Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is an emotional journey that follows Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s one of Natalie Portman’s best performances to date.
Larrain wanted to tell the story in a different light, getting up close and personal with the former First Lady as she struggles with the emotional grief of the assassination while planning her husband’s funeral. The director worked with Stephane Fontaine to shoot without causing any obstructions.
I recently caught up with Fontaine who was in LA to discuss how he and the creative team had a tool box of ideas and suggestions to help craft the look of the film. We also talked about a few key scenes in the film and Fontaine took us inside the world of being the cinematographer on Jackie.
Awards Daily: Pablo said he wanted to be shooting in Jackie’s point of view. Can you tell us how you worked with that?
Stephane Fontaine: The one thing he wanted to do was film and arrive at Jackie’s point of view. The last thing he wanted was a generic biopic in the very derogatory sense of the word. We tried to stay on her right, not just physically, but also to try to witness the emotions she was going through. One of the lucky things to happen to us was our Production Designer, Jean Rabasse was able to build some of the major sets, and we were quite lucky to shoot extensive tests in pre-production. We were able to establish a tool box where we’d put all the tools we wanted to use, the color palette, the lenses and the textures that we wanted. It turns out that we ended up shooting with very wide lenses which is a very unusual thing to do when you want to do closeups. They were quite becoming which was a good thing. It gave us the ability to be extremely close to Natalie, and at the same time have a great sense of the surrounding, as opposed to shooting with long lenses.
The only moment we wanted more aspect was when Lyndon takes the oath on board Air Force One, and that’s the first time we went for a much longer lens which was a way for us to show her totally disconnected from the world she used to know. From then on, it meant she would be out of the life she had known.
AD: What did you shoot in?
SF: We shot in film because we started watching period footage and we discovered that sometimes it was shot in 35mm. A key element of this film is the CBS Whitehouse Tour that she had done for TV, and that had been shot for video in 1952, and all the elements had something in common, which was a very strong structure. The texture was intense in terms of saturation of color and contrast. It made sense to us very quickly to shoot in film in order to have seamless transitions between our footage and archive footage that we’d use.
AD: What were some challenges for you when you’re doing a film like that?
SF: The biggest was from the beginning, Pablo wanted to shoot 360 which is always challenging. The good thing was because we shot in a studio, we had full control over the lighting which was helpful.
Pablo wanted to make sure that we stayed with Natalie all the time, and we wanted to shoot in sequence. We’d also shoot long takes that sometimes took up a whole magazine for one take. This constant flow helped us to be quite intimate with Jackie as opposed to the standard coverage which would be a shot in reverse. This, on the other hand, gave a totally different feel to the movie.
AD: The shower scene takes you inside everything. How did you shoot and light this sequence?
SF: Something we started thinking about in pre-production was that Jean, our Production Designer, made an exact replica of Jackie’s bathroom. You have mirrors everywhere, so how do you get to keep your freedom when you have mirrors in the way showing the cameras all the time? We had the idea to put the camera behind the mirror which was a startling idea, but eventually it turns out when you’re watching that scene the camera is nowhere to be seen, and it’s an impressive moment to witness her. She’s feeling so lonely in this huge building, and then we cut to the bathroom, and it’s so moving because you’ve seen her getting undressed, and now she’s showering and the blood is coming off her hair. It’s a strong, striking and moving image that for me, tells you the violence of everything she went through that day.
One thing that might not be obvious when you watch the movie, is that we did that in one take. The shower scene was one take. It was surprisingly simple.
AD: But, it’s so powerful and intense. Then, you have another striking moment later when she’s walking through the White House with Camelot playing.
SF: What’s impressive is Natalie’s performance. You understand by watching Jackie try on one dress after another, she doesn’t fit in the picture anymore. Nothing is going to be the same, ever. She did something so powerful picking all those dresses, chain smoking and we shot those moments in sequence, as to give Natalie the freedom to do what she wanted to.
I’m certain she was immersed in her character, and she was able to improvise so easily. If she wanted to go out of the room and into JFK’s room, we would follow and keep witnessing what was happening to her character.
AD: How did you use lighting to construct the scenes?
SF: You have two different themes. One related to everything happening outside the White House. The colors were powerful and vivid for that.
The other look was inside the White House, and that was different because the White House worked as a symbol of shelter for her. We wanted a soft and welcoming cocoon feel for her. As the outside world had turned chaotic, she needed something that was like a nest for her and a place where life made sense and wasn’t too harsh. The light there and the conception of it was based on a giant light bulb. It was soft and gentle, we didn’t have any direct lights. Nothing but light coming through layers and layers of fusions and that helped to create the gentle feel.