Love, Marilyn - Liz Garbus interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
LIZ Garbus talks about some of the challenges of making her documentary Love Marilyn and why she emerged from the project with a greater empathy and understanding of the woman and actress behind the photos.
She also talks about working with some of her actors and actresses, how she goes about choosing material for her films and what she most like about making documentaries. She was speaking while promoting the film at the 2012 London Film Festival.
Q. I think the documentary starts by stating there have been over 1,000 books written about Marilyn Monroe and you, yourself, were brought the material. Were you sceptical about doing it initially?
Liz Garbus: You know, when I started working on this film it was before My Week With Marilyn, which of course has made such an impression and now with the 50th anniversary of her death, she seems to be even more present than she was even just a couple of years ago. But I really didn’t struggle with that problem too much when I actually read the documents, because I thought they were so unique and beautiful and I felt there were moments in them that I hadn’t seen or pictured before, that I felt that this made so much sense, especially within all this noise that’s happening about her. I’m not including My Week With Marilyn in that because I think it’s beautiful, but I think more in terms of the commercialisation of her. So, I felt this had a real raison d’être within that.
Q. What did you think of Michelle Williams’ portrayal of Marilyn?
Liz Garbus: I think she is an incredible actress. I think that she really got that sort of mix of childlike quality that Marilyn always channelled with the knowing kind of wise nature. I think she was great. I can’t imagine playing anyone playing that role again. But of course I took a very different approach. I didn’t want my actresses to be Marilyn. I didn’t want people to look at them and compare them to Marilyn because I just wanted them to listen. If I think you’re trying to be Marilyn, we’re always comparing you. With Michelle as well, everyone was watching ‘did she wiggle like that?’; ‘Did she laugh like that?’ It’s almost outside of the performance because this is one of the most famous women in the world and you know her so well, so you’re always comparing. So, I wanted to relieve my actresses of that and just let the audiences listen more. I think maybe there is something you can learn just by doing that, rather than having to see her physicality.
Q. How did you go about assembling such a great cast?
Liz Garbus: Well, it’s like anything, we built. The first person who came on board was Ellen Burstyn and I think she had a very direct relationship to the material because she studied with Lee Strasberg and she met Marilyn once and she knew the writings. We showed them to her and she was interested in them. So, once Ellen was involved you build from one to the other. I had great producers who helped. I think the actors respond to good words and there is interesting work to read. A lot of what they can be handed… they get a lot of crap, so I think they’re happy to be able to read Truman Capote because it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.
Q. How was directing them for you?
Liz Garbus: It was great because every person was so different in their approach. I tried to respect that. Some of the actors and actresses wanted to work a lot and talk a lot about which documents meant something to them and how we could bring it out. Others were very happy to be assigned a block of text and would show up and read it. There were a lot of different energies and both can have great results. I felt honoured because I worked with a lot of talented people.
Q. Did you have very long to work with them?
Liz Garbus: Some of them we had more prep time and we would work on the documents and then some of them, literally, we would send to them and they clearly did their own work, showed up and nailed it.
Q. How did your own view of Marilyn change from the point you came on board the project to leaving it?
Liz Garbus: I think my view of Marilyn was very empty coming into the project. It was an image of a woman. It was this two dimensional still photograph that we all know, or the Warhol image that we’ve all seen so many times. It wasn’t an image of a human being, or even an image of an actress. She made so many movies but I just really knew the still Marilyn, the two dimensional Marilyn. Of course, she did make so many movies, she was so prolific by the time she died when she was 36… she had made 22 pictures. She was somebody who worked incredibly hard at acting, wanted to be taken seriously, her greatest goal was to be respected as an actress and she struggled with that. She also struggled with that work/family balance and those two things were always pulling at her and I think as a working woman I related to that very directly, or I do relate to that very directly, and that was very surprising to me. I didn’t think I would personally relate to that. But clearly Marilyn’s personal life and her career were at odds in a way that many women find today and it’s interesting that she was experiencing that.
Q. Do you think that she found it harder to be able to reach out and talk to somebody about that because, perhaps, there weren’t as many women doing that? She was ahead of her time in many ways…
Liz Garbus: Yeah. I also think it was a different time and people wrote a lot more. I’ve heard the press conference where she divorces Joe DiMaggio, her lawyer says ‘this is what we can call a conflict of careers’. Her career was too big for Joe DiMaggio. He couldn’t stand that his wife was a sex symbol and all of those things. So, I think that it was overt, that that was the problem. It’s just not something that I’ve recognised in her, or something that people have talked about, which was how devoted she was to her work and how that also created problems with her.
Q. Where do you think her insecurities came from?
Liz Garbus: Well look, she had a very, very terrible childhood. She didn’t really grow up with any parents. So, there was always going to be self-esteem issues when that happens. I’m not trying to be an armchair psychologist but of course you don’t have that internal battery that keeps you saying: “I’m OK, I’m OK.” So, I think she constantly felt not adequate enough. I think she was a real perfectionist and until she felt comfortable that she could get something right, she wouldn’t do it. I think she was very… I mean self-centred is a nasty word but I don’t think she thought about everything that was going on outside of her trailer. I don’t think she was consciously trying to disrespect people, but that she remained blissfully oblivious. But I think that was out of anxiety. I don’t think that Laurence Olivier necessarily had it right when he said that she had an aversion to being an actress. I think actually she had too much of a desire to be an actress that got in the way of herself just going out and performing.
Q. The thing I found fascinating about the documentary was that she was so driven to get to leading lady status only to keep sabotaging herself almost when she got there…
Liz Garbus: Well, I think she wanted to be a different kind of leading lady. She had gotten that part in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the dumb blonde who is really wise, she played that part so well. But then she wanted to do other parts. But the scripts that were being given to her over and over and over again were that same part and she wanted different parts. She got some of them but I think she wanted more. And she was very successful, by all accounts, at Bus Stop, which was a more complex character.
Q. How did you decide what to leave out, especially in terms of the Kennedy aspect of her life? Was that referenced in the letters at all?
Liz Garbus: No, we really didn’t talk about any of her affairs, of which there were many, and any of the conspiracy theories around her death. I felt that there had been so much done on Marilyn that I had a little space, which were these documents, and the material that would give context to these documents. That stuff just wasn’t really in there and it wasn’t really interesting to me because I felt that it had been covered ad nauseum. So, I just chose to… I have a little space to fill, so I don’t have to do it all because everybody else is doing it. Whereas, with Bobby Fischer Against The World I want to tell everything because it was an incredible story that hadn’t been told in that way.
Q. Did you get to see all of the letters and diaries?
Liz Garbus: Yeah, from this particular collection.
Q. How do you go about choosing which films you are going to make into documentaries?
Liz Garbus: It’s different every time. This one, of course, was brought to me by that producer. Sometimes that happens, that there are producers who have ideas, but oftentimes it’s just me sort of reading something and then going after it. Other times, I work a lot with HBO in the States. It’s always this balance. With Bobby Fischer it’s because I read an article about him and then sort of got wildly obsessed about making a film on him and read everything that I could. So, each time it’s a little different.
Q. What do you love about making documentaries?
Liz Garbus: I love crafting them in the edit room. I love shaping… taking the real material of a life and then shaping it like a narrative. Of course, that means you’re taking liberties in some areas about what you put in and what you leave out but it’s shaping it as an exciting story that’s just as exciting as a narrative. I also like pushing myself into new places, like working with all these actors. That was a new place for me and it felt like a risk and I enjoy being out there doing that. So, I just want to make myself a little nervous and I think sometimes that’s better.
Q. Would you ever venture into feature film making?
Liz Garbus: Yeah, if the right idea came along and I got the financing. I have some ideas and there’s stuff I’m developing, so we’ll see.
Q. How easy is it to get documentaries made at the moment, especially for cinematic distribution? I know a lot of independent filmmakers are finding it hard at the moment…
Liz Garbus: Well, I don’t think any film is easy to make. I feel very lucky because I’ve had a lot of support from different broadcasters and financiers and StudioCanal and HBO. But I don’t think any film is easy. It’s a slog.
Q. What about getting it into cinemas?
Liz Garbus: All I can do is make a film that tells a really good story and then we get experts to figure out how to get the bodies in the theatre. But I think when you make a good story and it gets attention, then people will come.
Q. Have you got anybody else in mind that you’d like to make a documentary on, or any other issues?
Liz Garbus: It’s still marinating in my mind. We’ll see what comes next.
Love, Marilyn opens in UK cinemas on Friday, October 18, 2013