How 'Jackie' Recreates American History

Production designer Jean Rabasse describes the film's recognizable sets including the White House and Air Force One.
Stephanie Branchu

Jackie, which Fox Searchlight opened Friday in five theaters to $275,000 for a per-screen average of $55,000, follows first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, portrayed by Natalie Portman, in the days after her husband’s assassination and shows flashbacks to events such as her 1962 televised tour of the White House as well as that day in Dallas.

These settings and events were, of course, extensively covered by the media and are highly recognizable by the public, so the filmmakers knew their research had to be spot on.

The White House tour is reconstructed through a mix of the actual 1962 CBS clips and newly filmed footage (Jackie was photographed in 16mm film by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) with Portman.

Detailed sets included the Oval Office, the private apartments of the Kennedy's, the Lincoln Bedroom and the corridors of the White House’s second floor. “They are more than 165 ft. long, and almost took the whole 6,500 square feet of the Studio 5 of the Cite du Cinema near Paris,” says production designer Jean Rabasse (Oscar-nominated for 200's Vatel). “We also built the East Room, which has been modified to become the dining room. Specialists could see some differences with the reality, but they are extremely similar from the style of the era." 

“We looked for the White House’s furniture in France — a lot of the Empire Style furniture comes from France. And we rented in Los Angeles some typical American furniture that we could not find in Europe, and some ’60s stuff such as TVs, radios, reprints of John-John and Caroline’s books, CIA and FBI documents, files and paperwork from the office of Bobby Kennedy and a few books from Kennedy’s bedroom.”

Some of the work involved locating the companies that the first lady had contacted to print bedroom curtains. “T4Fabrics & Tillet, New York, reprinted for us the design of the bedroom that they still had in their archives,” Rabasse says. “We then had to rent some very high-quality props from some prestigious antique dealers such as Steilitz in Paris and Farley in London. Jackie used to work with two American decorators, Henry Francis Pont and Sister Parish as interior designers, but also with Stephane Boudin from the house Jansen in Paris. This house nicely lent us the real sample books used for the White House, which allowed us to reprint some fabrics.”

The architecture also came from documentation. “We even could get the 1952 renovation plans, which provided us some very precise details on molding, woodwork and the private apartment’s architecture.”

The historic events seen in the flashbacks were painstakingly recreated from archival information and photography, including the events aboard Air Force One. “To be able to show the opening of the door at Love Field, we had to buy a real Boeing 737 door, a rare piece found at an Irish antique shop," Rabasse says. “Every seat of the plane was recreated from original photos.  ... We had to shoot the mythical scene of Johnson’s oath taking, and the fame of this photo was such that we had to find every detail."

The funeral was similarly brought to the screen thanks to researching archives and photographs. “We found the details of the events such as who, when, how, running order of the vehicles, car models, colors, where were Caroline and John, which minister or president came, where they were during the procession, the church and Arlington cemetery," Rabasse recalls.

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