“Yeah, man, I mean, they’re so boring. Boring, and kind of dangerous.”
Pablo Larraín is looking out the window of his hotel room, staring at the folks in the windows of their hotel rooms across the street from where he’s staying in New York. Nothing salacious is happening, mind you; no one is getting undressed, or murdering their spouse, or jumping on top of their bed to a Beyoncé song. But the 40-year-old Chilean director is still fascinated by the rows of what he calls “glass movie screens” facing him, several of which have their curtains open and feature the occasional appearance of people going about their daily routines. “The sense of real life just happening … that’s what you want to capture when you make a movie,” he says, and begins describing how he observed someone in a single-occupancy conducting a long Skype call earlier in the day. “It was an incredible found, un-self-conscious moment. I love those.”
He turns his gaze back to the person sitting across from him. “Sorry, you asked me what I thought about biopics. Like I said, they’re usually boring. I don’t really like them.” Larraín lets the statement hang in the air for another few seconds. “Which sounds odd to say to you right now, I know.”
A little odd, yes, because the filmmaker – in an accidental moment of market saturation – is in midtown Manhattan to promote not one but two new movies that technically fall into that particular genre. The first, Jackie, focuses on Jacqueline Lee Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination; though it drops in “before” moments such as her 1962 televised White House tour, the movie mostly follows the First Lady during the aftermath, from co-ordinating his funeral to conducting an interview based on Life magazine’s famous “Camelot” feature. It opened in theaters on December 2nd, it is Larraín’s first English-language film, and it features the sort of stunning performance from Natalie Portman that’s already generating some deafening awards-season drumbeating.
The second, Neruda, finds Larraín tackling the life and work of Chile’s famous poet/politician Pablo Neruda, albeit with a twist. Though it features actor Luis Gnecco playing the Nobel prize-winner as he’s forced to flee his home country in the 1940s, the story unfolds mostly through the eyes of a slightly incompetent fictional police inspector (Gael García Bernal) who’s doggedly chasing him. Only a smattering of the great man’s writings and speeches make it into the movie; those unfamiliar with his early years or how his Communist affiliations made him a marked man may find themselves playing catch-up. It opens this weekend, it’s a project that predates Jackie and, thanks to Bernal’s goofy-parody-of-a-hardboiled-gumshoe performance, is as much about Borgesian literary games as it is the wind of banners that passed through the poet’s life. For someone who dislikes screen portraits of iconic figures, Larraín hasn’t exactly shied away from making two of them back to back.
But his reluctance to embrace the cradle-to-grave model normally associated with such movies, and his refusal to simply rely on an iconic subject’s greatest-hits collections for material, not only sets this double-shot apart from the biopic pack. He also gives credence to the growing notion that, by taking a more fragmented, expressionistic route, you actually get closer to nailing the complexity of a life famously lived. And while Larraín isn’t the first one to discover that a just-the-facts-ma’am approach can be maddeningly limited, he has made the strongest case yet for treating the biopic as the beginning of a story as opposed to the final word. By not sticking to the rules, he may be finally liberating the genre from being reduced to one regurgitated history lesson after another.
“That’s exactly why I added dangerous earlier,” Larrain says, in regards to that last point. “Those types of movies become all about trying to pin that person down, to make a permanent record. Or it’s, ‘Well, who is going to play this guy or that guy? How are they going to talk?’ But you can’t pin Pablo Neruda or Jackie Kennedy down. You need to create a poetic mood rather than just having actors recite somebody’s words in a film. You need to feel life in them. Because, otherwise, you risk being everything from tacky to stupid to irrelevant … to all those other words you want to avoid being called.”
In fact, when Larraín’s brother first approached him with the idea of doing a movie about Pablo Neruda roughly eight years ago, the filmmaker thought the notion “felt impossible, and ridiculous. He’s part of landscape, our DNA in Chilé. I thought, I don’t have the guts to sit down and put words in the mouth of someone called Neruda. I just don’t.” After his third movie – the breakthrough 2012 drama No, about a marketing manager (played be Bernal) working on a TV ad campaign for the nation’s 1988 referendum – he began to warm to the idea enough that he reached out to screenwriter Guillermo Calderón. “His first draft was much more conventional,” Larraín says. “Then, as we worked on it more, somebody came up the idea of inventing Gael’s character, the cop. I don’t remember who thought it; I know Guillermo gets the credit, however, because he actually wrote it!
“But suddenly, everything shifted,” he adds. “If you can’t get at why Neruda is important in terms of poetry, literature and politics, there’s no point. And by inventing this detective, we realized in a way that this was the best way to get at all of that.”
