The LRM Interview: Chilean Filmmaker Pablo Larrain on Jackie & Neruda

– by Edward Douglas

Chances are that you don’t know the name Pablo Larrain right now, unless you’re an avid follower of world cinema, as the Chilean filmmaker has made a number of festival favorite films in his home country before 2013’s No, starring Gael Garcia Bernal, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Larrain followed that a few years later with the lower key The Club, but this month, he’s going to have two movies released that will certainly put him closer to the spotlight here in the States.

The movie that’s likely to get the most attention is Jackie, a film that looks at the days before and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963, as seen by his wife and widow Jackie Kennedy, as played by Natalie Portman. She’s surrounded by an amazing ensemble cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Caroll Lynch, in a stylish and gorgeously moody film on par with the work of one of the film’s producers, Darren Aronofsky.

Neruda is Larrain’s latest Chilean film, one that already has gotten his country’s blessing as its Oscar selection. It stars Chiles’s most recognized actor, Luis Gnecco, as Pablo Neruda, the country’s preeminent poet and Communist politician who is forced underground due to his beliefs, while a police inspector (Gael Garcia Bernal) tries to find the poet and indict him for his political crimes. As Larrain will attest himself, this is not the Pablo Neruda biopic some might be expecting, as it plays with genre and is often as funny as it is poignant.

LRM sat down with Larrain a few months back to talk about both of these movies.

LRM: I didn’t realize both your parents were politicians.

Pablo Larrain:
Well, my mother isn’t exactly a politician. She was an employee of a company, like a manager, but then she was called to be a minister of unspecific precedent, but she doesn’t have a political career.

LRM:  So she had a government job?

Larrain:
I don’t know how to say it in English, but the government has a President and then ministers who take care of education and she was on urban and building infrastructure. She’s not a politician. My father is a lifetime politician.

LRM: But they’re both in politics in some way. I saw “Neruda” more recently than “Jackie” but they make interesting bookends because one is very Chilean, set in Chile, and then the other is probably your most American movie to date because Jackie Kennedy is so well known here, but let’s start “Neruda.” What got you interested in doing something about the poet-slash-politician?

Larrain: It was not my idea. It’s funny. It was my brother who produced all my work. He had this idea for so long, and I kept saying it’s not a good idea. You can’t put him in a box. You can’t make a movie out of Neruda and just say, “Hey, this is Neruda.” It’s impossible. So what we discovered is that it’s very frightening at the beginning, but when you say, “Okay, let’s do it, but we’re really going to play with this. We’re not going to intend to make a biopic that will go to educational programs,” and to say, “Do you want to know who Pablo Neruda was? Watch this movie? Wrong number.” We’re not going to do that. We’re going to try to grab his cosmos, because for us, Neruda is someone… think about this. Neruda is a guy who was a great cook, an expert on food and wine, who loved to travel. He went all over the world. He loved women. He was an expert on crime novels. He was a politician, a senator, the leader of the Communist party, and one of the great poets in our language and probably history, so he’s a guy who has just such an enormous cosmos and universe, so that’s what we did. It’s like going to his house and playing with his toys, more than making a proper biopic, because we had to call it an anti-biopic. He gave us the keys. If you read the speech that he wrote and read for the Nobel Prize in the early ‘70s, so like 25 years after when this movie takes place, he would refer to this specific period of his life as something, which was transforming for him. He would say that he doesn’t know if he wrote it, lived it or dreamt it. When we read that, we were like, “Here is the key,” and then Guillermo Calderon, who is an amazing writer wrote that wonderful script and gave life to this Cubist movie that’s made out of pieces of his life, memories, time and words, more than about himself. It’s more about his universe.

LRM: Did Guillermo write other stuff for you?

Larrain: He co-wrote The Club with me, and he’s an incredible playwright. He lives in New York actually.  

LRM: I thought that screenplay was just fantastic.

Larrain: Yeah, it’s amazing.

