The gossip about Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, his decade-in-the-making adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 novel of the same name, is almost as ubiquitous at this point as Marilyn Monroe herself.
The film, following Oates’ story, is a thinly veiled fictionalisation of Monroe’s life and death, with a particular focus on her difficult childhood, her troubled relationships with men and her own gynaecological trouble, as she struggles to bridge the gap between Marilyn the star and Norma Jeane the traumatised woman. Suffice it to say: there’s plenty to gossip about.
The film, which runs to a generous 2 hours 47 minutes, is full of surreal imagery and sometimes astonishingly authentic recreations of the visual vernacular of Monroe’s life. On the face of it, it shares with two of Dominik’s previous films – Chopper (2000) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – a dark interest in imagined tales about larger-than-life real people. The granting of the film’s NC-17 (UK 18) rating, which prevents many cinemas in the US from showing it at all, resulted in much online intrigue following a difficult hiatus after the film’s shoot in 2019, during which editor Jennifer Lame was brought in, according to Dominik in Screen International, “to curb the excesses of the movie”. Further media buzz revolved around an aesthetically stunning but otherwise enigmatic trailer drop prior to the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival in early September.
Speaking on a video call from Melbourne, the respected Australian auteur has an admirably even-keeled approach to what I must admit are increasingly difficult philosophical questions about the nature of his project. Spirited and amicable though the conversation is, it soon becomes clear we are approaching Monroe – or at least, Monroe’s fictionalised screen avatar – from diametrically opposed perspectives.
At one point, Dominik mentions a new television documentary, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, that purports to reclaim Monroe with a feminist POV, saying that he hasn’t seen it but feels that the entire gambit is a mistake. I don’t have much choice but to come clean and let him know that I’m involved in it, as a talking head. Later, he seems genuinely gobsmacked when I tell him that many of my friends and colleagues watch – and enjoy – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), which he regards, like most of Monroe’s films, as what he calls “cultural artefacts”. Below, you can find a condensed version of our lively sparring session over what was the biggest conversation starter at Venice this year.
Christina Newland: Blonde is a pretty dense novel. How did you come across it and how do you even begin to consider structuring its adaptation for the screen?
Andrew Dominik: I didn’t think of making it into a film when I first read it in, say, 2002. I wasn’t that interested in it. But there was a story I was interested in telling, which is about how childhood drama shapes an adult’s perception of the world, and I could sort of see that within Blonde. I’m not even sure if I knew that consciously.
But when the idea came to adapt it, it was really about that. I tend to do that stuff instinctively. The book is like a shattered mirror – there are all these little shards and it circles around, returning to certain memories. It’s the feeling of being inside somebody’s anxious thought process. So I had to straighten that out a little.
Can you tell me about recreating, in such detail, say, the colour photos taken by Milton Greene [who shot Monroe more than 50 times]? How do you go about that from a technical perspective?
There are 28 addresses of hers that we know of. So I just went to all of those places to see which ones still existed, [to find out] which photographs were taken there. But the visual idea of the movie is to reference the collective memory. It’s a weird déjà vu, but the meaning of the images is different. So, the image of her and Arthur Miller at the window is a romantic image, but in the film, it’s kind of ugly. She’s trapped in our memory of her and trying to break out of it. It’s a movie about the unconscious. And we only know as much as she does because she’s essentially living an unexamined life.
And in terms of Ana de Armas’ incredible transformation, beyond hair and make-up, how did you approach lighting her and ensuring she resembled Monroe?
We had all kinds of rules. Ana looks more like Marilyn if you have the camera up high. And if you’ve got a 50mm lens, her face – it’s more like Marilyn’s. We were always trying to make her look like specific images of Marilyn. It’s well thought-out. I’m not interested in reality, I’m interested in the images. So I selected every image of Marilyn I could find and then tried to stage scenes around those images. You’re constantly referring to them.
Another key aspect of the film is that you swap aspect ratios a lot, and move between colour and black and white frequently, too. What’s the rationale for that?
