Seberg is inspired by true events in the life of French New Wave darling and Breathless star, Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), who in the late 1960s was targeted by the FBI because of her support of the civil rights movement and her romantic involvement with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), among others.
In Benedict Andrews’ noir-ish thriller, Seberg’s life and career are destroyed by Hoover’s overreaching surveillance and harassment in an effort to suppress and discredit Seberg’s activism.
I have always admired Jean Seberg’s work, from her “discovery” at the age of 19 by director Otto Preminger to star in his high profile 1957 film Saint Joan to her roles in films like Bonjour Tristesse and The Mouse That Roared. She endured instant fame and severe criticism for her early performances which only changed when she became an iconic figure in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in 1960 opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo. But that didn’t end her torment on American shores. This fascinating character study finds Jean living in Paris in the late 1960s with her second husband, writer Romain Gary. When she heads back to the U.S. to work on the musical Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood and continues to show her support for the Black Panthers and other groups, she is targeted by the FBI who begin an unrelenting campaign of terror against her. I spoke to director Benedict Andrews about this riveting film.
Danny Miller: What a pleasure to talk to you, Benedict, I’ve been following your incredible stage work for years! I’m a classic movie fanatic and have been obsessed with Jean Seberg for a long time. I knew about her involvement with the civil rights movement but had no idea the extent of her targeting by the FBI. Did you come into this with a lot of pre-existing knowledge about Jean Seberg?
Benedict Andrews: It developed more as I got involved with the film. Like so many film lovers, I’ve had an image of Jean in my head ever since I saw Breathless as a teenager. That was a really formative experience for me at a time when I was just discovering world cinema and literature and that performance was burned in my imagination. I had a picture of her pinned up on my bedroom wall and I was enamored by her complete lack of artifice. Over time, I learned bits and pieces of her life that, that she married Romain Gary and that she had some kind of involvement with the Black Panthers, but I had no idea of the enormity of it including the horror of the state apparatus turning against a citizen like that because of her politics.
I’ve always felt defensive of her because I actually liked her early work with Preminger that was so reviled at the time. She had a quality that I thought was so appealing.
I agree, there was a natural quality that I frankly think was ahead of her time. She was criticized so harshly by the press. And then, through a series of accidents, she gets cast in this movie in Paris which ends up being the perfect vehicle for her, and kind of sets the stage for what modern post-Method acting will be — and still is today. Jean had that instinctively, she was never able to fully conform to the style of acting that was being promoted at that time, her style was so much more natural, and you see glimpses of this coming through in Saint Joan and the earlier films and then so beautifully in Breathless.
I hope this film makes people go out and look at her actual work.
I do, too. And recognize the tragedy of what happened to her because you see this luminous soul being destroyed. When Jean got roasted in Saint Joan, no pun intended, you had an unguarded and instinctive actress putting herself on the line with a real strength and life force, but someone who also had an incredible vulnerability. And then you see those qualities being exploited and violated by the FBI.
One of the things I love about the film is the lack of over-exposition that movies like this often fall victim to. I love that you treat the audience with intelligence and just drop us into the story. That said, were there any worries about people following along who have no familiarity with Jean Seberg’s life or career?
We did have some concerns as we started to show the movie to audiences who didn’t know her. But we knew that we needed to keep trusting the paradigm we had set up for ourselves. We have a character in Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) who actually says, “Who is Jean Seberg?” and he becomes a device to sort of unlock elements of her past. The movie doesn’t pretend to tell the story of her life, or for that matter, any of the characters in the film. Each of them could have a whole series built around them — Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), for one, is such a fascinating, complex character. We don’t go into Jean’s years of growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa, becoming a member of the NAACP at age 14, making Breathless, or even the last 10 years of her life. We just focus on this window of this thing that happened to her and then leave the audience with all these other threads to pull to puzzle out her character. What interests me in cinema is to leave a space for the audience to navigate through. When you’re dealing with a real person, the temptation is high to fill in the answers for everyone, but we wanted to just plunge in and provide the elements people needed to go along on the ride.
As as a classic movie nut, I love the recreation of Jean’s original on-camera interview with Preminger and that final scene from Breathless, I though Kristen Stewart was spot-on in those recreations. Did you consider doing any more? I admit I was hoping for a bit from Paint Your Wagon between Jean and Clint Eastwood!
We actually had a scene where we were going to have her singing “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door” from the set of Paint Your Wagon. I loved it but we were fitting a lot of movie into a very tight shooting schedule and there was a lot of story there to tell! But the scenes we did recreate, we worked very hard to make them completely accurate. It’s pretty astonishing — you can Google them and compare Jean’s versions to Kristen’s. That was very deliberate on our part, because once we had those, we felt it gave Kristen more freedom to explore her version of the character.
I thought her interpretation of Jean was extraordinary. Kristen Stewart impresses me more with every film of hers that I see.
It’s interesting because she isn’t completely doing Jean’s voice that we know. That was an artificial voice that Jean put on for interviews and you can hear Kristen peppering bits of it in from time to time, but we wanted to let her be free to find the character beyond any kind of impersonation. We wanted to make a movie, not a documentary.
It’s probably cliché to talk about at this point, but knowing how Kristen started out with massive fame at such a young age and received a lot of criticism for her early film work in the Twilight series, it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t a lot she could dial right into in terms of what Jean Seberg was dealing with at that time.
Absolutely. I mean, they are very different people, of course, with wildly different experiences, but, like Jean, Kristen also has a kind of raw instinct and truth in her work. And she certainly understands that sense of fame and enormous public exposure at a very tender age as well as the kind of abusive domestic press aimed at both of them. And, even more importantly, both of them had careers that straddled both Hollywood and European cinema, Jean with her work in the French New Wave, and Kristen with her work with Olivier Assayas and others and being the first American actresses to win a César Award. Kristen had an understanding of what those two different cinematic cultures mean and how to exist within both of them, just like Jean.
I found her performance incredibly moving.
I think she had a great tenderness and understanding of Jean. And she was willing to jump into the deep end and just kind of swim for life to do justice to Jean’s story from the inside out.
She was born to play that part. I also really liked Jack O’Connell and Margaret Qualley in the film. Was the character of Jack Solomon based on anyone real at the FBI?
No, unfortunately. That character was fictional and his meeting with Jean at the end of the film entirely speculative. Jean did eventually get access to her FBI file, but I was interested in exploring these two characters, the interweaving of the watcher and the watched, and the whole question of guilt and ethics. Jack ultimately becomes an exemplary character for our own times when we are so vigorously dealing with crises of truth and responsibility within corrupt governments.
There are so many interesting analogies of this story to today.
Yes, and Jack represents someone who is prepared to risk his own safety to bring a truth to someone else — to stand up for something he believes in. We certainly need more people like that these days.
Seberg opens today in Los Angeles and New York and will be opening in other cities in the weeks to come.
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.