LRM: And it’s funny because it’s very literary compared to “Jackie” which seems much more cinematic.  Not knowing Neruda’s work or much about him, it’s an interesting way into it, because he becomes a character in a crime novel almost. You watch this and think, “This is an interesting guy. I want to know more about him.”

Larrain: Yeah, well, it’s fascinating people and people that were in a different world. Think about it. It’s right after World War II in Latin America, before the Cuban Revolution. Like Motorcycle Diaries, that trip that Che Guevara did? 

LRM: It reminded me very much of that movie by Walter Salles.

Larrain: Which Gael did… and it’s in the same period. That trip they did on those motorcycles, Che Guevara and his friend, it was in the same years. 

LRM: I was thinking of that movie while watching “Neruda” and I could even see them driving by each other on their respective quests.

Larrain: It’s in the same years, and I keep telling them, so they had different dreams. When you make a period movie, you need to assume that you have the advantage of time. We know what happened—you can’t ignore that. You need to deal with that, so it was fascinating to see how you could make a cocktail. Because like when we submitted the movie to Cannes, you have to fill a form so you go and say “Title”… “Neruda”… like “Sound” and you go “Dolby whatever.” “Color,” “Aspect Ratio” and then you get to  “Genre” and somebody office called and said, “Pablo, what do I put here?” “Just nothing.” “I can’t submit it because it has this red dot. You have to write something,” and then I called the festival and said, “Don’t do it.” Then in the catalog it doesn’t have… because this movie—I don’t know what you think—but to me, it has elements from noir cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s. It has elements from cat and mouse police chase thrillers. It has elements from black comedy. It’s a road movie as well, so you can’t put this movie in a box, and I wanted to avoid it, because it shouldn’t be there, I hope.  

LRM: I read the Toronto Film Festival description when I wrote my preview, so I knew a little bit of what to expect but not at all when I finally saw the movie. Even just the way the movie opens in what seems like a Senate house bathroom, which I’m not sure if that was a real place that existed.

Larrain: Well, they had a bathroom that we had some pictures, which was awesome. When you go to some more elegant place, there’s sometimes someone that they would have in the bathroom, the attendant, and they have all these things for cleaning, that you can shave and you can tip the guy. So they had that but they also had alcohol, but you could get a drink in the bathroom and it would just make it wilder and we started playing with it. I thought it was interesting to have the fate of the Republic was being discussed in a bathroom while people were peeing or drinking or yelling at each other.

LRM: When you work with Guillermo, did you and your brother throw a lot of ideas his way and he then wrote something up?

Larrain: No, it was a long process, because he would keep sending new drafts until we found the path, so Guillermo started writing the movie from his point of view and then we were like “Right, you got it.” That was the path. It was a very long process, because we shot a very long script—it was 190 pages—and so we had a lot.  

LRM: How long would the movie have been if you included all of it?

Larrain: 3 hours and 20 minutes. That was the whole thing. It was nearly 4 hours, but a real cut would have been 3 hours and 25 minutes, but I didn’t want it like that. It was not a production or marketing decision. It was just because I wanted to have a movie with rhythm, because Neruda’s poetry, like any kind of writing has a rhythm. You’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. It has a rhythm and that rhythm is speed and it’s very hard to talk about it, because it’s a sensibility that’s hard to describe with words. But he had a rhythm, and I wanted to transfigurate that rhythm into the movie, and it’s not a quiet one, especially the poems that we were most focused on. Neruda is very well known for the poems he made out of love, but we were most focused on the poems he made out of rage and fury. 

LRM: Were you already thinking of Luis Gnecco very early on to play Neruda?

Larrain: Oh, yeah, and Gael, too. I mean, not at the beginning, but what happens is that we worked over five years on the script, so the last year, we were like, “Alright, Pablo, this is going to get made, so let’s start thinking about who is going to play him.” And then Guillermo and Juan (Larrain, his brother) and I met and we thought Gael and Luis were right, so in the last four drafts, Guillermo had the main actors on his mind, so the script was finished with them.

LRM: You must be a really good multi-tasker because in five years, you’ve made at least one or two other movies in between while working on this.

