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Pablo Larraín on 'Jackie,' 'Neruda,' and Making Biopics That Don't Suck

We talked to the prolific Chilean director about his two celebrated new films, 'Jackie' and 'Neruda.'

Camilo Salas

Camilo Salas

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in 'Jackie.' Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Director Pablo Larraín's Jackie and Neruda focus on specific moments in the lives of their titular protagonists: former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy's time during and after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, and Nobel Prize-winning poet and communist Pablo Neruda's persecution at the hands of former president Gabriel González Videla following the latter's ban of the Communist Party of Chile.

With a convincing Natalie Portman handling the title role, Jackie centers on Kennedy's time as the first lady, creating a close, complex portrait of the famously calm and studiously regal woman shouldering an entire nation's pain and sorrow.

Luis Gnecco as Pablo Neruda in 'Neruda.' Photo courtesy of the Orchard

Neruda is organized a bit more loosely, incorporating various scenes from the Communist poet's political life as he flees agents of President González Videla. The film follows the dogged Inspector Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) as he hunts Neruda (Chilean actor Luis Gnecco) in a classic protagonist-versus-antagonist tale. The Spanish-language film unfolds into a literary thriller of sorts, as the persecuted becomes the pursuer.

I spoke with the 40-year-old Santiago-native Larraín in October, in a Midtown Manhattan hotel. We talked about the differences between working in Latin America versus the United States and the spirit and motivation of his two iconic characters as they fight to maintain control over how the world sees them.

VICE: Is there a big difference between working with Chilean/Latin American actors and North Americans?
Pablo Larraín: It's the same problem, and the challenge of the film is always the same. There's always an actor in crisis, creating a character who's at risk. For me, what was most difficult—more than working in one language or another—was to make a film about a feminine character for the first time. I had to connect with a sensibility that was new to me. It was a marvelous experience.

Did you learn anything new about Jackie Kennedy Onassis while making this film?
I also didn't know much about her before making the film—I thought she was preoccupied with fashion and her look. But once I got closer, I realized she had an impressive education and potent sophistication. She's a woman who spoke four languages, had a nose for politics that very few people have, and wielded a very particular power in horrendous circumstances. As a character, she's someone who captivated me very much during the process, and Natalie [Portman] portrayed that.

Director Pablo Larraín on the set of 'Jackie'

What do you mean by a "nose for politics"?
The capacity of understanding how to communicate certain things. I think female politicians maneuver in public by how they communicate, and she had a facility, a talent, an elegance, and a particular perspective to communicate certain messages that seemed relevant to her. Of course, she protected and organized JFK's legacy—and the interesting and paradoxical thing is that by making and assembling the legacy, it transformed him into a legend and her into an icon.

Whose legacy is it in the end?
That's the paradox. She worked to protect him, his legacy, and his image in history, and doing so transformed him into a legend. But without realizing it, she transformed herself into an icon and, somehow, into a mannequin.

Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy in 'Jackie.' Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The two films are also biographies, but they're also notbiographies, in the sense in which everything begins at birth.
I'm not much of a fan of biopics. I don't think these films are biopics. They're approximations of a specific sensibility—a moment of crisis in which someone is transformed by their surroundings, has to confront it, and in the end can lecture the person they once were. These are people that, filtered through the unique elements of film, are filled with the arbitrary and the fictional.

I went to see Jackie with my wife, who is North American, and she said what Natalie [Portman] achieved with her voice was impressive. How was the process of creating this character?
The process had two dimensions. The first is more technical: how she looks, how she combs her hair, how she dresses, how her voice sounds, and it's all a job we do together, but above all that Natalie does because she had a [dialect] coach, Tanya Blumstein. I only intervened once while we were filming, not in preparation.

The second dimension is about studying the character's pain. How she puts the entire country on her shoulders and moves forward and makes sure that things continue to function. It's the "great mother" story. She absorbs not only her own pain but also the pain of the whole world. She's capable of catharsis in public. The film proposes at this moment more of a secret glimpse into her life, and this secret, when it's revealed, is interesting, because in the end I believe that the films that interest me are those made from three elements: anger, curiosity, and love.

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Jackie will be released in theaters December 2 and Neruda will be released December 16.

Translated from the Spanish by Lee Klein.