Few movie dramas in recent years have generated as much fevered online speculation as Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe movie Blonde.
Fourteen years in the making, Blonde uses Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name as a starting point to chart a fictionalized chronicle of Monroe’s inner life.
After a number of false dawns and reincarnations, the movie finally got underway in August 2019 with fast-rising Cuban native Ana De Armas in the lead role, financial backing from Netflix and Plan B Entertainment as main producer. The film wouldn’t emerge, however, until more than three years later, finally getting its launch at the Venice Film Festival and its general release this month.
‘Blonde’ Premiere Photo Gallery: Ana de Armas Channels Marilyn Monroe At Venice Film Festival
Speculation was rampant during the three-year post-production that Netflix wasn’t happy with the movie’s uncompromising and dark portrayal. A well-placed Hollywood source even claimed to us that at one point the movie was being shopped by the streamer, though that’s not something buyers or Dominik have corroborated. The film would ultimately become Netflix’s first-ever NC-17-rated movie. To boot, production coincided almost entirely with Covid, adding another layer of complexity. When the film’s striking trailer was released earlier this year, some fixated on de Armas’ accent, and when the movie didn’t screen until Venice’s final days, many in the press and industry assumed the worst.
Since Venice, the tongue wagging has given way to more nuanced reflections on a serious and powerful portrait. TBEN film critic Damon Wise was among those blown away by the film, which is a harrowing and visually arresting personal epic. De Armas delivers a riveting and soul-searching performance.
Blonde is also a story about myth-making, which is a theme that has pervaded Dominik’s best work including his debut feature Chopper, about a legendary criminal who wrote his autobiography while serving a jail sentence, and his stunning Brad Pitt-Casey Affleck Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is one of the ultimate studies of hero worship.
Below, we speak with the candid Australian filmmaker about Marilyn, mythmaking, those online rumors, working with de Armas, and plenty more.
TBEN: You’ve been working on Blonde for more than a decade. What was it about Marilyn Monroe and Joyce Carol Oates’ novel that intrigued you?
ANDREW DOMINIK: Really it was the book. I had always wanted to do a story about childhood trauma and how that shapes an adult’s perception of the world; to make a film from within a person’s mythology. My original idea was to do that for a serial killer, but when I read Blonde I thought, well, I could do this with an actress and it should be slightly more sympathetic. So, that’s where it came from.
TBEN: To what extent would you say your film is biographical of Marilyn Monroe?
DOMINIK: The experience of life that was described reminded me of the sort of things my girlfriends would say when they would describe their lives and their mythological take on their lives. It was very similar to Blonde. So, it was sort of easy to become obsessed with it. Through that I got interested in Marilyn Monroe.
I know an awful lot about Marilyn Monroe now. I’ve read all the major stuff. There’s over a thousand books written about her, and I haven’t read a thousand, but I’ve read all of the big hits. I’ve read all that stuff, and I’ve met people that knew her and I’ve been to most of the places (that you can still get into) where she lived. I’ve read all the biographies of all the other people that were in her life too so I’m aware of what they think happened in most of the situations in her life. And I’m aware of how that’s different to the book Blonde. I did all that research and I used very little of it in the movie. Blonde the book was pretty much the bible for the film.
Something that was different is the dialogue that goes on between her and the roles that she’s playing. It seemed almost like a lot of the parts that she played were mocking what was going on in her actual life. But that was the whole idea. The meaning of everything becomes changed. When you’ve got a razor at your throat even the meaning of the word “cut” is different; I was looking for a lot of double meanings.
TBEN: To what extent do you think your Marilyn is an agent of her own destiny? Some who knew the real Marilyn said she was a lot together than is often portrayed. Director John Huston said of her: “People say Hollywood broke her heart, but that is rubbish – she was observant and tough-minded … in certain ways, she was very shrewd.” In your film, Marilyn is buffeted to a great extent by many men; she seems to lack agency…
DOMINIK: Well, I think if you’re telling a story of an orphan child from within the fortress of the self, what you’re looking to do is for her to retain her innocence. I think for that to happen it’s always got to feel like it’s happening to her, otherwise you are asking her to accept responsibility and this film is not asking her to accept any responsibility. I think that that can come across as a lack of agency, definitely.
Marilyn Monroe the real person helped create herself. She was not somebody that they initially thought much of at the studio. She sought out photographers and in her own way was almost like an influencer.
