In Fox Searchlight’s upcoming “Jackie,” director Pablo Larrain focuses on the days following the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy, creating a window to Jackie Kennedy’s emotional state as she confronts the unimaginable. Traumatized, she must quickly make the decisions that will determine how history will remember her husband.
Natalie Portman plays the enigmatic first lady, 34 years old and the mother of two young children at the time. She’s followed by DP Stéphane Fontaine, whose unobtrusive camera shadows her as the narrative seamlessly blends fact and fiction, presenting Jackie’s public and private life without apology.
“When we first started talking about the movie, Pablo wanted to get rid of the storytelling that’s known to everyone and get closer to Jackie’s inner feelings,” says Fontaine. “The whole movie is built as a very intimate story of what it was like if we only focused on her.”
Filming moved swiftly over 23 days on stages in Paris, with 10 days in Washington D.C. and Baltimore. The cinematographer turned to Super 16mm film to replicate the texture of the archival footage sewn into the narrative. Arriflex 416 cameras were paired with Zeiss Super Speed MKII lenses, providing soft, elegant visuals for colorist Isabelle Julien to match.
The structure of the film is based on a series of interviews in which Jackie speaks about the tragedy to a journalist, played by Billy Crudup. The interview sequences were shot on location with a very clean, still frame — not even a bird can be seen flying outside.
“If you didn’t notice, Natalie is always center of frame, and most of the movie is constantly on the move, so it felt right to have the interview scenes static,” says Fontaine. “It seemed to us that when she invites this journalist over, she makes a conscious decision to speak. She’s no longer in the turmoil and chaos that happened right after the assassination. She has had time to think about it. You get to see a much stronger Jackie than you meet days before.”
Another big piece of the story is Jackie’s televised tour of the White House, broadcast on CBS and NBC in 1962. “That was on black-and-white video,” Fontaine points out. “In order to re-create the look, we used an old three-tube camera that Pablo had when he was shooting ‘No.’”
Wide-angle lenses and extreme close-ups pushed Jackie’s distress after Kennedy’s death. “We didn’t use long lenses that would make for a more abstract background. Instead we chose very wide lenses that allowed us to get very close to Natalie. It added to the paranoia and claustrophobia,” says Fontaine, who operated the camera himself.
“I was able to get a foot away at times but still provide a sense of the people or environment around her,” he notes. “It requires a lot of courage from the actors and a trust in the director. It’s like an unspoken contract. Once you establish that, you’re then just in a circle of light creating a moment.”