From Wong Kar Wai to Ingmar Bergman, film history is littered with brilliant international auteurs who somehow came unstuck when shooting in English for the first time, but not Pablo Larrain.
The 40-year-old Chilean — already seven features into a career that has netted him a surfeit of global honors, an Oscar nomination for 2012’s searing political satire “No,” and who is Variety’s International Director of the Year — delivered the biggest shockwave of this year’s fall festival season with “Jackie,” an emotionally piercing, strikingly fractured biographical portrait of America’s iconic first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, in the wake of her husband’s assassination.
Spurred by rave reviews and immediate awards chatter at Venice, a keen bidding contest ensued, with Fox Searchlight sealing the deal and setting it for a prestige December release. That’s not bad for a debut English-lingo project that Larrain, best known for his dark, often visceral investigations of Pinochet-shadowed Chile, admits was an unlikely fit for him.
When “Jackie” producer Darren Aronofsky — previously slated to direct the project himself — reached out to Larrain, the outsider says he asked, “Why are you calling a Chilean? Who told you that was a good idea?
“I’m not a big fan of biopics, to be honest, and I don’t have any particular attachment to that history. But then I kind of connected with Jackie herself. I’d only worked with male main characters before, so this was the first time I could approach a woman’s perspective. And the more I learned about her, how she was able to shape all these very complicated ideas of JFK’s legacy, I wanted to explore that. Because it had all the elements that you need for a movie: rage, curiosity, and love.”
“Jackie” alone would make 2016 a mighty year for Larrain; that it unspooled less than four months after the singular Cannes sensation of “Neruda,” however, is positively startling. Selected as the official Chilean entry in the foreign-language film Oscar race, “Neruda” may find Larrain working in his native Spanish, but it’s far from familiar territory for him: riffing with dazzling invention on the life and literature of Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, it’s an even less conventional take on big-screen biography than “Jackie.”
Larrain himself describes it as “anti-biopic”: “We wanted to build from the genre, mixing others into it: there are elements of noir, black comedy, a road movie, too. It’s sort of a movie about movies. And more a Nerudian movie than a movie about Neruda. When we submitted the movie to Cannes and we had to list the genre, I said, ‘Let’s just leave it blank.’”
The shoots of “Neruda” and “Jackie” could hardly have been more disparate experiences. While the former reunited him with previous collaborators, including “No” star Gael Garcia Bernal and longstanding DP Sergio Armstrong, the heavily French-funded “Jackie” saw him working with an entirely new crew.
“They were all French and the movie was in English and we brought a lot of American actors and then I was in the middle. I was like, what is this ice cream flavor?” he laughs. “But then we just all connected with the movie we wanted to make. At the beginning, I felt I needed my crew. But I had my brother, Juan, as a producer. We pushed it together.”
Larrain is an accomplished producer: he has acted in that capacity for Abel Ferrara and Sebastian Silva. It’s a sideline that he regards as key to his own creative development.
“Directors never get to see others direct, but it’s such a pleasure to watch someone you admire work, and to help make it possible, to help them make the movie they want to make.”
He credits Aronofsky, meanwhile, with giving him artistic free rein on “Jackie,” including Larrain’s early insistence that Natalie Portman play the role once earmarked for Rachel Weisz.
“I said to him, politely but very clearly, that I would only make the movie with Natalie. There are other actresses who could do a great job. But she has the air of mystery that Jackie had. Jackie was in circumstances so real and powerful and violent and awkward at the same time. How was she able to deal with all those elements? There’s a lot of information about her, but nobody really knew who she was.
“Looking at Natalie, you also don’t know. It’s like, ‘Where are you?’ And when you have those questions, that’s where things get cinematic and crispy and dangerous. I need that in my work.”