Benedict Andrews wanted to recreate the complex world surrounding the life of Jean Seberg. The actress’s tumultuous life involved her acting career, her personal, romantic lives, public scrutiny, liberal support causes, and, most importantly, secret surveillance by the FBI.
In Seberg, the biopic was about the period of her life that initiated the mental breakdown of this promising actress.
The film stars Kristen Stewart in the title role as Jean Seberg. The supporting cast included Anthony Mackie, Yvan Attal, Jack O’Connell, Margaret Qualley, Vince Vaughn, and Stephen Root. Benedict Andrews directed the movie from a script written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.
Here’s the synopsis:
Seberg is inspired by true events about the French New Wave darling and Breathless star, Jean Seberg, who in the late 1960s was targeted by the FBI because of her support of the civil rights movement and romantic involvement with Hakim Jamal, among others. In Benedict Andrews’ noir-ish thriller, Seberg’s life and career are destroyed by Hoover’s overreaching surveillance and harassment in an effort to suppress and discredit Seberg’s activism.
LRM Online spoke with director Andrews over the phone to delve more rooted in the life of Jean Seberg. We talked about the similarities of Kristen Stewart to Seberg and re-creating those multiple worlds.
Andrews directed a couple of national live theater projects, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. He also directed Una, a romantic drama back in 2017.
Seberg is playing in select theaters today. For more information on this movie, visit its official site here.
Read the exclusive interview below.
LRM Online: Congratulations on Seberg. Could you tell me why you are attracted to this project?
Benedict Andrews: As with many people and film lovers, I’d had an image of Jean Seberg in my imagination. That had come from when I first saw Breathless as a 16-year-old. With these great performances, they make us feel that we know the person. It felt like I somehow knew her.
When I read the script, there was this whole shadowed part of her life that was shocking and a real revelation. The idea of how in her story is that interrogation into the concept of truth and privacy. It exposes her sense of reality in front of an audience, on stage, or in front of the camera. They need to reveal all the kind of private spaces, the rural nerves, and memories that we usually kept hidden as their job and their craft.
In Jean’s case, that same private space and that same truth became violated by the FBI. The same equipment that is used for great cinema with cameras and microphones for the study of minutia and the truth of life turned against her. This is a fascinating and volatiles study of emotional truth.
Jean was also as a boundary crosser.= in her own life. When we begin the movie, she lived in Paris, married to Romain Gary, was the darling of the French new wave as this girl from Marshalltown, Iowa. She was straddling these two worlds with the world of Hollywood and the world of your Europe.
In the movie, she also starts to cross boundaries on her first night back in LA. She drove down to Compton to visit Hakim Jamal. She was a figure, who was fiercely against injustice, but hungry and restless for truth and change.
LRM Online: This story seems like it could be relevant today in terms of mental illness and bullying.
Benedict Andrews: Sure. The government has done the bullying.
LRM Online: How much additional research did you do into Jean Seberg’s story, even though you were familiar with her cinema?
Benedict Andrews: I did plenty of my research. Most research was prepared for me by the writers, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Their script came to me with years of research from them. As I started to do my research, I discovered how they had taken threads of her life, quotes of what she had said–woven them into the script in a very organic way.
It led me to my trail of research by watching all her movies and any few and rare interviews that were available. There were a whole series of books that people in her life wrote about her. Her husband, Romain Gary, was a famous French novelist. One of his books, White Dog, later on, became a movie. It is literally about this period in her life—his fantasy about what was going on with Jean and her involvement with the Black Panthers.
Then there was a book by the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who wrote about an affair that the two of them had around this period that the movie doesn’t show. But again, she’d already become a fictional figure. Being a fictional figure and as an actress acting movies, these people she knew who had written about her.
Hakim Jamal’s biography was important deep diving into research about the FBI, both in terms of the COINTELPRO program, but also researching surveillance techniques. The period was crucial to me and my team in an understanding of the days of activism, Hakim Jamal’s Malcolm X Foundation, and his connections with the Black Panthers and Jean’s relationship with period Hollywood. There was so much research to dive into to get the grain of truth up there on the screen.
LRM Online: Seberg is not a documentary, but it is a biopic. How much creative freedom did you have to blend reality and fiction?
