In the summer of 1956, Colin Clark was determined to break into the film industry. After much persistance, Clark landed the 3rd Assistant Director position on the Marilyn Monroe picture “The Prince and the Showgirl.” While working on the feature, Clark kept a diary of his experiences on set and of the time he spent with superstar Marilyn Monroe. The diaries would eventually become the basis for Clark’s two books, published decades later, titled “The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me,” and “My Week With Marilyn.”
Director Simon Curtis read Clark’s books and was so struck by them that he took it upon himself to bring an adaptation to the big screen. “My Week With Marilyn” is Curtis’ feature film debut, which casts Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier and Michelle Williams as the iconic Marilyn Monroe. The film is already generating Oscar buzz, particularly for Williams’ stunning performance as Monroe, and comparisons are being made to last year’s “The King’s Speech.”
Simon Curtis’ press tour made a stop in Boston and Blast got a chance to sit down with the director to discuss his first feature film.
Blast: Casting Kenneth Branagh as Lawrence Olivier seemed like a no-brainer: the two of them are so similar already – they’re both British actors, they’ve both dabbled in directing…
SIMON CURTIS: More than that, they both directed “Henry V” when they were very young. Ken has always been associated with [Olivier], and he’s also more or less the age that Olivier was in 1956 [the year in which “My Week With Marilyn” takes place].
BLAST: True. So how did that process go – did you just approach him with the script? How did you get him on board?
SC: I had known him a little bit before, and my producer knew him well. But we didn’t think he was actually available because he was doing post [production] on “Thor”. But somehow the dates shifted and suddenly it worked, and I could not have been happier.
BLAST: He was a great choice for the role – he gives a brilliant performance. And casting Michelle, I think that will probably be the performance that everybody will be talking about, obviously. Had you seen her in “Blue Valentine” or seen her in something else?
SC: I’ve seen her in everything! I’ve been a great fan of hers. So, this film is not a biopic – it’s a certain moment in Marilyn’s life, and she was 30 in 1956. So when you think about that list of [possible] actors, it was just the right moment for Michelle to play the part. And I was thrilled when she read it and wanted to do it
BLAST: As you said, this movie is just a snippet of Marilyn Monroe’s life rather than a full-fledged biopic. What do you think some of the advantages are to doing that?
SC: That’s interesting. I think that there’s a sort of genre of films that have come out, like “Frost/Nixon” or “The Queen” that tell a significant life through an episode. And I think that maybe audiences have been a bit bored of biopics that have held the same beats, you know: the unknown person who gets the opportunity and blows in and….
BLAST: Right, very formulaic.
SC: Somehow this is just richer. And actually, this is where we were very lucky because this moment in time was so hugely significant to all of the characters. Olivier was on the decline and his marriage to Vivian Leigh was over. Obviously this is Colin Clark’s big moment in life. And Marilyn, she was trying to change her life and take control of her destiny. She had married [Arthur] Miller, had set up her own production company, and was coming to England to work with the great Olivier. And really the story of our film is how all those things sort of went wrong.
BLAST: I think it’s fascinating how both Olivier and Marilyn Monroe each had their own expectations of what was going to happen when they were in this film together and like you said, it just didn’t work out.
So what inspired you to make the film? Have you been a Marilyn Monroe fan for awhile? Were you struck by Colin Clark’s books?
SC: Yes, I read the books and I was really struck by them and I went after them, actually. I just loved the fact that it was this young man’s story of breaking into the professional world and a young man who got this private, charmed access to this icon.
BLAST: When you decided to make a film about Marilyn Monroe, an American icon, you must have felt a tremendous amount of pressure in taking on that material. While you were shooting the movie, how did you handle that pressure?
SC: Well, it was a tremendous amount of pressure for everybody – obviously for Michelle and I, but also for the makeup department, for the DP, for everybody. But the way I kept sane was thinking my job today is to get today’s scenes to be good.
BLAST: Right, you’d just break it down day by day.
SC: Yeah, I mean you have no other option really. Frankly, something like, “Is she Marilyn?” – when you’re doing it shot by shot you don’t know what it’s all going to add up to. But personally, I do honestly feel that I’ve been very spoiled to work with the actors that I’ve worked with in my career. But I’ve never seen anything like Michelle’s dedication, devotion, the way she found the range of it… And I hadn’t really spotted this before but it is sort of like seeing a great new young actor take on Hamlet, because there’s such diversity in the performance and in the character, and she just nails it every which way.
