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Director Pablo Larraín details the historical truths in his Princess Diana fable, explains the film’s handling of sensitive elements — such as Diana’s eating disorder and relationship with her sons — and shares the moment on set when Kristen Stewart “lost it” in a good way.

Mark Olsen: Hello. I’m Mark Olsen.

Yvonne Villarreal: And I’m Yvonne Villarreal. You’re listening to “The Envelope,” the L.A. Times podcast where we go behind the scenes with your favorite stars from TV and film.


Olsen: Today’s guest is Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who you may know from his previous films such as “Jackie” or “No.” His latest film, “Spencer,” stars Kristen Stewart as the late Princess Diana — and it’s definitely a very unique take on her story.

Villarreal: And that is probably hard to do because, for better or worse, Princess Diana has been inescapable these days. There’s been a few depictions of her recently: “The Crown,” “Diana: The Musical,” I’ve heard about a documentary at Sundance. What sets this project apart?

Olsen: Well, first of all, the film really only spans three days in Diana’s life, just before she decides to leave the royal family. And then in terms of tone — well, let’s just say it’s more similar to “The Shining” than it is to “Cinderella.”

[Clip from “Spencer”: Diana: I want Maggie back. Charles: Someone heard Maggie saying she thinks you’re cracking up. Diana: What? Charles: Yes, everyone here hears everything.]

Olsen: And the last important thing to know is that while the filmmakers do draw on true events, the story is almost entirely fictional. In fact, “Spencer” opens with a title card that declares it “a fable based from a true tragedy.”

Pablo Larraín: Well, there’s something that we unfortunately know, which is the tragedy.

[Archival news clips: Reporter 1: Diana, Princess of Wales, died in the car crash that also killed her companion millionaire Dodi Fayed. They were riding in a Mercedes. Reporter 2: They were riding in a narrow tunnel, pursued by at least five photographers on motorcycles. The driver lost control. Reporter 3: The driver of the car that crashed and killed Princess Diana and her boyfriend had an illegal level of alcohol in his bloodstream.]

Larraín: We also have those things — there are probably many — that we don’t know. Once those doors are locked, we have no idea what happened inside. And that is what we do. We work around fiction. And I think using the word “fable,” it just makes us honest with the audience and also makes us free with any other kind of perception that this is a work of fiction. And believe me, after very long research and after making this movie, I don’t really know who she was.


Olsen: And I’ve heard you say that before, that at the end of making this film, you still don’t feel like you know her or understand her really any more than you did when you started. Is that surprising to you? To me, it’s surprising to hear you say that.

Larraín: It is surprising, and it’s interesting because when you start, you have the desire to know that person better. And then you do get to know a lot more things that you didn’t know. We do have a lot of specific information. Steve Knight, our writer, had a lot of research and information and talked to people that were near her during those years in the family, and they said all of the things that we can relate to. But from the information that we have around to really conclude who she was? I don’t think so. So in a way, I think the biopic as a concept is a little bit of a fantasy. I don’t think you can actually capture someone in a film. But ultimately, she was someone that was very human, and that is where we wanted to connect with.

Olsen: And was there anything that you felt strongly that had to be in the movie? Like, certain factual things or things that you maybe felt you knew about Diana that you wanted to be sure you got in the movie?

Larraín: I was very curious to try to understand her relationship with her kids. Diana was able to be supported by them, not only support them. She was able to understand that she could be who she wants to be thanks to those kids too. And I also felt that it was important to have the audience really get to know her relationship with the people that were not in the family, the staff members. That’s where we get to see her interacting so intimately with Maggie, which is the dresser that is played by the wonderful Sally Hawkins.

[Clip from “Spencer”: Maggie: They asked me to suggest that you see a doctor.]

Larraín: And then, of course, with Darren the chef, which is Sean Harris in the film.

[Clip from “Spencer”: Darren: Stories of ghosts, cutting off of heads, and any odd thing that you might say, they get repeated here.]

Larraín: She had a very natural and intimate approach to the people that worked for the family. And that’s probably another angle of her personality that we wanted to explore, to know: Why was she so interested in talking and being so natural with people that were not in the family? There’s something there, I think. She was looking for something. She was looking for this idea of normality, of regularity.

Olsen: As you mentioned, for you this movie really became a story of identity and in motherhood, and the relationship between Diana and her sons, William and Harry, it really is the heart and the light of the movie. Can you talk a little bit more about how that came to kind of be the focus?


