Noah Oppenheim has waited a long time for this moment. Today, his first spec script, “Jackie,” is finally hitting theaters. As you’ll soon learn, there were moments when Oppenheim thought it might never happen.
The acclaimed drama went down a long development road when he first sent it out for consideration five years ago. Darren Aronofsky was going going to direct it at one point, but after deciding against it, he never stopped looking for the right person to do it. A chance encounter at the Berlin Film Festival two years ago put Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín in Aronofsky’s sights, and he eventually took the helm of the period pic with Natalie Portman playing its subject, First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
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“Jackie” has earned rave reviews since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where Oppenheim was honored with the Best Screenplay award. In the interim, however, Oppenheim was dealing with his day job, executive producer of the “Today” show. And, yes, the presidential election has provided him with an eventful year-and-a-half of early mornings he was not expecting (and no, I did not ask about Billy Bush).
Oppenheim jumped on the phone last week and we chatted about his inspiration for the project and more.
The Playlist: Where did your inspiration come from to tackle this subject?
Noah Oppenheim: It was long gestating since the fact I was fascinated with Jackie Kennedy since I was a little kid. My mother was a big admirer of her and she saved all of the newspapers and magazines from the period. So when I would go to my grandmother’s, I would leaf through these old, crumbling articles and I was immediately struck by the image of this beautiful woman in the black veil. And as I got older, American history and politics became my passion in life, and so I was reading about the Kennedys and talking about them to people who were similarly interested, and it occurred to me for a time that Jackie Kennedy’s story had never been fully told. While she had been portrayed in film and television many times and written about ad nauseam, most of those accounts would focus on her obvious beauty, her sense of style and sophistication. People were fascinated by her marriage to President Kennedy and the infidelities that it was racked with, but no one had ever given her proper due for being one of the central architects of the Camelot mythology and the way we perceive and remember her husband’s administration. So it seemed to me this woman who was this extraordinary character people around the world felt like they knew on some superficial level,…there was this untold story lurking in the background that I thought was a ripe opportunity for the film.
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Were you ever interested in tackling any other time periods of her life?
Y’know, it’s funny: I was always fairly focused. I never wanted to do anything that was too sprawling. I find that focusing on a particularly intense period of their life is often more illuminating than trying to capture too broad a canvas. There are probably 50 movies you could do about Jackie Kennedy, and certainly focusing on her life in those later years was one of them. I just felt this one week after the assassination was kind of my most [interesting] way in. That’s why I was kind of focused in that way.
When did you first write it?
I wrote it almost six years ago. It was the first spec script I wrote when I was trying to break into film, and it had an exciting [beginning] and then a long stagnant period, and then when Darren had this brilliant idea to enlist Pablo, it kind of came to life. It came pretty quickly then.
Did you think the movie might never get made?
I would go even further than that. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have told you with 100% conviction it was never going to get made. Yes, I had given up hope entirely.
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Would Darren follow up, at least? Did you think anyone was trying to find another director?
Darren was great. Darren and I would talk all the time and I would drive him crazy. I’m a pessimistic and cynical person by nature. It had gotten through so many fits and starts over that five-year period, and I know enough about how the film business works to know to get anything made is a long shot. I think to emotionally protect myself, I convinced myself it was never going to happen.
You have this day job in the middle of the presidential primaries. Your first movie is being made in Paris — sort of like a completely different world. Were you able to escape and visit the set?
Yes, I did. My current employers have been incredibly kind and generous about giving me the time that is necessary to bring the movie to life. I was able to go to Paris. I was able to go to set in DC and was able to work on revisions of the script on the days and weeks leading up to production. It has been bizarre stepping back and forth between the world of this film and covering this presidential election, as I have been doing for the past year and a half.
As someone who was in the middle of all this, I can imagine the ups and downs of covering the election every day. Strangely, it feels like every movie I’m now talking about that’s coming out over the past six weeks, or even something like “Hell or High Water,” you can view in a different perspective after the election. Do you see your own film in a different lens now that Trump won?
Absolutely. I think all art has perhaps new and different resonance now because the world had now changed dramatically with this new incoming administration. I think our film was always going to be interesting post-election because it does look at the ways in which a woman wielded power inside the White House even though Jackie wasn’t an elected official. I think it’s clear to me, and I think the film makes clear, that she had a significant impact on the way her husband governed and the way he is remembered as a president. That resonance of a woman’s role in our history and politics. I think the idea that the choices that individuals make with all their complexities and flaws have enormous impact on the country. I think that’s driven home by the film. Those days were as dark as one could imagine, and the fact that Jackie chose to conduct herself with that dignity and help lead the country forward. We take it for granted that the country got through that, but I think it’s the choices of individuals that determine those outcomes, and she behaved heroically and that mattered. I think there is a lot that one could explore.
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When you were researching the movie, do you remember the one thing you couldn’t believe when you stumbled upon it?
The one thing I still can’t believe — and it’s sort of the cornerstone of the film, at least structurally — is that Jackie is the one who coined the Camelot mythology. She did it in an interview she gave after the assassination. I grew up, like I think many people do, believing that the Kennedy White House was always referred to as Camelot during the time he was in office. If you think about it, she has just watched her husband get murdered violently while he’s sitting next to her. She’s physically showered in his blood. She had to go home and tell two young kids their father is dead. She had to move out of her house. She has to plan a funeral and she has the eyes of the world watching her every move, and yet she still has the presence of mind to recognize, “this is my last time to determine how my husband is going to be remembered,” and she comes up with this Camelot mythology. And, again, she understood by connecting it with this popular Arthurian myth, it would stick in people’s minds more than any litany of policy accomplishments. It’s pretty extraordinary what she was able to do. The fact she was only 34 years old at the time, it was mind-blowing.
Was there anything you wanted to put in there that you had to take out or didn’t thematically fit? Something you found out or something you originally wanted but had to take away?
That’s a really good question. You’re the first person to ask that. I wish I had a good answer. I can’t think of anything. (Laughs)
“Jackie” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.