Andrew Dominik is ready to let Blonde speak for itself. "I'm a bit sick of my own voice, is how I feel right now," the Aussie filmmaker says. The writer and director behind the neo-noir crime drama Killing Them Softly and the revisionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik first read Joyce Carol Oates' Marilyn Monroe novel in 2002.
He began pursuing in earnest a film adaptation more than a decade ago, and over the years, the project came together — with actresses like Naomi Watts, Jessica Chastain, and Charlize Theron flirting with the idea of playing Monroe — only to fall apart again. Finally, after 14 years, Dominik has fulfilled his vision, with Ana de Armas as the titular bombshell.
If the journey to get Blonde made was long, the journey after the fact is proving just as arduous, as the filmmaker finds himself navigating controversy the movie has generated, sight unseen: That NC-17 rating? He was surprised, too. The ethics of blurring the lines between fact and fiction in reimagining Marilyn Monroe's life? "Blonde is a work of fiction. It's not a work of biography. I would never claim that it is." The film finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, ahead of its streaming debut on Netflix.
And as for Dominik? "I feel a bit numb," he chuckles.
In conversation with A.frame, Dominik looks back on his long journey to bring Blonde to the screen and reveals why he no longer has a fear of failure.
A.frame: You've said you weren't necessarily a Marilyn Monroe fan before you read Joyce's novel. You spent 14 years working to bring it to the screen. What kept you inspired and invested all those years? I don't think anyone would've faulted you if you'd let it go along the way.
I did try to, but I would just keep having ideas for it. Blonde would break my heart, it would fall apart, never to be made, and then I'd find myself thinking about it and how maybe I could do it. I would just always work on it, you know what I mean? It just had a hold over me, and there was not much I could do about that. And thank God I got to make it, because everything else I did in that time period was just stuff I did because I couldn't do Blonde.
How much did your vision for what this could or would be change over that decade or so?
Not much. I wrote the script in 2008. I probably tightened up the first third of it for financial reasons, but it didn't really change.
After working for so long and the movie falling apart at different points along the way, what did it feel like to actually be on set that first day, calling action?
It was amazing. It was also panic. We started shooting on August the 4th, which was the anniversary of her death, and this was not deliberate. There was a bit of a dust-up in pre that meant we had to push the shoot a week, and it so happened that the first day was the 4th of August. I only realized, like, two days beforehand that it was the anniversary, so it was kind of bizarre that it worked out that way. But a lot of stuff with Blonde was like that. It was a kind of — I don't know — spooky. [Laughs]
What was the first scene that you shot?
We were shooting in the apartment with her mother, which was the actual apartment that she lived in with her mother. We would shoot for eight hours with Lily [Fisher, who plays young Norma Jeane] — because that's all you can shoot with a child — and then we'd run across the road to the Sunset Gower, and we'd shoot stuff with Ana on a stage, little bits and pieces from the opening montage. Sunset Gower used to be RKO, which she used to be able to see from her bedroom window when she was a little girl. So, the first week was her childhood, pretty much, with a little bit of the adult persona at the end of the day.
What were your early conversations with Chayse [Irvin] about your vision for how this would look? Not only in the recreation of images, but there's so much innovation in the camerawork and so many different styles of shooting incorporated in this.
I had a bible that was arranged in script order, and it had visual references for the still photographs we wanted to imitate and different ideas that I had, and it was all just laid out. I remember the first time we had a production meeting and I laid out what I wanted to do with the movie, and everyone just was white. They'd all gone completely white, because how are you going to do that for $22 million in Los Angeles? Which is the most expensive city in the world to shoot. [Laughs] But you do it bit by bit. It's a very difficult kind of movie to deal with en masse. You've got to deal with it in tiny little bits. That's the only way you can wrap your head around the whole thing.
It's interesting, because usually, you're striving for a cohesive style in a film. You have certain strict visual parameters that you're operating with. But this film was more like a kaleidoscope, where you're trying to take in the breadth of the visual memory of her. And it's all over the road! Some of it is in black and white with a little bit of flash, some of it is in color — very naturalistic-looking still photographs — and some looks like highly stylized movie imagery. But it's essentially a film about image, so that was the whole visual strategy of the movie, was to treat it almost like sampling. Like hip-hop.
Chayse has DPed features like BlacKkKlansman and Hannah, but I was most familiar with his work in music videos. He directed one of my favorite Beyoncé videos ["Sorry"]. What was it that attracted you to working with him?
The good thing about the younger DPs is they've grown up with digital. Chayse actually doesn't shoot a lot of digital, but they're not coming to it as a second choice to film, you know what I mean? They're coming at it as the medium that they've been raised with. I think the younger guys might be better at dealing with the new technology than the old masters. It's changed the way that films are shot — it's not about lighting anymore, it's all about lenses. It's all about unusual glass. It's all about available light. Like, lighting is for sissies nowadays.
