ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What do Pablo Neruda and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis have in common? Not much. He was a Chilean poet and a Communist politician. She was first lady at age 31 and a widow at age 34 when JFK was assassinated. What they do have in common is the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain. He's just made movies about the two of them. His movie "Neruda" is in Spanish. It's set in the 1940s when membership in the Communist Party was criminalized in Chile. The poet went underground. And, in the movie, his flight, like the rest of his life, is an act of imagination, artistry and poetry.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NERUDA")
LUIS GNECCO: (As Pablo Neruda) Por esos muertos, nuestros muertos...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Por esos muertos, nuestros muertos...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Pido castigo.
GNECCO: (As Pablo Neruda) Para los que de sangre salpicaron la patria.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Para los que de sangre salpicaron la patria
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Pido castigo.
SIEGEL: Larrain's other movie, "Jackie," is going to get a lot more attention here. Natalie Portman plays her as a woman shattered by the assassination and intent on shaping the nation's memory of the Kennedy presidency.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")
NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Has to be beautiful. Did you tell them we need a horse-drawn carriage? We have to march with Jack - everyone. A big beautiful procession that people will remember.
SIEGEL: Pablo Larrain joins us now from New York to talk about these two films. Welcome to the program.
PABLO LARRAIN: Hey, please, my pleasure.
SIEGEL: And first, both of these movies are about famous people. There's been a lot written about them. What did you find still interesting about Neruda and Mrs. Kennedy?
LARRAIN: Well, you know, I understand that we're talking about two main icons from the last century. And they might be very far from each other, but there are things in common, I think. I think there were both people who somehow shaped their own legends, and they were worried about their own public image. And there's always a gap in between what they wanted to express, the intention, and the result. And that gap is what allows us to get into, you know? It's like a little door into the kitchen of this sort of unknown place, and that's where we work.
SIEGEL: Americans, I think, all know who Jackie Kennedy was, even people much too young to recall the Kennedy presidency. I want you to describe how well Chileans know who Pablo Neruda was.
LARRAIN: But can I ask you something? You think that people really know who Jackie Kennedy was because I think one of the interesting things about her is the incredible amount of biographies and books and movies and whatever just around - out there about her. But to me, it feels that we actually know very little about her. And that's why, I think, so attractive and so interesting because there's an enormous amount of mystery around her figure.
SIEGEL: Now, I would grant you that. But I think on the basis of recognizing who she was and knowing the most basic fact of biography - you know, she's a very famous person. She's...
LARRAIN: Oh, yeah, that's for sure. I - no - absolutely agree. And I guess what happens with Neruda in our country that his work and life - it's essential to our history. But at some point, we know very little about his intimacy. And so I guess both movies aren't exactly biopics. I don't think you can actually walk out of any of these movies knowing exactly who that person was. We're not trying to do that.
SIEGEL: You mentioned a biopic. You've said that you're not a great fan of biopics.
LARRAIN: No, I'm not.
SIEGEL: Why not? What's the - what's your objection?
LARRAIN: The movies that have been made to - about some specific people that I admire are usually movies that - you know, they don't really try to express exactly who that person was, and I don't think you can actually do that. You can't capturate (ph) someone's life in, I don't know, 120 minutes, and it's good to know that. It's good to know that you won't be able to do it because it lets you feel more free when you're working and lets you work with imagination and fiction.
What happens behind those walls in the White House or behind those walls in Neruda's house while he was being chased by the police in my country? Nobody will ever know that, and that's what is so fascinating. If you could actually know exactly what happened, then it would be a documentary or something else - a TV show, a docudrama, but not a movie.
SIEGEL: What's the difference between directing in your native Spanish and directing a movie in English?
LARRAIN: It is very different for sure. But I have to say that my biggest challenge making "Jackie" was the fact that I was making a movie about a woman. I faced, for the first time in my life, a female character in the leader role. And, you know, I think "Jackie" is a story of a woman, of course, of a first lady but mostly the story of a mother. And that was a beautiful challenge - to try to, at least, to share that specific sensibility and emotions.
Let's remember that we - the movie takes place in only, like, five or six or maybe up to seven days after the assassination of JFK. And I think she did very interesting and beautiful things facing that enormous crisis. And that's what the movie is about. And that's what I tried to capture, you know - that emotion, that fragility, that sort of existential terror that she faced and try to share it with the audience.
SIEGEL: Did you come away from making "Jackie" with a question that you would've wanted to ask her had you had the opportunity?
LARRAIN: Oh, yes, a lot. First, you know, this might sound weird, but I would like to know if she ever talked to Pablo Neruda or if she ever read any of the - Neruda's work. That's something that I would like to ask her.
SIEGEL: And if you could speak with Neruda, would you ask whether he placed any store by the Alliance for Progress or whether he regarded the Kennedys as old anti-communists...
LARRAIN: Yeah, I would - for example, yeah. But I have this - I think it's like a dream that I had. It's like Jackie and Neruda - they both play chess. So that might be a movie, you know?
LARRAIN: (Laughter) Yeah, they're playing chess in the dark.
SIEGEL: You've had this dream?
LARRAIN: Yeah, I actually had it. Yeah, absolutely.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) It's very unusual that you have two movies, at least in this country, coming out at roughly the same time. And...
LARRAIN: And also what is interesting is that one of them - it's such an iconic communist from Latin America and the other one is about a first lady married with someone who is struggling and fighting against communism. But they do share things. And I believe those things are important today. And the things are still important, and they're still out there, you know?
And I don't know. But - just Fidel Castro died, and I felt that finally the 20th century was over. But then I get up. And I open the newspapers. And I look around. And I see that what's going on in here and in other countries of the world. It's like, are we learning from our own history? Are we just - why are we repeating the same patterns, the same problems? I don't know. It feels right somehow to do cinema and to bring those ideas that might feel old-fashioned. But I think they're still very alive and urgent somehow.
SIEGEL: Pablo Larrain, thank you very much for talking with us today.
LARRAIN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
SIEGEL: His two new movies are "Jackie," which is in English, and "Neruda," which is in Spanish with English subtitles. You are likely to hear his name pronounced Pablo Larain (ph). So, in my defense, here's the first question I asked him when we spoke.
I'm going ask you to give me some pronunciation lessons to start.
SIEGEL: Do you say Laraeen (ph)? Do you say Larain? How do you say your...
LARRAIN: But you have a very good pronunciation. It's incredible, man. Very few people can do that. It's Larrain.
LARRAIN: There you go.
SIEGEL: Filmmaker Pablo Larrain.
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