White House, East Room, Ballroom 1961… One of the cultural events Jackie introduced at the White House was the Pablo Casals concert held in the newly refurbished East Room. For the film, Melery was able to find two of the three chandeliers at a famous Paris antiquary, valued at $500,000! She had the third custom made...
Air Force One… Jacqueline Kennedy [Natalie Portman] prepares to meet the public as AIR FORCE ONE lands at Dallas. She had French designer Raymond Loewy update the design of the plane. DeBiasio points out that the color palette has remained to this day, the distinctive blue of the exterior and the sky blue, beige & cream interiors...
Air Force One… Just a few hours after she cradled her assassinated husband, the distraught Jacqueline Kennedy [Natalie Portman] has to witness the Oath of Office by the succeeding President, Lyndon Johnson [John Carrol Lynch] on the plane transporting her husband’s body back to the nation’s capital...
As the night wears on into the wee hours of the morn, Jackie [Natalie Portman], recalls memories of her now late husband and becomes concerned about his legacy. Despite her shock and exhaustion, the Lincoln portrait inspires her...
White House, Jacqueline Kennedy’s suite… Jackie [Natalie Portman] and close family friend, Bill Walton [Richard Grant], who advised her on much of the White House redecoration, look over research about Lincoln’s funeral for inspiration in planning her husband’s. Walton had also directed the draping of black crepe throughout the White House before President Kennedy’s body returned in the early hours of November 23rd...
White House, East Room… To make the catafalque look less barren, Walton had ordered staff to cut magnolia leaves and branches from trees on the White House grounds to fill one of the East Room's flower urns. [Left] Knowing Jackie’s preferences, Walton rejected ornate silver candlesticks, but accepted two wooden ones from Saint Stephen Martyr Catholic Church...
Jacqueline Kennedy [Natalie Portman], Bobby Kennedy [Peter Sarsgaard] and Teddy Kennedy [Gaspard Koenig] lead an assemblage of dignitaries from around the world in the funeral procession for President John Fitzgerald Kennedy...
December 18th, 2016 by Karen Burg & William DeBiasio SDSA
The impact of Jacqueline Kennedy on America’s cultural heritage, and Americans’ awareness of it, will never be defined in terms smaller than superlative. But in the film JACKIE, we get a window into this cultural essence, and into the person herself.
A young woman, who not only brought to light the noble spirit and history of the White House, including art and music, but also withstood some of its greatest grief, while orchestrating a state funeral for a nation, a fitting tribute to her fallen husband and his legacy...all the while needing to console her young children and immediately move from the White House she had so lovingly restored.
The creators of the film JACKIE felt honor-bound to re-create her White House with as much authenticity as possible and to give context to Jackie Kennedy’s emotional journey.
SETDECOR brought in White House design and décor expert William DeBiasio SDSA,* to not only determine the accuracy of the sets but also give us a sense of the history and place, which made for fascinating interviews with Production Designer Jean Rabasse and Set Decorator Véronique Melery SDSA.
“Director Pablo Larrain wanted an interpretation of the period, the ‘60s, and the personality and tastes of Jackie Kennedy, but also the spirit of the Kennedy era in the White House,” says Rabasse. “We therefore needed a very precise documentation... archives, photos of the period...but also to go as far as possible into the Kennedys’ intimacy, to make more explosive the pain and the strength of this woman.”
Melery agrees, “The set design and décor goal was the re-creation of a famous and well known place in a very well remembered and documented time. However, we also had to find amidst the official documents and press pictures, a personality, a person, a young woman, wife and mother who went through difficult times and then a traumatic and horrifying experience. The quest was to illuminate this personality through the sets, the mundane objects and details that you find around the real Jackie.”
Rabasse has worked in America several times, including two major productions for Cirque du Soliel. “Always, I have the same feeling that Americans do not recognize they have a history of art, a history of architecture, which is very important—but it seems that Americans don’t feel that they have the right to recognize that.”
“And for me, what Jackie did was to say to the American people, ‘You have your own history. The White House is a part of it. You have to respect the White House because it’s your history and it’s your culture.’”
“So, can you imagine, for a French crew having to touch that point?
It was difficult. At the same time, we discovered that she was sharing the interior design between two American decorators, Henri Francis Pont and Sister Parish, and also with a French designer and company, Stéphane Boudin from Mansion Jansen in Paris. So we thought, okay, maybe there is a way we can share our culture. And it’s exactly what Jackie had said, ‘Our heritage, our culture is a mix of different cultures and our own.’”
Melery remembers, “I felt very much impressed by the responsibility of representing such an iconic place and person portrayed in such a strong and dramatic moment, but the French aspect certainly made me feel more comfortable and able to cope with the job.”
