and it was well worth the wait. A reminder that all things happen for a reason.
AD: Natalie is phenomenal. What conversations happened to get her on board?
NO: She had been circling it for a while, and she had that relationship with Darren. As any actress for someone of her caliber, it was all going to depend on the director. When Pablo got involved, and he said that the only actress he wanted to do it with was her. It’s safe to say that the film would not have happened if she had not made the extraordinarily courageous choice to take it on. It would not be the film it is if it wasn’t for the remarkable charge in her performance.
AD: How much changed and how many surrounding characters got stripped out from earlier versions?
NO: It was always about telling the story from her point of view and I did a few rewrites once Pablo came on, and I tried to focus even more on her emotional journey. She was always the sidebar to Kennedy’s story, so we just wanted to make her the central narrative and capture what her experience was.
AD: Going back to the shower scene how did you write that?
NO: From the very beginning, there was a sequence when she came back to the White House, and I knew she had left the dress on all day. In writing it, you’re imagining she’s been wearing this blood-stained dress all day, she’s back in her now empty home and she’s got to take it off and take a shower. That’s the humanity behind it all. That’s what makes it so interesting is we think of her as an icon but she’s just a person who has to change, bathe and sleep.
AD: How has your opinion of Jackie changed?
NO: I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this, but I’m in awe of her with the way she conducted herself, her dignity, and I can’t fathom it. She was 34 years old and she carried the burden of an entire country’s grief on her shoulders while shepherding two young kids through this trauma, while trying to deal with her own pain and grief. Throughout that had a sense of responsibility and conducted herself in a way that will be remembered forever. I think she’s an American hero.