There’s no story sense to it. It’s just based on the photographs. So if a photograph was, you know, four by three, then we do it four by three. There’s no logic to it, other than to try to know her life, visually.
What kind of conversations did you have with Ana about embodying Monroe, both physically and psychologically?
I mean, she understood that there’s two jobs: one is the anthropological, which is that they look and sound like this. It’s showing people photographs and saying, “How can we make her look like this?” Then Ana is trying to get her speech patterns, her mannerisms. And a lot of that changed over the years. When [Monroe] started out she would stress every syllable. By the time she’s got [acting coach Lee] Strasberg and been introduced to the Method, it’s a different style of acting. In the middle, you also have that 1950s cartoonish presentational thing. Then there’s a handful of interviews. So Ana is taking all that stuff. Then we’re talking about what person in what part. Then we’d do our scenes together; I’d read all the other characters and she would play her part.
A lot of her performance in the film is comprised of single takes, more so than I would do usually, where [in the past] I would end up shaping performances a lot more than I had to do with her. She was pretty fucking incredible.
For someone so beloved by women, we don’t see Monroe in the film with many close female relationships or friendships. No Jane Russell, or anyone like that.
Well, that’s the way the book is, and I think it’s the way it was. I think Marilyn was a guy’s girl. I don’t think she was a woman who had a lot of female friends. But then I think she was a woman who didn’t have a lot of friends. There is a sense that we want to reinvent her according to today’s political concerns. But she was a person who was extraordinarily self-destructive.
I guess my feeling is that there’s a grey area somewhere between victimhood and empowerment.
Well, I think she was clearly an extraordinarily powerful person. But I don’t think she was built for success in the way that people see it today. So with everyone there are moments of strength, and people want to say that she took control of her life. But she wanted to destroy her life.
Would you say that in this story you see Monroe as a symbolic vessel for a story about childhood trauma or abuse?
I’ve read everything there is to read about Marilyn Monroe. I’ve met people that knew her. I’ve done an enormous amount of research. But in the end, it’s about the book. And adapting the book is really about adapting the feelings that the book gave me. I see the film, in some ways, as Joyce’s vision of Marilyn, which is also really Joyce. So I think the film is about the meaning of Marilyn Monroe. Or a meaning. She was symbolic of something. She was the Aphrodite of the 20th century, the American goddess of love. And she killed herself. So what does that mean?
Joyce is trying to understand how it expresses a certain female experience, or a certain human experience. You have to play fast and loose with the truth in order to have a certain narrative drive. But there are a lot of psychological processes that are dramatised in Blonde, a lot of Lacanian and Freudian ideas. For me it was just the scenes I found compelling. I went with my instinct and wrote it pretty quick. And I didn’t change it that much, even though it was sitting around for 14 years. I know the ways in which this is different from what people seem to agree happened. Not that everyone’s sure. Nobody really knows what the fuck happened. So it’s all fiction anyway, in my opinion.
Do you think the film does much to unpack or reverse the idea of Monroe being crazy or difficult?
I think… it explains why. I mean, everyone’s crazy. When we’re talking about Marilyn, whether you’re reading a book by Gloria Steinem [Marilyn: Norma Jeane, 1988] or by Norman Mailer [Marilyn: A Biography, 1973 – which Steinem’s book was written in response to], both are projections and fantasies. Marilyn represents a kind of rescue fantasy. And the film is no different. The film is a rescue fantasy. We feel we have a special intimacy with her character. That’s the attraction to Marilyn, that feeling that we’re the only ones who understand. That we could have saved her somehow. And maybe the flipside of that is a punishment fantasy, or a sexual fantasy.
Can you elaborate on that?
Well, she was a strange sex symbol because she doesn’t have to die at the end [of her films] like a Barbara Stanwyck or a Rita Hayworth. But she had to be a little baby. So, when she sings ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ – it’s like, is that sisterly advice, “If you’re gonna fuck, make sure you get paid”? Or is it just romanticised whoredom?
