“Jackie” screenwriter Noah Oppenheim’s interest in former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy began early.
“I’ve been obsessed and fascinated with her since was a little kid,” the screenwriter told TheWrap founder Sharon Waxman Monday after a screening of Pablo Larrain‘s Oscar contender. “My mother was a huge admirer of Jackie Kennedy. When I visited my grandmother’s house when I was 6 years old, I found this box in her room of newspapers and magazines from that week in 1963 that she had saved. That launched a lifelong interest in the Kennedys and Jackie in particular.”
The Chilean director’s film, starring Natalie Portman as the first lady, explores the seven days between the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 and the funeral for John F. Kennedy, offering a look at a fiercely private life in its most public view.
“When I was thinking about stories to tell about them, I wanted to find a fresh way into what’s obviously a very familiar story,” said Oppenheim, whose credits include “The Maze Runner” and “The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Part I.” “For all the times Jackie Kennedy had been portrayed on television and in film, the focus had always been on her beauty, her elegance, the complexities of her marriage.
“But like a lot of women in history, she’d never gotten her proper due for the really substantive role she played in how we think about shaping her husband’s time in office and his legacy,” Oppenheim said. “I learned how much she did to craft the mythology of his administration, and when I found out that she had created the Camelot myth in an interview she gave just one week after the assassination, it struck me that those were good bookends — the assassination and the interview. Once I found that out, it was a matter of mining those seven days in between.”
The contours of the myth of the Kennedy era are so well known that the filmmakers knew shortcuts were not an option. They had to obey the prime directive of the biopic: Get the details right. For Oppenheim, that included the right director. Oppenheim said that Darren Aronofsky was initially tapped to direct, but the task fell to Larrain, whose “Neruda,” on the civic passions of poet Pablo Neruda, recently opened in theaters.
Once Larrain was aboard, the work of nailing the look began. Costume designer Madeline Fontaine and production designer Jean Rabasse faced the challenge of capturing visual details of the era, and the tragic iconography of the clothes and sets of that slice in time.
Kennedy was a champion of Paris couture, and that location dovetailed with production plans. “Producers decided to shoot the film in Paris, for many reasons, partly because
Stephane Fontaine, the cinematographer (and no relation to Madeline), set up a “quite challenging” task: shooting images that could be blended with archival footage from the period. “What we were trying to achieve was a look where all the conditions would be seamless,” he said.
The White House — what Kennedy called “the people’s house” — became a special sanctuary, a fact the filmmakers sought to visually embrace. “Just because all the cares she goes through there needed to be a place for her to … rest, for lack of a better word,” Stephan Fontaine said. “The White House needed to be kind of a shelter. We created a much softer look, something that would be more gentle.”
For Rabasse, time was of the essence. “The whole second floor was built in Paris in a studio. I needed to be sure I understood the architecture, the design, the furniture, the style of the White House at that time. We had a lot of constraints because we had only 10 weeks of prep, which is very small for a big set like that. We had to go very fast. … and we had to find furniture everywhere in Europe and in America. We also built a big part of the dining room in Hong Kong. It was like a very big workshop.”
Madeline Fontaine said she made five copies of the pink suit Kennedy wore on the day of the assassination. “We needed to have at least one ready with the blood on, and at least two to make the sequence of the assassination, and one just in case,” she said.
Another dress — a stunning green gown worn by Kennedy for the 1961 concert with Pablo Casals — was perfectly re-created for Portman’s physique. “The shape was inspired by some of the other dresses she wore,” Fontaine said. “It was very pure and made for her body.”
It all comes together in a study of those seven pivotal days in 1963 largely seen through the eyes of the first lady, a portrait by turns literal and psychological. The Fox Searchlight film, which also stars Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt in supporting roles.
The film has an 86 percent freshness rating at Rotten Tomatoes, places Portman in a strong position for best-actress consideration as awards season swings in.
For Oppenheim, the reality of the production matched his writer’s vision, a vision that started with a curious 6-year-old boy. “It was very surreal,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be inside the White House, and it felt like I’d walked into it again. It feels like the real thing, even on the soundstage.”