Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine Lenses the Emotional Journey to 'Jackie' with Super 16
How Super 16mm played a role in creating this stunningly shot biopic.
Directed by Pablo Larrain, Jackie focuses on the shattered state of then 34-year-old Jacqueline Kennedy (played by Oscar favorite Natalie Portman) following the assassination of her husband on November 22, 1963. Overcome with grief, she must confront the unimaginable as she plans her husband's funeral and ultimately decides how history will remember him forever. Teaming up with the director was Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine. In creating the look, Fontaine shadows the narrative with an unobtrusive camera that blends fact and fiction, depicting Jackie's public and personal life without apology. No Film School sat down with the cinematographer just before the film's theatrical release to take us behind-the-scenes of this emotional narrative.
"We didn’t want the movie to look too gritty or too rough. It needed to be elegant."
NFS: How did you get involved in the project?
Fontaine: When the decision was made to shoot in Paris (where Natalie actually lived at that time), Pablo and Producer Juan de Dios Larraín asked Executive Producer Pascal Caucheteux to introduce them to a few local technicians. Having worked with me on J. Audiard’s movies [Rust and Bone, A Prophet] Pascal thought it could be a good idea for Pablo and I to meet and hopefully get along together. Which we did.
NFS: So a Chilean director and a French cinematographer are telling a story of American history. I like that. It allows for a perspective without attachment. What did you two discuss in terms story and script?
Fontaine: There’s a huge difference between the script and the movie. I don’t want this to sound derogatory but the script felt more literal in a way. Pablo did his best to get rid of the storytelling that is known to everyone and we tried to get a closer look to the inner-feelings of Jackie.
NFS: Where there thoughts to not include the assassination sequence then?
Fontaine: There was actually. Truth is, from an American point of view everyone has seen it at least ten times and everyone knows what happens. It’s a rough moment to look at. It became an off and on discussion–maybe we do it maybe we don’t need it. It costs money to recreate but in the end we decided to do it.
NFS: Well I’m glad you did. The assassination was beautifully done. We get to see it through Jackie’s eyes.
Fontaine: Exactly. The original way we found the scene was not to suddenly change the style of the movie but to stay with her and have the camera on board the whole time. There’s something quite eerie when you have this lonely car and the motorbikes speeding down the highway. It almost looks like fantasy. We have her speaking when you hear the first bullet. You actually don’t see it hitting the president. You only see the second impact. It’s really poignant I think. Then we have a scaling shot going back with the secret service guy hanging on the back of the car.
"After accessing a lot of the archives it made sense to go with 16mm."
NFS: Let’s back up a little. What did you and Larrain discuss in terms of look for the film?
Fontaine: Pablo and I watched loads of archival footage shot back then. We felt the need to match the texture of these archives. They were shot either on 35mm or on 16mm and very often on a reversal film stock.
NFS: So was the archive footage the catalyst to shoot 16mm?
Fontaine: Yes. We tested everything. You name it. Film, Alexa, RED Weapon...After accessing a lot of the archives it made sense to go with 16mm in order to not have the audience jump on their feet going from one texture to the next. It was better to blend them so we tried to mimic the textures of the time.
NFS: What was the final verdict for camera?
Fontaine: We shot on the ARRI 416 using Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 and Kodak 7219/7213. On one hand, we didn’t want the movie to look too gritty or too rough. It needed to be elegant. We were lucky to shoot most of the movie in a studio where the controlled environment helped us achieve a rather more refined look. And my long-time colorist Isabelle Julien did a great job matching our shots with the archive footage we used for the movie.
NFS: How did you approach recreating Jackie’s CBS White House tour?
Fontaine: There are two kinds of textures in the film. The 16mm and the White House tour which was shot on video. The tour was in 1962, and in order to match the specific look of the footage we used an old tri-tube camera Pablo brought in from Chile. It was the same camera he used shooting No.
NFS: Wow. That’s a vintage piece of tech. How was working with it?
Fontaine: It’s a camera from 1980 fully calibrated with tubes that are not perfectly aligned. I felt very comfortable with it. We used a black-and-white monitor and we even did some interesting things with it on set.
NFS: How so?
Fontaine: We shot a few scenes with Natalie using the camera then shot the playback footage on the monitor using 16mm. It was quite interesting because you can get both worlds in a way. You have the video look with the gray coming from the film stock.
NFS: Very cool. What stood out was how clean the frame was during the interview sequences with the journalist played by Billy Crudup around Jackie’s home.