Larrain: But it’s very usual. I think filmmakers do that. You’re working on a movie and then there’s a parallel track and somebody is writing a script or you are and it’s not that that writer is just doing that, like Guillermo, for example, is doing multiple things. He writes plays, he directs plays, he writes scripts for other people. So we’ll meet every two or three months and there’s a new draft, and then we work on it and discuss it, and then he’ll leave and be back a couple months later, and then at some point, my brother goes, “It’s done, just do it.”  

LRM: Every once in a while I’ll talk to a writer/director, who writes and directs their own stuff, over the years, and after a while of doing that, they go, “Okay, I’m just going to find a script to direct because I want to keep directing.”  Because they realize they can do more movies….

Larrain: Oh, yeah, sure, if they don’t have to write it.  Well, I guess it depends. I work with scripts that I’ve written or co-written or a script that I’ve collaborated with the writer. I don’t mind, as long as it’s something I can relate to. At some point, it always becomes something very personal, and every word that is there, at some point you just sit down with the writer and go through every single word until you agree with all of them and make them yours. Yeah, it’s fantastic to collaborate with people like Noah (Oppenheimer, screenwriter of Jackie) or Guillermo, it’s a great experience.

LRM: The “Jackie” thing is interesting because I feel that’s been in development for a while, maybe with Natalie and Darren was going to direct at some point. At what point did you come onto the project to direct it?

Larrain:
I’ll tell you quickly a story. We didn’t know about Jackie and we were going to make Neruda, and then Neruda was a very complicated movie to make, because it’s big—you saw that it’s a ton of locations, seventy actors. We needed Luis to gain weight. Gael was shooting. My brother couldn’t find the entire financing yet, so he said, “We’re going to push the movie for seven months. We can’t do it now, we have to wait for blah blah blah, so forget it”… and then I did a theater piece, a play that I co-wrote with the actor and then I grabbed an old script and called Guillermo and Daniel Villalobos, and we wrote The Club, and we shot it very quickly while waiting for Neruda, then The Club went to Berlin and got an award and Aronofsky was head of the jury and then at the after party of the awards, he comes to tell me, “Why don’t we make a movie together?” and then he sent me the script (for Jackie) and I met him and that’s how the story started. It was just a combination of things. I mean, I didn’t plan this.

LRM: If I saw “Neruda” I might say, “Yeah, he’d be an interesting director to direct Jackie” but that wasn’t even filmed when you signed on to direct “Jackie.”

Larrain:
I started prepping the movie (Jackie), the day I ended principal photography of Neruda, so when the movie was finished…  Neruda ends in Paris, right? And Jackie was shot entirely in Paris. All the exteriors were made in Washington, but we built the White House in Paris, and most of the crew was French, so when we finished the shooting of Neruda, I just stayed in Paris and started prepping Jackie, while Neruda was being cut. So I split my time.

LRM: That’s what I was saying earlier about multitasking… it does take some amount of skill to do that.

Larrain:
But multitasking is people who do many things. I was just doing one thing… but twice, you know? It’s not like I was a fireman and a filmmaker. It’s just making two movies back to back. It was weird, but I’m 40 years old. You don’t say “no” to that.

LRM: “Jackie” is interesting because it covers a certain period in American history. As old as I am, I’m still too young to have been around when Kennedy was assassinated but for people of a certain age… they call it “Camelot” for a reason. Tackling something like that with Natalie and figuring out the right direction, did Noah have a pretty good script that was ready to shoot?

Larrain:
He had a good script. I suggested multiple things that he incorporated. I think he was very generous and we had a really good collaboration, and I kept telling him, “I need to connect with all this. I need to understand this.” Maybe because I’m not American, I just don’t assume things. I don’t take it for granted, because I just don’t know it. Because Jackie said in this Life Magazine that Jack was listening to this “Camelot” record, so I asked, “Can I listen to it? What is this music?” and then it’s like, “Wow, it sounds like nice. It’s amazing. Can we just use it?” And then I sort of understood what it was, and I wanted to be very clear so people would understand it all over the world. Maybe my necessity to understand it would help people outside this country understand it as well. Once I got it, I thought it was very beautiful and interesting and moving and dangerous, so we worked on it until we cracked it as the movie you saw. This queen without a throne, no kingdom, but there’s a queen. How’s that?

