Unraveling An Icon: A Few Minutes With Director Benedict Andrews Discussing The Life And Times Of ‘Seberg’

Posted in Interviews, Movies, Theatrical by - March 02, 2020
Unraveling An Icon: A Few Minutes With Director Benedict Andrews Discussing The Life And Times Of ‘Seberg’

There are moments in life that can leave you irrevocably changed forever…

Seberg is inspired by true events about the 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 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.

This film is a haunting slice of life for this woman who was on the brink of stardom only to be brought to ruin by the overreaching hand of the government. It’s a sad but terribly relevant piece of history that was very bravely tackled by not only Kirsten Stewart but director Benedict Andrews as well.

Working from a script by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse; Seberg is an intense look at the psychological and professional destruction of a human being and it’s something else to really get into.  I got the unique pleasure to sit down with director Benedict Andrews to talk about exactly that as we dive into the life of Jean Seberg, her importance on the pop culture landscape and how this story needs to be told.

Dave Voigt: Jean Seberg really is this fascinating pop culture character and I’m curious to find out what drove you to tell a story, not only about her but about this particular time in her life.

Benedict Andrews: I’d say the deep core of it all comes down the fundamental issue of privacy and how in the case of an actress you are dealing with someone who is in the public eye and whose job it is to expose themselves emotionally.  The parts of ourselves that most of us keep hidden the actor has to put those raw nerves of their private lives on display.  In Jean’s case I’d that very private space became somewhat of a war zone and the FBI is using a lot of the same gear that is used to make cinema and highlight the kind of emotional truths that actors typically champion and they used those tools to ultimately destroy her.

I really thought this scenario was a terribly interesting inquiry into the very nature of privacy.  Sure it’s a meditation on cinema and the craft of the actor but it’s also about the responsibility that comes with it. I was fascinated in taking a look at some one when the truth that they put on display ends up collapsing all around them.

I really appreciated how the film had this almost sinister lack of privacy to it.  Even in the scenes where Jack O’Connell’s character is surveilling Jean, we get this feeling that there’s even someone possible survelling him and this uneasy sense really permeates the entire experience on screen.

That’s the interweaving of the film to be sure, how we have the interweaving of these two stories and really experiencing Jean’s ordeal from both sides of it all with “The Watcher” and “The Watched”.  It gives a complete picture of the voyeurism of it all, we’re seeing her decent into paranoia and Jack’s ultimate reckoning with everything that is going on around him.

For me that is the secret gearing of the movie and the unexpected relationship between the two because this whole thing doesn’t go where either of them expected it to ultimately go.  Jack’s character is this one person who can bring her the truth that she so desperately craves about what has happened to her and it’s tormenting them both.

Can you talk a little about your entire casting process because as much as Kirsten is this obvious force of nature and a perfect choice I really love the dynamic between her Jack’s character as he brings this ‘counterpoint’ energy to the story as they really feel like they are the entire Yin & Yang of this story even though they barely share the screen together.

That really was the task of the filmmaking to balance those two stories together and try to seamlessly interweave them together.  Her performance is so raw and so luminous while his is really so beautifully restrained.  I had worked with Jack before in the theatre in a production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof before we made the movie and he is this kind of actor with a great capacity for expressing violence; I mean his performance in Starred Up is a perfect example of that as this physical force of violence.  I was really fascinated in this role where we could find this reticence that he has along with this highly guarded manner who through simply having to watch Jean gets disturbed by what is going on and he slowly lets his guard down and we see a new vulnerability open up in him.

I really like what you said about how these two performances play off of each other because it allows us to earn those final moments of the film where they do actually meet.  We know that he’s watching her every move and she senses that someone is there on the other side of the wall and in the shadows that she just can’t quite grasp.  It’s so important to the story that we can see what she does and also doesn’t see.

Was there ever any temptation to tell a larger story of Jean’s life because especially for cinephiles she really was this enigmatic character throughout her entire career?

Oh for sure, and I think that her mystic as this icon is something that people are generally pretty familiar with.  That certainly was my personal experience with her as that iconic image from Breathless that is burnt into our brains and this star of the French New Wave, but we very deliberately chose to keep the movie restricted to these couple of years in her life that she ultimately described herself as a long nightmare.

However I’ll grant that with her story you could easily do a multi-year series looking at the entire arc of her life on Amazon Prime or something (Laughs).  But I really feel that way with all the players in this story, I mean Hakim Jamal’s story (played by Anthony Mackie) is one where you could really dive in because I feel like we barely touched the tip of the iceberg with his story.  All of these people in Jean’s orbit led very loaded and very complex lives and our task was the fuse all that with the tension of a surveillance thriller and shine a light on her, making a portrait of what happened in this period of her life in these dark years.  Not just the bad elements of it but to really see the level of grace that she achieved going through the fire of these experiences and to the limits of madness that she gets pushed to.

How do you feel the movie plays with modern audiences because back then the definition of celebrity didn’t really involve having to put your life on display but these days that’s practically what being a celebrity is all about.  The film really shows how the nature of celebrity has evolved and is ultimately perceived. 

I really feel very strongly that so many elements of that era are really speaking very strongly to our own right now in these very tumultuous times.  Not just in the turbulent politics that we see in the United States and in other countries but in the movie I really feel that we get to see the birth of the surveillance culture that we’re currently living in.  We see the idea of celebrity which has now exploded into this out of control thing and we also the weaponization of private life as political warfare and we now live in that very reactionary daily salvo of information.  It allows us in an almost fairytale type way to see all the ingredients of our culture in it’s very early form.

If you had to explain to someone who didn’t know anything about Jean Seberg, what would you say?

Ultimately that she was a boundary crosser.  She goes from Marshalltown Iowa and ends up the darling of the French New Wave.  Back in LA for her first night she drives down to Compton to see Hakim Jamal and that shows her truly restless and exploratory personality which is what made her immortal like we see in Breathless but it also highlights the real tragedy of seeing that kind of genuine light and emotional vulnerability come under fire.

Seberg is currently playing now in Toronto and expanding across the country in the coming weeks.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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