Larraín: In my case, in the early ’90s , when the movie set, I was the same age as those kids, kind of. I’m a little bit older than them, but I am the same generation. So, in an awkward way, I saw myself reflected in them, as a son too. And the fact probably that I saw my own mother being so interested in Diana for so many years made me think about my own mother. And I think that could happen to a lot of people, that you could see yourself reflected on people that are very different from you. And that scene with the candlelight, when they played this army game —

[Clip from “Spencer”: William: Major William to Soldier Diana, what’s your favorite color? Diana: Sir, pink. William: Favorite food? Diana: Pink hippopotamus cake.]

Larraín: When we shot that, I understood how relevant those kids were for Diana, and how sad and moving her figure should be for them nowadays. The interaction between Diana and those kids became a space of protection for her, a space of truth, a space of love and a space of family.

[Clip from “Spencer”: William: Major William to Soldier Diana. Tell the Major what’s happened to make you so sad. Diana: Sir. I don’t know what you mean, sir. William: Tell the truth, soldier. Diana: The past, sir. William: I think it’s the present.]

Larraín: I think she understood that nothing was going to change in the relationship with those boys if she were to leave the family as she did. So in a way, I think that those kids made her understand that she could have her own life unrelated to the royal family, and she did it. So I think there is a very beautiful connection.

She is someone that, by the end, understands who she wants to be, understands that her identity really is around herself and no one else. So, yeah, I think there is some certain level of optimism that I have to admit I have never worked with something like that before. I’m usually working in a darker space, if you want to say, and I found myself filming a movie that has the main characters with her two children singing by the end.

Olsen: That moment is so beautiful. You get this sense of the reclamation of her identity for herself, that she’s kind of coming back into her own as who she wants to be and who she can be as she’s singing that song with the boys. And then they go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I don’t know how to really put it, but to me, it’s such a curious thing. I mean, there’s some just odd juxtaposition of the Princess of Wales at KFC. What was it that you liked about ending on that moment and having them go from these fancy meals at the palace to happily eating fast food?

Larraín: Well, I think there’s a desire in people that are extremely well-known, people that are in magazines or televisions or documentaries. They all want to have a slice of normality. They all want to go to a fast food restaurant without being recognized. They want to have a simple, regular life. I think that ending means that. They choose to eat something simple with their hands, something that everyone could have access to. And I think that’s what it is, the desire to be normal. So it kind of makes sense. And then later someone sent me a picture of Prince William looking through the glass at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. It was a funny connection.


Olsen: And is there a part of you that would want the real-life, the adult William and Harry to see the movie? And if they did, what would you hope they take away from it?

Larraín: I don’t know. I hope they see our intentions, and I hope they understand that we care a lot about Diana’s figure, and I hope they connect with the film as we do.

Director Pablo Larraín
(Maria Veronica San Martin)

Olsen: Well, I have to be sure to ask you just about working with Kristen Stewart, I mean, it really is such a brilliant performance by her. It’s one of those things where from the perspective of now, having seen the film, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role. But I think a lot of people were surprised by her casting in the first place. What was it that drew you to casting her in the role?

Larraín: Well, I guess first of all, admiration for her work and for who she is. I saw a number of films. There’s a movie called “Personal Shopper” that she did with Olivier Assayas, and in that film, there’s no way you could actually understand her really well. There’s an element of magnetism and some strange idea of mystery that she carries. And I felt that the only way to properly portray this version of Diana is through all the things that you don’t give away. So I think Kristen is someone that in the shoes of this character could say what she’s feeling, could express what she wanted, could verbally and physically mention many things that she was going through, but at the end, you don’t really know what she’s feeling. She can create that idea of trying to capture something that you would never be able to capture. And that interaction, I think, is very interesting.

[Clip from “Spencer”: Diana: It doesn’t fit. Maggie: Have you tried it on? Diana: With my mood. It doesn’t fit with my mood. It should be black. Black to contrast the pearls.]

Larraín: When we go into the more practical things that she had to go through — and it was really her job, which is basically the accent and on how to mimic certain things of the physicality of Diana — I was very surprised how fast she got it. And Diana’s bodyguard saw the movie, and he said that Kristen was really, really close to her. That’s a very good source. That guy knows and knew her and knows more than anyone. And that was something that is completely credit to Kristen.


