Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) talks to Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan about how she helped build paranoia in Seberg.
In the late 1960s, actress Jean Seberg was targeted by the FBI due to her romantic and political involvement with Civil Rights activist and Black Panther Hakim Jamal. For the rest of her life, Seberg experienced extreme paranoia, culminating in her presumed suicide in 1979.
Director Benedict Andrews brings this story to life in the film Seberg, starring Kristen Stewart in the titular role.
In order to channel the paranoia Seberg feels on-screen, the film taps Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison to play with the use of mirrors and utilize light to show the sun-drenched Hollywood look juxtaposed against the darker, grittier underbelly of celebrity limelight. I had a great conversation with Morrison about why she chose this particular project, what the film has to say about both race and gender, and why she believes art has a responsibility for social messaging.
Awards Daily: How did this project come about for you?
Rachel Morrison: I’ve been reading scripts for a while. It was the first one I did after [Black] Panther, and I’m always drawn to dramatic character pieces, and often things that are based on true stories or often things that have larger messaging. I read the script and was just really moved by it. I knew a little bit about it and a little bit about Jean’s life and the wire-tapping scandal, but I didn’t know it in any real detail and never quite understood what happened to her. I was intrigued by the project and then when I heard Kristen was playing Jean, that was just incredibly appealing, because of all the ways in which their lives have mirrored one another to living in public. I thought there’d be something fascinating to pull from there.
AD: I guess I did think about that in the back of my mind with Kristen Stewart. What attracts you to specific projects? There seems to be a theme of how society deals with race.
RM: Yes, it does, and how society deals with gender and how all of the myriads ways our society’s a mess. Social justice is always something I’ve been fascinated by, and certainly in another life, I’d be doing more direct work in that capacity. At some point, I realized entertainment is the one way we hopefully extend some of these messages across the aisle. Black Panther taught me that actually, probably more than any other film. A lot of films feel like you’re preaching to the choir, but then with Black Panther, Ryan [Coogler] infused the whole thing with social messaging. Yet, that didn’t stop Trump supporters from watching it. I feel like entertainment has the ability to be an equalizer, and I just feel like in this day and age, with a world as messed up as the one we live in is, I don’t know that I believe in entertainment for pure entertainment’s sake anymore. We owe it to ourselves to try to say something with our filmmaking, music, television, and whatever else.
AD: That’s great. With Seberg, you had to recreate some scenes from her career, including her Joan of Arc role in Saint Joan. How much research did you do and what techniques did you employ? Did you try to copy other directors in these scenes?
RM: We definitely did. With Breathless, I think it was always just the scene that Jack (Jack O’Connell) is watching in the FBI room. I was doing my best to copy it with Kristen obviously in the role. We had to shoot it on color because we shot it against blue screen with the intention of dropping in a similar background as the one in Breathless and then we de-saturated it in post. Whereas with the audition scene, we shot in black and white, and there’s a YouTube clip, which was all we could find of that original interview, so it was filling in a little of the gaps in clarity. I think Kristen watched it as well and tried to get the affect as best she could. We wanted it to be as dead-on as it could be.
AD: Mirrors are used a lot in the film. What do they represent for Jean Seberg?
RM: It was very much about how you see yourself in the world versus how the world sees you, as well as the concept of being watched and being replicated and losing oneself to the reflection. What’s real and what’s a mirror image of something? What’s real and what’s perception? The whole thing starts to become about how do we define reality and what if someone’s reality starts to break apart. What does that look like? It was fairly metaphoric but at times literal.
AD: Seberg becomes increasingly paranoid over the course of the film. In addition to Kristen Stewart’s powerful performance, what did you do visually to show this paranoia?
RM: Yeah, a lot of her paranoia at this point is about the concept of being watched, being listened to, being followed. We set up a parable from the beginning of shooting, when we’re subjective, we’re almost exclusively close and wide, and when she was being watched, we were long through foreground. And then as things start to become less clear, you can muddy those ideas a little bit. Even when you’re close and wide, you find these refractions or foreground elements that feel like, ‘Are we with her or are we watching her?’ There was a lot of that in play. To go back to your mirror question, reflections and mirrors play into this idea of the eyes of the beholder and the self-awareness of the camera. When you’re shooting a mirror and seeing a person, the camera has to be somewhere.
AD: Yeah! I always think that when I watch movies with mirrors. It’s interesting to me that her house in the film is filled with windows. There’s a ton of natural light coming into the room. How did you use lighting?
RM: There’s contrast between the bright and saturated Hollywood life and then the much darker, grittier underbelly was something I was trying to highlight. For her to live in that home was much more about this idea of a fish in a fishbowl. In a room full of windows, how can you not be watched? And are you allowing yourself to be watched? As far as the natural light goes, because it’s all glass, you have to balance interiors and exteriors, and it becomes quite a lot of work to make it look natural. As far as the sun-drenched Hollywood look, that was really about the dream versus the reality. In the dream, things are always sun-kissed and beautiful and vibrant and colorful, and as it starts to break apart, toward the second half of the film, we lose a lot of saturation in her wardrobe and colors in her wall. The light gets a little bit more muted, everything gets a little bit more darker. You start to feel some of the dream die a little bit, I guess.
AD: I saw some people speaking out against the film on social media, pertaining to the image of Seberg and the Black Panthers, asking why it’s Seberg’s story and not the Black Panthers. Why do you think it’s important to tell her story?
RM: We live in this very complicated time right now where everything is becoming incredibly pointed. My take is that everybody’s experience in this world deserves to be told. It shouldn’t be in lieu of the Black Panthers, and it shouldn’t minimize that experience. I’m actually really grateful right now because Ryan [Coogler] is producing a film about Fred Hampton and his experience with the FBI wire-tapping, and I think that story very much needs to be told. Maybe in a perfect world, that story would be told first, but that doesn’t negate Jean’s experience or what happened to her. If it were a story about Jean that was actually about the Black Panthers, I think that would be problematic, but it was really about Jean and what she went through.
AD: The FBI is so sexist to her. The wire-tapping very much had to do with her being a woman, too, which I was struck by.
RM: I would agree. It is a story that deals with race to some extent and gender to a large extent. Both of those dimensions are part of what I was drawn to in the first place. I think to be a woman in Hollywood in that time meant something very specific and was not an easy route to navigate. It’s still not easy to be a woman, but it really felt like it was incredibly difficult at that time to be in the spotlight as a woman.
Seberg is in theaters December 13.