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Digging deeper with Jackie editor Sebastián Sepúlveda

By Mel Lambert

Cutting Jackie together was a major challenge, according to picture editor Sebastián Sepúlveda. “Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s intricate handheld camera work — often secured in a single take — the use of the extreme close-ups and the unconventional narrative framework meant that my creative sensibilities were stretched to the maximum. I was won over by the personality of Jackie Kennedy, and saw the film and its component parts as a creative opportunity on several levels. I approached the edit as several small emotional moments that, as a whole, offered a peek into her inner life.”

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Sebastián Sepúlveda

Director Pablo Larraín’s new offering, which opens in the US on December 2, chronicles the tragic events following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children and maintain her husband’s historic legacy, as well as the world of Camelot that they created. Jackie stars Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup and Greta Gerwig.

The script, by Noah Oppenheim, is nonlinear. It opens with an interview between Jackie and an unnamed journalist from Life magazine just a few days after the assassination and transitions to earlier events as the narrative unfolds. The 100-minute film was shot in France and Washington, DC, on Kodak Vision3 Super 16mm film with an Arriflex 416 Plus camera. It had a 2K DI in an aspect ratio of is 1.66:1, which more convincingly matches the 4×3 archive footage than a wide-screen format.

The film is already getting award attention. Portman (Jackie) was nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for best actress, Larraín won the Platform Prize at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, and Oppenheim’s screenplay received the Golden Osella at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. The director was also nominated for the Golden Lion for best film at the latter festival.

The Edit
Sepúlveda (who has been nominated for a Spirit Award for his work on Jackie) previously edited Larraín’s Spanish-language film The Club and has collaborated with his friend on previous films. “I shaped Jackie’s unconventional narrative into a seamless story and dove into Larraín’s exploration of her internal reality — the emotional, enigmatic core of the most unknown woman in the world,” he explains. “I found emotional bridges to stitch the piece together in a format that’s bold, innovative and not taught in film school — it is organic to the movie and very much in sync with Larraín’s creative process.”

Sepúlveda identified four key layers to the narrative: ongoing interview sequences at Hyannis Port that provide an insight into the lead character’s frail emotional state; a reconstruction of the landmark White House tour that the First Lady hosted for CBS Television in 1961; sequences with an Irish catholic priest (John Hurt) that explore the lead character’s inevitable crisis of faith; and the assassination and harrowing high-speed exit from Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

“I navigated the edit by staying true to Jacqueline Kennedy’s emotional core, which was the primary through-line of the director’s approach to the movie. We had to bring to life a structure that went back and forth across many layers of time,” he says. “The film starts with a more classical interview of Mrs. Kennedy by a magazine journalist just after the tragedy. Then we have the White House tour in flashback, and then the day in Dallas where JFK was murdered. So that was tricky. We also had extreme close-ups of Natalie [Portman] in almost every scene, which we used not only to see the story from her point of view, but also to observe every detail of her expression following the nightmare the former First Lady had to go through.”

Sepúlveda, who works most often in Apple Final Cut Pro, was given an Avid Media Composer for this film. He says his biggest challenge in the editing suite was honoring the four identified layers throughout the complex cut. “It was very hard to balance all the facts, but also to give life to the film. I did a very quick edit in a week by keeping the structure very simple. I then went back and refined the edit while still honoring the basic shape. The use of extreme close-ups and medium shots let me keep [the First Lady] at the center of attention, and to make sure that the editing was not obtrusive to that vision of a sad, melancholic feel.

Photo by William Gray“And we had the gorgeous, incredible Natalie Portman, who plays with her eyes in a way that you cannot read so easily. It puts the character into a more mysterious perspective. You think in one scene that you understand the character, then comes the next scene and… boom! Natalie shows you another part of this complex character. Finally, you cannot pick which one is Jacqueline Kennedy, since all those different aspects of the character are the First Lady. We had to build the structure — the bridges between the scenes — only guided by this emotional path.”

