Chilean director Pablo Larrain has been to the Oscar party before; his 2012 political satire No was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Last year, The Club was nominated for a Golden Globe after winning the Grand Jury Prize in Berlin. Now, he’s got the distinction of having two films in the Oscar races. Neruda, a twist on the biopic genre about the eponymous Nobel Prize-winning poet, was made in Chile and debuted in Cannes. Larrain is also on the circuit with Jackie, his first film in English and also a non-traditional biopic, this time about the former First Lady in the days immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It has buzz in several Oscar categories, from Best Picture to Actress and Director. Today, Jackie‘s star Natalie Portman was nominated for a Golden Globe, and Neruda nabbed a slot in the Foreign Language Globe section. I caught up with Larrain recently from LA where he had landed just after the U.S. presidential election.
You are promoting two films during this Oscar season, having been here before with No. What’s different this time around? Are you an old pro now? It must be different having two films.
First, you never get used to it. It’s always different and since my movies have been having a big political perspective, when they come out they are usually affected and regarded by contemporary circumstances. So it’s always evolving and reshaping into something different. I think Neruda and Jackie are both movies about people who work and shape their own legends or somebody else’s.
So how are they landing given what has just happened in the U.S. election?
There’s always a gap between the intention and the result. The result is what the people will finally decide to believe and think about somebody, and the intention is what in our case the characters wanted to build and create. But there’s a gap in between that, and that’s what we can work on, and what our door is to that void, and where fiction can work. Our movies will always be read in the circumstances we are now, and now it’s just everything is not even changing, it’s like spinning. But it’s beautiful because what happens is you get to talk about your work and what you do and share your illusions, and somehow the way that you want to portray the world, and that is always interesting, and it means something I think.
Jackie particularly has resonance given what’s going on in our current political system. She was trying to protect the legacy of her husband, a fantastically popular president, and the U.S. has just voted in a very unpopular man as president. As a non-American, how do you view Jackie’s story?
For me as a non-American, I can tell you that what is very powerful is the role of women today. And I’m not talking about girl power or gender equality. I’m just really thinking on how essential is a woman in power and how they can really help to shape a country. I couldn’t imagine this country without the figure of Michelle Obama, for example, in the last eight years. I was hoping that Hillary was going to be your first female president, and that’s what I’ve learned. This is the first film I’ve made with a female character in the lead role and it was very hard from the beginning because it’s another type of sensibility that I have to approach. I think it’s just the story of a mother. We’ve been saying and thinking for years that behind every man there’s a great woman, and I’ve just come to the conclusion that behind every great person, there’s a great mother.
This is the story of a mother and a country that lost the president, and then somehow Jackie became the nation’s mother and put everybody under her protection, and grabbed the whole country’s grief, and put it on her back and walked. I think this is very beautiful: A queen without a throne. Our countries have never had royalty because they’re too young. We were shaping our countries from a republican perspective and we never needed kings and queens, and then this country all of a sudden sort of felt that they had one because they created and gave that illusion and power to a woman like Jackie Kennedy.
I remember we were shooting in Washington in the street and there were paparazzi on the rooftops, and I looked up and realized how exposed she actually was. The movie talks about that, that she would do the procession and expose herself to the world for eight city blocks from the White House to St. Matthew’s. When we were shooting, I looked up and was like “Wow, she was really, really exposed.” It was in the script and I got it, but I didn’t realize it. That’s why it’s so contemporary. If she hadn’t walked, and gone in an armored car, she would let them win, and that’s why it’s so important. You don’t let them win.
