The Different Faces of Jackie
Noah Oppenheim on writing a multilayered protagonist, the political mythmaking of the Kennedys, and the importance of narrowing the aperture.
It has been over 53 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but the shooting and its aftermath are still very much part of the consciousness of Americans.
In Jackie, Natalie Portman portrays the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days between his assassination and his state funeral, as she comes to terms with her husband’s death, how he will be remembered by history, and her life as a widow with two young children.
These events are framed by the famous interview that she gave to Life magazine a week after the assassination, in which she compared her husband’s term in office to “the brief, shining moment” of Camelot. The film also touches upon the influence Jackie Kennedy had on American culture as the First Lady and her role in establishing her husband’s legacy.
Jackie was written by Noah Oppenheim, who spent much of his early professional life working for NBC News while also co-authoring The Intellectual Devotional book series.
As a student of American politics and history, he completed Jackie as his first spec script, and later co-wrote the screenplays for 2014’s The Maze Runner and 2016’s Allegiant while Jackie was in a long period of development.
Though Darren Aronofsky was initially announced to direct the film, Aronofsky later convinced Pablo Larraín (No, The Club) to direct.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed Oppenheim about writing a multilayered protagonist, the political mythmaking of the Kennedys, and how his background in television news informs his screenwriting.
This project went through various iterations over several years. Can you talk about how you got involved, and if anything changed with the script during the long development process?
It’s funny – it was actually not a very long active development process. I originally wrote the script about six years ago. That draft was set up with Darren Aronofsky at Fox Searchlight, and then it was sitting there for quite a while for a variety of reasons.
When Pablo Larraín boarded the project, he had ideas. I wrote two or three more drafts with his guidance, but over a very condensed period of time. So while it took six years from first draft to completion, most of those six years were not active years.
So much of Jackie is about image control – with the reporter, planning JFK’s funeral, and even the first White House tour on television that was hosted by Jackie Kennedy. Can you talk about that aspect of the film?
One of the things that most fascinates me about her was that she was one of the first people to really have understood and used the power of television, imagery, and iconography for political purposes in the modern era.
People talk about how the first televised presidential debate between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon impacted the campaign. Well, when Jackie got into the White House she understood intuitively the impact that she could have by delivering this tour of the White House, and creating this illusion that she was welcoming the American people into their home and the power that those historical artifacts would have.
She then took that same sensibility into those dark days after the assassination, when she understood that her window to define how her husband would be remembered was closing. She knew that what the funeral looked like, and how it would be viewed on television both here and around the world, would go a long way towards cementing people’s memory and consciousness of what her husband’s presidency had meant.
One of the reasons why I wanted to write the film was because Jackie Kennedy has been written about and portrayed on television and film many, many times, but it’s almost always a very superficial approach. People are fascinated by her beauty and her sense of style, and they’re intrigued by her marriage, but I thought no one had ever given her proper due as being one of the primary architects of the Camelot mythology, and the way her husband’s presidency is now remembered.
Like so many women in history, she has been peripheral to the story that had been told. In fact, I thought she was central to it all.
One of the few instances where she lets her guard down are in the scenes with the priest played by John Hurt. The dialogue in those scenes is just beautifully written. Obviously, you could be more creative when writing these conversations: what do you feel these scenes reveal about Jackie’s personality?
Those intimate, behind-closed-doors moments are where you have the most creative license. You get to really challenge yourself to try to capture what her emotional frame-of-mind might have been, and the kind of things that she would’ve been saying and debating with the people around her.
What I think that they reveal is that she was obviously presenting difference faces to the world depending on the context, as we all do. I think there’s an additional layer of complexity when you’re a public person, but we all behave differently when we’re with our family or in the workplace.
In the film, you see different faces of Jackie – the way she relates to her children, the way she relates to her old friend and employee Nancy Tuckerman, and the way she relates to The Journalist. With the priest, you’re seeing her relate in a raw, unfiltered fashion and really acknowledging and admitting the depths of her despair in the way that she doesn’t with other people.
I think it’s important to point out that while the dialogue in those scenes is obviously imagined, it is rooted in ideas that we know that she was grappling with in the aftermath of the assassination. She wrote letters to certain members of the clergy, and grappled with a loss of faith and perhaps a lack of will to keep living.
We wanted to dramatize and capture that crisis that she was going through. As strong as she appeared to the outside world, she had obviously endured this extraordinary trauma and was deeply shaken by it.
Speaking of those letters, and everything that has been written or filmed about the Kennedys, what research went into writing the screenplay?
I’ve been studying them for my whole life in some weird sense.
My mother was a big admirer of Jackie Kennedy. She had saved all of the newspapers and magazines from 1963. As a young kid I would go to my grandmother’s house and leaf through those images and read through those articles.
Politics and American history have always been an obsession of mine as an academic interest, so I feel like I have been doing the research for a good chunk of my life.
When I finally sat down to write the script there was obviously a final push, but the Kennedy Library is an extraordinary repository of information, and oral history interviews that were done with the eyewitnesses and participants at the time. There are a ton of wonderful books written about the period, both by historians and by people who were there and later wrote about their experiences.
It was a deep dive into the ocean of Kennedy material, but I think I was aided by the fact that from the very beginning I wanted to focus on this one brief week. Once I narrowed the aperture in that way it obviously made it a lot easier.
One of the more interesting relationships in the film is the one between Jackie and Bobby Kennedy, which has moments of conflict. What did you feel was important to convey about their relationship during this time?
I think it was a relationship that was always extraordinarily complicated, and all the more so during that week. In some sense they were the only two people who could understand what each other was going through.
I think the loss for Bobby was as great as it was for Jackie, so they are in the same emotional place. But the consequences for them are very different.
Bobby is mourning the loss of the brother through which he had defined his identity up until that point, and he’s set adrift professionally. He’s concerned about their legacy and what they were able to accomplish. He’s watching his bitter rival Lyndon Baines Johnson taking office and seeing himself pushed aside.
Jackie has some of the same concerns, but she’s also worried about her two young kids, where’s she’s going to live, and how she’s going to support herself economically, as silly as it may sound to us.
They have agendas that in some ways align, but in other ways they are conflicting. Yet the two of them are alone in this crucible with the eyes of the entire world on them.
Given that Pablo Larraín is a Chilean director, what perspective did he bring to the film?
As a screenwriter, you’re always relying on creative collaborators to bring your work to life. I feel very lucky in this case, with the talented group of people who assembled around the film. Pablo brought many things to the film, but I think the fact that he is not American and had a fresh set of eyes on the material and the mythology was a huge asset.
You began your career working at NBC News. How did that lead to screenwriting?
I worked for NBC News throughout my twenties after I graduated from college, and then after about eight years I decided to move to Los Angeles and try to break into the entertainment side of the business.
Jackie was actually the first spec I wrote.
I think I took some of my journalistic sensibilities into the project, and I try to approach the things I write in the same spirit of exploration and research that journalism had taught me.
Your other produced screenplays, The Maze Runner and Allegiant, are screenplays that had multiple writers. Also, both those screenplays were studio tentpoles and adaptations of novels, while Jackie is based on real events. Does your writing process change in any way when working on these different types of projects?
They are radically different experiences, to say the least! I consider myself very lucky to have worked on those other films. When you’re a working screenwriter, anytime anyone is paying you to write it’s a good thing.
Where the business is now, is that studios are largely focused on adapting comic books, graphic novels, and young adult material. I felt very fortunate to be allowed a crack at that.
These movies are big properties and the studios have tons of money invested in them. There are many, many voices involved in those processes from the very beginning. It’s as much about playing honest broker between various constituencies as they try to arrive at a common vision.
You as the writer are in the middle of that trying to balance everyone’s input and considerations. You also know going into it that more often than not there will be another writer behind you. Oftentimes it gets handed back to you several months later.
Writing those big adaptations is its own process and experience. It’s very different from my experience on Jackie where it was just me and a filmmaker. Obviously producers and actors and actresses had input as well, but it was a more singular, creative vision and a more streamlined approach.
Featured image: Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie. Photo by William Gray. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved