Even though My Week With Marilyn may be director Simon Curtis’ debut feature film, he literally had two decades of experience making movies for BBC Television and directing for the Royal Court Theatre, where he worked under Danny Boyle for many years, before tackling the snapshot taken at an interesting point in Marilyn Monroe’s life.
For his first feature, Curtis was able to use all that experience to pull together an astounding cast headlined by Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, two actors from different worlds playing actors who would come together in 1956 to adapt a play into the film The Prince and the Showgirl, a production that would be plagued by problems, mainly from the tensions between the two stars. In Curtis’s film, Eddie Redmayne plays Colin Clark, a runner working on the film whose memoirs inspired My Week with Marilyn, as he gained Marilyn’s trust and spent the week as her closest confidante, getting the type of platonic quality time any hot-blooded male would kill for.
Curtis’s amazing cast also includes Dame Judi Dench, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott and many others creating the environment at Pinewood Studios in which a young ambitious man was able to become friends with one of the biggest superstars in the world. It’s quite an impressive debut for a director who is barely known on these shores.
ComingSoon.net sat down with the filmmaker right after the film’s New York Film Festival debut back in September for the following interview.
ComingSoon.net: How long have you been trying to get this movie made? Is this something you started a while ago?
Simon Curtis: Yes, I would say this has been an eight-year campaign to get to the New York Film Festival tonight.
CS: What was involved with getting the rights to Colin’s books and finding the screenwriter to adapt it?
Curtis: Yeah, it wasn’t so much the difficulty of getting the rights or even getting the scripts. It all came down to who will play Marilyn. It had to be a Marilyn, the right age and most films you do, you just keep casting till someone says “yes” eventually. (Laughs) But here, we had to have someone who ticked all the boxes. The joy of it was that Michelle, who was always way at the top of my list, read the script and wanted to meet, and (she was) just at the right age at the right time in her life and at that right time in her career. It was a very exciting moment when it was clear she wanted to talk about it basically.
CS: How long did it take you to get the script to the point where you sent it to her?
Curtis: Well, I suppose you’d say four or five years, but that wasn’t four or five years working on the script. It was all about getting all the ducks in a row and getting everyone together, so I would say two or three years’ work on the script before we sent it out to actors.
CS: You’ve done a lot of theater and television work. Why did it take you so long to direct a feature film?
Curtis: I don’t know. I mean, my television work hasn’t exactly been humdrum. A lot of this cast I’ve worked with in television. I think Julie Walters and Eileen Atkins have both won Emmys in things I’ve directed, and Maggie Smith and Judi Dench have been nominated. At the BBC, I’ve been very blessed with the work I’ve done. I always am very ambitious about films, so I wanted my first film to be a passion, so along the way, I’ve sort of danced away from a few films that have come my way or may have been offered if I’d gone for it and all that, and hung out for a film I was passionate about. I was indeed passionate about this, so I’m really glad this worked out, so my first film is my passion project.
CS: You mentioned working with a lot of this cast before and the whole cast is just amazing including Emma Watson in a smaller role and Judi Dench is always amazing. Once you had your Marilyn, was it very obvious where to go next? Eddie Redmayne’s character Colin Clark is a very important part of the movie.
Curtis: Yeah, every part’s important in the movie, but obviously casting the two, Marilyn and Olivier, was the make or break. To get both of them, as it were, because Marilyn was 30 in 1956 and Olivier was 50. Olivier was sort of representative, emblematic of fading England in the ’50s, and Marilyn was emblematic of exciting new America in her 30s, so getting that right is very important. There are very few 50-something British actors who could play Olivier and Ken was right at the top of my list. In fact, at first I didn’t think he was going to be available because he was doing post-production on “Thor.” But, somehow or other there was a shift in dates, and suddenly it became clear that if we can do these dates, he would be available. So, that was hugely important, not as important as getting Michelle, but way up there.
CS: Obviously both Marilyn and Sir Olivier, we’ve seen in so many movies, we’ve seen them in newsreel footage. We really know what they are like, so did they have to convince you they could pull off those people?