LRM: It also tackles general issues like grief of how someone deals with losing a loved one, like a husband or wife, how they deal with grief, and the fact this happens to be Jackie Kennedy, it just works on so many different levels beyond that fact.

Larrain:
But it’s just a woman in danger, and you don’t have to be American or from anywhere. You have to relate to that sensibility, and once I got into it, and I sort of started digging to discover who she was, it was like… Because she gives this first impression that she’s a woman who is superficial and worried about fashion and fabrics and style, and then if you really dig into it—not much, just a little bit—you immediately realize how sophisticated, smart, educated, sensible… and with such an incredible political smell, and she was so brilliant, and she was a woman who did an amazing thing under those circumstances. I just fell in love with her, man, and I just related to that.

LRM: Speaking of “Camelot,” whoever cut that recent trailer that went up a couple days was just brilliant. It’s a hard movie to describe but I watched the trailer, and I was like, “Yup, that’s the movie.”’

Larrain:
I tell you, when they sent it to me to see if I had any comments, I watched it 20 or 30 times, and I wrote back, “I have nothing to say. Nobody touch it.” They discovered how to bring the mood of the movie in 80 seconds with an incredible sensibility, and I’m so glad that somebody who is an artist, who does those trailers, because that guy is an artist!  They were able to cut to it so well, and for me, it was very frightening, because it’s somebody playing with your kid, but then they did it so well that I could never in my life do something like that with my own material. I was like, “Congratulations, thank you. Wow!”

LRM: Seeing the trailer after seeing the movie, it perfectly captures the movie.

Larrain:
The mood and how it transitions the music from the Mica Levi score and with her, the shots they picked. And I was trying to make comments, but it was so good.

LRM: I do want to ask about Mica’s music, because Natalie is great and I love Peter Sarsgaard and all the cast, but the music is just amazing, and people who see the movie really react to it. And it’s simple with very light instrumentation with quartets and solo instruments, not a big orchestral thing. How did you find Mica and how did you figure out how to make the music for “Jackie” work so well? And it’s different from “Neruda” too.

Larrain:
Man, I was on the jury at Venice and that movie Under the Skin was in competition, and I loved it, and then Ryuichi Sakamoto was also on the jury and we were like “We need a reward for this girl. The music of this movie is just….” I would have given another award but I couldn’t because it was just me, but then Sakomoto agreed that we should push the music, and that soundtrack really stayed with me, and then when Jackie came up, I was like, when we get a composer, it’s just gotta be Mica Levi. Find her and make her do it, and then we met her and she’s fascinating, and it was an incredible collaboration. She’s just such an incredible artist, and I wanted to have a woman do it. For some unknown reason, I thought it would just connect with the sensibility of the film, and it’s so beautiful the music she’s done. I don’t like scores, because what happens is that they push the emotion, so if it’s sad, they’ll just play sad music and it’s funny, then funny, and if you want energy then… You got to find something that… you have the visual idea then you have the sound idea and then you have to find the third idea built by those two. If the music is doing the same job as the image then what are you doing? It’s like having bread with bread, but you need something in the middle to make a sandwich. So it’s music and image and then we create a third idea, which we intend to do.

LRM: Did you just send Mica a first edit or was she involved earlier than that.

Larrain:
Scenes…then she got into the mood and then we were cutting the movie while she was sending stuff and it was incredible. She’d send something and say, “This is for this scene” and we’d be like, “Mica, can we use it here?” and she was like, “What?”  “Yes, it works better, look.”  “Oh, really, and what about here?” and we just started working and then we met in London when the movie was cut and then we really organized everything and then she went and recorded the orchestra and then we mixed it.

Jackie opens in select cities on Friday, December 2, and then expands nationwide on December 9. Larrain’s other film Neruda is released on December 16 in select cities. 

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