It’s the story of a woman who was able to create something that at some point is a mythology and something that people relate to, and want to protect and admire from everywhere. I can tell you—when I got the call from Darren Aronofsky, who was very generous inviting me to make this movie, I talked to my mother and I was like “Mom, there’s a guy that wants me to make a movie about Jackie Kennedy.” And she’s like “Who is that guy?” I said, “It’s Darren Aronofsky,” and she replied, “Oh, the movie with the dancer? Ok, son, you go and make that movie.” When I asked her why, she said, “because she was so important and people have to know who she was, because it’s something that we can all relate to in a very sort of weird world where we are living. We need to relate to those stories because they are important.” And it’s not just about the U.S. I’m not American, I don’t feel any patriotism for the U.S. I feel patriotism for my country, so I could only relate to her through her sensibility and life experience and what she did.
How do you view where her story fits in U.S. history?
Connecting with what’s going on today is very hard. I’m trying to digest it. I just got back to the country and the mood isn’t the best now around here, and it feels like the movie also shows some kind of a splendor.
Well, it’s Camelot, right?
Yeah, like some kind of idealism of a country, of a democracy, and I think people could look at the film now and say, “Look how we were and look how we are now.”
Both films have politics as a background; and so did No. What is your own background in relation to politics in Chile?
I am of course active. I’m aware and worried about the political reality. I’m not someone who ignores the reality. I believe you have to be very aware of what is going on. Otherwise, history will just put its feet on your head and you will be a victim of yourself, of your own ignorance. I think my country is changing. I think we have a strong democracy, which is something that I like. I think there are things that we weren’t able to fix concerning the violation of human rights. It feels there will never be proper justice. It’s been so long and there are so many people that were never really judged, and that’s unsettling. But at the same time, I think we are understanding what are the priorities, and I think I can relate to Neruda. He was a communist and the movie takes place in the late ’40s, and they were struggling with the lack of equality. If you look at what’s going on in my country today, it’s the lack of equality. The distance in between the rich people and the poor people is getting so huge every day that I just don’t know how to relate.
Neruda is a national treasure in Chile; what about this story was new and needed to be told in your eyes?
My brother (producer Juan de Dios Larrain) was like, “Let’s make a movie about Neruda at this specific time,” and it was hard for me. At the beginning, I was like, “You can’t put Neruda into a movie.” Then when Guillermo (Calderon) our writer found this take on the cop, we realized we were making a movie about his world, the Nerudian cosmos. It’s less a movie about Pablo Neruda than it is like going to his house and playing with his toys. It’s a movie about movies, somehow, because we mix so many elements from cinema. It’s a movie about literature and the stories we tell. It’s about people telling stories and somehow building his own legend, and the cop is trying to understand who he is. That’s the take on it and it took a while because it was not only an expensive movie for our reality, but also it took us a lot to find the proper take, and once Guillermo got it, we went fast and made it.
But it was like how do we deal with this? Neruda’s poetry is very important for us, he’s everywhere. You grow up in a country where he’s so much an icon and is someone who described our society and our history and our people. We exist through those words, so this movie is like getting all of his work and sweating a film out of what we experienced and read from his work. He’s very well known for his love poems, which of course are wonderful, but during this film, I discovered other poetry that I never read before that really struck me. Those are the poems that are mostly in the film, and those are the poems that are full of rage and love and a combination of political fury that it also just felt so interesting and necessary at some point.
In the same year, essentially you took on two incredibly iconic figures in two different countries. Were you intimidated at all on either of those?
No, I was not intimidated because if you really think for one second what you’re doing and then you take it really seriously, then it’s paralyzing. You know, I remember when we started shooting Luis Gnecco, who plays Neruda—he walked in dressed and with make-up and hair and he was like shaking saying, “This is insane, I’m Pablo Neruda.” And I said, “Take it easy brother, you’re not him, you will never be him. This is a movie and we’re just trying to capture a specific sensibility. You will never get him, it’s not going to happen. Just enjoy the trip.” Then we just started working and instead of paralyzing, it opened the doors.
When Neruda got the Nobel Prize, he went on stage and read a very beautiful speech and referred to this as a very transforming period of his life because he understood what the word fraternity really means, because he was helped by people that he didn’t know and who didn’t know who he was. And then he said that he didn’t know if he wrote this, dreamt it or lived it. So, he gave us the key to make this movie and make such a free interpretation of his work.
