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NYFF: Simon Curtis Discusses Recreating Marilyn Monroe For 'My Week With Marilyn'

by Gabe Toro
October 10, 2011 9:27 AM
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My Week With Marilyn” tells the story of Colin Clark, a third assistant director on the set of “The Prince And The Showgirl” who served as mediator between star Marilyn Monroe and the frustrated cast and crew. However, if you heard it from Clark’s memoirs, published long after Monroe’s passing, there was more than just a working relationship between the two of them.

Director Simon Curtis is a veteran of BBC programming essaying his directorial debut, and he had a helluva cast to impress. In addition to Michelle Williams as Monroe and the young, but experienced Eddie Redmayne as Clark, he was working with a cast that included Kenneth Branagh, Dame Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott, Emma Watson and Derek Jacobi. That’s one killer repertory company.

Now, after the first screening for “My Week With Marilyn” yesterday afternoon at the New York Film Festival, Oscar talk has begun to circulate. We sat down with Mr. Curtis to discuss Williams’ preparation for the role, working with such an established cast, and the place where truth and fiction meet.

1. Curtis was not worried about getting every detail right about Monroe’s life.
Though the physical resemblance is only slight, Michelle Williams gives a delicate performance that is both distinct and, at many points, recognizably Monroe. But Curtis, in his third decade of directing, understood that we’re at such a distance from Monroe’s era that different portrayals can exist. “First of all, for most people now, Marilyn is a still photograph, an iconic face rather than actress,” Curtis says. “A lot of people haven’t seen the movies. Secondly, you think of Helen Mirren playing the Queen, Frank Langella playing Nixon, and none of them are doubles, so to speak. I’m watching those films where I’m [doubting it] and then I’m thinking, dammit, you know, what? This is a great film, I’m gonna go with it.”

While Curtis was aware he was sharing space with the Peter Morgan scripts that gave life to Mirren’s Queen (in “The Queen”) and Langella’s Nixon (in “Frost/Nixon”), he knew he was still dealing with a delicate balancing act. Unlike Queen Liz and Nixon, Curtis was working with cinematic icons in Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier, so he knew some members of the audience would be drawing from previous cinematic incarnations. “If this film had not delivered credibly as far as Marilyn and Olivier, we would have been dead in the water,” Curtis exclaims dramatically. “So to get those two actors at the top of my list, who were a, available, and b, willing to take it on, was a gift.”

2. Monroe proved to be an intimidating subject matter for cast and crew, but they knew that it was a rewarding challenge.
“Well, of course it was terrifying!” Curtis exclaims, noting the degree of difficulty in bringing this story to the screen. But Curtis hints at the many possible directing candidates for the position, clarifying, “One of the reasons there’s so much interest in this is because it’s terrifying. And it’s the idea of Michelle as Marilyn. But what sealed the deal for me was that it wasn’t a biopic. It wasn’t her life. It was in the tradition of those Peter Morgan things. A moment in a life tells you about that life.”

The intimidation factor was not lost on Williams either. “I think apprehension would be natural,” he says of Williams’ trepidation in taking the part. “I say she has the courage of the lion taking this on and I am forever grateful for her. The whole world is watching, it’s massive.”

3. Michelle Williams had to lean Monroe’s inner lifestyle as much as her physical mannerisms.
“For Michelle, developing the mannerisms was a huge part of it, the externals,” says Curtis of Williams, who not only plays Marilyn in her private moments, but also as the character seen in “The Prince And The Showgirl.” “She’s one of the most intelligent, hardest-working actors I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of actors. But she was also equally brilliant at the externals and the internals. That gave us the momentum we needed.”

“The most moving moment was Michelle doing Marilyn’s dance in ‘The Prince And The Showgirl,’” says Curtis, noting a major moment in Monroe’s filmography. “Michelle had worked so hard learning that dance, and
seeing her so joyful was very special.”

4. Pivotal to making this film was an understanding of both Monroe and her acute level of fame.
Monroe was the most famous woman in the world at one point, and capturing that would prove to be a strong challenge for Curtis. He hammers that point home with a strong cast playing her support system, some of whom eventually become enablers. “One thing you notice about Hollywood are the tragic ends of careers,” laments Curtis. “It’s when everyone around [a star] is on the payroll, so they never hear the word ‘no.’ Marilyn surrounded herself with people, and they were her greatest support and her greatest problem.”

Curtis also had to navigate through a representation of Sir Laurence Olivier, played by Kenneth Branagh. In illustrating the gulf between them, Curtis found an appreciation of that era in Hollywood important. “Famously, Olivier represented fading England in the fifties, and Marilyn was the emblem of new, exciting, complex America,” Curtis poses. “And his way of acting was external, and hers was internal, so there were all these things bubbling away.” Though breaking Olivier down into someone with a common trait was fruitful, as he claimed he was, ”playing a director comically struggling with directing. I can relate to that.”

5. Curtis usually has a strong cast in place, but often has to navigate a sea of egos
Though Curtis has worked with a sea of talented British thespians, he was flummoxed with the lineup of “My Week With Marilyn.” “It’s intimidating, and then other times you look at the monitor and think, that’s Judi Dench, being brilliant,” he exclaims, excitedly adding, “This is my third straight time working with Dame Judi Dench!”

“I’ve been really lucky to work with legends, some at the very end of their career and, on the other end of the spectrum, brand new actors,” Curtis says. “I gave Daniel Radcliffe his first job, he was a schoolboy in ‘David Copperfield.’ Some dames of the theater want hundreds of notes, some want or require no notes. So a director’s job is to intuit what each actor needs from you to get the great performance. And sometimes it’s keeping your mouth shut. And you don’t always get it right.”

And sometimes, you just have to cope with a loaded lineup of ringers, as Curtis did on “My Week With Marilyn.” “And then there was something I’m very familiar with, which is working with lots of lead actors in an ensemble,” Curtis proclaims. “It goes down the line -- people like Michael Kitchen, he has a small role, and he’s done his own series!”

6. It doesn’t matter to Curtis if Colin Clark’s story was true.
“I first read his memoirs eight years ago,” Curtis says, noting how much of a fan he was of “The Prince, The Showgirl And Me” as well as “My Week With Marilyn,” both books written by Clark. “What I love is that he describes it as a fairy tale that nonetheless was real. But there’s no doubt there’s a little bit of magical fantasy in there too.

“I was very keen on authenticity,” Curtis stressed, noting the pedigree of those involved in “The Prince And The Showgirl.” “There was so much source material. There are about 150 books written out there about all these principals, all with a ‘Prince and the Showgirl’ chapter. So recreating London in 1956, and the authenticity of Clark‘s story were equally important to me.” But Curtis stressed his main emphasis, “I wanted people to also enjoy this fantasy of an innocent boy encountering an icon.”

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