“I’m fascinated by the possibility of creating a movie that has a simple structure,” explains director Pablo Larraín. “It starts with an emotional crisis that develops into something that could be related to mental health—and how reality can be a ghost—and then it evolves into a healing process. We play with the tool of cinema, but most importantly we are inside of her.”
The Chilean filmmaker is describing Jackie, his portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the wake of her husband’s assassination, and now Spencer, which follows Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) over the course of three fateful days—Christmas Eve to Boxing Day—at Sandringham, the Queen’s royal estate, as she builds up the courage to put Prince Charles and the rest of the suffocating British royal family in her rearview mirror.
Both Jackie and Spencer toe the line between high art and camp, absurdism and intimacy, melodrama and horror, with the latter owing a considerable debt to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, a film that Larraín and Stewart discussed a lot during the course of shooting.
“It’s a portrait of a woman that’s completely indescribable, and it’s something that’s really beautiful,” says Larraín. “There have been attempts to try to describe Princess Diana, but she’s indescribable, so it becomes a cinematic exercise that is fascinating.”
He pauses. “I’m curious to try to understand the magnetism that Diana had, and why so many people around the world were so interested in her life. As a woman born privileged who was close to the royals all her life— initially you could think it’s very far from people’s reality. But there’s something in her where I thought I was going to discover the mystery. But it’s not possible. After years of research, I still don’t really know who she was. It’s interesting, and speaks to the internal world that she had, which was so powerful.”
Much of Spencer’s success hinges on the performance of Stewart, who not only nails Diana’s speech and mannerisms but her unique cocktail of fragility and quiet strength.
“She can be very, very strong and very fragile, and what is interesting is that the reasons why she’s strong or fragile are really hard to determine—and once you start to feel that you have an immense character with an immense actress,” offers Larraín. “It’s more volatile and you don’t know how she’s going to behave.”
There is also the meta commentary of casting Stewart, an actress who was pilloried by the press and public at the age of 22 for the crime of being manipulated by a much older man, as Diana. Larraín is adamant that he “didn’t consider the parallels of both lives because they’re very different,” and that he cast Stewart because she is possessed of a “mysterious” quality that he feels Diana also had.
While Larraín’s first six films, including the critically acclaimed Tony Manero and No, centered on male protagonists, his last four directorial efforts, Jackie, Ema, the Apple TV+ series Lisey’s Story, and Spencer, have followed women held hostage by the patriarchal order who try to upend it.
“After Jackie, I guess I just stayed there for reasons that are very hard to explain. It just feels right,” he says. “It’s been a good process because you understand your own limitations as a filmmaker and as a man, in terms of what you can see and cannot see, so what you can do is to support those things that are unknown for you in the actress playing the role. In a film like this, I would listen a lot and consider what they’re saying to be extremely relevant because I cannot go there.”
Stewart, for her part, agrees that it was a highly collaborative process—one where she felt heard in a way that she never had before.
“He had the capacity to let everyone in on his journey, vet and field ideas, and let the best ones rise to the top,” Stewart tells me. “I’ve worked with directors that just have more anxiety or have a firmer hand, and I think the way that he carves out pathways and the way that he designates the trip—figures out the route and allows for people to stumble across that route—is very confident, and most people don’t have the balls to commit to that.”
In addition to Stewart’s performance, Larraín created what he calls “a very fragmented idea of reality” by eschewing mirrors and reflective surfaces, keeping every shot in front of us. He also credits Claire Mathon’s roaming camera and Johnny Greenwood’s score, a “a combination of the baroque and jazz which creates a friction with the image,” for adding additional layers to his studied compositions.
Then there’s The Crown of it all. As Larraín tells it, the fourth season of the hit Netflix series—focused in part on Emma Corrin’s Diana and her marital struggles with Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles—arrived on the streamer while they were in the middle of prepping Spencer, but didn’t have much influence over the production.
“It’s super good. I’ve seen The Crown from the beginning,” Larraín says. “The craft in it is really special and speaks to an audiovisual process that the British have that’s really well-made. I think Emma Corrin did a great job, but we are inside only Diana’s perspective and theirs is a much larger scope. Ours is entirely different, with different rules, and that gave us the space to coexist. I don’t see any friction between what we did and what they do, and I will certainly be looking at the next season with my daughter, who loves the show.”
He also hasn’t heard any pushback from the British royal family—yet.
“None that I know of,” he maintains. “I think they read the script and I don’t think they would ever do it. If they get to see the movie, maybe they’d see that our motivations were admiration and to try to put a human perspective on someone.”
Larraín began his career with a trio of films—Tony Manero, Post Mortem, and No—exposing the horrors of the Pinochet regime in his native Chile. With Jackie and Spencer, he’s still exploring and challenging power structures—albeit through a different lens.
“Someone that is trapped in the wheels of power, history, and tradition, and they’re supposed to accomplish a role in that environment of powerful families and powerful husbands, and they’ve still managed to create their own identity—that is what is interesting,” he explains. “How someone in those circumstances would never surrender to the environment because they can’t, and they would build an identity through their humanity and their fragilities, and they would trespass that wall. It’s a strange cocktail of power, politics, tradition, and media. And whoever goes through that process will be transformed, and that transformation made them somehow stronger.”
Jackie and Spencer are also part of a triptych—and though there’s been plenty of online chatter about Larraín examining the life of pop superstar Britney Spears in the third and final entry of his Women on the Verge series, he laughs when I bring it up before pouring cold water on the discourse.
“It’s possible, but I will tell you that I’ll stay in the 20th century,” he shares with a mischievous grin.
“You know, before I did these movies, I was told that I was just doing male-driven movies that were focusing on male characters,” he continues. “And then I started doing movies that are with all women, and people ask, why all women? But it’s good. Art shouldn’t be a space of satisfaction.”