Olsen: A number of reviews, a lot of the writing about the film has mentioned the real sensitivity with which you depict Diana’s eating disorder. How did you all come to navigate how to depict her bulimia as part of the character?

Larraín: It was written like that. It was written when she was going through those problems and it was very specific. So we had a bathroom, and I remember that I was operating the camera and Kristen comes in, and before I even say anything, she said to me, “Let me do this. Let me try this.” And I’m like, “OK, I’m going to be here.” And then we shot it.

[Clip from “Spencer”: Maria: Ma’am? It’s dessert. They’re waiting for you. Diana: Yes, I know.]

Larraín: You know, what I think is more interesting than anything, in my perception, is not only when she has the physical problem, the bulimia, the result. We all know what that is. But it’s really the aftermath: how she feels after it, how she touches her forehead, how she’s sweating this cold sweat. What is the emotion? What is the type of repression that she’s expressing? We know that bulimia and any eating disorder is the consequence of psychological distress, and that’s something that Diana herself expressed many times over in her life, how bulimia became an externalization, a physical problem, due to her problems with the family. And then you realize that all this fantasy is really a very heavy giant that is stepping on her shoulders, and that the idea of royalty and the idea of this fairy tale that we might believe is going on there is really a tale of panic and pain. The humanity and the fragility that Kristen had when we did that, it was very relevant too because she lost it there in a good way as an actress, and it was just beautiful to see.

Olsen: One thing that I think really does set “Spencer” apart is the fact that it plays so much like a horror movie. I mean, many people in writing about the movie have compared it to “The Shining,” with these long shots of Kristen Stewart as Diana in these hallways, and some of the characters may or may not be ghosts. Where did that feeling, that sense of growing dread, come from? Does it feel like a horror film to you?

Larraín: Well, I understand it, and I think that when we communicate things, we need to put the things in boxes and we need to describe them in a way that we could all understand it, and then the horror idea comes up. I get it. I do think that when you put the perspective of a film in someone’s point of view so closely, and then you start seeing the things that that person can see, you could get into the space of horror. But I think that we all go through those things every day. If I were able to describe what you see or any of us see every moment when we see our reflection in the mirror or in a glass or we have a memory because we saw a picture in our phone and then those things kind of have a state of mind of panic. And everything you see is an extension of Diana’s psychological perception. The use of mirrors, the use of rugs, carpets, colors, the logic of the hallways, the difference in between upstairs and downstairs, the third floor, the doors, the gates, the Scarecrow, the jackets. It’s a number of things. And, of course, if you have Jonny Greenwood helping you on it, that could go into a place where some horror can be described, and I think was very particular. That state of panic comes from the use of jazz, which is very unique. Jazz can be the most free of the forms of music. But at the same time, it can be the most complicated one. I think that is an interesting balance, I believe.

Olsen: There are so many parallels between “Spencer” and your 2016 film “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman that follows Jacqueline Kennedy over several days following the assassination of JFK.


[Clip from “Jackie”: Valenti: The attorney general relayed to me your desire for a more modest ceremony. Jackie: I’ve changed my mind. Valenti: I’m sorry? Jackie: I said I’ve changed my mind. We will have a procession, and I will walk to the cathedral with the casket.]

Olsen: Do you feel like you have a special interest in this idea of hyper specific flashpoint moments in history? Like, I guess I’m wondering: As much as people like me want to make connections between the two films, what for you are the connections between the two films?

Larraín: Well, there are many, but I have to say the first thing is that I never planned it. I was invited by Darren Aronofsky to do “Jackie.” And then we got in, and then Natalie accepted and did a beautiful, beautiful job. I think that there are many connections between them and many things that are very different. I think they were both women that shaped the second half of the 20th century, women that were linked to powerful families. They were married to powerful men, but they were women that were able to find their own path in that difficult environment. That is something that I think is very interesting and beautiful to see and to put on film. They were used and manipulated by media, but they also knew how to deal with them somehow. But at the same time, they’re very different. I think “Jackie” is a movie more about legacy and memory, and I think “Spencer” is more about motherhood and identity. I looked up and I tried to see if they ever met, and I don’t think they met. I don’t think Jackie and Diana were ever together, but that’s another movie which could be very interesting, by the way. You know, they were aware of each other.

