Interview: Director Benedict Andrews talks Seberg, Kristen Stewart and Amazon Studios
Reading time: 9 mins
This weekend sees the release of a conspiracy thriller, a biopic and a civil rights drama all wrapped into one film: Seberg, a portrait of Jean Seberg at the height of her career in the late 1960s. Following the French New Wave darling and Breathess star when she become involved both politically and romantically with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie).
That involvement makes her a target of Hoover’s FBI, and agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is tasked by superior Carl (Vince Vaughn) with capturing her every move with the aim of gathering information and ultimately discrediting the Black Power movement. The result is a tense, paranoid portrait of resilience, surveillance, celebrity and privacy, tapping into concerns that feel all too topical in our digital age.
If that sounds like a lot to wrestle into one movie, you’re not wrong. We catch up with director Benedict Andrews to talk putting together the gripping, star-powered slice of social history.
Andrews is a theatre director by trade and has a knack for creating claustrophobic, intense environments for characters to squirm in. In A Streetcar Named Desire at London’s Young Vic, he framed Gillian Anderson’s Blanche DeBois in a transparent box that spun slowly, dizzingly on the spot, inviting us to gaze through that glass house to watch her fall apart.
“Your job involves that kind of peering into people’s lives, inviting the audience to come and gather and watch into private lives,” he enthuses. “Hopefully, for better reasons than the FBI.”
A movie honed in on someone being watched and the person watching them, then, feels like a natural fit for the storyteller.
“I feel a really strong and natural connection to that… two people locked into something they keep hidden from other people. The dance between Jean and Jack is this almost secret dance that others don’t know about that separates them from other people.”
“So few people know what happened to Jean in this period…”
That wasn’t what first attracted him to the material, though, with the script grabbing his attention on a flight from LA, after his previous film Una, back to his home country of Australia.
“It’s very rare when a script connects, you know, it’s a rare moment that’s like falling in love,” he reflects. “I remember the exact instant, I was flying back to Australia and into the first couple of hours of that long haul, I turned to my partner and said this was a movie I wanted to make.”
The hook? Jean Seberg.
“I’d only know her as the actress from Breathless – that really touched me when I saw it as a teenager in my French class at school – and over time, I came to discover this was so many peoples experiences when showing Seberg at festivals,” he explains. “So many people know that flickering image of her, and that kind of life force she brought to the screen, and film lovers carried that around in their imagination, so few people know what happened to her in this period. It’s such a revelation to put these things together, this icon and her political engagement and activism.”
The result is both a conventional biopic and a 1970s-style thriller – “Obviously, in our case, The Conversation, which we reference a couple of times” – but Seberg succeeds by rooting everything in the relationship between Jean and Jack. Bringing them together, though, was no easy task.
“That was really hard in the edit,” he admits. “Any time you’re not showing… it’s aways tricky to get the rhythm of those two strands. It was good on the page, but shooting it and getting it in the edit was a whole other thing. Finding the music and texture of that was very tricky. That was a lot to find, to distil.”
“The whole thing becomes about the relationship between Jean and Jack”
“We took out quite a bit and shook up the structure of the first half,” he continues, “and there were a few kew scenes we lost. The aim was to make sure that every beat was about the Jack and Jean relationship, so even when you’re at the dinner party in Carl’s house, which is a great standalone scene that provides a glimpse of the war going on in the family – the kind of right-wing patriarchy losing control of his own family while trying to control everyone else’s lives… At the end, Carl teases his daughter about her haircut looking like Jean’s and, suddenly, the whole thing becomes about the relationship between Jean and Jack. That was the goal, to keep it focused on their bond.”
That requires someone particularly engaging on the other side of the surveillance line, and Jack O’Connell doesn’t disappoint. Starring in Andrews’ West End production of Cat on a Hit Tin Roof, his brooding intensity needed no introduction to the director.