She would contact magazines and she got fan mail and they had to deal with her. Zanuck [studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck] never liked her, never knew what to do with her, so she very much did self-actualize, which we don’t show in the film. I’m not sure that Joyce is terribly interested in that. I certainly wasn’t as interested in that. The film is not critical…or maybe a little a bit. There’s the bit where Cass says: “Do you love me? Do you see me?” The whole film is about people not seeing each other. Arthur Miller wants her to be his Magda, for example, and she realized, “OK, I’ve got to play this part.”
In the scene when Cass asks if she sees him or his family name, she says that she sees him. But she makes a liar out of herself five seconds later when she’s remembering the poster of Chaplin burning on her mother’s wall. Maybe in the scene with Kennedy she has what alcoholics call a moment of clarity, where she’s actually questioning the fantasy that she’s trying to keep alive. So, it’s true the film isn’t overly concerned with that stuff.
I’m aware, for example, that in real life Marilyn Monroe was one of the people that broke the studio stranglehold over players under contract. She got in a war with 20th Century TBEN and got a whole bunch of deal points renegotiated, which was unprecedented.
This is often held up as her being canny. She was smart, she was in charge of her own destiny. What people don’t realize is that she actually gave all those deal points back within a year. So, like anyone, she would make these stabs towards being in control of her life, but she clearly wasn’t in control of her life. Any person that’s killing themselves is not a figure of female empowerment. As much as we want to reinvent Marilyn Monroe as the female du jour, I don’t think that that’s responsible.
TBEN: How would you describe the level of trust between yourself and Ana? In this performance she opened herself up to such a great extent…
DOMINIK: I love Ana. She is the greatest partner in crime. You know, the film is very concerned with the type of acting that was fashionable at the time: things like using personal memories and experiences to help inhabit characters and how psychoanalysis cross-pollinates with acting to become method acting.
But Ana is not at all like that. She’s not a person who is mining stuff that happened in her life. We did talk about stuff like that when we were going through scenes, but when she’s acting it’s purely a work of imagination. She was imagining what it would be like for Norma. Ana understood instinctively what I was going for for the most part.
There were some basic parameters for the character like she can’t get angry. Anger is not in her toolbox, at least until she gets to the Some Like It Hot section. The last section is kind of like the dead doll section. But within those parameters there’s a lot of room to move. You get there on the day and it’s about a person trying to negotiate that particular moment that you’re filming. Maybe there are three or four ways to do it, but you’re trying to keep it alive all the time. What I’m trying to say is, she’s very playful. You can come at it in a completely contradictory way from one take to another and she’s right there along with you.
Some actors can get a bit more rigid about their ideas about who a person should be. But in Marilyn Monroe, we’re also talking about a person with a very tenuous sense of self and someone who, as an actor, is looking to become what another person needs them to be. It was really just great fun. She [Ana] wanted to do something confronting.
TBEN: It is certainly that. The post-production sounded confronting too. There was a lot of noise about Netflix’s unease over the film’s darkness and some of the more disturbing scenes. Was that a challenge for you?
DOMINIK: Cutting a movie is always a challenge. All movies are sh*t until they work. You’re basically hammering away at a movie. A movie like this functions more like a piece of music. It’s not really interested in plot, per se, but it’s got a whole lot of ideas that it’s setting up that are playing off all the way along. They require you to engage with it in your feelings as opposed to in a plot-driven way. So, that sort of thing is very difficult to balance. The movie swims in waters where no one is sure where the boundaries are anymore.
We live in a world where you can’t work out what’s cancelled and what isn’t and what you’re allowed to say and not allowed to say and what’s exploitation and what isn’t. Ideas about that seem to change very quickly today and obviously if you’ve got a lot of money invested in something you want to err on the side of caution.
TBEN: With that in mind was there ever a thought that this movie might end up not being a Netflix movie? Was that ever discussed?
DOMINIK: Well, no, the film would not exist without Netflix. Nobody else would pay for the thing except Netflix. They were the ones that were brave enough to take it on. But we’re in a time period that’s all over the place so naturally there were some anxieties.
But in the end, they completely supported what I wanted to do, to the point where I had actually signed a piece of paper saying I would deliver an R-rated movie. I think everybody realized that the NC-17 rating would hurt the film. But, they’ve supported the version of the film that I made and you can’t ask for more than that. It’s the only film that I’ve made where I’ve not had to make concessions.
