My Week With Marilyn – Simon Curtis interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
SIMON Curtis talks about directing My Week With Marilyn and some of the challenges he faced, such as balancing such a talented ensemble cast with a tight schedule.
He also talks about some of his performers, especially Michelle Williams and how she coped with playing Monroe, and Kenneth Branagh, who was a delight as Sir Laurence Olivier, and how he feels about Monroe’s celebrity and how it contrasted with her personal life.
Q. I really enjoyed My Week With Marilyn…
Simon Curtis: Thank you. I’m proud of it. I’ve never done a [feature] film before and it’s a nerve-wracking phas, I’ve done a lot of TV [Cranford] and theatre but I now have such a strong sense of how the movie plays because I’ve now seen it in 30 different cinemas across the world with people’s responses and done Q&As. So, I know much more about it than I do of anything else I’ve ever done before. In TV, very often, one screening for a small group of friends is all you’ve done before it goes public. But in this case you obviously go through the test screening thing at the various festivals. I literally have watched almost the entire film in front of 30 different audiences in 30 different cities in the world, so I’ve got a very strong sense of how it plays and I’ve been thrilled by the amount of laughter… people laugh more than I ever dreamt they would. They’re responding to the performances too, particularly Michelle [Williams] and Ken [Branagh] and just loving the fact we’re not doing a biopic… it’s this moment in time. I think that’s become quite a common thing in films here… people aren’t telling the whole life story because we’ve got bored of the unknown person who gets power or fame and then loses it. Somehow, this idea of looking at a life through a telling incident is sort of in the zeitgeist somewhere.
Q. I would imagine that going into something like this it’s more apparent than ever that you don’t want to inherit a difficult cast such and replicate Sir Laurence Olivier’s experience? Was it on your mind?
Simon Curtis: Yes! It was but I think it was very specific for Olivier because he was at a particular point in his career.,. he was a legendary actor, a very highly regarded director, particularly of Shakespeare, had done the play before with his wife, and Marilyn, for all her glorious talent, with her lateness and so on is a tricky thing for any director to handle. And, of course, she was working in the Method way, which he found threatening and conflicted with his own way of working in a more external, theatrical way. So, there were a whole load of ingredients that made it an unhappy partnership.
Q. So, what was the most difficult problem you encountered on your set?
Simon Curtis: Well, actually mine would be that because we had such a great ensemble of actors, most of whom were very happy to do our film so long as they could be there on Tuesday and go away on Wednesday… I mean, Judi Dench was doing a film in India, Ken was doing post on Thor in LA, so it was giving the actors as much time as they deserved and needed on set whilst keeping to a tight schedule. We also had location issues… we could only be at Eton on that day and we were going to lose light. So, it was making the schedule work for everybody while giving them the sense that they had as much time as they needed.
Q. In that sense, was that a learning curve for you?
Simon Curtis: Well, actually that’s where working in television came in quite useful because I’ve done quite a few things with demanding schedules with big casts. With period things you never have enough time, so I’ve been taught in making things without enough time [laughs].
Q. I read an interesting interview with Michelle Williams where she felt that there was almost some kind of crossover with Marilyn while playing her. She admitted to becoming super-needy and thriving on compliments. Is that something you found?
Simon Curtis: Well, I’ve got nothing to compare her to having not worked with her before but I wouldn’t put it like that. Obviously, there were lots of different Marilyns. So, sometimes she would be playing Marilyn as Elsie, the character in The Prince & The Showgirl, sometimes she would be a very private Marilyn and sometimes the more extrovert, public Marilyn, and I’d notice that on those different days there would be a slightly different Michelle. But I never thought: “Oh my God, I’ve got Marilyn Monroe!”
Q. Did she have any trepidation about taking on the role given that it’s such an iconic one?
Simon Curtis: Yeah, who wouldn’t? I think she needed to know she could trust me and she was surrounded by a fantastic group of people – costume and make-up and choreographer… I couldn’t have been more proud of what she was doing and happier to see that performance evolve.
Q. So, who was Marilyn Monroe to you?
Simon Curtis: Well, I didn’t have a big Marilyn obsession before this film. I was two when she died so I don’t remember her in her heyday. But like most people of my age and younger she’s a very famous name and an even more famous face, so it was interesting getting to know her by doing this film, which my starting point was not Marilyn but rather Colin Clark’s memoirs… this young man, who was the third AD on The Prince & The Showgirl, who tells the story of the making of that film and his burgeoning relationship with Marilyn.
