Rhys Handley talks to Benedict Andrews about his Jean Seberg biopic ‘Seberg’ (2020)
Australian theatre maestro Benedict Andrews made his transition into cinema with his directorial debut Una (2016), a stark character piece with an intensive focus on its actors Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn and Riz Ahmed, shutting out almost everything else. With his follow up, Seberg, he’s exploding outwards, exploring new tricks, new worlds and a whole palette of exciting colours and textures.
The film concerns legendary actress Jean Seberg at the height of her fame in the 1960s, as she becomes involved (politically and romantically) with the Black Panther civil rights movement. As much a cat-and-mouse spy thriller as it is a biopic, Seberg follows not just Jean — realised by a consistently captivating and dynamic Kristen Stewart — but the FBI agents whose invasive surveillance of the actress drove her to paranoia and mania as the walls around her private life were brought crashing down.
Electric Ghost Magazine caught up with Andrews at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival to discuss how theatre meets cinema, the enduring draw of Jean Seberg’s story, and what it takes to realise one American legend of cinema with the help of another.
Electric Ghost Magazine: We’re speaking at the BFI London Film Festival, where Seberg just had its UK premiere. What is your relationship to the city and the festival?
Benedict Andrews: London is a second home to me. Film4 funded my first feature Una and at that time I was living in Smithfield Market. I’ve also done work at the Young Vic [Andrews worked on productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire for the Waterloo theatre]. We showed Una at the BFI festival in 2016 and I came to find that there’s a real density to the festival, similar to Melbourne in my home country. It’s a really smart cross-section of movies that you have to plot your way around. It’s a kind of injection into the complex cultural life of the city and its strong, critical filmmaking culture, opening a door to what is out there. It recognises the diversity in today’s cinema and feeds that.
Una was your first feature film after years of directing theatre. Can you talk me through the jump from one medium to the other?
With Una, I was adapting the play Blackbird by David Harrower, so I still had a foot in the theatre. It is a complex study of sexual abuse, and also of a nihilistic relationship. It’s about two people trapped with each other, moving through a series of spaces and cutting out the rest of the world in their little bubble. Our grammar for shooting was very rigid, the camera never came off the tracks. This allowed us to concentrate on the performances and the dialogue in a way that is very similar to the theatre.
“It’s a story about worlds overlapping and we wanted to use the camera to put across this feeling of crossing to either side of the wall.”
You mentioned there about your directorial grammar. On Seberg, you certainly seem to have added to your vocabulary — it’s got a much more explicitly cinematic feel to it. What changed from one film to the next?
I worked with Rachel Morrison [cinematographer: Mudbound, Black Panther] for Seberg and she is a wonderful handheld shooter with this sensitive, intuitive way of working. There are still plenty of steadicam shots, but we had these moments where I wanted to let the camera fall off the track, so to speak, and move more through the world. It’s a story about worlds overlapping and we wanted to use the camera to put across this feeling of crossing to either side of the wall. I am now starting to want to move more and more into that way of entering worlds, so I think this is the direction I will keep developing in on my next film.
Jean Seberg’s story is a complex one, and well-known by cinema buffs. What is it that drew you to the material?
I’ve been making theatre all over the world — in Australia, Berlin, London — and it’s such a privileged space to drill down into the human condition where I have worked with many very talented actors. I developed my muscles there and, with Seberg, I was interested in those questions of voyeurism and the opportunity to study actors’ vulnerability and bravery — how they show their scars to the world. This movie reflects that and depicts the trauma of seeing your private space destroyed in the spotlight. There’s an element of performance to all the characters, whether it’s Jack [O’Connell] as the secret agent playing at being a superhero, or the activism Jean becomes a part of. It plays into my core philosophy that all the world’s a stage.
“Her symbiosis with the role and where she meets Jean in the middle can only come from the understanding she has for this kind of life.”
So, you’re familiar with acting and the processes and traumas that come with it, but were you familiar with Jean’s story before taking on the project?
I wasn’t familiar with Jean really, I knew a lot more about the Black Panthers. The film is not entirely about them, but it does look at her relationship with Hakim Jamal [Black Panther activist, played by Anthony Mackie]. Off the back of making Una, I was introduced to the team at Automatik — this exciting indie production house making interesting films like Teen Spirit (2018) and Destroyer (2018) — and they sent me a stack of stuff. I wanted to be part of this powerhouse making brave creative choices and the script for Seberg was the first to truly grab me. It was so many things — not just a light shone on this period of history, but it also had the pulse of a thriller and dug deep on her life as an actress, which really spoke to me.
Let’s talk about Kristen Stewart. How did you come to cast her in this role? How did you find working with one of today’s most in-demand performers?
It took a while to land on Kristen, but once we did it was like “Holy fuck, how could it have been anyone else!?” After travelling the world to festivals with her to promote the movie I have increasingly come to see that there is no other version of this movie with another actress. It’s just one of those rare things; her symbiosis with the role and where she meets Jean in the middle can only come from the understanding she has for this kind of life. She’s a contemporary style icon who is incapable of faking it and I think she and Jean are the same in that regard. From the moment I met her in a restaurant in LA there was no small talk for four solid hours.
“We are depicting a woman who goes through fire and comes out radically transformed. Both she and Jack’s character are people who want to find the hard-won truth and change in the act of doing so.”
The version of Jean you portray onscreen is of course not a carbon-copy of the actress herself. It feels more like an interpretation on the part of Kristen. So how did you conceive of the character “Jean” and her relationship to the real Seberg?
We decided quickly we were not interested in doing an impression of Jean, so we workshopped the script together quite a bit to shift things around and I would feed Kristen a lot of stuff to read, too, but she found plenty of things herself beyond the obvious material. Many of Jean’s lovers wrote these fictionalised works about her which gave this great, metaphysical impression of what others thought of her. There are only two moments in the film where we recreated things exactly based on archive footage, one of them being a clip we recreated from Saint Joan (1957), but otherwise it’s entirely interpretive. The performance had to be living, not robotic, to truly capture Jean. If you listen to old footage of her, she speaks with this affected mid-Atlantic accent that we didn’t use, but sometimes you’ve got to bend the truth to actually get to the truth.
What should people take away from your film, and from the life of the real Jean Seberg?
I can’t remember the exact quote, but there’s an interview somewhere where she says something like, “Between a career and the adventure of life, I choose the adventure of life.” There was just something in how Jean was wired where she was incredibly open and stood up for what she believed in that I think is very valuable. In terms of our movie, we are depicting a woman who goes through fire and comes out radically transformed. Both she and Jack’s character are people who want to find the hard-won truth and change in the act of doing so. Our world is treading on the brink and so I think, now more than ever, the grace of truth is a very urgent thing.
Seberg premiered as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas 10th January 2020