Benedict Andrews: The film is about speculative fiction as much as a biopic. We aim to be true to Jean’s emotional experience at this time, which described as a long nightmare. She didn’t know what was true and what was not true.
I wanted to draw the audience into that space and have that feeling of someone’s reality collapsing. The film leans into the surveillance thrillers, particularly those films of the 70s, such as The Conversation or the more refreshing movies such as The Parallax View or Klute. We draw on real documents of the period in terms of what happened to Jean with the FBI redacted papers that are now available. These are examples of how the FBI playbook worked against activists.
That side of the movie is a speculative version of the Jack character. It is entirely fictional, drawing upon those sources I mentioned. We invented him because the film should look at both sides of that surveillance. The movie is a dance between those two perspectives until they finally meet at the end of the movie. There was permission to invent that side of things by drawing on the real documents.
Each of the characters’ stories, Jean Seberg, Romain Gary, and Hakim Jamal, would be the tip of the iceberg in each of their stories that would more of multi-series on Amazon or Netflix. They had a very packed, tumultuous, complicated lives. We condensed that down to the drama of what happened to do in this period and to distill it down to the bullet of a movie.
LRM Online: Why is Kristen Stewart perfect for the role of Jean Seberg?
Benedict Andrews: Kristen manages to find Jean from the inside out. It’s very tricky when an actress is playing another actress. Any actor playing a historical figure, you can end up with an impersonation somehow. I wasn’t interested in that in the movie, and it wouldn’t touch an audience if that were the case.
Jean was a very raw and instinctive actress. The woman was an incredible life force that we wanted to portray on the screen. Kristen got not only get the look right, androgynous beauty and extraordinary iconic look that she had unquestionably nailed.
Also, Kristen was in a very rare position, like Jean, having been entrusted in the public eye at a very young age. Jean with the competition for Saint Joan with Otto Preminger and Kristen with Panic Room with David Fincher and then the Twilight movies.
Kristen also has had a career in France as the American actress to have won the Cesar Awards. She straddled the world of Hollywood cinema and European filmmaking. There was genuine understanding of those two worlds. Most importantly, she prepared to put herself on the line. She cared for Jean in wanting to tell her story and expose the raw nerves.
LRM Online: I do want to address is that you did a great job of creating the look of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Could you talk about that and the cinematography approach?
Benedict Andrews: Well, it’s a vast topic. I had a fantastic team. Michael Wilkinson’s costumes were phenomenal. Jahmin Assa had created all of those different worlds as the production designer. Rachel Morrison brings such a deep sense, painterly beauty, and intimacy to work with the camera.
The movie had this real saturated beauty and a real elegance to the period. We succeeded on a budget that punches well above its weight. That’s a real testament to creativity and collaboration. We are all extremely passionate about the material, with a lot of deep visual research that laid the ground for us to go into.
Partly, it was also what the movie is about. Jean moved through these different worlds. Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, we moved from an imagined film set where she’s shooting Saint Joan to her left bank apartment in Paris. Then it was across the transatlantic flights to her incredible modernist glass house in the Hollywood Hills, down to Hakim’s place in Compton, and finally the FBI offices.
The movie was about a woman who moves through all of these different worlds and is a boundary crosser. We needed to let each show the inner life and the mechanics of each of those worlds. On the one hand, the worlds would have their truth and beauty, but to also understand as a kind of system.
LRM Online: One more question before I let you go. You created a scene where Jean Seberg meets the Black Panthers for the first time upon exiting the plane. She posed for a photo op. I thought that the image was very iconic. Could you talk about creating that? And did that happen?
Benedict Andrews: That did not happen. As far as I know, Jean was somewhat unlike Jane Fonda. Jean’s politics were relatively private, consisting of donations and holding fundraisers that all of her friends were involved in. We wanted to show these transformative moments coming off the conversation with her Hakim on the plane. That conversation did happen, but not necessarily that flight.
We wanted to invent a very cinematic moment that would show this collision of these different cultures with Hollywood, the presses, and the FBI watching them. You have the trying triangle of various facets of this, this story–all meeting at this one moment.
LRM Online: I think that was a unique signature, iconic moment. You captured it. I certainly remembered it. Thank you, Benedict, for speaking with us. We appreciate you promoting Seberg.
Benedict Andrews: My pleasure. Thanks for the chat.
Seberg is playing in select theaters today.
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Source: LRM Online Exclusive