Books inspire visionary film director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik, who made his feature film directorial debut with Chopper, based on the autobiographical books by criminal turned author Mark “Chopper” Read, followed by The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on the novel of the same name which he came across in a second-hand bookstore, and now Blonde, trying to get the film made for some 15 years after he read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name.
Blonde boldly reimagines the life of one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons, Marilyn Monroe, exploring the split between her public and private selves. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, Ana de Armas delivers a chilling, powerhouse performance – Dominik invades Monroe’s Psyche through de Armas’ performance. It’s hauntingly mesmerising, also starring Adrien Brody and Bobby Cannavale as Monroe’s husbands, Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio.
“I’ve read everything there is to read about Marilyn Monroe,” Dominik says. “I’ve met people that knew her. I’ve done an enormous amount of research. But in the end, it’s about the book. And adapting the book is really about adapting the feelings that the book gave me.”
“So I think the film is about the meaning of Marilyn Monroe. Or a meaning. She was symbolic of something. She was the Aphrodite of the 20th century, the American goddess of love. And she killed herself. So what does that mean?”
One thing the film is not about, says Dominik, is historical accuracy. “I know the ways in which this is different from what people seem to agree happened,” he says, with the caveat that “nobody really knows what the f— happened. So it’s all fiction anyway, in my opinion.”
“I saw a story to tell about how a traumatic childhood origin becomes the lens through which the adult sees their life, says Dominik who worked feverishly on the Blonde screenplay. “It tells the story of how childhood trauma shapes an adult who’s split between a public and a private self. It’s basically the story of every human being, but it’s using a certain sense of association that we have with something very familiar, just through media exposure. It takes all of those things and turns the meanings of them inside out, according to how she feels, which is basically how we live. It’s how we all operate in the world. It just seems to me to be very resonant.”
“I remember being in a very exciting place when I was writing the screenplay. I think I did it in about four weeks or something like that,” he says.
Blonde was slated to go into production as early as 2011 with very different actors and a different script before Dominik was side-lined by other projects including his 2013 film Killing Them Softly, his second collaboration with Brad Pitt.
“There were various versions of Blonde that would come together and fall apart, and come together and fall apart, and then it became one of those kind of stale projects that’s been around for a while that nobody wanted to make,” he remembers. “And then [producers] Brad and Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner got involved. And there were a couple of versions with them that sort of nearly got to the starting line but then fell apart.”
So what was the ultimate thing that got this project over the line?
Ironically enough, it was a then relatively unknown Cuban actor, Ana de Armas, who brought everyone there — very fitting for a project about the singular and undefinable power of a star.
“Ana has a certain luminance and an emotional forcefield around her that she can generate a feeling that’s compelling. Whatever’s going on with Ana is what’s going on. And I think that’s something similar to what Marilyn had. It’s a certain quality that a person has. I’m not sure that movie stars are made. I think they’re born.”
Dominik had seen de Armas in the 2015 Eli Roth erotic thriller Knock Knock, and he spent months trying to connect with her through her agent to see if she might meet with him to discuss his long-gestating Marilyn project.
“I think I’d given up on Blonde by the time that I actually met Ana. It was really a Hail Mary, and I had a meeting with her and we decided, ‘OK, we’ll read a scene and see how it goes.’ And we did the scene, and it was like, ‘Wow, OK, this could work.’ ”
In the intervening time, de Armas broke out with roles in Blade Runner 2049 and Knives Out, and she auditioned once more for producers using a scene in the film in which Marilyn quietly seduces Joe DiMaggio on their first date. Around the time de Armas shot Blonde, she was also prepping for and shooting her role as a 007-assisting spy in the James Bond film No Time to Die.
“There’s usually a kind of superstition that you don’t like to do an important scene in the audition because if the actor nails it in the audition then often the scene just dies when you shoot it for real. It’s like you’ve used up the emotional energy of that scene. But that didn’t happen with this. She was so good that it was even better when we shot it. And that’s unusual, that really is,” says Dominik.
But de Armas’ audition was nothing compared to her first screen test. She’d spent a year with a dialect coach to get the icon’s unmistakable voice just right, and when she teamed up with Blonde’s hair and makeup and costume departments, Dominik and his producers knew they had their Marilyn.
“I read Joyce’s novel, studied hundreds of photographs, videos, audio recordings, films—anything I could get my hands on,” says de Armas. “Every scene is inspired by an existing photograph. We’d pore over every detail in the photo and debate what was happening in it,” she said. “The first question was always, ‘What was Norma Jeane feeling here?’ We wanted to tell the human side of her story.”
Ana de Armas not only channelled Marilyn Monroe on camera in the new fantastical pseudo biopic Blonde, she also channelled her at her grave site before production began.
“We got this big card and everyone in the crew wrote a message to her,” de Armas told AnOther magazine in the publication’s latest cover story. “Then we went to the cemetery and put it on her grave. We were asking for permission in a way. Everyone felt a huge responsibility, and we were very aware of the side of the story we were going to tell — the story of Norma Jeane, the person behind this character, Marilyn Monroe. Who was she really?”
“I have seen the rough cut of Andrew Dominick’s adaptation & it is startling, brilliant, very disturbing & [perhaps most surprisingly] an utterly “feminist” interpretation… not sure that any male director has ever achieved anything this.) tweeted novelist Joyce Carol Oates
Now on Netflix (Also watch the doccie: The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes (2022))
Writer-Director Andrew Dominik
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Andrew Dominik has lived in Australia since he was two years old. He graduated from Melbourne’s Swinburne Film School in 1988. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time, Dominik chose Apocalypse Now, Badlands, Barry Lyndon, Blue Velvet, Marnie, Mulholland Drive, The Night of the Hunter, Raging Bull, Sunset Boulevard, and The Tenant as his top ten.
Chopper (2000) – Dominik’s career in films began in 2000 when he directed Chopper based on notorious Australian criminal Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, starring Eric Bana and Simon Lyndon.The Australian Film Institute awarded the film with Best Director (Dominik), Best Actor (Bana), and Best Supporting Actor (Lyndon).
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – His next film was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, based on the novel of the same name which he came across in a second-hand bookstore. The film explores the peculiar relationship between Jesse James and his eventual assassin Robert Ford. Pitt was a big fan of Dominik’s first feature Chopper, and had hoped to collaborate with the filmmaker in the future, especially when Pitt had the chance to work with Chopper star Eric Bana in Troy. Pitt contacted the director, and with a big star interested to lead his new film, Dominik was, therefore, able to get Warner Bros. to finance the production.
Killing Them Softly (2012) – Dominik reteamed with Brad Pitt in their second collaboration (after The Assassination of Jesse James) in a thriller/dark comedy based on George V. Higgins’ Boston-set crime novel Cogan’s Trade. The film competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
One More Time with Feeling (2016) – In 2016, Dominik completed One More Time with Feeling, a documentary about his friend Nick Cave and the emotional consequences of the tragic death of Cave’s son.The film premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. The critical aggregator website Metacritic awarded the film a score of 91, indicating “universal acclaim”.
Mindhunter (2019) – Dominik joined David Fincher for season 2 of the Netflix series Mindhunter, which debuted in late 2019.[Dominik directed two episodes.
Blonde (2022) – In 2022, Dominik completed Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates’s fictional Marilyn Monroe memoir of the same name. It is rated NC-17 for its graphic sexual content and will be the first of its kind to be released through a streaming service.