Curtis: No. You have to take a leap of faith, and both of those two actors are supremely intelligent. It was their instinct they could do it. I was going to believe that, and so it proved.
CS: The logistics of this movie, because it’s basically a movie within a movie, since at times you’re recreating parts of “The Prince and the Showgirl”…
Curtis: Yeah, but it’s amazing how few minutes of “The Prince and the Showgirl” actually are there. It’s only like five minutes of it actually.
CS: You were actually at Pinewood where that movie was shot, having to recreate the old Pinewood at the current Pinewood.
Curtis: Yes, completely, and much harder than you think it is, actually.
CS: I’ve been to the new Pinewood, so I have some idea.
Curtis: Yeah, much harder, and also they were filming every blockbuster that’s out in America at the moment. “X-Men,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Captain America,” “War Horse,” “Hugo.” I mean, they were all there. We didn’t even think we could get in but Pinewood were dying to have us because we were sort of like a love letter to Pinewood in a way, but no, it’s tricky.
CS: I think it’s very much a movielover’s movie.
Curtis: Yes, it’s a love letter to the lost movies and a love letter to lost England in a way.
CS: As you noted at the end, it was a pivotal moment for both Marilyn and Sir Lawrence.
Curtis: Totally, totally.
CS: I wasn’t alive back then, so was that movie considered some sort of lost classic?
Curtis: No, it isn’t. Basically, in all truth, it was a play that shouldn’t ever really become a movie. It’s a bit like now actually. The allure of Olivier and Marilyn doing it – and Marilyn had set up her production company way ahead of her time. I think the notion of having this property that Olivier was attached to was the allure. The irony was she was becoming a producer to break away from playing ditsy showgirls, and the very thing she bought was a ditsy showgirl.
CS: Having such a big cast, what were the logistics of getting everyone together when you needed them?
Curtis: Very difficult, very difficult because they all were doing other things, so the schedule was almost the hardest things of the whole thing.
CS: You have certain scenes with the entire cast, and a few scenes with just a couple of them.
Curtis: Yeah, yeah. Also, frankly, that level of impersonation for Michelle, to wind herself up to being Marilyn on the day and Ken as Olivier, you have to give those actors the time and space to do that. It’s really tricky for them. I was very admiring of that.
CS: It seems like when other actors are watching Marilyn perform, the look on the actors’ faces when they’re just playing the people behind the camera seems very real, so did you keep her away from them as Marilyn until you had to shoot so they’d experience it for the first time?
Curtis: A bit of that, yeah. We tried to do that. Again, because of the scheduling and Ken, it was tricky for the schedule. We were sort of reacting to things that were thrown at us.
CS: You mentioned earlier (at a press conference) that you found one person who was around at the time they were making this movie, so just one person?
Curtis: Pretty much, actually, because she was in her late 80s. Unfortunately, Jack Cardiff, the DP, died a year or so before we started. I would’ve loved to have spoken to him about it. Let me think. Was there anybody else?
CS: I was curious if you had any other resources besides the books.
Curtis: Well, no, but you didn’t feel like we didn’t have very much because Awe had these two books, Colin Clark’s books, but there are literally 150, 200 books on these people, and they all have “The Prince and the Showgirl” chapter, right? Also, just there’s the film, all the sort of backstage, making of photography and press conferences they did. In terms of research, the reason the film has such an authentic vibe is that we had so much research material at our fingertips.
CS: The film says something interesting things about celebrity and how different things were now from then.
Curtis: Marilyn was such a prototype celebrity, wasn’t she, and she was inventing it in a way, that she was one of the first people to travel and people at the airports would greet her and so on, so yeah, I think that was the start of it all in many ways.
CS: I wonder if she was around today, whether she would have had similar type trajectory or not. These days, an actress who has a great image they’re popular until they have a bad movie but then they’re trashed. If Marilyn had been around today, do you think she would have been able to avoid that?
Curtis: I think it’s the same as everything. It’s like, she was inventing the formula in a way, and now that formula’s been invented so many times. I don’t know if that’s the right phrase, but do you get what I mean? It was like breaking the mold that she had a unique relationship with her audience and the market, didn’t she?
CS: You only had a couple of people still alive you could talk to, but what about dealing with the estates of all the different people?
Curtis: You’d have to speak to the producers for that. I mean, we obviously had to get the rights to “The Prince and the Showgirl.” I think that everything is so well documented in this film. There are so many different versions of Miller and Marilyn in the public domain, so many different accounts of it.
CS: I’m always impressed by the quality of directors coming out of the BBC, even though, like you say, not all of them go into movies right away, but they tend to be solid directors.
Curtis: Well, I think what it is, I mean, I think it’s a very important thing. Obviously when I was working at the BBC directing things like “David Copperfield,” the other directors in my peer group were Joe Wright, David Yates, Tom Hooper. I think we were allowed to learn and make mistakes working with quality actors and quality writers on miniseries and single films. Maybe conquer the world, maybe don’t, do you know what I mean? I think that is the reason for that, actually. We can learn our trade. Also, I brought with me my DP from “Cranford,” my designer, the designer that did “Downtown Abbey” and “Cranford” who knows how to get value on a budget, knows how to call in those favors in England to get those props and those rooms and blah, blah, blah, do you know what I mean? There’s a lot to be said about that in a way. I’d never worked with Jenny Shircore before who did the makeup who is a genius. I’m not saying I only work with people I know, but there is a value in that sort of coming with a team you know, so the DP and I had worked together on three or four things already, so we got off to a flying start together. There wasn’t that usual dance how are we going to work together?
CS: Joe Wright and Tom Hooper have gone onto big things in their careers directing movies. I’m sure this movie is going to lead to a lot of things for you. Do you feel like for your next movie, you’re going to have to spend as much time finding just the right project?
Curtis: No, I couldn’t do it, because then I would be retiring. No, I don’t know. I think this is a very specific case. I think because my thing is as a director working with actors, that there are less and less of those sort of movies being made. (chuckles) The greatest skill for a director at the moment is the special effects and CGI in many ways. What it has taught me is that your film goes under such scrutiny and you go through such a process, it’s got to be something you’re passionate about, got to be something you’re in love with. You may be wrong, but it’s gotta be something you feel in love with, and that’s what it’s taught me. I won’t do anything until it’s something I’m in love with.
CS: It’s funny you say that, because this movie especially has gotten an unbelievable amount of scrutiny. I feel like I heard about this movie well before you even started shooting it.
Curtis: Yeah, I know, but everyone’s got a judgment. There was a piece in People magazine after we cast Michelle: “What do you think? Do you think Michelle will make a great Marilyn?” Yeah, I think, bloody hell. It’s not only how brilliant she looks, but it’s the journey she goes on, an you go on a journey. The first few minutes you as the audience member are sort of adjusting to it, and then you think, “F*ck it. I’m going to go with it.” Do you know what I mean? Frank Langella couldn’t be less like Richard Nixon in many ways, but you totally buy it. I was always thinking along those terms. Also, because Michelle is such a brilliant actor and just brings such texture and a complexity to the part, that’s what you’re watching. The other thing I should say very emphatically is it’s not a biopic. It’s not the life. It’s this moment in time. I think that was the thing that I don’t think Michelle would’ve done a biopic and I don’t think I would’ve done either. It’s this moment in time. If you think about it, the Peter Morgan school of cinema, there’s been a whole lot of films about a telling moment in a life, telling the story of a person, so yeah, so that’s what we’re about.
CS: There must have been a lot of pressure though, making your first movie and having it be in the spotlight constantly without anyone having seen it.
Curtis: Yeah, I mean, because “The King’s Speech” was Tom Hooper’s third movie, right? But I have to say, I’m really glad I’m as experienced with actors and the business and in life as I am because the younger version of myself would’ve cracked many times. I may yet crack.