“Perhaps not being American gave me a certain freedom of mind, more distance, less inclined to deference. I could feel touched more by the human figure of Jackie, than impressed by the White House. I tried to gather a general feeling of the place at that time, a sense of the proportions and grandeur of the White House combined with the human size of it through Jackie’s life and eyes.”
“Jackie Kennedy chose subtlely. From Lincoln’s bedroom, chosen because of the importance of the symbol, to the paintings of Native Americans that she put into light, to the choice of the desk for her husband in the Oval Office—the famous Resolute desk made with wood rescued from a marine vessel—all of this was giving Americans a sense of being part of a great and rich cultural history. Also, she insisted on this house being the ‘people’s house’.”
“Even in the painstaking task to re-create at our best the real White House of Jackie, there was some latitude to interpret her choices. And knowing how much she cherished multicultural influences helped sometimes to dare surprising and original choices on our part.”
“And from a design perspective, there’s the fact that she painted the chimney white because she wanted to be modern,” adds Rabasse. “She wanted to bring that to the White House as well as to say, ‘We have to pull out the future—we are creating it. Our culture, our history, is from the last century or two centuries before, but also of today, and we have to recognize it.’ So this is the first time many Americans start to understand they have a responsibility about architecture, about art. It’s so important.”
DeBiasio notes, “And all of this White House upgrade and honoring of culture was accomplished in a very small window of time. It’s less than a thousand days. The amount of work that she was able to pull off and create and execute in this mansion is remarkable.”
“So I suppose it was only right that we had such a short time as well!” Rabasse smiles. “Jackie’s adventure began for me at the end of August 2015. The shoot had to start on November 23rd 2015, so we only had 11 weeks of prep. All of my key French collaborators were old friends, Véronique as Set Decorator, Mathieu Junot and Emanuel Prevot as Art Directors, Philippe Auclair as Construction Coordinator, Nathalie Roubaud at the documentation, and we brought on Benedicte Joffre to focus exclusively on the fabrics.”
“I did start a week later,” Melery smiles. “A lot of documents and information had then already been gathered by collaborators, and I tried to immerse myself in those as much as possible. I never really realized, happily, the scale of the job that I was confronted with, because I never had the time to think too much about the huge and sensitive task...time was too short!
“Since we had very small amount of prep, everything went very fast,” agrees Rabasse. “BUT we never resigned to not have the best fabric and furnishings. As we had to copy the CBS White House tour that Jackie gave, we had the feeling that we can’t make any restriction to the quality and to the spirit of the White House.”
“I think the fact we didn’t get too much time gave us the ability to say, ‘Okay, I want that, and that’s it.’ If we need to build the bed of Lincoln, let’s do it. And do it well, with the best sculptor. And the fact that we had the best company in Paris and Véronique’s contacts in Hong Kong for reproduction of Louis XVI and other pieces, meant that we went very fast.”
“To be able to mix real footage and ours, it became quickly obvious that we would have to manufacture many unique pieces,” Melery points out. “...Torchieres for the ballroom, the enormous 9 meters-long dining table and all of the dining room chairs, some of the large sculpted, gilded mirrors and consoles. I had planned to rent some more common pieces, but there were not many, because most of the pieces had to be painted and/or upholstered to look as close as possible to the real ones in the White House.”
“It was a tremendous help that an incredible series of photos are available on the JFK Library’s website and the White House’s website,” Rabasse notes. “Very important for us were the photos taken by White House photographer Robert Knudson, a wonderful documentation of the White House and the private apartments. It was a great source of inspiration for us, photos that could provide us the 60’s atmosphere, more specifically the atmosphere that Jackie Kennedy brought to the White House. We worked a lot on the color palette from the Ektachromes of R. Knudsen.”
“And also invaluable are the photos by Cecil William Stoughton, the Chief White House photographer at that time, who captured both their public and private family life during JFK’s presidency,” DeBiasio informs.
“It was amazing,” Rabasse replies. “We found a photo of every single accessory in JKF’s office. We also had the list of every family picture on his desk. Everything was re-created, built. Sometimes, where few actual elements were available, we had to interpret photography to design the set.”
Melery comments, “Yes, and every single object in that room has the same impact on the audience: everyone has seen pictures of it, knows it, respects it and feels inclined to feel hurt if not well recreated! So many pictures were taken there during John Kennedy’s presidency, including the children hidden in the desk...”
DeBiasio points out that Jackie had just had the Oval Office redecorated to be put into place while they were in Texas, as a surprise for the President on their return from Dallas. Which means, John Kennedy never saw the new red carpet nor the new drapes chosen especially for him...
