by James Mottram

“I think everything that we do that is meaningful is a learning experience,” says Benedict Andrews. “My first movie, Una, I was dealing with a very complex chamber drama and bringing a lot of my muscles from my theatre-making to bear upon that. This is a much bigger canvas than that. The first movie was Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn locked in different rooms together, and it’s very, very claustrophobic. This is about a group of people as much as it’s about Kris. It’s about the interweaving of lives. The scale of it is different. So, it was an incredible learning experience in that way, and to tell a very, very complex story like this…. But in the way that I want everything to be a learning experience…I want to be able to draw on all of my experience as an artist and a director, but I want to do things that I don’t know how to do, or I don’t see the point in doing it. It’s the same as working in theatre and opera. I want to work with things that are going to rip something open and open a new space to enter. So, I’ve always sought that out – and this was no exception.”


In terms of her life, that was a big learning experience of course. The script changed a lot during the making of it. But it was a very, very, very smart script…the writers [Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse] had been living with it for around eight years. When I came on board, it altered around and changed a fair bit. I think it’s about condensing her life down. A lot of the work is about that. I didn’t want to make a traditional biopic. I wasn’t interested in that. I’m also not interested in that when I go to the cinema. I wanted this to have the intimacy of a love story and in a way, the talk and tension of a thriller.


I didn’t want to make a closed period film that is nostalgic to the 1960s and shows us what we already know or what our fantasies already are about the 1960s. I wanted to shoot it like it was a contemporary story. And I do the same in the theatre if I’m doing a play by Chekhov or if I’m doing an opera by Prokofiev…I want to see it as an event taking place in the present. It brings all of the baggage from history with it, but it is an event taking place in the present, and speaking to us very, very directly – emotionally, intellectually, politically. And artistically. It was very important for all of my collaborators to approach the story like that, the way that the camera works. Even though we looked at the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, I didn’t want to make it an homage to them. We shot on film and the textures of the film are very important, and the smell of the period – but I wanted it to have the urgency of contemporary film rather than a museum piece. That was interesting to me aesthetically but also, we look at 1969 in a way to speak to 2019 and what happened to her. We see the ingredients of our surveillance culture now, but in the end, you’re interested in people and what happens to people. I was interested in getting close to her. But the beauty of the story is by getting close to Jean, we also get close to someone on the other side of the political divide, on the other side of the war – in Jack [Jack O’Connell] – and so we get close to both these characters. That’s why we go to the cinema – to see and feel things we can’t see otherwise without that eye of the camera like an angel taking us closer.


In her life, there are so many stories that you could go into that are interesting. We wanted everything to happen through what Jack is finding out. He’s like an audience who doesn’t know her story. Who is Jean Seberg? Well, he has the same question. So, he is a detective uncovering her past. And through that, at first he’s like an agent wanting to get information about her to prosecute his cause and through finding out about her, he finds out about her complexity and in that he discovers the wounds of her time with Preminger and the relationship between actors and directors can be very complex anyway, and a love affair that turns into torture…clearly in their case, there was this mutual dependency and she was his ingénue that he bought up…we don’t dwell on it but you see the clues, the little clues. The agent says on the plane, ‘He’s not Preminger.’ And then you see the burning, and we have his voice in the movie, when he’s asking her the questions in the auditions. So I wanted the audience to more feel like that was a ghost or a trace of Preminger, and the pressure on her; rather than a hundred percent biographical movie might’ve shown us the scenes in that and explained it. I wanted the audience, like Jack, to work out ‘Who is she? What happened to her? How did she get to this point?’ And I do think Jean already had what Romain Gary called ‘sympathy at first sight’, but I think having suffered under Preminger, that also gave her an understanding and compassion for people who were having injustice against them.


I think the dangers are assuming you can speak for other people. I would not assume to make a film about the Black Panther movement. Jean’s story and her activism was already complicated, and I’m fascinated by that. She’s not presented as a perfect, flawless hero. I think the audience recognise her fragilities and the film touches the raw nerve of her involvement and of questions of white liberalism and what Tom Wolfe disparagingly called ‘radical chic’ at the time, and for instance when Zazie’s [Beetz] character Dorothy Jamal calls her a tourist, she has to face these questions in herself. On the one hand, you have someone who is very idealistic, and I do believe absolutely sincere. I read about people who were involved with her at the time, other activists who knew her, absolutely saying that. She was not cynical. They really believed that she believed in what she was doing. But it is complicated, and she makes mistakes and does it from a position of privilege. She lives in Paris and has this great place in the Hollywood Hills and so on. But she’s trying to find meaning, and I wanted to zero in on that. I also wanted to show the mechanisms of racism on an institutional level with the FBI and their war against Jean, and I also wanted to show with her love affair with Hakim [Anthony Mackie] and through the credence of Dorothy’s character…both Dorothy and Linette [Margaret Qualley], they’re like moral consciousness in the movie and they’re two women from different political places. Linette is very much Middle America surrounded by conservatives, studying to be a doctor. And then Zazie is a community activist. And they both speak truth to the people around them. So, I think it’s that composite portrait and not assuming to tell a complete story – the story is about zeroing in on what happened between them.


We had a lot of movie to chew off really fast, and one of the strengths of the movie is its ensemble casting. With her as a supernova at the centre of it. You can imagine a beautiful movie like Jackie where you just stay on her face in a biopic. It feels like it’s that type of movie here, where she’s the supernova with such a commanding performance. But there’s a very sophisticated performance from Jack as the soldier who learns a new trick, and all those other roles around it. She and I spent a lot of time before the shoot talking about Jean, talking about the script, sharing references, watching Jean’s movies, reading biographies, talking about the script. She’s exceptionally, instinctively smart, Kristen, and it was very clear from the get-go that she had a deep compassion for Jean and a deep empathetic understanding of Jean, and so that in a way was our preparation and our shared understanding and I felt from our very conversation, we just got it – that we were interested in the same thing. When you begin from that basis, then you’re dancing together. She led on the set…everyone making this movie was under a lot of pressure. There were big, crazy days – and they might mean at 3am, four hours over time, Kristen had to destroy a room to find a bug and have a breakdown and she was just always leading from the front, throwing herself at it. I was very interested in her – you can imagine another actress like this who puts on a kind of mask and imitates the person. And there can be good performances like that, more from the outside in. I was not interested in that because Jean wasn’t that. I’m also not interested in that as a director, but Jean was not that – Jean was raw and open. And so is Kristen. I don’t think that Kristen can fake it either. But she’s actually a really technically adept actor with a very, very finely honed truth barometer. She did her first movie locked in a room with Jodie Foster directed by David Fincher. That was a pretty good first school! She was just a joy and a privilege to work with and I knew she had to go very far and put herself on the line, and to see her do that was a great pleasure and I’m enormously proud of what she’d done.


We deliberately copied some things shot for shot – also the audition tape for Preminger when she was 19. The other stuff we didn’t – we didn’t talk about any tics. It was just about the qualities – her instinctive-ness, her openness, her sensitivity. And then it’s about playing the scenes. It’s interesting – when you do that…I think again of her being Jean Seberg, and we’re talking about her being Jean Seberg, but in the edit I am thinking about her as a character called Jean played by Kristen…if you were watching a fiction film, I’d want her to be a living, complex character. Not an impersonation. It was about that instinctive-ness, that openness, that generosity, that bravery and that electric quality they both share.

Seberg is in cinemas from January 30, 2020

Read our Seberg review


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