‘Jackie’ di­rec­tor on cre­at­ing his anti-biopics

The Washington Post Sunday - - TELEVISION - BY MICHAEL O'SULLIVAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com

Pablo Lar­raín may have just set a world record. Ac­cord­ing to the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter, the 40-yearold Chilean film­maker is the first di­rec­tor to have three nar­ra­tive fea­tures open in the United States in a cal­en­dar year.

First came last Fe­bru­ary’s Golden Globe-nom­i­nated drama “The Club,” about a group of dis­graced Catholic priests ex­iled to a re­mote group house for sex­ual abuse. That was fol­lowed up dur­ing awards sea­son by a pair of un­ortho­dox biopics that dis­rupted the con­ven­tional think­ing about two iconic sub­jects: the triple-Os­car-nom­i­nated “Jackie,” about Jackie Kennedy, and “Neruda,” about the No­bel Prize-win­ning poet Pablo Neruda. (“Neruda” is only now find­ing its way into D.C. the­aters.)

Set in 1948, af­ter the Chilean writer and Com­mu­nist politi­cian had gone into hid­ing to avoid ar­rest by the right­ist gov­ern­ment, the film plays out as a some­times sur­real cat-and-mouse game be­tween a fic­tional po­lice pur­suer (Gael Gar­cía Ber­nal) and a play­ful Neruda (Luis Gnecco).

The hard-work­ing Lar­raín, who burst onto the scene in 2012 with the Os­car-nom­i­nated “No,” caught his breath dur­ing a call from New York the day be­fore Pres­i­dent Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion.

Q: 2016 was a busy year for you: “The Club,” “Jackie” and then “Neruda.” That sounds ex­haust­ing.

A: Don’t tell me, man, I know it is. I’m re­cov­ered now. They are very dif­fer­ent, each one of them. That, I guess, is the joy.

Q: How did this hap­pen?

A: Af­ter “No,” the next movie was go­ing to be “Neruda.” Then my brother [Juan de Dios Lar­raín], who is my long­time pro­ducer and col­lab­o­ra­tor, told me we can­not make “Neruda” now. We had to push it back six months, and that’s when we de­cided to make “The Club” in the mean­time, which was this low­bud­get movie that we shot in two weeks, and we wrote re­ally quickly. It went to the 2015 Ber­lin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, and that’s where I met [film­maker and pro­ducer] Dar­ren Aronof­sky, who was the head of the jury. He in­vited me later to make “Jackie.” Ba­si­cally, it was “The Club,” and then right af­ter that, we shot “Neruda.” When we fin­ished shoot­ing “Neruda,” we went into pro­duc­tion of “Jackie.” The movies were made back-to-back. Q: “Jackie” shares its theme of myth­mak­ing and slip­pery iden­tity with “Neruda,” in which the cen­tral char­ac­ter is shown wear­ing masks and dis­guises dur­ing his time on the run. What is it about the ques­tion of a pub­lic vs. pri­vate per­sona that in­ter­ests you? A: I’ve been fas­ci­nated, over the years, by see­ing how peo­ple — not ev­ery­one, but some peo­ple, and par­tic­u­larly some of the leg­ends of the 20th cen­tury — have been able to craft their own mythol­ogy. Jackie and Neruda are ex­am­ples of that. What Neruda is do­ing in the movie is cre­at­ing his own le­gend for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. He is writ­ing the book [“Canto Gen­eral”] that prob­a­bly won him the No­bel Prize. He was strug­gling to un­der­stand how he could cre­ate a work that would have not just poetic, but po­lit­i­cal value. His words would be­come the words of other peo­ple, who would use them to pro­tect and de­fend an ide­ol­ogy. That com­bi­na­tion of pol­i­tics and po­etry is es­sen­tial to the movie.

Q: There’s a great line in the film, when Neruda is flee­ing over the moun­tains to Ar­gentina, and he’s abet­ted in his es­cape by a wealthy landowner. The cop chas­ing him says, “The mil­lion­aire is al­ways smarter than the law of the na­tion.” When I heard that, I couldn’t help think­ing —

A: (Laugh­ing) You were think­ing about to­mor­row [Inau­gu­ra­tion Day]?

Q: You read my mind. What does the line mean?

A: I think it’s ap­pli­ca­ble to what hap­pened back then and to what is hap­pen­ing nowa­days, in many, many coun­tries. The is­sue is that money can be stronger than ideas. It’s the kind of thing that you say in a movie that is sharp enough to act as a joke for some peo­ple and to act as a po­lit­i­cal state­ment for oth­ers. For some peo­ple, it’s both. But, yeah, it’s a tricky line that’s about a real dan­ger. The most pow­er­ful hu­mor is al­ways truth.

