By Iain Blair
Chilean director Pablo Larraín has been hailed as one of the most ambitious, iconoclastic, daring — and important — political filmmakers of his generation thanks to such films as No, a drama about the 1988 plebiscite that brought an end to the Pinochet era; Tony Manero, about a man obsessed with John Travolta’s disco dancing character from Saturday Night Fever; and The Club, a drama about disgraced priests.
He’s also one of the hardest-working directors in the business, with two major releases out before Christmas. First up is Fox’s Jackie, about one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century. It stars Natalie Portman as first lady Jackie Kennedy and is set in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. That’s followed by Neruda, which focuses on the life of Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century. Neruda is Chile’s Oscar submission, and Jackie, Larrain’s first English-language film, is also getting a lot of Oscar and awards season buzz.
I talked to Larraín about making the films and his workflow.
Why make back-to-back films?
I never planned it this way. I was going to make Neruda, and then we had to push it six months for a lot of reasons. My last film, The Club, won an award at Berlin, and Darren Aronofsky headed up the jury and asked me to direct Jackie, which he produced. So I ended up doing Jackie right after Neruda.
So what does a Chilean director shooting in Paris bring to such an iconic American subject?
The view of an outsider, maybe. We were doing a lot of post on Neruda in Paris, and the film was mainly made and cut there at Film Factory. Natalie was also living there, so it all came together organically. We built all the interiors there — the White House and so on.
Neither film is your run-of-the-mill biopic. Can you talk about Jackie, which has a lot of time compression, random memories and flashbacks?
I don’t like normal biopics. They’re very tricky to do, I think. More than anything we wanted to find and discover the specific sensibility that was Jackie and examine all the events that happened after the assassination. It was also about capturing specific emotions and showing her strengths and weaknesses, and all the paradoxes and controversies that surrounded her. So we approached it from fiction. Good biopics aren’t really biographical; they just try to capture a sense of the person more through atmosphere and emotions than a linear plot and structure.
You must have done a lot of research?
Extensive — looking at newsreels, interviews, reading books. Before all that, I had a very superficial idea of her as this person who was mainly concerned about clothes and style and furniture. But as I researched her character, I discovered just what an incredible woman she was. And for me, it’s also the story of a mother.
What were the main technical challenges of making this?
The biggest challenge for me was, of course, making my first film in English. It wasn’t easy to do. My other biggest challenge was making a film about a woman. In my films, the main characters have always been men, so that was the biggest one for me to deal with and understand.
Do you like the post process?
I love it — and more and more, the editing. It’s just so beautiful when you sit with the editor, and every scene you’ve shot is now cut in that first cut. Then you go, “Alright, where do we go now, to really shape the film?” You start moving scenes around and playing with the narrative. I think it was Truffaut who said that when you shoot, you have to fight with the script, and then when you edit, you have to fight with the shoot, and it’s so true. I’ve learned over the years to really embrace post and editing.
You worked with editor Sebastián Sepúlveda on Jackie. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
He began cutting while we were shooting, and when we wrapped we finished cutting it at Primo Solido, in Santiago, Chile. We did all the pre-mixes there too.
This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but as with any period piece the VFX play a big role.
Absolutely, and Garage, a VFX company in Santiago, did about 80 percent of them. They did a great job. We also used Mikros and Digital District in Paris. I like working with visual effects when I have to, but I’m not really a greenscreen guy (laughs). Both films were fun to do in terms of the effects work, and you can’t tell that they’re visual effects — all the backgrounds and so on are very photorealistic, and I love that illusion… that magic. Then there’s a lot of work erasing all the modern things and doing all the cleanup. It’s the kind of post work that’s most successful when no one notices it. (Check out our interview with Jackie editor Sebastián Sepúlveda.)
Let’s talk about Neruda, which is also not a typical biopic, but more of “policier” thriller.
Yes, it’s less about Neruda himself and more about what we call the “Nerudian world.” It’s about what he created and what happened when he went into hiding when the political situation changed in Chile. We created this fictional detective who’s hunting him as a way of exploring his life.
Along with Jackie, he was a real person. Did you feel an extra responsibility in making two films about such icons?
Yes, of course, but if you think about it too much it can just paralyze you. You’re trying to capture a sense of the person, their world, and we shot Neruda in Chile, Buenos Aires and a little bit in Paris.
What did you shoot the films on?
We shot Jackie on film and on Super 16, and Neruda on Red. I still love shooting on film more than digital, but we had a great experience with the Red cameras and we used some old Soviet anamorphic lenses from the ‘60s that I found in LA about eight years ago. We got a beautiful look with them. Then we did all the editing in Paris with Hervé Schneid but with a little help at the end from Sebastián Sepúlveda to finish it in time for its Cannes debut. We changed quite a few things — especially the music.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in both of the films?
Well, film is an audio-visual medium, so sound is half the movie. It triggers mood, emotion, atmosphere, so it’s crucial to the image you’re looking at, and I spend a lot of time working on the music and sound with my team — I love that part of post too. When I work with my editors, I always ask them to cut to sound and work with sound as well, even if they don’t like to work that way.
How is the movie industry in Chile?
I think it’s healthy, and people are always challenging themselves, especially the younger generation. It’s full of great documentaries — and people who’ve never worked with film, only digital. It’s exciting.
I don’t quite know, but I’m developing several projects. It’s whatever happens first.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.