Olsen: It’s funny, I’ve heard so many people ask you what sort of the next public woman you wanted to make a movie about would be, and I hadn’t even thought of the idea that you do a sort of a Jackie and Diana have lunch together movie. That in itself is like a fascinating idea.

Larraín: But that would be entirely fiction. I don’t think they ever met.

Olsen: I want to take just a couple of minutes to step back a little bit to talk about your interest in filmmaking. You grew up in Santiago, Chile, during the time of the Pinochet regime, and I’ve heard you talk before about how that was a difficult time for artists. Growing up in that environment, what drew you to filmmaking in the first place?

Larraín: I will say that I grew up in a very privileged context, so I wasn’t really going through any kind of trouble as I grew up. But I think that it was still photography that drew me to filmmaking, then certain movies that just affected me strongly as I grew up, movies that belonged to more sort of a pop culture world, that made me aware of cinema and the use of time. You know, how can you work around time? And, I don’t know — that cinema can be the most interesting travel time machine ever built and made by culture. So that stayed with me. And literature too. I think Latin American poetry and fiction helped me to find a space that can, hopefully, connect in other cultures like yours and maybe in other countries.

Olsen: But your filmmaking has such a strong relationship to the idea of power and how power exerts itself and influences itself on people’s lives. And I can’t help but wonder if that in some ways is a reflection of what you saw when you were growing up.


Larraín: It’s possible. I’m not sure how it affected me, but it’s possible. I think that power can seduce anyone and create a distortion, and sometimes that distortion can have consequences on very regular people like in movies that I made like “Tony Manero” or “Post Mortem” or “No.” Or it can be affecting people like Jacqueline Kennedy or Diana. I think power is a wonderful description of how fragile we are as humankind, and I think that that brings interesting dramatic problems, and I’m there to film them as I can, I guess.

Olsen: You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think both your parents held positions in the government there in Chile. And again, I can’t help but wonder how that impacted the way you approach politics in your work or if it’s even impacted your own personal politics.

Larraín: Yeah, my father’s been a politician for many years, but it’s on the other side of my political ideas. So it’s been a whole thing all over my life, but it’s hard for me to look back and be able to define how exactly it had an impact on me. But for sure it had, and it still has. We had elections in my country, and I’m very excited and happy because we elected a 35-year-old man, a very young guy from the left, who is there to hopefully change some things around equality that we really need to change our society. And I was very happy to see him be elected then. Those are the things that I care [about]. I want to be aware of where I’m standing, and I want to be part of the process of my own country and society.

Olsen: In the course of your career, do you feel like representation of Latin American culture has improved in Hollywood? Do you feel more accepted when you’re trying to get projects going than you were maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago?

Larraín: I think so. I think it’s better. But I think it’s far from being in the right spot yet. I have lived the paradox of making movies in Spanish and in English and how quickly those that are in English get massive distribution and they immediately create a huge amount of interest in distributors, in the press. And I think that that’s not great. I wish we would be in a situation where films can be supported by their ideas and not just the language or the cultural elements that they’re describing. And I think, you know, people like Alfonso Cuarón or Pedro Almodóvar, in our language, have really made it possible for a lot of people. And people like Bong Joon Ho. When “Parasite” won best picture, I was like, “Oh, it finally happened.”

[Archival clip from the 92nd Oscars ceremony: Jane Fonda: And the Oscar goes to …”Parasite”!]

Larraín: It was a huge moment for the history of cinema, not only because the movie is wonderful, but also because it was able to connect so many people in a Korean movie. And so I’m planning to keep working in my language and in my country, in my society. But again, it’s a cultural thing. The more open we are to different narratives, different people and faces, colors, voices, tone, accents and languages, the more interesting our culture would be. I think it’s very simple.


The Team

The Envelope podcast is hosted by Mark Olsen and Yvonne Villarreal; produced by Heba Elorbany and Asal Ehsanipour; edited by Heba Elorbany and Jazmín Aguilera; engineering and theme music by Mike Heflin; audience strategy by Samantha Melbourneweaver, Amy Wong, Gabby Fernandez and Christina Schoellkopf; marketing by Richard Hernandez, Tova Weinstock, Patricia Gardiner, Brandon Sides and Dylan Harris. Special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Matt Brennan, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe, Glenn Whipp and Daniel Gaines.