Q: Neruda has an­other great line: “To write, one must learn

how to erase.” Where does that come from? A: You know where I got that? It’s not in the script, ac­tu­ally. It’s some­thing I read in school in a Span­ish book, in an in­ter­view with Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez. I learned that, not just as a writer, but as a film­maker. When you work, you have to be able to trim, to edit, to take things that don’t work out. Luis [Gnecco] and I talked about it, and I asked him to say that line. It’s so true. It’s so hard to be able to learn how to erase, to get rid of things, to keep only what is es­sen­tial.

Q: You’ve de­scribed both “Jackie” and “Neruda” as anti-biopics, for their un­con­ven­tional ap­proach to bi­og­ra­phy. How are they dif­fer­ent?

A: I’m not much of a fan of the biopic. I don’t think you can ac­tu­ally cap­ture some­one’s life and put it into a movie . . . . If there’s a link be­tween them, they are both about some­one who is try­ing to craft a le­gend. The dif­fer­ence is that Neruda is do­ing it in or­der to make his voice stronger, be­cause that voice was go­ing to pro­tect the peo­ple he wanted to pro­tect. In “Jackie,” which takes place right af­ter her hus­band’s as­sas­si­na­tion, she’s try­ing to pro­tect his le­gend. They both share the idea that in be­tween the in­ten­tion to craft a legacy and the re­sult, there is al­ways a gap. In that gap, you can use the tools of fiction to en­ter their heads.

Q: Jackie is an icon here in the States. What is Neruda’s stature in Chile?

A: His stature is enor­mous — in the Span­ish lan­guage. That in­cludes all of Latin Amer­ica and Spain. Af­ter mak­ing the movie, I re­al­ized some­thing specif­i­cally about Chile: Like any other coun­try, Chile has been de­scribed by his­to­ri­ans and jour­nal­ists, but I be­lieve we can best un­der­stand who we are through our po­ets, specif­i­cally Neruda.

Q: Amer­i­cans aren’t re­ally into po­etry. How much of an au­di­ence is there in Chile for po­etry?

A: It has evolved in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. We in Chile have a way of think­ing and talk­ing that is very par­tic­u­lar. The way we speak our Span­ish is through metaphor. Ask any­body from Latin Amer­ica about the way we talk, and it’s not only the way we pro­nounce our words — which is very odd and par­tic­u­lar — but also the way we think. I’m sure peo­ple are read­ing less po­etry than be­fore, but I’m also sure that the way we think has been shaped by po­etry. It’s in our blood­stream.

Q: You’ve de­scribed the film as “Neru­dian.” What does that mean?

A: Neruda is a guy that, if you put your hands to­gether and you try to hold him and drink him, like wa­ter, you can do it, but it will drain out. You will lose the wa­ter, but your hands will stay wet. That’s what I mean by say­ing the movie is Neru­dian. We sort of ab­sorbed and swal­lowed his en­tire work and life, and we sweated out this film. Neruda was not just a politi­cian and writer, but a great cook, an ex­pert on wine, a diplo­mat, a world trav­eler, a great col­lec­tor. He had mul­ti­ple re­la­tion­ships with women over his life. He lived in many, many coun­tries, and spoke five lan­guages. Can you re­duce him to just one sim­ple movie? No. This movie is like go­ing into his house and play­ing with his toys, you know? We are more re­spect­ful than re­spon­si­ble.

Q: I’ve heard you say that be­fore. You also once said, “We don’t build mon­u­ments.” Ex­plain.

A: When you say that you’re “re­spon­si­ble,” I per­son­ally un­der­stand that to mean that what you’re try­ing to do is to pro­tect the mes­sage that you want to send. Then the movie be­comes very preachy. So I think what you do is that all your re­spon­si­bil­ity must be hid­den in the film. If you play too se­ri­ously, then I’m not in­ter­ested. There’s got to be some fire. When it comes to Jackie and Neruda, we’re not mak­ing a mon­u­ment to either of them. You can’t. A mon­u­ment is made out of bronze or steel. A film­maker is a kid with a bomb.

Neruda (R, 107 min­utes) opens Fri­day at Land­mark’s Bethesda Row Cin­ema.


Pablo Lar­raín, di­rec­tor of the films “Jackie” and “Neruda.”

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