“All the more tragic,” Rabasse concurs. “But not only did we have lists for the Oval Office, we also had lists of Jackie’s favorite newspapers, fashion magazines, bedtime readings, personal effects. It was this kind of detail, the numbers and precision, that led us step by step to the atmosphere we were looking for.”
“A lot of the outside footage, especially of the funeral, is very high contrast, very saturated, very dark...the grain is very present...but we said that when we are inside the White House, ‘Let’s try to explain how important it was that this was a nest for the Kennedys.’ And so for us, by the color, by the light, it was a message that we wanted to share.”
“Yes, we tried to re-create places that allow this young family—we tend to forget how young they were—to feel at home: light and airy, welcoming and busy, with familiar objects, domestic items and latest trend appliances,” Melery relates. “We tried to have these signs of daily life existing in every room and corridor; we were not re-creating a museum.”
“I loved her insistence of creating a real home, which we certainly felt in the lovely choice of decoration for her children’s rooms. These were full of real life...Caroline’s little house, the toys, the books...no pompous decor or affectation here. Charmingly put together. We made all of the pieces of furniture there because of their reduced sizes. The small sofa was delightful to look at! I loved buying the collection of dolls representing children from many countries, as they were gifts from dignitaries from around the world.”
“The White House was their family home, and Pablo Larrain makes us share the loss of that place when the move is going on, when Jackie is afraid of not having a house anymore and not knowing where to live.
And, as Jean says, outside, there’s the grainy and the somber look that is giving a more period feeling, as if we are watching old footage.”
“But we didn’t want a movie that looked dusty and period. The Kennedy family was young. Their time was recorded in vibrant colors. And Jackie liked colors! As a team, under Pablo’s request, we chose to use strong colors to re-create the images of that period. An example is the choice of the bright yellow curtains for the Hyannis Port living room. Looking at the archives of the design companies that worked for and with Jackie—at the audacious choices she was making—comforted me in mine.”
The First Lady’s bedroom suite...
Light and elegance define Jackie’s bedroom suite, a graceful retreat. This amazingly accurate re-creation is enhanced with the use of the exact design of the original fabrics, from the design house who created them.
“Tillet Textiles/T4Fabrics in New York reprinted for us the design of the bedroom fabrics that they still had in their archives,” says Rabasse. “Patrick Tillet came himself to deliver the fabrics in Paris. His grandmother was in touch with Jackie Kennedy and had printed for her some fabrics for the White House and Hyannis Port. Additionally, we found the blue fabric with cherub design for Kennedy’s bedroom.”
“Maison Jansen in Paris also generously lent us the real sample books used for the White House, which allowed us to reprint some fabrics Boudin had used.”
“The bedcover was a surprise find when walking through Harrods in London,” Melery reveals. “We discovered that the maker, Maison Porthault, had effectively provided her bed linens, as well as some linen and tablecloths for the formal state dinners. A kind of magical surprise!”
Rabasse adds, “After contacting the French house, I found that the founding member had immigrated during the 1930s to Los Angeles, and had dressed with silk the greatest cinema stars of the time. She created in 1960 the big embroidered tablecloth for the dinning room table, the tablecloth that we see in every dinner photo.”
“And we attached a lot of importance to the accessories in order to re-create the particular atmosphere of Jackie’s private apartment. It was very important to go as far as possible in those details, from vases and lamps to books and even stationery for handwritten cards and letters.”
DeBiasio notes the accuracy and agrees in the importance of revealing that aspect of the First Lady, “Both the replication and the placement are key. The books and magazines piled on the bench and tables are absolutely in sync with the photographs of the actual room. She and the President were voracious readers, a trait they shared as a couple and with their children. Jackie always had reading material strewn about and at hand. We tend to forget that she had started as a writer and ended up becoming an respected book editor.”
The President’s Bedroom...
Although audiences only saw a glimpse of JFK’s room, it was fully dressed. Melery describes the most important elements: “I couldn’t find his four-poster bed, a very tall one, so it was made and sculpted in no time by an amazing craftsman in Belgium. The tall chest of drawers came from the US. We couldn’t find any in Europe that looked right in terms of size and proportions. We had the seats made and upholstered. The fabric used in that room is still sold by a French company. The decorators had initially offered the fabric for Jackie’s room, but John liked it best. Other important elements were his book collection and his records, including ‘Camelot’, to be played on his personal record player.
Family wing corridor...
“We built every corridor of the White House second floor to scale,” states Rabasse. “They are more than 165 ft long, and almost took the whole 6500 square ft of Studio 5 of the Cité du Cinéma near Paris.”
