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‘Jackie’: Global Crew Helped Bring Former American First Lady to Life

Jacqueline Kennedy was cosmopolitan and had a global point of view. And Fox Searchlight’s “Jackie” reflects this international perspective: The movie was made by Chilean filmmakers and a French crew, the title character was played by an actress born in Jerusalem, and the part of JFK was handled by an actor from Denmark.

In all, 10 countries were represented, as 1960s America was re-created in Paris by a team led by two brothers: producer Juan de Dios Larraín and director Pablo Larraín.

The reproduction of the Kennedy White House was a crucial aspect of the film, which includes scenes that replicate portions of the 1962 CBS special “A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” in which the first lady showed off her renovations. “The big challenge was not just to make the White House of 1963, but to make it really real, to match it with real footage,” says French production designer Jean Rabasse.

He and his team conducted months of research, even finding the blueprints for Jackie’s renovations and measuring the exact size of the paintings that hung on the wall. “We fell in love with the information we found,” he says.

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Among their discoveries was the fact that Kennedy’s interior designers in many cases sourced fabrics from a French house, which the “Jackie” team was also able to use. “Sometimes we were so lucky to find the exact same fabrics she had used,” Rabasse notes. “It was a link between our dreams and the reality.”

Paris-based costume designer Madeline Fontaine also tapped into the first lady’s international tastes. Among the clothes re-created for the film was the iconic pink Chanel suit Kennedy wore in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

“We had to find the right shade of pink. It had to be the pink, because that suit is so famous,” Fontaine says. She and her team ended up making five copies of the suit, including one in a slightly different shade that would duplicate the color conveyed by 1963 newsreel footage.

There were multiple challenges for cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (no relation to the costume designer). The busy DP — who also shot “Elle” and “Captain Fantastic” this year — had to match scenes that would be intercut with the newsreel footage, as well as the black-and-white White House tour. The solution: 16mm cameras, the closest they could get to reproducing the technology of the time.

Most of the White House scenes take place in the week following JFK’s assassination. Both the DP and director wanted the setting to have a gentle, soft feeling, since it was the one place she could feel safe “from the mayhem of the outside world,” says Fontaine.

There were long shots of Jackie in the White House, to convey her isolation, but Larraín in general wanted the camera very close to the face of star Natalie Portman. Fontaine had a camera on his shoulder and stayed tight on the actress in moves that were usually carefully laid out but occasionally improvised.

“They were like dancing around the White House,” says Larraín.

To ensure the camera’s flexibility, they put all lighting high up, so no floor lamps would interfere with movement that sometimes turned 360 degrees. Portman quickly adjusted to the up-close approach. “I think one-third of the movie was done in one take,” the director estimates.

The narrative is framed by an interview Kennedy gave a week after the assassination, based on Theodore H. White’s story for Life magazine. The movie blends moments from that interview with the events in Dallas, developments in the week following the shooting, and her earlier CBS TV tour. It was the job of Chilean editor Sebastián Sepúlveda to combine those four key periods into the complex mosaic Larraín had devised.

Asked if it was a complicated editing process, Sepúlveda rolls his eyes and laughs, “Very!” He says he and Larraín dictated the structure by focusing on the emotional throughline of Kennedy’s attempts to hold herself, her family, and the world together after the assassination.

Larraín — who loved the script by Noah Oppenheim but agreed to direct it contingent on Portman’s participation — conducted a worldwide search for the right actor to play JFK. Danish actor Caspar Phillipson — found via Facebook — got the part.  “He is a really good actor, and he looked like JFK,” Larraín says. “When they did hair and makeup on him, and he walked on the set for the first time, we all kind of freaked out.” (Catherine Leblanc Caraes was the hair designer; Miwoo Kim and Odile Fourquin were makeup designers.)

To maintain order among the multilingual team on the set, the director declared that English would be spoken. “I would go to the bathroom, and when I came back, everyone had started talking French. I’d shout, ‘English only, please!’ ”

Larraín says, laughing. “My French wasn’t good enough to understand them.”

In all, it was a United Nations of collaborators, which is exactly what the filmmakers wanted. “One of the beautiful things about cinema,” Larraín says, “is that we could come from different spaces and connect.”

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