“I remember Pablo saying he might do something about Neruda when we were shooting No,” Bernal says, talking about the movie in a separate interview. “But by the time he finally came to me with the idea of being in the movie, things had changed drastically: ‘Oh, so you want me to play some sort of avant-garde, film-noir–style character who’s a fascist? The kind of guy who answers a question by just smoking a cigarette? OK … .’ That you could use humor to get at the humanity of this man’s status as both a fugitive and one of the most famous poets of the 20th century – it’s revolutionary. If you want to make a straight biographical film about where someone went and when, you can just film someone’s passport. The idea that you can live many lives inside of one life is a much more complex idea to tackle.”
“You can’t pin Pablo Neruda or Jackie Kennedy down. You need to create a mood. Otherwise, you risk being everything from tacky to stupid to irrelevant.”
Bernal was in as the Inspector Closeau-like cop, but first he was committed to filming a movie with Werner Herzog; Larraín also had to wait for some extra financing to come through and for Gnecco, who was playing Neruda, to gain back a bunch of weight he had just dropped over a number of months. (“I think Luis is still mad at me for that,” the director says, putting his head in his hands.”) While they were in a holding pattern, Larraín and Calderón made another film – The Club, a dark, twisted tale of several defrocked priests living together as a way of Church-sponsored penance – that was accepted to the Berlin Film Festival. The jury foreman that year was Darren Aronofsky, who was a fan; while in Germany, he sought out Larraín and told him about a script he had. It was the story of Jackie Kennedy, telling her side of an American tragedy; Aronofsky had originally been slated to direct it as a project for his ex-wife Rachel Weisz but was now on solely as a producer. He wanted Larraín to direct it. The response was: Why the hell are you asking a Chilean director to do this?
“His answer was, maybe this needs someone who’s not American,” Larraín recalls. “Maybe, because this wasn’t my history, I would be able to see things differently. I was still sort of unsure, but then I talked to my mother, who essentially told me I had to do it. When I asked her why, she replied, ‘Pablo, you don’t understand: She’s a woman who showed strength, and that’s important for every woman in the world.'”
He got back to Aronofsky and said he was interested; the best person to play Jackie, he thought, would be Natalie Portman. Unbeknownst to him, the Black Swan star had already been circling the project for a long time. “She’d been involved, and then she briefly wasn’t involved,” Larraín says. “That gap happened to have been when I came on, however, so when I suggested her, I thought I was being a genius. Everyone else was like, ‘Dude, you’re a little late to this party.’ There was something about her eyes – she has the same sense of mystery that Jackie did. It just made sense.”
“Pablo likes to leave things unsaid,” Portman says about the director’s love of ambiguity, via email. But during their respective research periods leading up the production – during which time Larraín was filming and editing Neruda – she claims there was a constant back and forth as they arrived at a mutual vision of who Jackie was. “He would talk about her love of objects and of beauty; I would mention her fear of having experienced something she couldn’t wholly remember. He would send me an interview where she accidentally says she doesn’t love her husband; I thought she probably didn’t like the public perception of her as ‘the woman you want to marry.’ There were a lot of exchanges.
“But when we got around to filming,” she adds, “he lit the entire set and had handheld cameras, so you could go wherever you want – physically or emotionally. He let us be totally free (or at least feel that way), which meant you found yourself going to these really unexpected places in scenes.”
Few other directors would allow such let’s-see-where-this-goes explorations when faced with the daunting notion of recreating the moment that an almost universally beloved First Lady dealt with an era-changing moment. It’s not until you see what Larraín accomplishes with his unusual telling, however, that you realize this project probably would not have worked any other way. From the inventive use of Mica Levi’s droning score to giving Portman the creative space to find the person beneath the blood-splattered pink suit and steely protectiveness, his idea of throwing the usual template out the window helps him make something much more unique: an immersive, impressionistic look at grief, power and even motherhood as told through the lens of one endlessly scrutinized, Sphinx-like celebrity. As with Neruda‘s absurdist take on a literary giant, Jackie almost feels like it’s inventing a new subgenre – the interior biopic.
“It made her feel real,” he says, regarding the stream-of-consciousness approach. “More real than if I just told you what happened. Like looking at her through a window.” He gestures outside.
And though Larraín claims the fact that both of these skewed, subjective takes on sociopolitical giants are hitting theaters in the same month is a total fluke, he certainly doesn’t the downplay the fact that, seen together, there’s a connection between them. “I swear to God, I’ve dreamed of Neruda and Jackie sitting in a room, talking to each other,” he says with a laugh. “I really do think that there’s a conversation going on between these two movies in a way I could not have anticipated. Or maybe it’s a chess match.
“But it wasn’t until I started doing promotion for both of these movies,” he adds, “and talking to people that I realized: They’re both these sort of ungraspable figures. I’ll tell you, I spent months making movies about these two people, and I still have no idea who they are. The more I dive into them, the more mysterious they are to me.”