So, it was great to work with somebody younger. It was great to work with somebody who had a different perspective on it. And Chayse works really hard. You give him an idea like, "I want to do this distorted, bendy sex scene," and he would just go out and shoot a test. The next time you see him, he's like, "What do you think of this?" and it would invariably be great. He's got a very soulful style, too. There's a certain earthiness to his imagery that gets beyond just pretty pictures. Once you can let go of visual beauty — which is the hardest thing to do, is to let go of your sense of pretty aesthetics — and you're dealing with the emotional resonance of an image, that's something I think he's very good at.
Your stylization extends beyond the use of color and black and white or the changing aspect ratio, with visual choices like overlaying the end of that sex scene with footage of a waterfall, or warping the paparazzi's mouths at the Some Like It Hot premiere. Were all of those elements written into your script? Or were those things you discovered throughout the process?
It was all written in, pretty much. The bed turning into a waterfall, that was an idea I had because we're going into Niagara, and it's her first orgasm and it should be like Niagara Falls! It was too good to ignore. Those are dream images. They're a way of expressing a feeling in a purely visual sense. And it's designed to get kind of hysterical. The film should be about becoming really unhinged, and how can we just amp up the threatening aspect of the world so it feels like it's bleeding? It's just turning into a literal nightmare kind of thing.
Beyond your bible of Marilyn photos and studying her films, were there other films that you looked at or referenced as you were prepping this?
No, not really. I mean, there are a few shots that might be stolen from somewhere, but the thing I like about Blonde is I do feel a little bit like I've broken free of my influences. I've got my own thing on in it, and I like that about it. A lot of it is planned, but then a lot of it is, like, you get to the location, you've got to do it quick, and what's the best way to do it? It's got to be organic. It's got to keep living. That's the main thing. When you're making a movie, you don't want to feel like you're embalming the film, that you set up a thing and shoot it over and over and over again until you suck all the life out of it. There's something about there being a certain rawness to it. With Blonde, when I got bored shooting something, I'd just shoot something else. I wouldn't push it too much. I tried to keep the momentum going. And I was very lucky to have Ana, because she was so reliable. You get there so quickly. She was an absolute joy to work with.
You've said you trusted your intuition after seeing Ana in Knock Knock (2015), but was there a moment in those early conversations or as you were in prep that was a confirmation of your intuition? That you said, "Yes. I made the right call, and she is right for Marilyn."
By the time we started shooting, absolutely. I mean, I saw her [in Knock Knock], I thought she was compelling, I thought she looked like her. And then I read her, and I saw what she was capable of doing. It's not just whether somebody's good, it's whether you can talk to them. It's whether they can understand you and what it is that you want to do, because I've got a very specific idea of how I want the person to be. Because the whole movie is just her face, and I needed somebody that would understand. And she was amazing.
The movie's very concerned with acting of that sort of '50s style. There was that strange moment in the '50s where there's an overlap between psychoanalysis and acting, and it becomes what they call the Method. There's that moment in the film where they get into sense memory and that idea of mining your own past for traumatic events that you can use in performance. It shows her doing that. It shows her conjuring her father to create a feeling of being abandoned, or the audition scene she's doing for Don't Bother to Knock is basically her reenacting her childhood from her mother's point of view. The film's very concerned with that, and she's very much concerned with that. Like, it's acting as a way to work through her drama. But Ana is not like that at all. Ana is not raking over the coals of her own life to bring a performance to life. She's not a person who's sitting around in character or anything like that. She's acting, and she's nothing like the person she's portraying. She's just using her imagination. It was very playful the way we worked. It's all about discovering it in the moment, and the moment of discovery is the thing you want to capture. It's never set in stone — unless it was a recreation of a movie, where it's got to be exactly one way.
You worked meticulously to recreate these images and scenes from Marilyn's films. When you're working on something like the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number, which is so iconic, are you able to enjoy that experience and have fun in the moment, despite the pressures of getting it exactly right?
I mean, the whole thing was fun! The whole thing's fun and there's the pressure of trying to get it exactly right at the same time. It's both. But the whole thing was a thrill. I really enjoyed this film in a way that I haven't always enjoyed shooting. It can be really stressful. But something about Blonde was just— I'm less worried about failing now than I used to be.
Was it the process of making Blonde that brought you there, or do you have to be unafraid of failing in order to make a movie like this?
I think when I made the documentaries with Nick Cave [2016's One More Time With Feeling and 2022's This Much I Know to Be True], and I couldn't plan what I was going to do that day and I just had to work from instinct, I realized that my instincts actually added up to something — even if I couldn't see where they were going. So, I tend to trust myself a bit more, and I'm more comfortable without a net than I used to be. And part of it was also working with an actress who was extraordinary. She was extraordinary. In the end, we could talk about the style of the film and all that sort of stuff, but all of that's window dressing, and what really matters is that person that's onscreen and how you feel about her and what your relationship is to her. Because the relationship's really between the viewer and her. It's not between her and the other characters. We understand her, none of the others do, and it creates a kind of intimacy and concern that's uncommon, I think, when you watch a film. I knew I had that, and I knew I had her.
By John Boone