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‘Jackie’ production designer creates an American icon in Paris

Production designer Jean Rabasse on the set of “Jackie.”
Production designer Jean Rabasse, center, talks with director Pablo Larraín, far right, and other collaborators on the White House interior set for “Jackie.”
(Fox Searchlight)

Paris production designer Jean Rabasse has never been inside the real White House, but he’s evoked its history for the new film “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman, nonetheless. 

“I really wanted to be sure that I could face American people and say, ‘This is the American White House in 1963,’ ” he said. “We worked on a lot of details, but it was important to feel that we were very realistic.”

During his career, Rabasse has created both realistic and surrealistic worlds. A graduate of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris, Rabasse gained worldwide recognition when he designed the sets for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Albertville, France, in 1992. Soon after, he served as production designer on the 1995 cult classic “The City of Lost Children,” a steampunk fairy tale directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Rabasse earned an Oscar nomination for evoking 17th century France for 2000’s “Vatel,” and has designed sets for everything from film to opera to Cirque du Soleil. “What I like doing,” he said, “is to go to a new universe.”

“Jackie” follows First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, played by Natalie Portman, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
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What inspired you to work on “Jackie”?

It was totally different for a French guy [to be] doing the White House and the JFK funeral. It was actually amazingly difficult. We had to go very quickly in our research and we found so beautiful the presentations in the American [History] museum, the White House Museum, the JFK Museum. Even from Paris, you have access to a lot of photography and blueprints. 

So you built the 1963 White House in Paris?

Yes, it was at Luc Besson’s new studio. It’s called the Cité du Cinéma near Paris in Saint-Denis. The funny thing about the White House and [First Lady] Jackie [Kennedy] was that Jackie had an American interior architect-designer, but also a French decorator. Jansen is a French company in Paris, so part of the decoration, the fabric, the furniture at the White House came from the French company. So, for example, the curtains in JFK and Jackie’s bedroom comes from Paris, and we could re-create those curtains. 

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What went into reproducing the CBS special “A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy”?

We had a lot of discussion about the VFX. Do we want to put the image of Natalie Portman inside the real tour, or are we shooting our own CBS tour? So the final decision was a mix of different technology. And the journalist is the real one, and part of the set is real. So it meant we had to be absolutely exact with the very accurate model of the house, the chandelier. Everything had to be exactly the same to be sure that when Jackie is walking through the White House, you don’t see the difference between the real CBS tour and our CBS tour.

Did you use any original artifacts?

No, everything is a reproduction. We added all the very precise details about the desk of JFK, and we reproduced everything, even the model of the boat. We even re-created the newspapers to be sure that we were close to what Jackie used to read. We really tried to create something very intimate with “Jackie.” [Director] Pablo Larraín shot Natalie Portman very close up; he did the same with the props. It was important. It says a lot about that woman. And so we tried to make the emotion stronger through those details. 

Were you going for total historical accuracy?

Talking with Pablo, it was clear that he wanted not to make a realistic reconstruction, but to give the spirit of that period, of the ’60s, and the specific moment of the White House with Jackie. 

How did you capture that?

It was very important with Pablo to define the palette of color. We wanted a lot of white and pale color for the walls, the carpets, things like that. And for details of furniture and costumes, we wanted very bright color. So we did a very specific color palette.

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What was the most rewarding part?

The director is Chilean; the director of photography, costume designer, production designer are French. So it’s a big challenge for us. And to see that Americans recognize that Jackie, that White House, for us, it’s a beautiful response. 

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