Seberg director Benedict Andrews on Kristen Stewart, the surveillance state, fake news and ’60s fashion

Benedict Andrews directs Kristen Stewart and Anthony Mackie in this political thriller and biopic, Seberg. Stewart is French New Wave actress and Breathless star Jean Seberg, as she returns to the United States in the late 1960s. Shortly after, Seberg’s support of the civil rights movement and relationship with Black Panther activist Hakim Jamal (Mackie) makes her a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Her life and career begin to crumble under the weight of the state’s overreaching surveillance and harassment, a history easily interpreted as a modern fable for our times.

Outtake sat down with Benedict Andrews to discuss his latest feature, which releases in cinemas January 10th.

© 2019 Amazon Studios

This is of course based on a true story. Did you have any knowledge of that history before they came to you with the screenplay?

Andrews: No, I didn’t.

Have you found it to be known at all?

It’s certainly not well-known. In my experience, people will know and adore Jean Seberg from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and some people will know of her other films, but they tend not to know her history. That said, there are some people interested in American politics and that period who will know a lot about it. There is a lot of material, once you start to dig. But I think there is a reason why this wasn’t known, and it’s because those in power so effectively destroyed her and destroyed her truth. There’s been rumours in some of her biographies of there being attempts to tell this part of her story before, and of the FBI leaning in to stop these stories being told. I don’t think that’s the climate we live in; I think there’s now permission to talk about this era of Hoover’s FBI because enough time has passed.

The interesting thing is that, as that time has passed, the story becomes more about now. The writers wrote this script ten years ago and there were several attempts to get it made. When I came on board along with a new bunch of producers, then it happened fairly quickly. But I also think there’s a ‘film gods’ thing happening, in that now feels like exactly the right time to tell her story. And Kristen is the only actress I can think of to play her, which I think is something people are also really responding to: what Kristen stands for, where she’s at as an actress, the transformation she’s going through, and all of that. The similarities are spooky. What I’m saying is that I believe some movies get made when they need to be made.

Didn’t it first screen on the 40th anniversary of her death?

Yes it was, while we were in Venice.

© 2019 Amazon Studios

Was that intentional?

It was a coincidence. I mean, we were shooting 50 years later, events from 1968-69, and so I was aware that the Los Angeles we were in was 50 years later and all of that… but it’s all the million coincidences that led that to happen… And it doesn’t look like it – it looks like a very lavish, very elegant film – but it’s made on an indie budget.

That might be surprising to some, because that limited budget doesn’t translate visually.

I don’t tend to say this, but it was a motherfucker to make. And to get that money, and to cross all those different worlds that the movie crosses with such authenticity… and we shot on film! And the costumes also look so authentic. So to get the kind of elegance and value that her life needed was difficult because we couldn’t go outside much. You know, Tarantino was shooting Once Upon A Time In Hollywood at the same time for 11 times the budget [$8 million versus $90 million], and he recreates the entirety of Sunset Boulevard! We can’t go out there but in a way – again with the film gods – the movie is about privacy and private space, so there’s a kind of special feeling that the movie gets by not being able to go outside. She leans out the window in New York and there’s the city, but we don’t have any establishing shots of New York.

It’s claustrophobic in that sense.

Yeah, and also true to her experience, right? Kristen said that to me the other day like, “I don’t even know which city I’m in.” The actress is moving from place to place, and often only seeing the inside of a hotel room because they can’t go outside so easily. So that had become true to her experience… I don’t know how we got on to that! But anyway, it was a fight to get the movie made and all those things then come to it being released at Venice Film Festival. I literally only knew it was on that exact anniversary because I was plugging back into the movie ahead of promoting it in Venice, and I was looking back through an old notebook and saw I’d drawn a cross with her birth and death day. Isn’t that crazy?

© 2019 Amazon Studios

Eerie, that’s for sure. You’ve mentioned Kristen Stewart’s many parallels with the subject. Were you picturing her when reading the script or did that come later?

No, it did come later. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the difficulty of casting an actress to play an actress… She came into the conversation relatively late, but from the moment we sat down with each other to talk about it and feel each other out, literally from the first word, we were already making the movie. And now I look back and think, there is no version of this movie without her. Even if you had a wonderful actress, technically brilliant, who could have been given the haircut and look like her, that movie is still just a movie. She [Kristen] taps into some other rhythm and frisson between her and Jean, where there’s a level of truth and understanding that only she could bring to it. It’s a chemical reaction.  

And do you think that’s because there are so many ways in which she is a modern equivalent of Jean? They are both vocal activists, they’re both young actresses who started off assigned to a certain persona which they then wanted to move away from…

It’s all of that. They’re also wildly different: Jean was a Protestant girl from the Midwest and Kristen grew up in the valley. But you have this ridiculous amount of parallels that you’ve touched on, plus being thrust into the public eye at a very tender age, being unfairly treated by domestic press, both of them unfairly savaged. And Kristen is the only American actress to have won the Cesar award while Jean Seberg became known as a French actress, so they had parallels in European cinema, while keeping star status in the States. Kristen certainly understands this idea of living in a glass house, and as a director it’s a gift for her to have an innate knowledge of that.

© 2019 Amazon Studios

And another thing is for her to play such a style icon; there’s maybe a couple of people in the world who are on Kristen’s level, who are avant-garde or experimental while also working with Chanel and major fashion houses. And Jean… we don’t portray Jean wearing denim jackets, looking like Jane Fonda or looking like a hippie. She’s still dressed in Chanel, that Left Bank culture and forward-thinking couture. All of that was groundwork and in the end, she’s just a fucking good actress, and a hungry actress, and a singular actress. And she has a similar thing to Jean in that she didn’t go to drama school in London – no disrespect to those who did – but neither of them had that protection of technique. Kristen of course has incredible technique that she learned being directed by David Fincher at age 11 and coming up on all those film sets but, like Jean, it’s a raw and instinctive kind of technique.

She certainly gave something spectacular. You’ve spoken of media treatment and living in a glass house – and in many ways, the period you focus on marks the beginning of the surveillance state as we know it. What commentary is the film making in today’s socio-political climate?

We get very close to both sides of a surveillance operation during this great shift in American history. It’s like you were watching the Big Bang of it, the beginning of the modern state and modern culture. Now, we all carry those surveillance mechanisms around and we are completely complicit in our loss of privacy… The film is a warning or reminder of what happens when this machinery is turned against a dissident or activist, by a very reactionary, conservative and racist government machinery. Today, that’s not a fairytale or something out of a quaint past; it’s the daily reality of governments that use racism to split and gain voters as part of their warfare against truth. And we watch Jean caught in the crossfire of that war waged by White America on Black America. That manufacture of fake news, not the journalists’ version of fake news, but by the state who are manipulating truth and weaponizing lies. That’s still what’s going on. And with Jean in that conference standing up to the lies, and Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell)’s gesture of coming to her and becoming a whistleblower, those both present as non-didactic, non-dogmatic instances of people valuing truth. That’s really urgent for the culture we live in now. It’s incredible the parallels between a burning 1968 and a tumultuous 2019.

Seberg is out in cinemas January 10th.

Laura Potier

Co-founder and editor of Outtake, feel free to drop me a line with any questions or article pitches at laura@outtakemag.co.uk