Working with Marilyn Monroe must have been quite a special experience for third assistant director Colin Clark, whose brief time with the star has turned into two memoirs, and now a film, titled My Week with Marilyn. Similarly, the experience of working with Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams portraying Monroe must have been something magical for first-time director Simon Curtis. I sat down with Curtis in a roundtable interview to discuss working with Williams on her inevitably Oscar-nominated performance, his feelings about Monroe, and what film set he wishes he could witness just as Colin Clark did back in 1956.
My Week with Marilyn is now playing in select theaters.
What fascinates you most about the movie star and production system of the 1950s, and which you wanted to communicate that in the film?
My way into this film was reading Colin Clark's diaries, and Clark seeing the details as to how a film would have been made in 1956. It's a particular moment in pop culture history, the clash between the English way of working, and the American way of working. The nuances of all that really appeal to me.
To achieve success on the film, so much depended on the casting. Has Michelle Williams exceeded your expectations?
Actually, no. Because my expectations were high. I can't speak more highly of her. Super smart, super talented, and super brave. She took this on, and she did everything any human being could do to pull this off. You're right, in that this film is really nothing without delivering Marilyn. I feel so lucky that she did it, and that she did it so brilliantly.
I read that when Michelle Williams was younger she had a poster of Marilyn Monroe in her bedroom. These posters are especially popular with dorm rooms, etc. I was wondering what understanding do you think teenagers have of Marilyn?
That's what it is. The brand. The Warhol. The photographs, more than they know the movies. I think that i s true for a lot of people, including people my age. And Marilyn was somehow of a prototype celebrity because she somehow was a talking point in the way that modern celebrities are, in terms of private life and also their work. You never know with someone like Michael Jackson, when he got married, if it was deliberate or not, there was always a story in the press. Marilyn invented that.
What element about the Monroe character most concerned Williams about capturing her?
We talked about in our film that there were the "Three Marilyns," the public Marliyn, the private Marilyn, and the Marilyn playing the part in the movie. I think all of them are challenges in a different way.
How did it feel to be directing such talented people in your debut film?
It felt great. And I was lucky to work with actors I had worked with previously. There was nothing more exciting in my career than seeing Michelle Williams as Judi Dench. The great thing about Judi is that she's such a wonderful human being, playing Sybil Thorndike who was also a wonderful human being. I think people really like the way that Sybil stands up for Marilyn.
What did you note in the original film "The Prince and the Showgirl" that you wanted to make sure was in your narrative?
It's a mixed bag, that film. Some of it's wonderful, some of it isn't so wonderful. In some way, it's a film that, as Colin says, never should have happened. It wasn't a great play, it wasn't a great film. But because these two mega stars wanted to do it, it all sort of happened. Marilyn, who had become her own producer at this point, bizarrely chose the exact kind of part she as trying to get away from, the ditzy showgirl.
Let's talk about Kenneth Brannagh.
The Olivier name had been following him around for his entire career. It's right that he plays Olivier, he's the same age that Olivier was in 1956. There's a real empathy there, to think back on the history of the character.
On the experience of releasing the film ...
Watching the film, and finishing it last week, I have been thrilled with the amount of laughter from start to finish. It's a poignant film, a sad film, a bittersweet film. The way it gets that laughter is really pleasing to me.
What movie sets of the past do you wish you could witness in the same manner you did with My Week with Marilyn?
I'd love to see what it was like making Annie Hall.
Start to finish filmmaking, or the editing process too?
Uh, no. I wouldn't like that. I'd hate it actually.
Let's talk about the character Colin Clark.
He was a privileged young man, but I wanted to make the point that people only succeed when they do well. And he has a great combination of innocence, naivete, and emotional intelligence.
Whose idea was it for Michelle to sing "That Old Black Magic"?
We wanted to present, sort of out of the timeline of the film, the Marilyn that everyone thinks they know. Because our film does so much work telling you the Marilyn you don't know. It soon emerged that Michelle had the most gorgeous voice.
Does working on this film make you wish you had the choice to work with Marilyn as a director, or does it turn you off of working with her?
It'd be good for my career if I worked with Marilyn. I'd become quite a legend. That's my first thought. She wasn't easy for directors. But I wouldn't care.
As a director, what films do you think best get the movie-making process right?
The one that comes to mind for me immediately is Day for Night. It's also such a modern genre, to sit behind the curtain of movie-making but I suppose that we wanted to make a film very much about making a movie in 1956. That's what makes it different from others.
What do you think led to the demise of Monroe?
I don't know. But I think she was very troubled from a very early age, and was worsened by substance abuse. But we tried to focus more on a troubled woman doing her best. At this point in her life she was really trying to do her best. The story of our film is those aspirations collapsing around her.
What are you hoping viewers take away from the film about Monroe?
That she was an intelligent woman, and "was in bad trouble from the day she was born," as Bogdanovich has said. Yes, she was troubled, but given that, she did phenomenally well in life. She left a legacy that very few people have left. She was trying to do better.
How much did your own on-set experience influence the way you presented the movie set in the film?
Olivier is a very different director than me. And I personally don't think he handled that situation very well. For me, a director's job is to work out how each person, cast and crew, can do their best work. But he got it really wrong with Marilyn. One of the great things, when he says "Oh, just be sexy," people immediately get what a terrible error that is.
Are there other films that feature Marilyn Monroe that could possibly clue into her attitudes, or her off-set personality?
I think that Paula Strasbourg said that they needed Marilyn for Some Like It Hot because with any other actress, you may not have believed that she would have believed that they were women. You believe that Marilyn might fall for that.
Are there any other films that feature her that have parts of Marilyn in them?
I believe every character in every film is a collision between actor and character. And that you never quite know what the collision is going to deliver.
What do you think in the film best represents the culture of the 1950s?
I'm not sure how to answer that, but I will say that 1956 was a big year in British culture. It was the year of "Look Back in Anger," the year rock and roll came to the shores, the year that television started, etc. Glamorous America coming to shores.
Marilyn's arrival in the film is akin to when The Beatles arrived in America.
That's interesting because it would be seven or eight years later. The difference between England in 1956 and then in 1963 is phenomenal. It's like three decades. It's when England started to loosen up, and face modern culture.
What do you enjoy most about the directing process?
Getting the best cast possible to the table is very exciting, and watching different actors go on different journeys. And seeing those results. Seeing Michelle just blew my mind. I literally couldn't believe it.