Q. But over the course of your research, did you come to get a sense of who she was? Of where Monroe ended and Norma Jean began?
Simon Curtis: What was an interesting insight that Michelle herself had was that Marilyn had adopted a lot of those things that Marilyn was famous for… the wiggle and the walk and the wink and so on. So, when we discovered that, that Marilyn had taken on these things, it made it somehow more possible for Michelle to take them on. But the thing that most struck us all was just how hungry Marilyn was to be taken seriously as an actress, how ambitious she was to have credibility. So, coming to England was very much part of that. She came to England to work with Olivier, she was now the producer of her own production company really with an intention of getting that artistic credibility she so craved.
Q. That’s why the line ‘just be sexy’ decimates her so much…
Simon Curtis: Yes exactly! You’re completely right. It’s much documented and exactly right. That literally destroys her dream in that moment.
Q. I wonder how Dustin Hoffman reacted to being given similarly short shrift by Olivier?
Simon Curtis: You mean, ‘Why not try acting?’ Yeah. I think probably Hoffman had more sense of his own value in that moment in time or something. But also that’s more easy to dismiss as the conflict between the Method. But this was more fundamental because the irony is that this film, although it was something that Olivier had done before, she had bought the rights for her production company and had effectively set the film up so she could come to work in England with Olivier. So, the irony is that somebody who desperately craved moving away from sort of the ditzy showgirl parts, the very first thing she was playing was a ditzy showgirl!
Q. I loved the fact that Marilyn remains an enigma throughout the film… you’re never quite sure whether she’s manipulated or a manipulator…
Simon Curtis: Well, we definitely wanted to get that ambivalence… you’re never quite sure. She’d probably be diagnosed as bipolar or with one of those syndromes now. She had shifting mood swings so even when you think you’ve got her, suddenly it could flip around at any moment, and I wanted to get that sense of Colin watching that. So, there was something beguiling and yet unnerving about Marilyn to everyone around her.
Q. Coming on to Kenneth Branagh, he was likened to a young Olivier when he first started out, so did that always make him a natural choice for this part?
Simon Curtis: Yes, he was. I didn’t think he was going to be available because he was in post-production on Thor in LA but somehow it shifted and he was able to do it. He just brought so much to the table. He’s not only a brilliant actor but a brilliant man and had brilliant insights into the script. He knows so much about the world of a film set and was a tremendous support to me.
Q. Was he aware of those comparisons?
Simon Curtis: Yeah, but he didn’t really talk about it that much because it’s not really to do with him. But his knowledge of Shakespeare… in many ways, his career is even more varied and successful than Olivier’s… I mean, that may sound stupid, but just the sheer technical genius of directing Thor, for example, and yet he’s set up these companies, he’s played the Shakespeare parts, he’s now in this award-winning detective show… it’s incredible the range of what he does.
Q. Do you think there’s a sense that he came to this at exactly the right time…
Simon Curtis: Yes! Without any doubt, there was something… he’s the same age now, as am I, as Olivier was in 1956. So, the timing of that was a signal that this was meant to be.
Q. And also given the work he was doing in post on Thor probably meant that he couldn’t wait to get back to acting and deliver those lines, which he does with such relish…
Simon Curtis: Yeah, I think that’s right, I think that’s right. And it was just the right size part for him. It’s a combination of all of those things.
Q. The third part in this equation is, of course, Eddie Redmayne, who plays Colin Clark. He is very much another of our young actors who is on the rise…
Simon Curtis: Oh, very much so. I think this part has particularly helped that. I mean, the thing about Eddie is that he’s got a phenomenal resume for someone so young. He’s already worked with so many great people and he was the guy I always wanted because he has such wisdom and such innocence as well. I’m thrilled that people are responding to him so well.
Q. How do you think Marilyn’s experience in England shaped the rest of her career? There’s a school of thinking that suggests it could have marked the beginning of the end…
Simon Curtis: Well, I don’t know because you could say that about many times in her life. I think she came to England with high hopes about her credibility and that didn’t happen. But ironically her very next job, which I don’t think had anything to do with her experience on The Prince & The Showgirl, was arguably her greatest performance in one of the greatest films ever made, Some Like It Hot. So, you say the beginning of the end and yet her career highlight came next. So, I don’t know. As often with filmmaking and our business, you have these really intense experiences and then you move on and they sort of evaporate. So, I don’t know…
Q. She was actually BAFTA nominated for this role…
Simon Curtis: Was she? I don’t think she was ever nominated for an Oscar… I read that the other day. And next year is the 50th anniversary of her death.
