Mild Spoilers for Blonde follow!
Ever since it first broke into the headlines that Netflix would be taking a chance on its first NC-17 original release, Blonde has been in no shortage of discourse. Against all odds, the film has overcome a slew of hurdles in its slow crawl towards completion tracing back to when writer/director Andrew Dominik first began the pre-production process in 2010. Naomi Watts was initially cast as Marilyn Monroe, with Jessica Chastain succeeding her several years later. By the time cameras started rolling in 2019, rising star Ana de Armas took the role once and for all.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by author Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is not your average biographical affair. At over seven hundred pages long, the book takes fragments of verifiable aspects of Marilyn Monroe’s life and blends them with fiction to create an interpretation of the events that led to her tragic and untimely death. When it comes to the limited public knowledge of Norma Jeane’s journey to stardom, Oates fills in the gaps and gives commentary on the relentless nature of Hollywood. This source material, of course, does not make for your classic feel-good biopic, and it’s no secret that Blonde homes in on tragedy rather than glamour and glory.
Blonde is Andrew Dominik’s first narrative feature in a decade, following Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – two films that have since carried on with dedicated followings. He tackles Marilyn Monroe’s cinematic life with that same level of precision and self-assuredness, mixing a variety of camera motifs, aspect ratios, and pastel-like colors with black-and-white. The end result is more daring, and perhaps even offputting, than what is to be typically expected from this kind of high-level biographical piece. With that in mind, we sat down with Dominik to discuss his aesthetic approach to Blonde and what he believes Marilyn Monroe’s lasting legacy represents.
You previously said that you first read Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde around 2002. What inspired you to first pick up the novel?
Andrew Dominik: Someone told me it was good. I can’t remember, actually, I know I liked it. It was a few years later that I thought, “Oh, maybe that could be a movie!” It usually happens that way for me. I’ve got a bunch of books inside me and they percolate for a while before I think about adapting them.
What was it about Blonde as a book that made you want to adapt that particular story instead of making a more traditional biopic about Marilyn Monroe?
Andrew Dominik: Well, the book isn’t a traditional biopic, it’s like this. My whole entree to Marilyn Monroe was through the book. The book is approaching her life from within the fortress of the self and it’s creating her mythology. And the way that sort of origin mythology echoes throughout her life. The movie is the book.
Marilyn Monroe remains such an iconic figure of pop culture even to this day, what does her legacy mean to you?
Andrew Dominik: I think Marilyn Monroe represents rescue fantasy. I think everything that has been written about Marilyn Monroe, no matter who writes it, whether it be Gloria Steinem or Norman Mailer, a lot of the biographies are written where the author feels that they have a kind of special understanding of her, and I don’t think Blonde as a movie is any different. It’s amazing how protective people are of her, and I think you see that in a lot of what’s written about the film, there’s this sense of people wanting to protect her. It’s a rescue fantasy.
While promoting Blonde at Venice earlier this year, you said that the project came to life when Ana de Armas joined. What was it about that one audition that made you sure she was the right person to play Norma Jean?
Andrew Dominik: It’s kind of an instinctive thing. She looked right. I read with her and she was really good. She’s not the same as Norma Jeane, she is not the character in the story, but she can certainly play her. She has a kind of luminance about her. I think a lot of the stuff that’s done on Marilyn Monroe, in other films and stuff like that, I could never understand what the fuss is about. But you look at the original Marilyn Monroe, and you could understand what the fuss was about. She had a glow about her and I think Ana has that same kind of thing, this luminance.
Ana de Armas has also previously said there was a vital amount of “trust” in your creative partnership. Can you elaborate on that collaboration process?
Andrew Dominik: Well, there are two aspects to it. There’s anthropological, which has to do with how she looks and sounds, how should she be dressed, and how you photograph her – those kinds of things. That’s all, in a way, just work. It’s trying to work out where Ana and Marilyn Monroe overlap, and enlarge that part of the venn diagram as much as you can.
Andrew Dominik: When it comes to the actual acting, we read through the script a couple of times, where I played all the other parts and she played Norma Jeane. Then we worked out the several things that a scene could be. There’s always where a scene has to end up, and there’s a shape to the character in that she doesn’t get angry up until a certain point, and then there’s an explosion of rage. Then you have the sort of dead doll sequence part of the film.
We would map that out and then give her three or four ways to do the scene. Sometimes when we got to set on the day, we would invent new things she would try and do, new fears she was going to have. It’s all about her struggling with herself, so you’re constantly trying to allow Ana to discover collisions within herself. It’s just a serious form of play. If you’re going to do another take, you’ve got to have something different to show for it. It’s an organic kind of thing, there’s no punching superstructure. But within that, what you’re trying to do is surprise yourself.
You spent a lot of time at multiple of Marilyn Monroe’s actual residences while working on the film. How important was it for you to be able to visit and work in those locations?
Andrew Dominik: It’s amazing. Sometimes it’s photographic because you’re imitating photographs that took place in those locations, so actually being there has a practical side. But there’s also the ghost hunting side, where you’re in the room that she would have been in with her mother when she was a little girl, or you’re in the room that she died in.
Stuff like that is pretty incredible because so much of filmmaking is artifice and what you’re trying to do is convince yourself that what is going on is real. When you’re shooting her dying in the room that she actually died, it feels a lot less like pretending.
The visual style of Blonde is so unique and even abstract at times. Could you talk a bit about how you formed this visual language with your cinematographer Chayse Irvin?
Andrew Dominik: The whole idea was to traffic in all those images from her life, if you know the photographic memory of Marilyn Monroe, then you’ll recognize a lot of what’s going on in the film. We were trying to imitate images and then flip the associations that people have with those images in their heads. The idea is to distort the meaning of things according to her internal drama, so if you’re starting with images that are familiar, then you’ve got an association you can flip.
Something like her and Joe DiMaggio in the window, which we think of as a romantic image, we present as him snuffing out her sensitivity. That was basically the strategy of the film, to create this kind of collective memory and tap into it. So we’re imitating a lot of different photographic styles, and all of that is pre-planned. It’s not something where you can just turn up on set and wing it… it’s all being very carefully chosen bit by bit. In the end, we hoped it was going to add up to this kind of hallucinatory kaleidoscope, like deja vu or something.
Do you wish Blonde would have had a wider theatrical release, or are you content with a limited release alongside its space on Netflix?
Andrew Dominik: I think it’s great that it got any kind of theatrical run. Netflix were the only people who would make the film right, that’s just the reality of the situation. I mean, I think there are certain advantages to seeing it in a theater and there are probably advantages to seeing it at home. It was certainly designed with the iPad in mind, or with both kinds of ideas in mind. Personally, I prefer watching it on the big screen. I don’t know, actually, if that’s true… but look, it was always going to be a Netflix movie.
What are you hoping people will take away from the film’s specific perspective of Marilyn Monroe and her life?
Andrew Dominik: I hope they feel shafted and numb, and I hope the film stays with them for a few days. That’s usually what I’m going for, like, complete devastation.
To wrap things up, do you have any new projects on the horizon or something you are hoping to do next?
Andrew Dominik: Maybe join a rock and roll band!