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Zimbio Exclusive Interview - 'My Week With Marilyn' Director Simon Curtis

AFI FEST 2011 Presented By Audi -
Director Simon Curtis arrives at the "My Week With Marilyn" special screening during AFI FEST 2011 presented by Audi at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 6, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Getty Images)more pics »British director Simon Curtis took on an ambitious project for his first major motion picture. Best known in England for his TV mini-series Cranford, Curtis is making a name for himself in the United States with his new film, My Week With Marilyn. The film is based on the memoir of the same name by Colin Clarke. As a young man, Clarke had worked as a third assistant director on the Laurence Olivier produced and directed film, The Prince and the Showgirl. The film featured Mr. Olivier and starred the biggest movie star in the world: Marilyn Monroe. Incredibly, Clarke and Monroe forged a friendship and eventually, a bit more than that. The film stars Michelle Williams as the iconic Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence. Curtis sat down with us to talk about his thoughts regarding getting the film made, casting the intimidating lead role, and the nature of celebrity itself.

Zimbio: My Week with Marilyn is a brave first feature. Could you talk about any trepidation you had in preparing for the shoot?
Simon Curtis: In some ways I'm really glad I'm as experienced and as old as I am making my first film because it's a tricky thing to get it right. Of course I had trepidation, but also, the film required two actors of a certain stature being prepared to take on the parts of Marilyn and Olivier. But if I'd known I'd end up with Michelle and Ken, I would've relaxed long ago because they're two people in whose hands I feel incredibly safe. They're both super-smart, super-talented and perfectionists as well. I knew they wouldn't let me down, but I didn’t know I'd have them until, well, in the case of Ken, he was doing post (production) on Thor and I didn't know he'd even be available. So it was very fortunate it all came together.
 
Zimbio: The film opens and closes with shots of Colin watching Marilyn on-screen, were you trying to convey a sense of fantasy?
SC: No, well, the objective was more to place him as a film fan. That Goodbye Norma Jean (character) from the young man in the 22nd row. I like the idea that Colin could be any of us who loved film and got access to an extraordinary world. But he wasn’t a Marilyn freak. He was an aspiring filmmaker who lucked into this chance encounter. He's grown up in this family where famous people would be around the house.
 
Zimbio: The role of Marilyn must've been a daunting one to fill. Could you talk about the casting of Michelle Williams?
SC: Yeah I've always loved Michelle's work so I was ecstatic when she wanted to meet.

Zimbio: Were you hesitant in casting her?
SC: I wasn't hesitant. I just wanted to make sure she wanted to do it because, as much as she loved the script, she had to talk herself into taking it on.

Zimbio: Did she voice any concern over the role?
SC: Understandably, as you talked about my trepidation, she had that same trepidation, but she, obviously, had this instinct that she could do it. And boy is she a hard worker, you couldn't ask for any more research and preparation and she was able to work both on the exterior body language of Marilyn and the interior psychology of her. I'm just so lucky she took it on.

Zimbio: There’s no shortage of books about Marilyn, what outside materials did you consult to get to know her?
SC: Well, our two main sources were The Prince and Showgirl film and Colin Clarke's book, because, as you rightly say, there are many different accounts of this period. But we didn't want to do Arthur Miller's version of events or Olivier's version of events, we were doing
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Colin's version of events. It's interesting when you cross-reference different books. Two or three tell the anecdotes in one way and one another. So you just distill the instinct of what appeared to be the truth. it's incredible what’s on YouTube and at one point, I found on the internet, on one of the auction houses, Marilyn's own script was for sale so you could read some of her notes. It’s a bit of detective work in that way.
 
Zimbio: Some of the most impressive scenes involved Ms. Williams performing the musical numbers, could you talk about those scenes?
SC: We got a fantastic choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, and just wanted to show how Michelle's able to do the hidden, complicated psychological Marilyn, she could also do the showboating showbiz Marilyn too.
 
Zimbio: What is your take on the celebrity culture of America and Britain?
SC: I think Marilyn was a sort of prototype celebrity. People were always as interested in her marriages and private life as they were in her work. She always had a story going in the way a lot of modern superstars do. But it was a different time as well, a pre-Twitter time.

Zimbio: Do you see Monroe's story as a cautionary tale?
SC: I don't know about that. I see it as.. when people die young like that there's a certain inevitability to it in a sort of curious way. The thing I most got from it was (considering) the way Marilyn had such a tough start in life, how well she did do.

Zimbio: Will there ever be another Marilyn Monroe?
SC: No. Because the whole culture is different now, it’s harder for people to stand out from the fray and there's so much of everything now isn’t there? She was in the vanguard on her own.  

Zimbio: Who is closest now?
SC: Maybe Angelina Jolie but it doesn't seem quite right does it? No, it was a different era, you can't really compare that. Let's think, how many people arriving at London airport would cause a frenzy now? They come in and out all the time now. That was Marilyn's first trip to England. Angelina Jolie probably passes through London eight times a year doesn’t she? I'm trying to think when the last frenzy at Heathrow was? Maybe Madonna in her heyday..
Or the Prince (William) and the new Duchess (Kate Middleton)?
..Exactly, well that's right.. exactly.. or maybe a football team coming back  

Zimbio: Kenneth Branagh, a stage actor turned film actor, seems the perfect choice to play Olivier. How important was that connection?
SC: I wouldn't say it was that specifically important but Ken's career is similar to Olivier's altogether in making those great Shakespeare films. His name has been linked with Olivier's since the beginning of his career. But for me, I just see him as this supremely talented smart actor who had a brilliant insight into playing that part and I personally gained enormously from that insight.
 
Zimbio: In any period piece, the production and costume design is crucial, could you speak to that?
SC: Very important. The (production) designer (Donal Woods) was a person I'd worked with at the BBC a few times. He did Cranford and Downton Abbey. I think he got an Emmy (Woods was nominated but didn't win). Just that BBC combo of making the budget work for you and also being very.. the authenticity of it all was very important, and same for the costume (design). But, actually, one of our real stars was Jennie Cooper, the genius makeup person who did Marilyn's makeup day in day out. She and that department deserve special praise.

Zimbio: Were the studios in the film the actual studios where The Prince and the Showgirl was made? Pinewood Studios?
SC: Yes and Parkside house which the Millers rented was the actual house they stayed in. And Eton (College) and Windsor (Castle) are playing themselves and Michelle had Marilyn's old dressing room at Pinewood.
 
Zimbio: What other directors do you admire? Did you look to any, specifically, for inspiration here?
SC: The two films I really love which in a curious way relate to this film are, funnily enough, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Both of those were inspirations to me, more than some of the Billy Wilder and (George) Cukor films. I like directors who specialize in human beings as opposed to special effects. I grew up on all those 70's geniuses, (Martin) Scorsese and Woody Allen and all that and I cherish them, even now.

Zimbio: Do you have hopes for the Academy Awards?
SC: I don't know but i'd be very disappointed if Michelle and Ken, who clearly deserve recognition, aren't in play.

For more photos of Simon Curtis:
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
  • Simon Curtis in "My Week With Marilyn" New York Premiere
View Simon Curtis Pictures »
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