TBEN: Did I miss the scene of bloody oral sex? That was something discussed online before anyone saw the movie…
DOMINIK: You missed it because it was never photographed and it was never in the script. It’s just one of those internet rumors. I don’t know where that came from, just some clickbait journalist trying to drum up drama. God bless him.
TBEN: Was there anything that you wanted to include that you couldn’t for legal or financial reasons?
DOMINIK: No. In fact, we were incredibly lucky with that stuff. The hardest things to get were permissions. So, I put Ana in All About Eve, for example, and in Some Like It Hot, and we use a bunch of TBEN movies. I’ve been working on this for more than a decade with small commissions for these scenes. Even in pre-production, the guy that was running MGM said “over my dead body can you use anything from Some Like It Hot.” But then he got fired and Mike De Luca took over. It was incredibly lucky that there were these brief windows where the guy in charge at TBEN and the guy in charge at MGM were sympathetic.
I got legal permission to do everything I wanted to do. I never thought that would happen. I did have to shoot backup versions. Like, for the scene with Ana and Tony Curtis, I had to shoot that with an actor playing Tony in case we couldn’t get permission, but we got it. Same for All About Eve, but I really wanted George Sanders.
TBEN: The movie is visually stunning and not small. I’ve been told the budget was around $20 million, but it certainly looked much more. Another source pegged it closer to $40 million. What was the budget?
DOMINIK: It was $22 million.
TBEN: I assume that like most directors you wanted more…
DOMINIK: You always want more. But that was the absolute cutoff. We had to be very clever. Nobody got paid; not literally, but in the sense that people weren’t making big money on it. It was something people were doing for scale. People like to work in L.A., to go home and sleep in their beds. That was an advantage.
TBEN: When did you know you wanted to make something formally irregular in terms of the color, aspect ratio, camera angles, etc.?
DOMINIK: It was something in my mind from the beginning. I wanted to traffic in the collective memory of Marilyn Monroe. If you google search her you’ll find images from all over the movie. The idea was to traffic in that. It’s a movie about the unconscious and how we don’t see reality but project our own fears and desires outwardly.
TBEN: At one point in post-production, Netflix brought on Manchester By the Sea editor Jennifer Lame to work on the film. Was that difficult for you?
DOMINIK: No, again, that was a bit of clickbait, people trying to drum up drama. It’s not unusual on movies and on my movies to have someone come in with a fresh set of eyes to help streamline. Jennifer was brought on to see if she could curb the excesses of the movie but she had no intention of doing that. She loved the film, but she could see a way to tighten up the first three reels. She came in and improved the film. She worked on it for a couple of weeks by herself then I went back to it. I was wary of her at first but I could see that the things she did made the movie better. I decided I could work with her and we ended up getting on like a house on fire. That was something Netflix wanted and they also wanted to get a female perspective on the film because it was me and Adam [Robinson] cutting the movie.
TBEN: Did you ever think the movie might not see the light of day?
DOMINIK: There were many times in the 14 years leading up to its making, for sure. But not once we were underway on the film. Not for a second.
TBEN: When the trailer came out there was some discussion about Ana’s accent. Did you speak to Ana about that?
DOMINIK: I didn’t think anyone who saw the movie would give a sh*t about that. Personally, I don’t hear much of an accent. Those that want to hear it, will hear it. If you want to be offended by it, you can be. That’s fine by us.
TBEN: So you think Ana took it on the chin?
DOMINIK: Ana was fine. She knows how good she is in the movie. … Did it bother you?
TBEN: I barely thought about it during the movie. It’s not very noticeable and I even thought it was an interesting point of difference tied in to the idea of a character who spent their whole life feeling like an outsider. … When it came to the film’s release, there was some talk you wanted it to debut at Cannes but it went to Venice…
DOMINIK: [Laughs] Yeah, you know, it came out alright. The advantage of Venice is that it’s close to the fall season. Cannes is the premier film festival but it comes at the beginning of the summer so there are positives and negatives to both. Ultimately, as a streamer we weren’t allowed to go to Cannes.
TBEN: What’s next for you?
DOMINIK: It depends how this goes. That’ll probably determine whether I scale up or down or whether I have to quit and join a rock and roll band. There’s a movie I’d like to make, but it’s always about raising the money.
TBEN: What would that movie be about?
DOMINIK: I’ve love to make a film about the Afghan war.