Oscar nominated for 2000’s Vatel, starring Uma Thurman and Gérard Depardieu, French production designer Jean Rabasse was thrilled to be brought on board for Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, a shoot which allowed him to immerse himself in American history and lore, and to visit Washington D.C. for the first time.
Certainly, Jackie presented its share of challenges for Rabasse. With 10 weeks of prep and 27 shooting days in France, Rabasse was floored by Larrain’s efficiency on the day. “I think I’ve never seen somebody shooting as quickly,” he shared. “It was amazing, and everything was done in a very beautiful atmosphere.” Below, Rabasse describes Larrain’s unique approach to recreating a dark moment in American history overseas, and what went into achieving the film’s elegant, colorful compositions.
How did you get involved with Jackie? And where did the process begin?
As you know, the film has been shot in Paris for production reasons. Also, because Pablo and Natalie Portman were living in Paris at that time. They created a French crew—DOP, costume design, and myself—to work on it.
Of course, we were very happy, very surprised to be requested on such a beautiful project. At the same time, it was very frightening to have the responsibility to create that mythic and iconic period of American history.
What we started to do was research, maybe much more than usual, because I wanted to be sure that I could assume the responsibility of recreating that moment. At the same time, Pablo very quickly explained that he didn’t want to make a biopic; he wanted to create something more universal. To be more linked to the universe, to the sensitivity of Jackie Kennedy. Just to be sure so that the message is the same about what she left, and the history of the American was still strong.
I’ve seen the film for the first time three days ago and I was very happy to discover…I know the set is huge, and very detailed, and we see it very strongly, but at the same time, I didn’t have the feeling the set and the aesthetic is above the character. I always had the feeling that we were there to support the actress and the character of Jackie Kennedy.
How did you go about recreating these iconic American locations—the interiors of the White House and Air Force One, for example—while shooting in Paris?
As you can see, it was difficult to get the furniture. Because we were in Paris, we very quickly understood it was not possible to rent every piece of furniture from Los Angeles or Washington, or from the antiques of New York. We did for some master pieces, but it was too expensive for transportation.
What we did was we’ve been through all of Europe, especially England, of course. Belgium, and also France. Because the interesting thing is that part of the style is coming from Paris—the style Empire that is present in the White House.
Finally, we’ve been abroad to get part of it. For the East Room and the dining room, the older master pieces, like the set on the table, the chandelier, the candelabra, it was absolutely impossible to find them. We had to rebuild the chandelier. As we had a very quick prep, we had ten weeks from the very beginning to the shooting day. We also asked a Chinese company to build some master pieces.
We had to request everywhere in the world to be able to create that White House. Very quickly, we had two main constraints from Pablo Larrain. The first one was, he really wanted to have the entire set available for shooting with no lights, no technical props, no tripod or whatever lights on the set. We had to deliver every room of the White House at the same time.
What we did with Stephane Fontaine, the DOP, is that we created a transparent ceiling to light through the pieces of fabric or removable pieces of setting. This was a very big constraint, but it was important to have this thing you are not in a set; you’re in the White House, because you are walking with Jackie.
Even in the bathroom, what we did to be with her without any constraint for the camera is we did a very close replica of the bathroom of Jackie Kennedy. I discovered that it was too many mirrors in front, so it was impossible to find a place for the camera. Then we put the camera behind the mirror, with a transparent mirror, and it gives an intimacy. It was important for Pablo to be always framing Jackie, Natalie Portman, around one or two feet, with a wide angle [lens]. It gives the feeling you’re not outside the White House, you’re with her, and we follow her all the time.
The second thing is, as we had to make different furniture from different countries, we decided to change all the fabric of the furniture. Then, we were able to manage the color, to manage the texture of the fabric. For Pablo, we did a lot of tests with the camera—the White House has to be a very protective area for Jackie. The rest of the film, when you’re outside, we had to make it fit with the archive footage, which is more contrast, more saturated color, very aggressive texture.
We did the same with the set. Everything outside is more saturated, contrast, the black aesthetic. Those two main options for the color create a certain atmosphere, and also as Stephane had to fit with the archive footage, we did a lot of tests with the film, and the camera. Do we want digital, do we want the film camera? Maybe we spent three weeks of tests just to be sure the way the pink of the dress will react, the way the yellow of some curtain will react. We were very accurate in those occasions.
We had a very nice contribution altogether with the DOP and the costume designer. It’s funny, because after making some choices like that, we went very close to the photography of the White House we discovered in the JFK Library. We found beautiful pictures of the White House at that period. For me, it was a beautiful surprise to see the White House Library and JFK Library deliver every single detail of that moment. From that, we made the many small decisions that finally create a little bit of transposition of the reality.
It seems that there’s a certain formalism to Larrain’s approach with this film, in terms of color and composition. Is that a term that you feel is reflective of your process?
At the beginning, Pablo was not there on the prep. He was finishing another film, but he gave us a very clear position about the film. He really wanted that everything comes from Jackie’s point of view. Even the details of the kids’ bedroom, every single detail of her bedroom, with the newspaper, even personal makeup. We went very far in the research to find what Jackie could have had in her bedroom. We found a lot of incredible pictures; even in Love Field, we had so many pictures from everyone, that we could have like an eerie effect, when you see all those pictures at the same time. It’s strange.
At the same time, it was a lot of work to look at this research and to understand what it means, and to make some of those decisions. For example, in Love Field, I really wanted to recreate the scaffolding with the TV, with some trucks, fire trucks. I really wanted to go very far in rebuilding that airport. Of course, we had to create a simplification of it.
The fact that we had so much access to so many documents— we even were able to find the master plan of the renovation of the White House in ’52, so we had a lot of detail. For us, it was not frightening; it was just a tool. Pablo, I think he gave us some very specific direction that was very good for us.
We didn’t want to make a period film. Of course, we have done it. I don’t want to say it’s not a period film. But we never wanted that style of the set and the costume start to be in front of the character. Sometimes, I’ve done some films where the set is a little bit too heavy for the film, and it’s difficult for the story to be light.
In that case, with Stephane and with Pablo, we were very aware of that problem. We really wanted that the color respect the atmosphere of the character, or the situation, and not go in front of it. For example, for Hyannis Port, we simplified a lot of the set. It was a location in Maryland, a beautiful house, and we repainted everything in white, just to simplify it—just to recreate the beautiful harmony of that kind of house.
How did you go about shooting the funeral march?
The thing is, as we knew we had a very short time shooting in Washington, we did a huge prep in 3D animatics. As with the research and the documentation, we knew a lot of detail of the funeral—we knew exactly at what time, and on what street. We knew a lot of detail, even for the Dallas assassination. We had the list of every single person in every car. For us, it was important, and we made a lot of 3D animatics—very simple, but just to be sure on the day we were in Washington, it was easy and fast to produce it. When we did it, it was very simple for us to know what to do, where to go, with all the restrictions the Secret Service gave us to not go too far on Pennsylvania Avenue. But it was OK. It went very fast to do those shoots.