Director Simon Curtis’s My Week with Marilyn offers an all-too-rare glimpse of the real woman behind the carefully cultivated image of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe and lately it’s been generating a lot of Oscar buzz. Curtis couldn’t believe his luck when he was able to secure the rights to Colin Clark’s entertaining follow-up memoir to The Prince, The Showgirl and Me, which affectionately recalls a tense, erotically charged week spent with the most famous woman in the world at the peak of her fame. Curtis felt Colin’s book provided wonderful insight into the very real side of Marilyn away from Hollywood and the pressures of London where she was working at the time.
We sat down and talked exclusively with the veteran TV director about what inspired his feature film directorial debut and the challenges of revealing a private side of such a public figure. Curtis told us about his collaboration with screenwriter Adrian Hodges, how he assembled the impressive cast, why he never doubted Michelle Williams’s ability to pull off the iconic role, and how Harvey Weinstein’s passion for the project helped the film grow. He also discussed how this story from another era defines our modern day fascination with celebrity and obsession with staying young forever. Hit the jump for our full interview.
SIMON CURTIS: I was passionate about the book by Colin Clark so I pushed it into existence obviously with my producers. It started as some material that I really loved. I also feel that I’ve been lucky. It is my first film, but I’ve done television of a certain type. It was actually you could argue very good preparation for this film.
What about the adaptation of the book and your collaboration with Adrian Hodges?
CURTIS: He’s someone I’ve worked with before and I really trust. He would do drafts and we’d talk about it and I’d give notes.
Was there additional research that you did?
CURTIS: There’s a lot of material out there but we had to be quite careful because the whole point of this was that it was Colin’s version. If you wanted to tell the story of the Miller marriage, it would be a different movie and so on. This was Colin’s point of view so we did enhance it with other things that I or Adrian or other people had read. But it is essentially Colin’s version of it.
There’s a lot of available yet contradictory information out there.
CURTIS: Very much so.
With that in mind, how do you arrive at the truth?
CURTIS: I don’t know. I mean, it’s an instinct, but you’re absolutely right that some people say this and some people mention Colin and some people don’t. But that’s true, if he talks about this film, some people would think Chris (Foggin), who was our 3rd AD, would be a very significant figure. For some people, they wouldn’t have even noticed him. We just went through sort of an instinct. I was so interested in things like Eve Arnold writing about how Marilyn was sort of creating herself. It was so interesting to read about someone talking about Marilyn and how she would be diagnosed with borderline personality or bipolar and then join the dots in a way.
CURTIS: It was comforting actually because the telling of her whole life would be so intimidating, I think both for Michelle and I. The fact that it was this sort of moment in time, a highly charged story that told the tale of her whole life in a way, was a helpful and reassuring thing.
Was it difficult sticking strictly to Colin’s version of the story without telling the rest of the story?
CURTIS: Well, as I was saying, it was difficult and yet the point. You could tell so many stories of this time in England. I read somewhere, for example, that I think she actually first met JFK when he was in London at this time. I don’t know if that’s true, but Colin wasn’t a witness to it so it wasn’t our story.
Was this film tricky to cast or did the fact that you were shooting in London enable you to assemble a great cast even for the smaller parts?
CURTIS: Shooting in London made a big difference to the ensemble. There’s no question of that. But so did the casting of Michelle (Williams) and Ken (Branagh) who are great magnets to other actors. No actor does anything they don’t feel they’ve got an instinct of how to play a part. I’ve got quite a lot of experience of casting big ensemble things, and I sat around for a long time drawing up wish lists of cast.
When did you first know that Michelle could pull it off?
CURTIS: I always had great faith in her and really believed in her and really liked her. In my experience, those things are very valuable. But there was a time where she worked and we did a big make-up and costume test on camera, and I went to collect her from the dressing room, and seeing the crew’s jaws drop as she walked on set as full Marilyn for the first time was very encouraging. She brought everything to the part. It was a privilege to work with her. I couldn’t ask for more from her process or the way she worked and so on.
CURTIS: Not especially. I mean, I knew her and I was aware of her, but I was not one of those Marilyn fanatics.
Did you feel any pressure in terms of trying to tell a story about such an iconic figure and how much did you have to Hollywoodize it to make the movie work?
