Liz Garbus is back in the director’s chair with her new movie Love, Marilyn - a movie that lit up the BFI London Film Festival last night.
And we caught up with her to chat about the film, which is an intimate portrayal of the actress through letter and documents written by Monroe herself, as well as why she thinks the blonde bombshell is such an enduring icon.
- Marilyn Monroe is one of the most enduring stars of the big screen so what do you think continues to fuel the modern day fascination with her?
I think Marilyn created a figure of female sexuality and femininity at a time in the U.S. of great repression - it was the grey flannel suit of the 1950’s - and I think sexuality was trying to come out and it happened that it came out in the form of Marilyn Monroe.
If you look at Marilyn alongside Jane Russell, her co- star in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, when they were at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre doing their hand prints Jane Russell is wearing this big 1950’s style poof skirt but with Marilyn every contour of her body is showing.
It was a metaphor for the shift that was happening at the time. I think it is naive or simplistic to say that Marilyn was an early feminist but what she did do was discuss sexuality.
There were these nude photos that emerged of her, we are all familiar with the nude photo scandals today, but instead of doing what the studio wanted her to do which was deny them she decides to go out and do an interview and ‘yes, it was me. I did it because I needed the money.’
She dealt with sexuality in a very frank way and I think that it had an indelible mark on the culture.
And I think then dying young and beautiful and that mythology around that tragic life story - the little girl who achieves everything and then at the height of everything dies.
It’s a modern Cinderella story that has endured in our culture. And because she created it at this very particular moment it was particularly powerful.
- As you say she has a very iconic image and we all have a perception of her so how does this film go about changing that perception?
The perception that I had of Marilyn was not incredibly deep and she was a subject of skilled photography. I didn’t even think of her as an actress in her movie roles - I thought of type of roles that she played; the dumb blonde who was a little wise but I didn’t think of her as a human being or as an actress.
I thought of her more as model or an image. And with this film and using the documents, letters and notes that she left behind provides the flesh of that person. Viewers will judge for themselves whether it is something new and different but for me it was.
Looking at her as a working woman who was struggling balancing the demands of family and work, which is a story that is relatable to modern women and it was a way that I related to her which I wasn’t expecting.
So I think there are things that were in the documents that I found to be different to what I had expected.
- Marilyn Monroe has been depicted on the big screen very recently in My Week With Marilyn and while this film is a documentary I wonder how you felt it compared?
That film is based on a week and it is this one moment in her life while our film deals with a much longer span of time - not her whole life but just the period the documents come from which is her adult life.
They talk about acting, her fears, love and her struggles to balance and include men in the life that she had that was so busy and complex and public.
One thing that happens when an actress plays Marilyn, even as superbly as Michelle Williams has done, people are always comparing her to the real person; you are watching the ways in which Michelle is and is not Marilyn. And while she is superb she is not Marilyn - no one is 100% somebody else.
The approach that I took in the film was to get a cast of actresses but none of them were playing Marilyn what they doing was using their experiences as actresses today to bring to life Marilyn’s experiences. They had insights into them that even I, who had read the documents twenty times didn’t.
They would understand that this was the note about an acting technique when to me it seemed like it was from a dream or a nightmare.
So they could understand these notes that were unique and profound. So in the reading of it you feel something more of Marilyn’s experiences and because they are not playing her you are not looking at them thinking ’well how is Uma Thurman like Marilyn?’
You are just listening to the words and maybe feeling them more. You are not seeing Marilyn in the same way but you are feeling her a little bit more because you are not constantly comparing.
- So where did this project start for you? And what did you think of those documents when you read them for the first time?
The project started for me with the documents. I made a movie called Bobby Fischer Against the World and my producer on the film was an advisor to the Monroe estate.
The Strasburg’s found in their closet two boxes of documents that… Marilyn left to her acting teacher Lee Strasberg her estate and much of it had been catalogued and archived and filmed but then these two boxes of letter, notes and poems were discovered.
Finally they decided that they should bring them out in to the world and my producer was helping them figure of what to do with them.
So when I heard about them I said that I would be interested in doing a film - it wasn’t that I was so interested in Marilyn Monroe but he was telling me about these documents and the types of things she was saying and I found them irresistible. I found them really interesting.
- So what were some of the challenges that you faced when making this movie?
Stylistically it is very different to anything that I have done before and I haven’t seen a film like it. I felt that I was doing something that was risky as I had a whole bunch of different actors reading fragments of thoughts and ideas.
You had to edit them to become cohesive and yet still relish their fragmented nature as they are not meant to be a narrative - they were meant to illuminate moments in time and brief thoughts; some of them fleeting.
So I had to respect that and then provide the viewer with a cohesive narrative and that was a balancing act.
- I think that you think about her in a different way after you have seen the movie. I had more respect for her, not that I didn’t respect her, but I just never thought about it. This film shows that there was more to her than just a white dress.
Well that is where I started from. You don’t create a figure that is that enduring figure if you are stupid - she was a very well crafted.
There was a biography who talked about how she read Italian magazines and she knew that in Italy there was this very busty and sexual female figure that was being embraced.
And she saw in the American culture that this was… she adopted things from different cultures and that she very deliberately created a new type of American figure and that was quite brilliant. Maybe some of it was instinctive but you don’t create that by accident.
She played it to a tee and she is remarkable. In the movie we show a lot of her press conferences and you see the way that she talks to the press - she is so clever and she handles the press so well.
They all try to ask her these little zingers and she deflects them very gracefully like a great politician. Her public persona was incredibly well calibrated and she was a master at it.
- You have touched upon the editing process already and you really do pull in so many different strands with this movie; the letters, home videos and performances from modern day stars so how difficult an editing a process was it?
It was difficult. There is always a time in editing, maybe it is in documentary because there is no script, where you are deep n the woods and it is very dark and you don’t know how you are going to find your way out.
Because I have made quite a few films I have come to embrace that period I was like ‘this is where it is all happening. I know it feels like we will never find out way out but this has to happen’.
I was there and I know that I will get through it and you just have to constantly keep telling yourself that. Sometimes all of a sudden there is a break and your story just… things that weren’t working begin to work.
The BFI London Film Festival runs 10 - 21 October
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw