How to write a biopic with Noah Oppenheim

With Pablo Larraín’s meticulous and melancholy portrait of Jackie Kennedy currently available to stream on All4, we spoke to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim about researching and writing the private moments of one of America’s most revered public figures…

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Jackie is a re-lensing or re-framing of the Jackie Kennedy as we might already know her, how much research did you do and how did you balance that with a sense of humanism and a sense that this is a character study more than a history lesson?

There are few modern figures more closely scrutinized than Jackie Kennedy and few historical episodes more closely studied than the Kennedy Assassination. I had no interest in revisiting any of the familiar tropes, but I did immerse myself in the tremendous body of work around both. I read everything I could about both Jackie and the few days the movie covers, relying especially on the primary sources available through the Kennedy Presidential Library.

I strongly believe that the public narrative around any person or event is almost always wrong in fundamental ways, so that presumption was my starting point. I relied on the research to establish the chronology of events, the people that were present, and other concrete facts that could be reliably established. And then I tried to imagine the human dynamics and personalities at play to tell the story of a woman grieving the murder of her husband.

Director Pablo Larraín was quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that “the more [he] dives into them (in reference to Jackie, and also Pablo Neruda), the more mysterious they are.” Is that something you relate to? Is writing a biopic sometimes about leaning into the subject’s inherent unknowability?

It’s hard to truly know the people in our own lives, let alone historical figures we’ve never met. I’ve never personally known a public figure who wasn’t dramatically different from their public persona. I think the best biopics not only upend our preconceptions but also embrace the ultimate inscrutability of every human being.

Did it bother you at all that there might’ve been biopic fatigue among film-going audiences? And were you looking to revitalise the genre in any way? And if so, how did you go about doing that?

I wrote Jackie many, many years before it was produced and released so I wasn’t really making a calculation about audience taste at that moment. As for the genre, I thought about the story less as a “biopic” in the traditional sense, and more as a character study at an especially intense moment in time. I do think audiences are always interested in the human experience, especially in its extremes. Jackie Kennedy’s husband was shot dead, right next to her. How does someone confront a horror like that, with two kids to raise, and the entire world watching? That just felt like an interesting story to explore.

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Rather than taking the cradle-to-grave approach to telling this story, why did you think a more concentrated or expressionistic approach might actually better serve both Jackie herself and the biopic as a genre?

Cradle-to-grave films can be wonderful in capturing the scope of a person’s life, the major pivots in their journeys, giving the audience a sense of historical sweep. But in this case, I was just less interested in sweep and more interested in depth and intimacy. Hopefully the more focused approach yields insight into the entirety of the person’s life, but if nothing else, the goal was to capture the emotional reality of this one moment.

Were there any rules or cliches you deliberately avoided?

Not so much about the biopic genre, but we certainly wanted to confront the Kennedy cliches. We really wanted to cut through them by depicting the moment when Jackie very consciously constructed that Camelot mythology most Americans are familiar with. It’s an extraordinary historical fact that she did so during this period of mourning.

Were there any other films that had managed to reassess their subjects or capture their spirit that you looked to for guidance?

The Queen is the most obvious inspiration. Peter Morgan is a genius.

One Reply to “How to write a biopic with Noah Oppenheim”

  1. Pingback: Nicole Davis

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