Michelle Williams and Simon Curtis on the set of My Week with Marilyn

Andy Warhol famously said, “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous.” That sentiment is rendered beautifully in My Week with Marilyn, the first feature from prolific British director Simon Curtis, perhaps best known for his work on the BAFTA, Emmy, and Golden Globe nominated series Cranford. In My Week with Marilyn (opening in select cities today), Curtis directed Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) playing screen legend Marilyn Monroe during her time in London filming The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). When Monroe’s psyche shattered under the pressures of filming, she sought friendship with Assistant Director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), creating a love triangle of sorts between them and wardrobe girl Lucy (Emma Watson). I sat down with Curtis last week in Hollywood to discuss making the film. He was deeply passionate and bursting with enthusiasm. Here’s our discussion, with minor edits for clarity.

Jackson Truax: Many acclaimed filmmakers have wanted to adapt My Week with Marilyn. How did you succeed where others had failed?

Simon Curtis: I just think the timing was right… Certainly the timing was right for [Williams] to be our Marilyn… When I cast her…I didn’t know how “hot” she’d be in Hollywood terms when the film came out. It was like it was almost meant to be.

JT: It sounds like you immediately connected with producers David Parfitt and Harvey Weinstein on a shared vision of the film. How did you come to work with them?

SC: [Parfitt’s] someone I’ve known for a long time in England. I took the idea to him. We worked on it for a number of years. He and [Weinstein] had worked together on several films, including Shakespeare in Love and The Wings of the Dove. [Weinstein] obviously has an interest in British subjects… It all seemed to make sense… [Parfitt] and I got Adrian Hodges to write it. He’s someone I’ve worked with before at the BBC. [Weinstein] came on board when we cast [Williams].

JT: What in your personal and professional relationship made you think Adrian Hodges was the best writer for the job?

SC: Like me, he can easily imagine the young man wanting to break into films. He’s just a very skillful adapter of material. I’d done David Copperfield…with him at the BBC previously. I knew from that that he was a very good choice.

JT: You’ve said that Michelle Williams was the only actor you thought of to play Monroe. What was it about her work that made you think she was the only choice for the part?

SC: She just brings brilliant psychological texture and complexity to her parts. I knew I wanted it to be that sort of [Monroe].

JT: Watson plays a role in the film with not a lot of screen time. Taking an actress from the most successful franchise of all time and giving her a supporting role was a brave thing a lot of directors wouldn’t have done. How did you decide to cast her in that part?

SC: You don’t think like that. You think, “There’s this very good, sort-of small, cameo subplot with this woman. A twenty-year-old English girl. Who’s the best twenty-year-old English girl you can cast?…” Actually, because it was a short commitment for [Watson], that’s the only reason we got her, because she was at school at the time… I tend to go for the best actors I can get. Because I’ve never been let down by great acting.

JT: Speaking of great acting, you cast one of the greatest actors of the past century, Branagh, channeling another one of them, Olivier. Did you ever talk with Branagh about Olivier’s influence on his career?

SC: Not in those terms. Obviously, [Branagh’s] knowledge and admiration for Olivier was a big deal. And a big part of what makes that performance so textured in itself.

JT: Was Branagh ever afraid to do it? Because of the obvious comparisons or his admiration for Olivier?

SC: There was a condition of “Will this be a good idea?” But I think [Branagh] trusted it. He certainly brought very good ideas to it. The fact that people can enjoy that performance as much as they do… He brings a lot of laughs with him. Yet there’s also an essential sympathy and humanity to it.

JT: When you’re casting a film with these really iconic characters, how important for you is it to have actors who look identical to the characters they’re playing, compared to an actor who can capture an essence of the character or story you want to portray?

SC: I don’t know the actual answer for that. Basically casting is getting the best person as you see it for each part. Physical resemblance is an element of that… When were casting [Monroe] or Olivier, there’s some great actors in the world you can’t imagine in those parts… If you look at some of the great performances in recent films of famous people…Helen Mirren and The Queen don’t look alike…  Or Frank Langella and [Richard] Nixon… The lesson to me…is that great acting is what really matters, obviously supported by make-up and design.

JT: Speaking of the make-up, your head make-up artist was Jenny Shircore, who’s known for these really beautiful and very elegant, sometimes very subtle period make-ups. She’s also a person of incredible humanity, all of which seems like a great fit for this film. How did she become involved in the film, and what do you think her artistry brought to the project?