“We even tried to have the same moulding. It was absurd, but we did,” he laughs. “The more we went with the moulding detail and into the reality, the more we knew when we could make some decisions to create a special atmosphere. For example, you can see the ceiling, which is lighted from above. This made it possible for DP Stéphane Fontaine to have the camera turn around to give a variety of views, a lot of perspective of the White House.”
“We then had to rent some very high quality props from some prestigious antique dealers such as Steinitz in Paris and Farley in London.”
“And we were able to have a copy of every single painting in the White House at that moment, in the exact size. When you print, though, you don’t have exactly the same texture, and I really wanted not to have the feeling it’s a print. So we painted brushstrokes onto the prints.”
“Two very dedicated young collaborators worked very, very hard to identify and size every single painting and print,” Melery imparts. “Then we printed them all, trying different types of canvas, papers, printers, before being happy with the results. And then, two painters came to work on these afterwards, one worked solely on the portraits. After that, a particular kind of varnish was added as ageing. A sensitive process, but the results were worth it.”
Melery was also coordinating furniture and accessories being made in France and Hong Kong, and chandeliers, girandoles and sconces in Italy, plus pieces coming from the US. “It’s good to look beyond borders,” the international set decorator shares. “If you can’t find what you are looking for in the known place, it might exist somewhere else. And working with foreign teams and people is always such a rich experience.”
“But I will admit,” she smiles, “it was quite scary hoping that no bad surprise would occur, considering the very short time we had to make everything. All of this happened thanks to the team’s work—an incredible team that I’ve known for years. We work closely together and have fun as well!”
“All the pieces from the US were rented from prophouses in Los Angeles,** or purchases from companies and institutions. I received the help of a very dedicated and patient set decorator, Maggie Goldman SDSA. She had to respond to the last minute requests and the even-more-last-minute shipping organization, on her own in LA. Not easy! She has been amazing. And very kind.”
“The understanding by the American team, in a such short time, of the kind of work we had been doing in Paris and of our frame of mind, was exceptional. My alter ego, Dara Zappulla, should get a special award...”
The East Room, the State Ballroom
The venue for the Pablo Casals concert and many cultural events, the East Room became the initial lying-in-state room for JFK’s coffin, before it was moved to the capitol. The setting of many of Jackie’s positive experiences turned into one of her worst. But the sophisticated elegance she created in that room remained.
Rabasse reveals, “Two of the chandeliers came from Steinitz in Paris, which Veronique arranged to rent. I think the cost would have been $500,000 Euro to purchase. But as we needed 3, she had one made in Hong Kong as well.”
“There are 5000 different pieces of oak in the parquet flooring,” he adds. “We tried in the beginning to make it from a photo transfer, but quickly said, ‘Forget it!’ Half of the set is the parquet, so...”
A large portrait of George Washington oversees the room, as does the portrait of Lincoln in the State Dining Room, which mirrors this room at the other end of the corridor, although with its own set of chandeliers and girandoles.
Access to history...
Rabasse was amazed by the degree of access to information.
“It was surprising to see the White House publishing such an important documentation on its architecture and its decoration. We even could get the 1952 renovation plans, which provided us some very precise details on moulding, woodwork and the private apartment’s architecture. We easily knew where each of the paintings hung at this time—we were able to get some precise scanned pictures of the walls and the paintings’ size and exact location. The availability and openness of this information is astounding and we were very thankful for it.”
When asked about re-creating to such detail and some not making it to the screen, Melery responded, “Pablo wanted the audience to feel in the most intimate way Jackie’s feelings, to understand and be moved. Having the surroundings as realistic as possible helps these feelings to be the most sincere ones.”
“It’s been a difficult but extremely interesting task. You don’t often have to ‘re-create’ places...certainly not places like that...not in my professional experience anyway, except perhaps for Sofia Coppola’s MARIE ANTOINETTE. Finding the best lookalike objects can turn into an obsessive hunt. I worked at finding the closest lookalike objects, and then we worked to make them twins of the real ones of the time.”
“I never attach any importance on whether the details are seen or not on screen, the sets are a part of the storytelling. The camera records them or not, but they have to be there, they are of great importance...for the director, the actors, the audience. Light can catch a shadow. A sense of space is different if it is fully dressed or not.”
“Kurosawa said that the quality of the sets influenced the quality of actors’ performances, and that props and furniture have to exist on sets even if not filmed, for the sake of authenticity. I can only agree.”
*DeBiasio demures at the terms "expert", describing himself as an enthusiast, which is an understatement...