Noah Oppenheim is the executive in charge of NBC’s “Today” show and senior vice president of NBC News. But lately, Oppenheim has been making news himself as the screenwriter of “Jackie,” the Jacqueline Kennedy biopic starring Natalie Portman that had been garnering rave reviews and award season speculation even before its theatrical release last week.
Oppenheim has had an unusual career, especially considering that “Jackie” is his first screenplay. Unlike most first-time screenwriters, Oppenheim had spent nearly a decade climbing the ranks at NBC News. When he left for Hollywood in 2008, he had risen to the role of senior producer for the “Today” show. After a stint as an executive in reality TV, he decided to make the jump to the scripted side of things by trying his hand at a screenplay. That script would, eventually, become “Jackie.” But despite early interest from Darren Aronofsky, the script took six years until it became a movie.
In 2015, Oppenheim moved back to New York to helm the “Today” show. By then, the script he wrote was finally in production. When the election took over all news coverage, Oppenheim found himself overseeing the valuable piece of NBC real estate during an especially tense time while also promoting his movie.
“Jackie” — which tells the story of the first lady’s experience in the immediate aftermath of the assassination through the framework of an interview with a reporter from Life magazine, where she managed to dictate her husband’s legacy and cement his reputation — takes on an added sense of timeliness in the wake of the election.
Oppenheim talked about balancing the demands of his day job with promoting the film, how his background as a journalist influenced the script, what the election means for news coverage, and the differences between the film industry and TV news.
WWD: What made you decide to use a journalist as a framework for the story?
Noah Oppenheim: I had been doing a ton of research into Jackie’s life and been fascinated by her for a very long time. One of the most surprising things I learned was the fact that she had been the person who created The Camelot mythology and that she did it a week after the assassination. I had always assumed that people had referred to the Kennedy administration as Camelot for the time he was in office and while he was running for office.
As someone who works in the news business, I’m always thinking about the way that the press relates to public officials and that dance that takes place between the media and politicians. But in terms of the specific interaction, it was probably less about my life experience and more about the research about how Jackie related to various journalists and historians over the course of her life. She had several on-the-record and off-the-record conversations where she would attempt to exercise some amount of control over what ultimately got recorded, written down and printed. Certainly, being a journalist makes me more aware and sensitive of those issues but the writing was more about her and her experience and how she related to the press.
WWD: How are you handling running the “Today” show while doing promotion for Jackie?
N.O.: They both sort of reinforce the other, in a sense that obviously the storytelling skills that one hones as a screenwriter are also relevant to the kind of storytelling that we do in television news. Thankfully, the movie is about politics, it’s about American history, it’s about the people who occupy our public life. So it’s not so disconnected from the kind of questions and issues and things that I grapple with day to day.
WWD: Why did you want to pursue screenwriting?
N.O.: Most of my life I’ve written nonfiction — essays, newspaper pieces, magazine articles, that sort of thing. But as somebody who enjoyed telling stories and was a huge fan of film, I had always harbored an aspiration to try my hand at it and at least take a shot. So that’s what I did. Jackie was the first spec script I attempted to write, and I wrote it six years ago. So it took some time to get to this stage.
WWD: How is the film industry different from the news industry?
N.O.: The film business is glacially slow, especially compared to newspapers, television and magazines where we are always on deadline. But good storytelling is the great common ground. All of us are looking to tell stories about the human condition and about what’s happening in the world in a way that holds the audience’s attention, hopefully informs them, entertains them and makes them look at the world in different ways.
WWD: Does the election change the way people will relate to the movie?
N.O.: I think the movie would have had resonance regardless of the outcome of the election. It’s about a woman wielding influence inside the White House even though Jackie herself was not an elected official. But at the end of the day, it’s a story about a woman who is going through the worst kind of trauma imaginable, and through her strength, she helped the country as a whole unite and get through to the other side. So I think people find that inspiring. It’s also a reminder that this country has been through change and upheaval before, and we’ve managed to survive.
WWD: And how have you dealt with the election season?
N.O.: I think all of us in the press have been working hard to cover this unprecedented election that has taken us in a direction nobody anticipated or frankly there’s not much of a road map for. But I’m really proud of the work that NBC News has done and continues to do. We are all kind of adjusting to new political realities on a day-to-day basis and doing our best to keep our audience informed and hold those in power accountable. It’s always work in progress and we are all trying to get better and better.