Pablo Larrain is the busiest filmmaker you’ve likely never heard of. Although the director has been a favourite on the foreign-film circuit for years, having directed the Chilean dramas Fuga, Tony Manero and the Oscar-nominated No, Larrain is set to make one hell of an English-language debut this weekend with his new quasi-biopic, Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the former U.S. first lady. And that film’s release comes only a week before the debut of Larrain’s other winter-season biopic, Neruda, which opens Dec. 16. Oh, and Larrain also released his dark drama, The Club, this past February – a move that has the auteur set to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the only filmmaker to have three narrative features released in the United States in the same year. Somehow, Larrain carved time out of his intense schedule to speak with The Globe and Mail about the fine line between truth and fiction, and the power of Portman’s eyes.
It’s pretty remarkable that Jackie is a biopic that challenges what a biopic should be, and it comes out the same year as Neruda, another film that stretches the definition of a biopic. Do you have an affinity for the genre?
No, not at all. I mean, I understand that word to describe them, in that they’re movies about particular people, but my approach is to try to find a specific sensibility that would let us understand who that person might have been – but it’s always through the use of fiction. Jackie, it’s not a historical statement. I’m trying to approach this character at a point of incredible crisis and risk and danger. That’s when people react in unexpected ways and that’s why it’s interesting to look at that.
Well, the way you portray Jackie’s grief in this film is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film.
What Natalie does so beautifully here is to be able to be bleeding on the inside and show it only with her eyes. Grieving is something we can all understand and connect to – it’s an endless emotion. Here, though, she had to also protect JFK’s legacy and she had to work at his funeral. She couldn’t just stay there and cry, she had to move on and find the energy and spirit to change the destiny of a legacy. She made him a legend and she became an icon.
How much research did you put into it? How closely did you stick to the history?
We did a lot of research; we had to do it. If you want to have fiction over the real facts, the first thing you do is start from reality: Who was where at what time. But when the doors are closed, you are just trying to capture what happened inside those rooms. No one knows, but that’s where the truth of cinema comes out.
How critical was getting Natalie for this role?
Well, I was invited to do this movie by [producer] Darren Aronofsky, who was set to direct it a while ago. And I said, I have to have Natalie, and if she won’t do it, I won’t do it. I’m sure there are a lot of great actresses for Jackie, but for me, to my eyes, I always thought Natalie was the one. She has the beauty and elegance of Jackie, but Jackie was also one of the most unknown of the known women of the 20th century, so there is that incredible amount of mystery to her, and Natalie has that. Just look at her – she could be telling you whatever you want, but there’s always just something you’re not quite getting. And then that allows the audience to think and wonder and feel.
This has been an incredibly prolific year for you. How do you balance the work?
It feels good, man, but I never planned for this. It was always, I’m going to make one movie, and then, for multiple reasons, it turned into three releases. With Jackie especially, you don’t say no to something like this. I was just working hard, trying to protect and push the movies all the way.
Now that Jackie is being released in the prime of the awards race, do you find yourself paying much attention to that conversation?
I’m an Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] member, so I have to pay attention. It’d be irresponsible if not. But I do think that, first, when a movie gets an awards spot like this, there is a lot of attention on it, which is great. That’s a gift – you want people to see your movie. But then what also happens is that nobody cares about awards until you get them.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jackie opens Dec. 9 in Toronto, Dec. 16 in Vancouver and wide in January.