Sex symbol Marilyn Monroe is quoted as saying, “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” Norma Jeane Baker, né Mortenson, was always aware of the beasts she was grappling with. Her creation, Marilyn Monroe, and the Hollywood machine swallowed her whole in the end, a stardust-infused Ouroboros.
Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, starring a radiant Ana de Armas, homes in on the scatology of fame and celebrity, creating an uneasy, waking nightmare of a film. Based on Joyce Carol Oates book of the same name, it’s a glacial interpretation of someone who adopted a persona that kept her distant from her fans, her loved ones, and herself. The aloof perspective of the film mirrors Norma Jeane’s disassociation from herself, her magnificent persona, Hollywood, and life in general.
There’s a certain point in the NC-17 movie that transitions from Norma Jeane’s childhood to her introduction to Hollywood. A slew of magazine covers illustrate her girl-next-door image before we meet her in her signature blonde look as she enters a Hollywood execs office. Dominik’s lens, vacillating between stark black and white and vibrant color, is like flipping through a magazine, getting glimpses of the star’s life at particular moments in time. The movie chooses style over substance but there is a message in that. The public consumes celebrities like candy, and we fickly discard them at the whiff of scandal or if we get a peek behind the curtain. Their imperfections are frowned upon. Their “perfect” persona feeds a slightly unhealthy collective voyeurism.
This movie isn’t the first adaptation of the book. There’s a 2001 TV mini-series that incorporates a more traditional form of storytelling. Directed by Joyce Chopra and written by Joyce Eliason, the film delves more into Norma Jeane’s childhood and how the Marilyn persona was born. Poppy Montgomery inhabits the role. What’s notable in this film is Monroe’s use of the term “Daddy” with her first husband, James Dougherty. In Dominik’s version, she also uses that term excessively with Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody). What both these iterations of the book confirm is her disturbing father issues.
With a mini-series, one can afford to dig a little deeper into story. With a film, you only have a short amount of time to get your vision across. While some might think Dominik’s two hours and fort six minutes is excessive, that’s still a small window of time to capture the comet that was Marilyn Monroe. The movie drags in a couple of spots but overall barrels ahead like a freight train. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s blistering score highlights Marilyn’s mercurial and tragic existence. Ana completely channels Marilyn, ardently depicting her inner-turmoil and general discomfort with life.
Andrew Dominik’s directing credits include Chopper (2000), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Killing Them Softly (2012) and a couple of episodes of the brilliant series Mindhunter (2019). He recently spoke with us regarding his vision for Blonde.
What makes Marilyn Monroe so iconic?
For women, she represents all the ways women are dismissed. She was 'difficult,' she was 'crazy.' They wanted to f*ck her but at the same time she's kind of whorish. There's a sort of sisterly feeling towards her. She invokes protection. She represents a kind of rescue fantasy. Even the people who object to me saying things like that are following the same impulse because they just want to rescue her from me…! Everything the world tells us is desirable she had. She was famous, she was beautiful, she had a great job, she dated the so-called cool guys of her time period and she killed herself. She points to a problem of the way we see the world.
The film is pretty unrelentingly dark. Was the book like that?
Totally. I don't think happy people kill themselves. I think the resting state is one of despair and anxiety. I think that's the engine that powers it all. I don't think Marilyn Monroe had a great life then, had a bad year and killed herself. I think her whole beginning in life was going to make life incredibly difficult for her.
What kind of research did you have to do for the project?
I know everything there is to know. I've read every significant book that's ever been written about her. I've also read every significant book about everyone who was in her life. I've spoken to people who knew her. I've been in a lot of the places that she lived. I've been to her mother's rooms in the asylum. We actually shot in the house that she lived in with her mother. I've done an extraordinary amount of research over a period of fourteen years.
Did you find out anything surprising that you didn't know?
It's all surprising in a way. My entre into the project wasn't a fascination with Marilyn Monroe. It's Joyce's book. It's this book that got me interested in her. I did my research as a due diligence, and I used very little of it in the film. I know the way that Blonde differs from the most agreed upon narrative but no one was actually there who wrote any of these books. Most of the biographies have been written by people who didn't know her.
What was the most difficult scene for you to direct?
None of them. I've been dying to make all the scenes. I had ideas about the way they should go. There were ways to explore them. I had Ana and she was completely committed and really good. If I could explain it to her, she could do it. The actual directing of the film, apart from the physical limitations of not having enough time or money, was an absolute blast. You wake up everyday thinking, 'How am I going to get through this day. This day is not doable,' but somehow you manage. There was a kind of freedom to that because you had to rely on instinct and there was a real momentum to the whole shoot. It was thrilling. It was like an acid trip.
Can you tell me a little about how it got made?
I got an option on the book myself. Then I wrote the script on spec and started shopping it. There were iterations that could have gotten made but fell apart. It's such a long and tangled history. It didn't come together until Ana got involved.
She's fantastic. How did she get selected?
I saw her in a movie, and I thought, ‘That looks like Marilyn Monroe.’ Then I met her, and we read a couple of scenes and it was clear that she could do it...that it made sense. I knew it was her straight away. You have to have an instinct about people. I do when it comes to a part like this. We ended up shooting a screen test with her where we made her up and that was just amazing. She was luminous, she looked like her.
This is kind of a more general question. Do you have a writing routine, or does it depend on the project?
I like to write quickly. If you write with an urgency, that urgency keeps going. It takes me about a week to turn on the computer. I have to sidle up to it. Some days I manage to turn it on, but I don't write anything. Gradually I'll start writing a little bit. Then it gets to the point where I'm writing 18 hours a day and I just can't wait to get back up in the morning and get back to it.
Would you say you have an on-set directing style?
It's changed since I did the documentaries. Now I like to push people until they're in state of barely controlled panic...! If people are good, they have a muscle memory that's working for them. They become like a group of musicians who are interacting with each other in a visceral moment they share with us all. There's a certain element of the unknown that we have to make our peace with. I think so much of the time when you're making a film, you're not allowing the thing to live. You're kind of embalming it.
What I’m always trying to do as a director is to bring life to something and doing something that surprises me. I find that by removing people from their comfort zone, that tends to happen a lot more. When I get there in the morning, I start rolling and then I block. That gets everyone's attention focused. I start rolling before they've even started lighting and that causes everyone to snap to it. And then they just react in a panic. You're sort of blocking and shooting at the same time. I don't call 'cut' until the shot's done. With Blonde, I was attempting to trap Marilyn within the collective memory of her. You can only turn things on their heads if there's a familiarity to begin with.
What's the biggest takeaway you want people to have from the film?
Well, I think you should be shattered by the film. Have a sort of shattered exhaustion and numbness from the film. It should haunt you a little bit in the days that follow.
Blonde streams exclusively on Netflix on September 28, 2022.