Australian theatre and film director Benedict Andrews has made a name for himself for creating intensely claustrophobic environments for his characters on stage, whether it be framing Gillian Anderson’s Blanche DuBois in a transparent spinning box in A Streetcar Named Desire, or now filming the walls enclose around Kristen Stewart’s Jean Seberg in his second feature film, Seberg. Set against the backdrop of the US civil rights movements of the late 1960s, the film is both a biopic and a conspiracy thriller wrapped into one film.
What was it about the story of Jean Seberg that appealed to you?
It’s the nexus she had between her artistic life, her political life and her romantic life, and all that in this powder keg moment of the late ’60s… The way these things overlap into a surveillance thriller of sorts, with a violation and weaponisation of a private space, was interesting to me. Ultimately, it’s the story of a breakdown, the breakdown of a person, and a great actor has to expose the secret stuff that we keep hidden – they have put it all on the line and we go to the cinema to watch and devour that.
Why did you cast Kristen Stewart to play Seberg?
There’s always the trap of doing an impression of someone, and now that I look back, I can think of some fine actresses who could have maybe had the look, but I can’t imagine any version of the film without Kristen Stewart. She shares a similar unpredictability and impulsive quality with Jean, who people tend to know as more of an icon than as an actress. That can also be a trap. Kristen understood that and has also experienced life in the public spotlight from a very young age, much like Jean.
Jean Seberg is such a multifaceted figure, someone who thrives on contradiction. There are many accounts on her life and they all seem to contradict themselves. How much of this biopic is actually based on verified facts? What’s speculative truth?
This segment of her life created its fair share of metafictions as well. There’s her husband, Romain Gary’s book White Dog, and Carlos Fuentes’ Diana The Goddess Who Hunts Alone. There are texts that cannibalise her life, particularly around this period, and the biographies contradict each other. The film is full of speculative truths. We’re not trying to tell the whole story or the definitive story – we’re more interested in the emotional truth of a time in her life she called a “nightmare”. I’m attracted to the stories of people, tragic figures who pass through the fire.
There’s also some tragic irony about the camera being turned against the actor.
That was certainly an interest to me how the same tool that an actor uses and that is used to make cinema, can be turned. You have this parallel filmmaking being made by the FBI, who go through archives, do their research, write fake narratives but ultimately use the same tools of cinema.
How much artistic licence did you take with the FBI surveillance we see in the film?
We have the facts of the documents she received and certain information has come to light also about the tactics used by COINTELPRO [a series of covert projects conducted by the FBI aimed at surveilling and discrediting American political organisations] against activists and the way they spread hatred and misinformation. We’ve weaved in things we found in various biographies and embroidered upon facts, to best focus on an emotional truth.
How do you feel about the fact that the timely nature of the film might overshadow some other aspects of the film?
I’m happy that it’s timely and it became even more so while doing it. It’s a deliberately political film in that it shows an institution aiming itself against an individual who is a part of a movement for change, and I like to do things that touch a nerve. I never just wanted to make a nostalgic 60s trip, and I like the way that this story speaks to the turbulence of the times we live in and the emergency of now. We live in a surveillance state, so what you see in an analogue, DNA form in the movie has grown up to be the Frankenstein’s monster of surveillance that we live in.