Q. Where exactly did you go for research?
Simon Curtis: Well, we had two amazing sources: Colin’s book primarily, which tells the story, and The Prince & The Showgirl the movie. But you would not believe how easy it is to find reference material, photographic evidence of their time in England, so we were recreating when she comes off the plane or the photo call at Parkside from images we had. For a lot of the private scenes we were totally in Colin’s hands. We were really hungry to get it as right as possible.
Q. Did the fact this is a story seen through the eyes of three different people make matters more complicated?
Simon Curtis: In a way but Elaine, who did the continuity on the film in 1956, who like Marilyn had been 30 in 1956, has been a tremendous advocate and supporter of the film and came on the set. Colin’s family came on the set and really liked what Eddie was doing. And Arthur Miller’s sister has seen the film a couple of time and really likes it. Really exciting, Don Murray, who was Marilyn’s co-star in Bus Stop, has seen it three times and just loves what Marilyn has done. He said this is as close that he’s seen of anything of Marilyn. That was exciting to hear.
Q. How was getting location access to places such as Windsor Castle?
Simon Curtis: We were only there very briefly and Eton very briefly. But Pinewood and Parkside House, the house that Marilyn actually did rent when she was in the UK… getting those locations made me feel we had a real authenticity.
Q. How long did you have at Windsor then?
Simon Curtis: About an hour! The interiors are not Windsor, just the exterior.
Q. What was the biggest thing you took away from the experience of making this film?
Simon Curtis: I don’t know… I hadn’t realised quite what a love letter it was to the making of films and a love letter to the talent and courage of actors, so something in that area.
Q. And how much did you enjoy working alongside someone like Branagh on just a practical level, in terms of anecdotes and insights?
Simon Curtis: Well, he’s hilarious but wise… when I think of him, I obviously enjoyed all of that. But more so, I thought he’s just a kindred spirit and knows so much about the agony and ecstasy of directing, which both helped his path playing a director who was experiencing that and also supported me, who was experiencing that. So, I was very grateful for that.
Q. So, how hungry are you now for more feature films?
Simon Curtis: Well, it’s taught me that it has to be something you love, so I will be cautious but I very much hope to do something else.
Q. Have you got anything else in the pipeline?
Simon Curtis: I’m talking about some things but nothing definite.
Q. Will you continue to work in TV as well?
Simon Curtis: Yeah, I’m drawn to projects I like, if that makes sense. But having held out to make this film for some years, and having done quite a lot of television on a certain level, my instinct would be to do something filmic next.
Q. Is it very different making that step up?
Simon Curtis: Well, the actual day-to-day isn’t really, especially the kind of TV I’ve done with big ensemble casts. But the way post-production operates is very different because in television there’s a certain feeling that you have to finish this and get it out, whereas in film it’s almost the opposite… you’ve never got to finish this and it never has to go out. The amount of scrutiny it goes under with test screenings and film festivals and all that… the way it enters the world is quite different. It’s both exciting and quite terrifying.
Q. It’s interesting that something like this would be test screened as there’s not much you can change…
Simon Curtis: Well, they test screen everything for marketing purposes… everyone wants a reassurance that it’s as good as it can be. I mean, I went into it thinking there’s not much to change in terms of what happens, but there’s all kinds of things… there are things that you worry about that cease to be a worry, and other things that you never thought of that become something to worry about [laughs]. I guess they spend so much money on the promotion of these films, they want to learn from that. So, they have incredibly detailed documents about what everyone in the room thought and all of that.
Q. Was there something that surprised you in particular about what was raised?
Simon Curtis: I don’t know… it’s tricky to say because the film has evolved. It was more things like: “How do we present that this was something that actually happened?” It was the sort of pitching of it, if that makes sense? But it was really nice to see how right from the get-go, the three central performances – Eddie, Michelle and Ken – the audience really liked. That was really reassuring.
Q. How gratifying for you is it to hear My Week With Marilyn being mentioned in awards terms?
Simon Curtis: Well, right now I just hope the film opens well here and in America this week and that people come and enjoy it. If, around the corner, Michelle and Ken and the actors get some sort of recognition I would be very proud.
Q. And yourself?
Simon Curtis: I’d be ecstatic!
My Week With Marilyn opens in UK cinemas on Friday, November 25, 2011.