PABLO LARRAÍN IN NEW YORK, OCTOBER 2016. PORTRAIT: VICTORIA STEVENS.
There are several superficial similarities between Jackie and Neruda, the two new films from Chilean director Pablo Larraín. Both are a biopics about extremely iconic historical figures—just as the mythology of Jackie Kennedy and the promise of Camelot is rooted into the fabric of American culture, so is the image of Neruda, the poet and leftist politician, an integral part of Chilean identity. (“For us,” Larraín explains, “Neruda is in the water, in the earth in the trees. He’s everywhere. He was able to describe our culture, and is a key figure in our culture.”) Both films forgo the traditional cradle-to-grave Hollywood structure in favor of focusing on a single pivotal moment—Neruda’s exile from Chile; Jackie’s attempt to cement her husband’s legacy directly after his death—and the protagonists attempt to control the situation. Both films recently had their North American premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival and are currently screening at the New York Film Festival; while Neruda is Chile’s official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, Natalie Portman is one of the frontrunner on every critic’s Best Actress Oscar list.
But it is the ways in which Jackie and Neruda diverge that reinforce Larraín’s importance as a filmmaker. Where Jackie is only about the former First Lady, a meditation on her psyche at a specific moment in time, Neruda is a playful, meta cat-and-mouse game between the poet (played by Luis Gnecco) and a somewhat bumbling police inspector named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal)—or perhaps a game of wits Neruda has created within himself for his own personal enjoyment. Larraín, whose Pinochet film No was also nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2013, is no one-trick pony.
EMMA BROWN: I read that your brother was the one who came to you with the idea for Neruda around eight years ago.
PABLO LARRAIN: Or more than that. It was a while ago. He said, “Why don’t we make a movie about Neruda during this specific period?” I was like, “You can’t put him in a movie…” Then he said, “Let’s try and let’s find a good writer.” So we found Guillermo [Calderon], and Guillermo brought a first draft that was very well made, [but] more conventional in terms of biopics. He made a new draft over the years and three years after No , we started working on it. At some point, Guillermo incorporated the cop [Óscar Peluchonneau] and we were like, “This is the key.”
Then we did two things. One is that we read the speech that he gave when he got the Nobel Prize in the early ’70s. You can read it, it’s everywhere, and he talked about this moment a lot during the speech. He said at some point that he didn’t know if he lived it, wrote it, or dreamt it. We started playing with that and discovered that we were making a Nerudian movie about his cosmos, his world, more than about Neruda himself. You just can’t put him in a box; it’s impossible. I read tons of biographies, most of his work, his autobiography called I Confess That I Have Lived, and I had no idea who he was, until now. Neruda was a guy who was an expert. He was a great cook, an expert on food, an expert on wine. He was an incredible collector. He would travel all over the world. He was a womanizer. He was an expert on literature and on crime novels. He was a diplomat; he was a senator, a political leader, and one of the greatest poets ever. He created a very sophisticated and complex cosmos, and that’s what we worked with. The movie is very cubist—Picasso is like a hiding key. It’s a character that’s in the movie very little, but for us is essential in terms of the work. It’s more just building little pieces, that then you put in a larger frame, and it creates something different—another image somehow.
We were about to go into production with Neruda and the main actor, Luis [Gnecco], had to gain weight. Then Gael was shooting, and it was a five country co-production, so it was very hard. It was like 80 actors, 80 locations, so the movie was pushed six months. My brother came and told me, “We can’t shoot now; I need seven months. We need to wait for all these people, this money,” and I was like, “What am I going to do?” And then we shot The Club. The Club went to [the] Berlin [Film Festival] and we won an award. Darren Aronofsky was the head of the jury, and while at the after party, with all these people ridiculously holding an award in hand and a drink in the other one, Darren [Aronofsky] came to me and said, “Why don’t we make a movie?” Then he sent me Jackie. But it was just super accidental; it was never planned.
BROWN: For Jackie, I heard that the producers wanted a director who didn’t grow up with the mythology of Jackie and the Kennedys. That seems difficult, though—even if you’re not from the U.S., the Kennedys are such iconic figures, and they’re everywhere. Did you feel like you were a little bit more removed from Jackie?
LARRAIN: That was my first question to Darren: “Why are you calling a Chilean to do this?” It’s so unusual. And that’s what he told me—”I think it could be interesting to see this from someone that is not American.” Of course I knew who she was, but I had a very wrong idea about her. I had an idea of this superficial woman who is worried about costumes and clothes and style and fabrics—fashion. Then when I started digging into her, I realized how sophisticated, educated, and smart she was. She was a woman who had a political smile that, there are a million politicians in this world that have, like, one percent of that. It’s just so amazing. She was also a very strong woman who was able to go through this process with such an incredible strength. I connected with her watching her White House tour. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I watched it a ton of times. There’s someone so fragile and beautiful there behind those eyes, and so mysterious at the same time. I fell in love with her. I connected with her sensibility I guess, or tried to. She’s so mysterious. She’s the most unknown of known people. Nobody really knows who she was, and that’s very interesting. That’s why I think Natalie does it so well, because she’s not only an incredible performer, but also someone who is able to keep the mystery. The audience will always wonder what is really going on, and that’s where the mechanics of cinema works.
BROWN: You said earlier that Neruda is not someone you can put in a box. Do you feel he has a similar mystery to Jackie or is he intangible in a different way?
LARRAIN: In a different way. Neruda had such a large amount of work, and also as a politician, all of the things he said, so he’s someone that is ungrabbable. It’s like water; you can hold it in your hands, it would drain at some point, but your hands would stay wet. You would keep that. That’s what you can take from him. It’s very different. But they are both very mysterious and they’re both people that really worked on their own image. They tried somehow to shape their public image, but there’s something that is out of their control. There is what they try to do in terms of public image, and there’s a final public image, and I’m focused on that gap—that part that they don’t control, even if they tried to. I think that’s where we’re looking, and if there’s a connection with those movies, it’s just that.
BROWN: As you said, in the end, these people have a final public image. Do you think their intentions—the image they intended to create—matter?
LARRAIN: Of course. I think their intentions are very important. That’s what creates humanity and fragility. That’s what also creates the essence of the cinema that I’m interested in, which is a combination of love, rage, and curiosity. Sometimes it’s hard to see those intentions, or maybe it’s hard to portray them on film in a way that doesn’t sound too preachy or irrelevant. So instead of saying it out loud, you say it multiple times in the movie by hiding it. You get a sensation after you see the whole film throughout yourself. Sometimes I go to the cinema and I see a movie where the directors or the filmmakers are telling me what to think, what to feel. They are giving me all the answers, and I’m like, “What am I doing here?” I try to have an active audience that are thinking and feeling for themselves.
BROWN: When you are making a film, to what extent does your initial vision change when you’re in the editing room?
LARRAIN: I already know that you will never know. There are some filmmakers like the Coen brothers that are very precise. They make shooting boards, they do it shot by shot, and they follow every single line in their own script. They make amazing movies, and I admire them so much, [but] I can’t do that. I have no idea how the movie will exactly be. While shooting, I just try to create an accident that I don’t control very well—grabbing things from different sources and ideas, and then having a sensation somewhere that it will make sense. You fabricate an accident somehow, and I enjoy that a lot. I don’t know how they do it. I think it’s just another type of filmmaking and it’s so smart to have that control, [but] I can’t do that. I need to be in a place where I’m a little blind somehow. I try to feel and try to understand what they’re going through and the possibilities that it could have. What I’m telling you, it’s not a lack of precision. Of course it’s a lot of preparation, but there’s something that I know it would be different later on. It is like that. The first cut of Neruda was three hours and 25 minutes. Now it’s around 100 minutes. There’s a scene in between Gael and Luis that we shot for two days. It’s a seven-page scene of dialogue that is not in the film. I thought it was essential, and then I discovered that it was much better that they just meet at the end, so we took it out. There is a lot of control in order to have something that is out of control.
BROWN: At what point did you think of Gael for the part of Oscar?
LARRAIN: I think a year before we went into production, so the last three or four drafts that Guillermo did, he had him in mind—same with Luis. Gael has something that I think is essential to cinema. There’s the type of actor that could tell you everything they feel or they think or they’re doing, but you look at them, and you wonder what’s really going on. They have like a mystery that is amazing. He’s also one of my best friends, so he was a natural guy for it, and he can be so fragile and strong at the same time. It was an incredible adventure, and we had so much fun. We really laughed a lot. I had to leave the set multiple times to not interrupt the takes because I was just laughing.
BROWN: Did you know him before No?
LARRAIN: No, not personally. I met him before the movie, a year before. Then we became friends immediately. It was hard to focus on the movie when we were talking about other things. At some points it would be like, “Hey, let’s get back to the movie.”
BROWN: I heard that you asked about Natalie immediately for Jackie. Why?
LARRAIN: It’s hard to say. I guess there are a lot of actresses that could make a great Jackie, but to me, I said to Darren when he invited me that I would only do it if she did it. He was like, “Alright, I’ll set up a meeting and then it’s your problem,” and he did. I met her, I said, “I want to propose multiple things to the writer and I will tell you what they are.” And one of them was to wipe away all the scenes where she’s not on it. One part of the script had other characters and other things, and I proposed to take them out and just focus on her. It’s so hard to explain, to have a precise answer. I just would say that she resembled that fragility and sophistication, and that combination of beauty and sadness that I think the character needed. I never saw anybody [else] doing it. I was like, “Natalie, if you don’t do it, I won’t do it. I’m sorry for the pressure—you’re super free to say no and pass, and somebody else will come and do this movie, maybe with you, maybe with another actress, but if I do this movie, I will only do it with you.” [laughs] It was the first time I met her. I worked on the draft with [screenwriter] Noah [Oppenheim] and sent it to her, and she was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” She took the risk of making this movie with this Chilean director.
It was a very bold idea to bring somebody from Chile to make a movie about Jackie, but then we really connected and we had a very beautiful process. I usually do a lot of takes, but in Jackie we did very few. One-third of the film is just one take. The other third is like two or three, and then the other third is five to eight. Sometimes we would just do it once—we were shooting on film, and I was like, “Check the gate. The gate is good? It’s done.” She was giving too much. I thought that I could ask her and she would do as many [takes] as I was asking, but then I was like, “Why? I just saw it. It’s done.” I thought I could exhaust her unnecessarily. I think it’s just one scene [that we shot] that is not in the film. Everything else is there. In Neruda we had two hours of material edited out. Jackie is a woman at risk in a dangerous situation. I’m not talking about physical danger—it’s on every level. I love the fact that she is a woman. All the movies I’ve made before are based on male characters. This was the first time, and I connected with the way she breathed and her eyes. It’s an image that’s hard to describe with words. That’s why we make movies. [laughs]
JACKIE AND NERUDA ARE CURRENTLY SCREENING AT THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL IN NEW YORK CITY. JACKIE OPENS IN THE U.S. ON DECEMBER 2, 2016; NERUDA OPENS DECEMBER 16, 2016.