CURTIS: That’s interesting. I always believed in the essence of the film being what it is. But certainly, Harvey (Weinstein) is my producer who is very, very ambitious for the film. His influence has really helped the film grow. His influence in helping us get those musical numbers at the beginning and the end are all things that make the film bigger and better. He was very passionate about the film on the set and in the editing room. He was very helpful in enabling me to get fantastic score music – the score and Lang Lang to compose it and all of that. So I’m very grateful to Harvey for his fantastic support.
Can you describe your directing process with Michelle?
CURTIS: I just basically felt my job was to give her as much space and as much support as possible.
CURTIS: That’s a good question because that was the starting point physically for Michelle. She worked with Jane (Gibson), our choreographer, on that dance and they discussed obviously not only the movement in the dance but Marilyn’s movement, and so yes, that was a real key.
What was it like recreating some of the scenes from The Prince and the Showgirl?
CURTIS: It was good. We only recreated two or three minutes of it actually, but that tension between Olivier and Marilyn was actually a joy to do because I had Ken Branagh and Michelle Williams and that’s something to really get your teeth into. You know what I mean? For me, it was one of my favorite moments of the film when he says “Can’t you just be sexy?” You can hear the audience audibly groan at the end because they know that for a woman who wanted to be taken so seriously that was absolutely the worst note he could give her.
What were the challenges of getting the look of Marilyn just right and how did your creative team contribute to that?
CURTIS: Well we had a great team and we used to talk about Marilyn madness. Every time Marilyn came on set, we all got into sort of a frenzy upon seeing Michelle. But we had a brilliant make-up designer in Jenny Shircore so that was a great start. And Michelle took everything so seriously in hair, make-up and costume, everything really.
How do you think Marilyn Monroe defines modern day celebrity?
CURTIS: I think she was a prototype superstar in the way we take for granted now. Whether it was conscious or accidental, the fact that people were as fascinated by her private life and she gave them fodder for their stories about her private life, whereas the interest of people in her work is something that is much more familiar now, isn’t it, as a concept. Next year is the 50th anniversary of her death.
CURTIS: I like that strand in the movie where Vivian Leigh, hailed so recently as the most beautiful women in the history of the world, now 43, is feeling like her moment has passed. And there should be that sense that should Marilyn have lived to 43, maybe she would have felt past it too.
The film is already generating a lot of Oscar buzz and it’s being compared to last year’s The King’s Speech. How do you feel about that and the possibility of being recognized by the Academy?
CURTIS: That’s quite a high bar, isn’t it? I mean, Jesus! I just hope the film opens well and that people continue to like it. The screenings have been going fantastically well. People are laughing. They’re appreciating Michelle and Ken and all the acting, and nothing would please me more than for that to continue and for them to get the acclaim they deserve.
How do you think a younger audience will respond to your film?
CURTIS: I think several things about that. I think it’s about a young man’s journey into the world so that’s very exciting because young people will identify with him. I think people have heard of Marilyn more than they know about her so they’re interested in that and the celebrity thing we talked about. And I think also with Eddie (Redmayne), Dominic (Cooper), Michelle and Emma (Watson), we’ve got a very attractive, hot young cast. So, all of those combined, should help.
What do you have coming up next?
CURTIS: I don’t know. I’m on this journey for now.
Do you think you will continue to do features?
CURTIS: Yes. I hope so. I hope my next thing will be a film.
Do you plan to go back to theater and TV at some point?
What kind of film would you like to make after this?
CURTIS: That’s a good question. I think a contemporary film, but I’m very much drawn to films about grown-ups and human beings, and American films mean a lot to me personally. But there are less and less films made in that category. I’m drawn to those kinds of films as a viewer and as a filmmaker.
CURTIS: That’s a good point. I mean, a story and writing that interests me personally and that offers the potential for great actors to act well.
What can we expect for the DVD/Blu-ray release?
CURTIS: I don’t know. We actually haven’t had that conversation. There may be one or two deleted scenes. I quite look forward to doing a commentary, the spoken word. It hasn’t been discussed but I would like to. I’ve learned a lot from hearing other directors do that and I would really like to do that.
Will there be a bloopers reel?
CURTIS: We tried one of those and it wasn’t that funny actually.
My Week with Marilyn opens in theaters on November 23rd.