And with Jackie?
We started shooting in Paris a week after the Paris Attacks. Natalie [Portman] had the pink suit and we were in the White House built by these genius people and I’m like, “What am I doing in here? I am from Santiago.” You can’t do that because if you put yourself in that place, then it’s paralyzing and you feel responsible. I think responsibility is a very tricky word when you’re talking about art, and cinema specifically, because you want to be responsible for what you are doing, in terms of the human level, and you want to be respectful, which is not the same. Then, you have to understand that somehow you get to have a little opportunity, a little power to show and express something throughout somebody’s life and biography. That would never be who that person was. So I would just not even think for a minute what the potential consequences were and who am I dealing with because it’s too heavy, too big, too infinite. I just put it down into a humanity that is at risk: A woman who is in incredible danger and she’s going to deal with it and it was so beautiful and all comes to something very, very simple. It’s so hard to describe because it’s like talking about music—you have to listen to it—but it’s a sensibility that we were capturing and it’s the enigmatic and the mystery that Natalie has that would take this to a different level through her eyes. That’s why there are so many close-ups in the film. But it’s like you have to really, really think specifically Jackie is a love story. When you take it from there, you get rid of all the potential responsibility.
I think it was Kurt Vonnegut that said we are all children, the only difference is the toys that we have. A filmmaker is always a kid with a bomb somehow, and you can’t control it. You can’t manage it but it would always be an unpredictable accident.
You told me in Cannes just before editing Jackie that making a movie is “fabricating an accident.” You knew Jackie wasn’t a traditional biopic, but what did you discover that surprised you when you were cutting? I think audiences were surprised in Venice.
LARRAIN: When Sebastian [Sepulveda] the editor and I were able to sort of shape the last 20 minutes, we went back to the beginning and restructured a bit. But when we found where this movie was going I found something that I would never have expected before. Never in my life would I have thought that the movie would be like that. And it’s so incredible because, and this is from my perspective, I know there’s people like the Coen brothers who make amazing movies and do shooting boards, and the actors say the lines exactly on the page. It’s amazing, but I can’t do that. I never know how the movie is going to be, and I enjoyed that so much because it goes to an unknown place and you have to discover it.
When we discovered that, I was like, “Is this going to be incredibly emotional and affect people, or will it be completely meaningless like there’s no middle point in here?” And I didn’t know, because you just don’t know how your audience is going to react. I can tell you the night before we screened in Venice, we had a dinner with the Italian distributor and then went to the hotel and had a drink and they were kicking us out of the bar, and my brother and I talked a little bit and we had no idea, we had no idea how the movie was going to be. We had a feeling, because Darren loved it and Natalie thought it was beautiful, and there were people on the team who thought we were in good shape, but me personally, I went to bed that night and I remember I turned the light off and thought, “This is like the void. Where are we?” and I did not sleep. If there’s a day I will know how it’s going to be, I’m sure that movie is not going to work. There are limits of control here. It’s like water, you try to hold it in your hand but it will drain. But your hands will stay wet. I guess I want to keep working like that because there’s just so much to say.
So, are you freaking out a little bit now? One movie made at home that’s a real contender in the Foreign Language race, and one in the main races that is your first outing in English.
No, I’m just working on my next mistake. I’m good. I’m not freaking out,I’m just working hard protecting the films and trying to spend as much time as I can with my children. I like the movies and I’m very, very proud of them. I think they’re very, very different and I have this dream of this weird conversation between Jackie and Neruda.
How would that go?
I don’t know, but I’m sure it would be fascinating, those two guys talking.
You’re not going to give up making films in Chile, right?
No, why would I? No, no, no, no. I will work in any language that would help me and let me express, but yes, I want to shoot in my country, for sure.
Do you have a next project lined up?
Not really, I’m working on it. I’m dating someone but I don’t have a relationship.