Eye Contact
Both Larraín and Sepúlveda subscribe to the Shakespearean adage that our eyes are the windows to our soul, and arranged their cut around that conviction. “When we started the edit, after studying the rushes, Pablo and I had a conversation — maybe the most important/interesting part of the process for me — about the eyes,” says Sepúlveda. “For us, they built the entire emotional path of the storytelling process, because the viewer is always trying to read what’s behind the eyes. You can try to bluff with a facial expression, but our eyes are there to show things that you don’t want to say.

“As an audience member you are trying to go deeper into the character,” the editor continues, “but always find the unexpected. You become emotionally involved with this figure while wanting to know more about her. Your imagination is engaged, playing with the film. For me, that’s pure cinema.”

Sepúlveda considers the process as harkening back to the New Wave or La Nouvelle Vague film period of the late 1950s and 1960s. Although never a formally organized movement, New Wave filmmakers rejected literary-period pieces being made in France and written by novelists, and instead elected to shoot current social issues on location. They intended to experiment with a film form that chronicled social and political upheavals with their radical experiments in editing, visual style and narrative elements in more of a documentary style, with fragmented, discontinuous editing and long takes.

Photo by Pablo LarraínAnd not all scenes in Jackie involve complex cross editing. An example is the scene in the White House when Jacqueline Kennedy strips off her blood-stained clothing, to the ironical accompaniment of the title song from the Broadway musical Camelot sung by Richard Burton. “It was the first time she had been alone, and we had a number of long shots to emphasize that isolation; she was walking like a ghost, dropping clothes as she went from room to room — almost as if she was changing her skin — with several two- to three-minute takes,” describes Sepúlveda. “The music also recedes as if it was coming from an adjacent room, to add to the sense of separation, and the haunting loss of the sense of [JFK’s] Camelot — the dream was broken. This was not the same Jacqueline Kennedy known by the public.”

Because he has young girls, editing a film about this powerful, vulnerable, creative First Lady was important to this Chilean-born editor. “Given our current political situation here in the States – and which obviously has ripple effects beyond our borders — I think we need a little Jackie love and magic right now,” he says.

“As the father of two little girls I know that they don’t have the same opportunities as the boys, and that scares me. To participate in a film in which the main character is a woman who had to make important decisions for her country in a moment of political and personal crisis, is ethically important to me. Because, obviously, it was an extremely traumatic time for Jacqueline Kennedy, the idea was to create a seamless edit that could evoke how human memory works under trauma. In this case, we approached it like small glimpses of that period of the First Lady’s life. For me, it was very important to keep the audience emotionally involved with the main character, to almost participate in her experience and, ultimately, to empathize with her. It’s a portrait of grief but we also appreciate, ultimately, how she persevered and overcame it.”

An Editor’s Background
An experienced cinematographer, writer and director, Sepúlveda has enjoyed an eclectic career, whose vocations inform each other and also reflect a sometimes-stressful home life. “My family was exiled from Chile because of Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973. My mother was a university professor and supported the Allende government. We lived in five countries — France, Venezuela, Argentina, Switzerland and Spain — but it was a very beautiful childhood. To live in Venezuela, discovering the Amazon rainforest, living in Argentina when the democracy returned in the eighties, attending public school in France and getting my dose of republican values. I studied history in a Chilean university, editing in Cuba and scriptwriting in Paris. I really like to work on different aspects of a film.”

In 2007, he worked in France as a film editor, and returned to Chile for vacations. “Pablo was editing Tony Manero, and invited me to give them feedback. It was a first cut, but astonishing. I was shocked in a positive way. We had a pleasant conversation about possible ways to build the film. Then I moved back to Chile and Pablo’s brother Juan invited me to work with them. I started as a script doctor for films and TV series they produced, edited some feature films, and also wrote some script treatments for Pablo. His company, Fabula, produced my first feature film as a director, Las Niñas Quispe (2013), which premiered at Venice Critics Week,” he concludes. “It’s been an amazing journey.”

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Mel Lambert is principal of Content Creators, an LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com Follow him on Twitter @MelLambertLA

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