Fontaine: It was something done definitely on purpose.
NFS: It must have been. You don’t even see a bird flying by or even trees blowing.
Fontaine: That was just the way it was. It was cool winter sunny day. I don’t know if you noticed but Natalie is always center of the frame–centered in a somewhat square format aspect ratio. Most of the movie was constantly on the move so it felt right to have the interviews throughout the film static.
"I tried to create a light that felt like shelter for her even though [JFK] was dead. It needed to feel like she was protected."
NFS: It was a stellar choice. Those scenes balanced with the rest of the film quite well.
Fontaine: I’m glad you caught that. It seemed to us that when the journalist does the interview it’s just a few days after Jackie left the White House. She made the decision to speak. She is not in the turmoil and the chaos that happened right after the assassination. She had time to think about it. The Jackie you see is much more of a stronger person than the one you meet a few days before.
NFS: How did you shoot the interview sequences?
Fontaine: We had such a short schedule, especially in the U.S. The whole movie was shot in France in studio and then two months later we moved to D.C. for a few scenes including the interviews with Billy. The funny thing with the interviews was we had no time and massive pages of text. We used two cameras—one looking at Natalie the other looking at Billy. The first interview we shot was when they’re on the porch outside in the sun. I was in front of Natalie on A-camera with a whiteboard behind me, and the B-camera was on the other side with an operator looking at Billy. It basically meant they couldn’t see each other, which is odd for them in how intimate the scenes become.
NFS: A big part of the film is witnessing Jackie’s emotional journey. How did you want to capture those moments?
Fontaine: The whole movie builds as a very intimate story set in a bigger-than-life world. And thanks to our production designer Jean Rabasse, who rushed to build the Oval Office and White House, we got the chance to test in the actual locations rather than on white backgrounds some place. We ended up using wide lenses which allowed us to get quite close to her but still have the sense of people around her or the environment around her.
"At night, practical fixtures were the light source, but the challenge was during the day. The only solution was using the entire ceiling as the main light."
NFS: There are two sequences that stand out. One right after the assassination where Jackie is cleaning the blood off herself and the other is a pill-induced sequence where she wanders the halls of the White House. The latter follows her almost in a Kubrick-esque manner. Was that intentional?
Fontaine: I had not thought about it at all before you mentioned it. There was just a hint it could feel like that when we pre-lit the White House. The biggest sets were on the second floor. From one end to the other, there was this super long hallway 52 meters in length [150 feet]. All along the hallway you only had two windows. At night, practical fixtures were the light source, but the challenge was during the day. The only solution was using the entire ceiling as the main light. So instead of a hard ceiling, we had a super long fabric that covered the entire hallway. The light was shining through the fabric. With the chaos that Jackie was going though, I tried to create a light that felt like shelter for her even though [JFK] was dead. It needed to feel like she was protected.
NFS: The scene Jackie is wiping blood off her face is very powerful. You weren’t afraid to get close to her at all.
Fontaine: We got a foot away sometimes shooting close-ups with a 14mm or 18mm. We only used long lenses in the scene on Air Force One when Johnson takes the oath. It felt right at that moment as Jackie is suddenly taken out of the president’s life.
NFS: Did the wide angles affect your lighting choices?
Fontaine: It did not. The Zeiss Super Speed Mark II lenses which are softer, handled well. They are not as pristine as modern lenses I think but they worked wonderfully. I also rigged a very soft light to the top of the camera the entire time. Since I was operating, I could control the look at the same time.
NFS: What kind of fixtures did you and gaffer Xavier Cholet deploy inside the studio locations?
Fontaine: Most of the fixtures were tungsten expect for the oval office and Jackie’s bedroom which were a combination of tungsten and LEDs. It allowed us to get different color temperatures easily. We wanted it to look beautiful. It sounds like everyone says that all the time but we wanted our images to be beautiful and gentle. Natalie really put her trust in Pablo and the crew. It’s like an unspoken contract you create in the very beginning where you establish this trust and everyone is on board.
NFS: Anything you want to share with the NFS community that you think they should know about?
Fontaine: I must admit I was quite lucky to have great focus pullers on the camera. It’s getting quite difficult to find a good focus puller when you’re shooting film. You can barely find an AC that can work without watching a monitor. You can’t watch a monitor shooting film handheld. You have to go the old style way—knowing when you’re looking at the camera you know what the distance is. It’s almost a lost art. When a great focus puller gives you total freedom to operate it’s quite amazing.