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Through the Lens… Pablo Larrain on Jackie

Our Through the Lens series is back just in time for the 89th Academy Awards. This year, we’re starting the series early, talking to filmmakers and having them walk us through selected key scenes in their films.

To kick off the series, we sat down with Jackie’s director Pablo Larrain. Jackie takes us inside the mind of America’s iconic First Lady, struggling to cope as widow and mother in the days following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Natalie Portman is captivating as Jackie Kennedy, and director Larrain takes us on the journey, recreating the famous White House tour in black and white, transporting us to the harrowing day of her husband’s assassination, to the vast emptiness of the White House after his death.

Larrain dissects three scenes:

On the Camelot Scene:

When I read the script it had a reference to Camelot. I discovered it was a musical, and I wanted to listen to it because it had such incredible potential. As I listened to it, the Finale struck me, but so did the main theme and we used it in the film. It was particular and beautiful, but it would also work on so many levels. I suggested to Noah and Natalie what I wanted to do with it, and it created such an incredible moment in the film. So, what we have is Jackie going into the bedroom she shared with JFK, she plays the record, it’s the main theme, and she goes back to her dressing room and tries on all these different outfits. We see her trying them on, but she’s drinking and taking pills. She’s having this incredible private crisis while she wanders around this ghost house that she’s about to leave behind. What’s so beautiful is you can feel that maybe she’s trying those dresses on for him. She might also be having an identity crisis. She’s trying to understand who she is at that moment, and those dresses are representing the different styles of her personality. Each one is her, each color represents something, each fabric represents something until she goes into the Oval Office and sits down at his desk.

I remember we were shooting that scene and we were trying to find the proper rhythm and tone. We set that shot in the Oval office and Natalie sat there, I didn’t say anything to her or direct her, but she started crying. We did one take and one shot. After that, she was so devastated that I wasn’t going to ask her for another take.

In the film, it works in such a visceral way and it opens this beautiful, indescribable side of her personality as to whether she’s dressing for herself or him, and trying to understand who she is at that moment in time, through something that might be superficial. It’s something we might all be able to relate to because when we are alone is when we do things with the knowledge that no one is watching, and that behavior can be particular or weird, but ultimately it’s very beautiful because that’s who we are.

The Shower Scene:

It’s on public record that Jackie that she didn’t want to remove her pink Chanel outfit off so the public could see what had done, she wanted the media to see her. I was wondering what was in her hair? There were two things I was wondering about this scene. Firstly, she’s surrounded by a lot of people all the time, and at some point she is alone. I connected the shower scene to her arrival in the White House. She’s got this entourage with her, and for Jackie. She gets to the White House, the coffin is placed in the East Room, and she goes to bed. She walks through the family space, but she is totally lost and alone, and she has no idea what to do. It’s the first moment where she has no direction. She goes into the children’s room. They’re sleeping. You don’t see that, but you understand that she’s checking on them and they’re fine.

She goes back to her bedroom and she’s alone and she has to take that dress off. She slowly starts doing it. I didn’t ask Natalie to do this, but she sat down, waited, and took her panties off. There’s no make-up on her leg, but it was such a sad moment. She goes into the bathroom, puts the shower on. I had asked the make-up team to put some blood in her hair, so when the water comes down it drains and goes down her body. It’s the first moment of a private wash out. Taking away her husband’s blood from her body and her hair in very lonely circumstances. It’s the end of the first act of the film, even though the structure of the narrative isn’t common. For us, it closes one episode, and that blood that is being drained is a symbolic metaphor of her husband leaving her.

The Assassination Scene:

It was a very hard scene to do. I’d seen everything that had been made on TV, films, and documentary. I discovered that the 8mm film that had been done was shot from afar, so every time it was recreated, it was done from that distance because that’s the collective memory. No one has ever been that close as far as I know.

At first, I was going to shoot from afar, then I thought, “Why do what everyone else has done before? Let’s shoot one inch away from her.” I didn’t want to run away from that moment. We’re looking at every circumstance from her point of view.

I went to the Warren Commission and I realized the assassination was described and it also pointed out that Jackie was sitting next to him. We went close. That’s what makes it shocking. No matter where the bullet came from, who shot it, we didn’t want to go there. We just wanted to go close to her, but that meant getting close to his skull. It was hard to do because we had to be accurate in that Natalie had to do the same movements that Jackie did which meant that every facial expression, every look, every body movement when she climbs over the car had to be precise.

We discovered there was no information what happened in between from when the last bullet hits and the motorcade races as fast it could to Parkland Hospital. Those six and a half minutes were Jackie holding JFK’s head on her lap, holding it together, trying to stop the bleeding. That’s a lifetime, those six minutes. What was going through her head? What was that like for her? That’s why we shot that and called it The Race to Parkland. We shot it from multiple angles and we used it throughout the film. It’s a moment that I, at least, have never seen. It was important to have those six and a half minutes of hell shown.