SC: I’d known her reputation, but I can’t tell you how much I liked her as a woman and liked her being around. I think that time she spent with [Williams] in the chair every morning…was as important psychologically as it was in make-up terms.

JT: After you shot the film, where did you record the theme from your score?

SC: Very late in the process we recorded…in Abbey Road studios and Lang Lang came in and played… That was a great moment. And a gift from Harvey to the movie… I’m eternally grateful for that.

JT: I know you were an Assistant Director at the Royal Court Theater as a young man. How did that inform your direction of My Week with Marilyn?

SC: I suppose I just understood that unique excitement of getting your first job in a world you’re hungry to be part of.

JT: The danger with material like this is that it could have felt very much like a TV movie, but you made it feel very cinematic. How did you accomplish that?

SC: I don’t know. But I suppose [the film] is a love-letter to filmmaking… It’s about cinema stars and the cinema process. So it felt like a cinema experience to me.

JT: The relationship between Monroe and Clark is first and foremost a friendship, but throughout the film becomes intimate in ways that feel very romantic and sensual, with maternal and paternal layers as well. How important was it that you and your actors had a well-defined and shared vision of the relationship, and what did your definition look like?

SC: When you’re working on something, it’s scene-by-scene, rather than the overall view… There was just something nuanced about it… A couple of films that might surprise you that were my sort-of influences when I made this film, two films by…young American filmmakers who I truly admire. One, Lost in Translation, a film about two random people who come into each other’s orbit and have this intense experience and then go their separate ways. So that was a guide. As was Almost Famous…the guy who gets the ticket…the entree, into the glamorous world… One of them is a period film…a much more recent period. But I love those films. Lost and Translation proved to me that you can make an intense movie on a short-lived, intense, but not fully sexual relationship.

JT: Given what we know in modern psychology, did you do any research trying to diagnose Monroe at all?

SC: I did actually. There were several articles we found that sort-of considered that [Monroe] would definitely now be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar or something in that spectrum. That was very helpful. Because the symptoms of those conditions include rapid mood swings, and inappropriate behavior and strange boundaries and cutting people off and so-on… I definitely feel that that’s very much part of who [Monroe] was.

JT: That’s a difficult balance you struck. As the love story feels so innocent, the drama on-set that’s fueling Monroe’s behavior can’t feel too dramatic, so you seem to play the comedic absurdity of it. How did you figure out how comedic those scenes could feel?

SC: I think it’s a film that, when it works, works on different levels at the same time. Comedy is always a good tool for me. But I must admit, I’m very pleasantly surprised by how much laughter there is in these American cinemas. I think I’ve seen it, probably twenty times over the last month… Hearing that laughter is a really wonderful thing.

JT: Your film really provides a complete picture of Marilyn Monroe. What’s the sense you want audiences to have of Marilyn Monroe once the film is over that they have didn’t 100 minutes prior?

SC: I think, they think “My goodness.” Yes, she was the beautiful, iconic actress, who they knew to be a sort-of ditzy showgirl. But actually underneath that there was this very complicated, intelligent woman who was desperate, who craved being taken seriously. I hope the audience will admire her as much as [Williams] and I came to admire her.

3 Responses to “Director Simon Curtis talks to LiC about “My Week with Marilyn””

  1. The hectic activity at this site, especially with all these high profile interviews with major directors is really something to celebrate. The interview affectionately reveals a deep connection to Marilyn the woman, rather than Marilyn the Icon, and I guess that’s really the telling point. Great questions and responses.

  2. Yes Jackson did another great job. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do everything have to do to make this the kind of site I want it to be so I’m trying to spread the load around a little.

    I’ve heard quibbles about Williams not quite physically fitting the role, but I don’t really buy those. No one is going to look exactly like Marilyn. That’s why it’s called acting and not mimicking

  3. Well done Jackson for responding so well to a different kind of interviewing challenge. Cronenberg speaking at greater length and in a more nuanced and intellectually rigorous way required good listening skills and a willingness to more conversationally follow up on what he said rather than more strictly being guided by a question list. With Curtis the responses were briefer and a little more on the surface. But you seemed well prepared for this possibility and had many pertinent questions at hand.

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