BLAST: Was there a particular moment in which you saw Michelle do a scene and you immediately knew that she had really become Marilyn Monroe?
SC: Yes, I did think that. When she does that little dance in The Prince and the Showgirl – we were filming that on the same stage that Marilyn had filmed that.
BLAST: Really? That’s incredible.
SC: Yeah, it was just a beautiful moment because it was so lovely to see Marilyn so happy and Michelle so happy. And also because she was actually recreating something that actually happened, and we got the footage of that. We knew she was nailing it, so I guess it would be that.
BLAST: I know that you both did lots of research before filming – you had the books from Colin Clark to work off of-
SC: That was important because there are hundreds of different versions of all these things, but we were doing his version.
BLAST: Right, that is important for people to realize. So in addition to his books, what other kind of research did you do?
SC: Everything – the books, the movies, the press conferences, YouTube…
BLAST: [laughs] YouTube?
SC: Yeah! I mean we were all stuck to our iPads all the time. There was so much material that in some ways it was liberating doing some of the private scenes because they were just ours, in a way.
BLAST: One part of the film that I found particularly interesting was Julia Ormond playing Vivien Leigh. It’s fascinating because she plays this character who is experiencing the heartbreak of having been one of the most beautiful women in the world. Now, she’s only 43, but she feels like she’s past her prime. Do you think that audiences will identify with that?
SC: Definitely! I’m really glad that you said that, you’re the first person to say that. That’s exactly the intention.
BLAST: In this day an age, youth has become so important to our society.
SC: Well nowadays, you probably get to about 50, you know what I mean? But that’s exactly right. And also, if Marilyn had lived to see 43, she may have well felt the same way.
BLAST: Another thing that this film tackles is the idea of celebrity and everything that comes with it. The movie is set in the late 50’s, but Marilyn’s struggle with celebrity is something we see mirrored by celebrities to this very day.
SC: Marilyn was really the prototype for that, not only because she was a film star but because her life became a sort of on-going soap opera with all her marriages and everything. You never know sometimes, with [some celebrities] – was it deliberate? There’s always a new story about them, and Marilyn sort of set the agenda for that.
BLAST: Do you think that there is any celebrity today that’s as iconic as Marilyn Monroe was?
SC: I don’t think it’s possible, because there is so much [oversaturation] with so many celebrities around. When Marilyn arrived in London airport, it was the one and only time in her life that she did that, whereas Lady Gaga does that pretty much twice a month.
BLAST: Because the 1950’s were so long ago, there are so many people that only know Marilyn Monroe as a still photograph, and they haven’t even seen her in her films.
SC: That’s something else I’ve been saying too. She is for many people sort of an Andy Warhol image, a brand.
BLAST: Exactly. So with people not being so familiar with her films or with her even, do you think that contributed to less pressure in making this film?
SC: No I don’t, because I think that there are plenty of people who do remember her acting. But I think you’re absolutely right that for young people, so much of [the film is about] discovery in a way. I think that’s one of the reasons why we put those songs in at the beginning and the end to show people that Michelle was embodying the Marilyn that everyone remembers, as opposed to the Marilyn that people don’t remember.
BLAST: You premiered the film at the New York Film Festival, how as that?
SC: It was very exciting! They shined a spotlight on the filmmakers at the end, and Michelle, Eddie and I – and it was a great moment.
BLAST: People are already comparing this film to last year’s “The King’s Speech” – how do you feel about those comparisons?
SC: I think the thing about this is it’s an English heritage story with Hollywood thrown in. Obviously, Harvey Weinstein is very much behind the film, but… I don’t know, I just hope we have a fraction of the success that “The King’s Speech” did.
BLAST: Well, there’s already Oscar buzz about the film, what do you think about that?
SC: Well, I don’t want to tempt any fates! But all I can say is that nothing would make me happier than to see Michelle and Ken recognized for their brilliant work.
BLAST: So what’s next for you? I know that you have an extensive background in TV and stage and that this is your first foray into features. Are you going to keep going with features or go back to TV? Do you already have a project lined up?
SC: I’m very driven by material, so we’ll see. I know that this experience has taught me that you’ve got to be passionate to go through with it. Otherwise you just can’t do it.
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