“It’s a very beautiful, subtle performance by Jack,” says Benedict. “There’s such a coiled aggression inside him, we know that from his performances, but along comes this gradual shift of the dial to genuine contrition. It’s almost speechless when that happens and that unfolding of sensitivity and the way that he makes himself vulnerable with his wife… I love how Jack thought all of that out “He was, and still is, one of my favourite young actors. I like the young Steve McQueen quality he has.”
O’Connell is the tip of an impressively star-studded iceberg, with Vince Vaughn, Anthony Mackie and Zazie Beetz all impressing.
“Understandably, most of my conversations are about Kristen and Jean,” remarks Benedict. “I understand and welcome that, but every now and then I step back and remember how deep this cast goes! It was a joy even in those smaller roles. It becomes so rounded and you feel you’re seeing different sides to all of these characters. We can’t go wide and go out in the streets in terms of the scope of the movie, but in doing that, it becomes a portrait of this turbulent moment and bit of history.”
“Like Kristen, Jean had this raw, distinctive quality”
There is no doubt, though, that all these stars are in orbit around Stewart. While a few years ago, the Twilight and Panic Room star might have been thought of as a reserved presence, specialising in internal conflict bubbling under the surface, Seberg comes along at a time when Stewart has impressed in Charlie’s Angels, taking on the role of loud, bright comic relief.
“I think there’s a huge transformation going on with her, something that she’s been quite open about, a kind of beautiful openness and, I think, a combination of of all the great choices she’s been making in her life and in her work,” observes Benedict.
The result is a surprisingly apt and simultaneously transformative performance that sees Stewart radiate old-school movie-star charisma effortlessly.
“I was very curious what would happen with Jean. She had this huge, incandescent smile and openness and, like Kristen, she had this raw, distinctive quality. I think that’s something they both share, these kind of unstudied, truthful, even reckless moments in their performances. That was the important thing to me. There’s nothing worse in a movie that when you have an actor impersonating actor. That was the first thing: how do you get to the point where Jean becomes a living character?”
“All of the haircut and that was really easy with Kristen, and then, like Jean, she’s a style icon in her own right and brings that deep understanding to playing another style icon,” he continues. “Then you have someone who, like Jean, was thrust into the public spotlight at a young age with such a glare of public attention. They both found a way out of that through an engagement with French cinema.”
“There’s no version of this movie without Kristen’s performance”
When the pair first met for a casual dinner to talk about the project, Benedict found themselves diving straight into the character in detail.
“There was no small talk from us, we’d already started to work,” he recalls. “We were rolling up our sleeves and digging into the material. I genuinely believe now that movies find the time when they want to be made, and there have been attempts to make this movie and other versions of this movie over the decades, but there are all sorts of reasons, socially and politically, why Jean’s story pertains so relevantly to us in 2020. So many things in her story feel like they have a new urgency. There’s no version of this movie without Kristen’s performance – she’s almost born to play Jean in this moment.”
Another key force in the movie coming together was Amazon Studios, which snapped up the rights in February 2019, after production had wrapped the previous summer. What was it like collaborating with the online giant?
“Working with Ted Hope and his team was great,” says Benedict. “Ted is the one who defines American indie cinema and is the machine in all of that and he absolutely believes in cinema, and he was a great enabler.”
“What streaming gives us in terms of access is liberating”
Where does that leave Benedict on the relationship between cinema and streaming in an age where the the two are often perceived as opposites?
“I have this kind of two-sided thing,” he muses. “On the one hand, what all the streaming possibilities give us in terms of access is extremely almost liberating. When I grew up, if I wanted to see an Antonioni movie, there would be one VHS rental store I would have to go to. So the idea that the wealth of world cinema, both history and present, is available is liberating, and what that sort of literacy could do for a modern generation of filmmakers I find really exciting. On the other side, I am sometimes terrified that we would lose cinema itself, that we would lose watching movies on a big screen together. That is kind of terrifying and heartbreaking and intolerable. I think a way will be found between those two things, whether that’s the idea that Netflix and Amazon will buy movie theatres or whether that’s something like Curzon Cinemas in the UK becoming even more boutique experiences, I’m not sure.”