There are scenes of sexual violence in Blonde. I’m thinking particularly of the one in the studio mogul’s office. We know these things happened and still do in Hollywood. But what do you think the film is saying about female victimhood that we don’t already know?
I don’t look at it on those terms. It just happens, it’s almost glossed over, and then the feeling follows her later. I guess in a way I don’t see the film as essentially female. I see it as being about an unloved child. I relate to it.
Do you see anything optimistic in the story?
I mean, no. Blonde is supposed to leave you shaking. Like an orphaned rhesus monkey in the snow. It’s a howl of pain or rage. Of all the films I’ve made, it’s the one that strikes me the most differently each time I watch it.
What you said about the idea of transposing modern values on people from the past, I agree that that’s not healthy. Because I think it’s very important to understand that women in particular had to exist within the confines of the world that they lived in. But I feel there are cultural repercussions to making certain choices in terms of how we present a figure from the past. What does it say to an audience that we’re not seeing that she formed her own production company, or that she was involved in opposing the anti-communist witch-hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s? Or that she fought against segregation on behalf of Ella Fitzgerald, and so on?
That stuff is not really what the film is about. It’s about a person who is going to be killing themself. So it’s trying to examine the reasons why they did that. It’s not looking at her lasting legacy. I mean, she’s not even terribly concerned with any of that stuff. If you look at Marilyn Monroe, she’s got everything that society tells us is desirable. She’s famous. She’s beautiful. She’s rich. If you look at the Instagram version of her life, she’s got it all. And she killed herself. Now, to me, that’s the most important thing. It’s not the rest. It’s not the moments of strength. OK, she wrested control away from the men at the studio, because, you know, women are just as powerful as men. But that’s really looking at it through a lens that’s not so interesting to me. I’m more interested in how she feels, I’m interested in what her emotional life was like.
Your version, or Oates’ version, of this character is so relentlessly unhappy. Even though she’s capable of radiating so much joy on the screen.
Well, I think her life would have been incredibly unhappy. There are moments of joy and love, but years of unhappiness. If she found joy, she could potentially be alive today. You could be talking to her.
Tell me about your use of foetal imagery in the film: of the unborn baby in the womb and with some scenes from inside the uterus during an abortion.
Well, she wants to have a child because she wants to rescue herself. Her own experience of motherhood is disastrous, based on her own mother [who spent years in a psychiatric institution]. But that baby is real to her, and so that’s why you see the baby. I don’t think the scene would feel as real [otherwise]. And also, she’s having a reluctant abortion. So it would be pretty horrible. I’m trying to create her experience. I’m trying to put the audience through the same thing. I’m not concerned with being tasteful.
Blonde got an NC-17 rating in the US. What do you make of that?
Well, I don’t think it’s reflective of community standards. Personally, I feel like the film does colour within the lines. Now people are expecting something a lot more salacious. It’s a drag to get [an] NC-17 because it means people freak out. And we can’t get billboards.
And in terms of Netflix’s feeling about Blonde: was your original cut much longer than the one that exists now?
It wasn’t like [The Assassination of] Jesse James. It’s my film. It’s just stuff that people have made up on the internet, that there was someone putting their thumb on me. They worried about it for all the obvious reasons, but in the end, they let you do what you want. Blonde functions like a piece of music rather than in a narrative nature. It sets up its own rules and you have to pay attention to see how they echo as you go along. So it’s working by a sort of different criteria.
Do you think there’s ever a risk that the audience takes Blonde as gospel about Monroe, even though it’s clearly based on a novel? And does it matter?
I don’t think that matters. Why would it matter?
I mean, it’s one of those things. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, but Marion Davies – and William Randolph Hearst – became understood solely through it for a long time.
Does anyone care, really? People who make films tend to think they’re incredibly important. But it’s just a movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there are going to be a lot more movies about Marilyn Monroe.
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