EXCLUSIVE: As much as any film that played the 2016 Toronto Film Festival, Jackie emerges with real momentum as a genuine Oscar contender. The Pablo Larrain-directed film with Natalie Portman in a career performance as Jackie Kennedy locked a Fox Searchlight deal and a December 9 release date here. I was having lunch with the film’s screenwriter, Noah Oppenheim, the moment his email pinged with news he had just been awarded the screenplay prize by the Venice jury. I was curious how a guy who’s poised to be the next hot movie scribe happens to have this second identity. He also is the executive in charge at NBC’s Today and has helped steer it back to the top of the morning news show ratings. It turns out these disciplines are intertwined in a most unusual career progression. Here, Oppenheim explains how he runs a four-hour network morning program and yet scripted a touching drama about a subject most hadn’t considered: Jackie Kennedy’s grace-under-fire handling of the days following her husband’s assassination.
A political junkie since his teens, Oppenheim said he wrote articles in the high school newspaper and continued in college, completely at sea over how he was going to pay back the kind of student loan debt one accrues when they matriculate at Harvard. “My senior year, I got lucky,” he said. “A couple of guys from NBC News were driving from New Hampshire back to New York, a week from the New Hampshire presidential primary. They stopped off at Harvard Square and started talking to some undergraduate girls at a bar. They followed them to a late-night party at the newspaper building, and one picked up a copy of the paper and read an article I’d written about the presidential race. They asked these girls who wrote it, and they pointed to me — the drunk idiot in the corner. They waved me over, said they work for NBC and how would I like to come be on television and talk about the election from the youth perspective? I thought they were middle-aged con artists trying to crash a college party, but I gave them my number and, thankfully, they were legit. The next thing I knew, I was on MSNBC with Chris Matthews, talking about the election on primary night. After, he asks what I wanted to do. I said, given the magnitude of my student loans, hopefully Goldman Sachs. He laughed and said, ‘Don’t do that.’ He offered me a job, and I spent eight years at NBC News on Hardball, on Joe Scarborough’s first show, doing field work in the Middle East and then producing the first hour of the Today Show. I had an amazing experience though my 20s doing that but had always loved the movie business, and movies, and drama. I got to the point where I realized if I didn’t take a chance and try to make that move, I was never going to do it.”
Oppenheim found that his news background was worth little in Hollywood, until he met Elizabeth Murdoch. “Nobody knew what to make of me, this guy coming from television news,” he said. “Liz Murdoch had just bought Reveille from Ben Silverman and was folding it into Shine. She took a chance on me, figuring news and reality TV were close enough to qualify me to do reality and digital programming for that company. I did that, then got antsy because it still wasn’t getting me to my real love: scripted drama.”
He commiserated with a colleague on the scripted side of Reveille, who gave him his stark options. “She said, ‘You can start over as an assistant,’ which at the time didn’t sound like a great idea since my wife was pregnant with our first child,” Oppenheim said. “Or, she said, ‘Write something yourself.’ I’d written some nonfiction books and pieces by then and figured what the hell? I bought that Syd Fields book on screenplays from Barnes & Noble, and got Final Draft.”
While the form was new, Oppenheim knew the story he wanted to tell. “Chris Matthews is a Kennedy aficionado and scholar, and he and I spent a lot of time talking about them. I’d always been fascinated by that family, but the idea in the back of my mind was about Jackie and how, like so many women in history, she had never gotten her due. Whenever she was examined, particularly through a popular-culture lens, she was always the betrayed wife, the style and fashion icon. Which, of course, she was, but she had never gotten the credit she deserved for being a public relations genius and a master of image sculpting. In fact, she was the person who crafted the whole mythology of Camelot, which we strongly associate with Kennedy’s time in office. That was all her idea. I thought, here was this woman, thought of in superficial terms, and no one had ever really tried to look at the substantive role she played in shaping her husband’s legacy.”
Even though it was his very first crack at a script, Jackie didn’t take long. “I had that burst of inspiration you read about, like I have never had since, and I vomited out this draft in a few weeks,” he said. “So now what? Franklin Leonard was a friend from college who now runs the Black List but then was an executive at Universal. I sent him an email I’m sure he usually dreads. ‘Hey, would you mind reading this?’ He did, and less than 24 hours later, I was on the phone with CAA and they were telling me they would get this in the hands of Steven Spielberg and he would read it.”
Oppenheim had two thoughts. “It was an extraordinary turn of events for me but also embarrassing, since I hadn’t even spellchecked it,” he said. “But less than a week later, I find myself sitting with Steven Spielberg in his office on the Universal lot, which to this day remains one of the highlights of my life. I worshiped his films, and the idea I’d be having a conversation about something I’d written, which he was taking seriously and asking me questions about, was mind blowing. Then, Darren Aronofsky expressed interest, and it ended up coming together with him and Fox Searchlight. My script ended up No. 2 on the 2010 Black List.”
Then, reality kicked in: Aronofsky dropped out, “And then it took six years to happen in a different form,” Oppenheim said. “But it launched me into a full-time screenwriting career.”
That included the films Maze Runner and Allegiant. Then, NBC News called.
“NBC reached out to me, out of the blue, seven years after I left,” he said. “Would I be willing to come back and take over the Today show? It came at a rough patch in the show’s history, and they wanted to get it back on top. It was a difficult decision, to postpone my writing career, but I have an irrational and deep-seated love of the news business and a particular emotional affection for NBC and the Today show in particular. And selfishly, the idea of having a front-row seat for this election cycle, I couldn’t pass that up. I moved with my wife and kids back to New York, and that the show is back at No. 1 in the news demo is phenomenal. I love news and politics, and movies. I don’t think the success as screenwriter would have been possible without the journalistic background. They’re both time consuming, but they fuel and reinforce each other.”
Finally, Jackie came back around with Larrain, Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup and a strong supporting cast. Fox Searchlight, which always seemed the likely distributor with a first and last matching right, finally committed. While Oppenheim’s immediate focus will be on the bitter battle for the White House between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that race will be settled by the time Searchlight opens the film in December in the heat of the awards race. Oppenheim hopes it also fuels a reassessment of the film’s subject.
“When I started doing my research, you find out quickly that while we talk about Camelot as though that label was always associated with the Kennedys in the White House, it was Jackie who crafted that. She was the first to use the word, in a Life magazine interview published a week after her husband was killed. She had the wherewithal to make that association that is now cemented in everyone’s mind. Consider her husband had just been murdered, shot in the head, sitting right next to her,” Oppenheim said. “On the most visceral level, the idea that she witnessed that, and she was covered in his blood for the remainder of the day, and that she had two young kids she had to steer through this. She had to vacate the home she lived in. And she was only 34 years old. And yet, she had the presence of mind to understand this was the last opportunity she had, to dictate how her husband would be remembered. And she pulls off the Camelot feat. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”