‘Blonde’ Director Andrew Dominik on Turning the Iconography of Marilyn Monroe Inside Out

Working from "a bible of 750 images," the director tried to project Marilyn Monroe's internal drama onto the familiar, and force us to see what we'd projected onto her.

Director Andrew Dominik, boom operator Ben Greaves, Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio, and Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe (from left) on the set of ‘Blonde’ Matt Kennedy/NETFLIX

For the better part of the last 15 years, Andrew Dominik—the filmmaker behind Chopper, Killing Them Softly, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Redford—has been trying to make a film about the life of Marilyn Monroe. In 2002, Dominik read Blonde, Joyce Carol Oates’ bestselling novel that offers a fictionalized take on one of America’s most enduring icons, and quickly realized that he had used Monroe’s movies and public persona to form preconceived notions about her personal life. Over the years, he became fascinated with the difficult divide between the actress’ private and public selves and used parts of Oates’ book to write a screenplay that probed the effects that childhood trauma can have on one’s adult life.

Written and directed by Dominik, Blonde—the controversial psychological drama that premieres Wednesday on Netflix—reimagines the inner life of Monroe, who was once known as Norma Jeane Mortenson, providing audiences with a disjointed and at times hallucinatory look at the dehumanizing nature of superstardom through the eyes of the Hollywood icon, who rose to fame in the 1950s and died in 1962. “The film is concerned with creating the experience for the viewer of being another person, of having another person’s experience of life,” Dominik said. “I’m really trying to make a movie that’s functioning like a piece of music, rather than [one that] has the structure of a plot. It has a slightly different kind of architecture to lead you through the experience [of being Marilyn].”

In a recent Zoom interview, Dominik spoke with Observer about the experience of watching Ana de Armas transform into both Norma Jeane and Marilyn, the process of recreating some of the most iconic moments of Monroe’s life, and the criticism that Blonde, which is Netflix’s first original movie to receive an NC-17 rating, has received for its depictions of nudity and sexual violence.

Ana de Armas (l) and Andrew Dominik on the set of ‘Blonde’ Matt Kennedy/NETFLIX

What qualities did you see in Ana de Armas that made her the right actress to bring Norma Jean and Marilyn to life and take audiences through the experience you were just talking about?

Andrew Dominik: The first and critical thing was how much she resembled her. I know Marilyn’s face really well. The first time I saw Ana, I was just struck by how much he resembled a young Marilyn Monroe, and she was also really compelling onscreen [in Eli Roth’s Knock Knock]. When she was onscreen, I didn’t want to look at anyone else. And then I met her, and Ana has a very intense emotional forcefield. Whatever Ana is feeling, she has the ability to affect everybody else around it with her. If you tell Ana, “You need to be a bit silly or giggly in this next bit,” there will be an explosion of laughter wherever she is on set. She draws everyone into her forcefield; her instrument is very emotional and it’s very instinctual. I read her and I felt lucky to have found her. She’s nothing like the character she plays in the film—Ana de Armas is a tank, and she’s in it to win it. She’s not like Norma. She’s trying to get you to “parent” her, if you know what I mean.

This film, which you’ve insisted is not a biopic, attempts to explore the widening split between her personal and professional lives. What do you think Norma Jeane sees when she sees Marilyn not only on the big screen but in the mirror? How difficult is it for her to draw that line between fiction and reality?

Well, I don’t think it is hard for her. I think that really what’s going on is that she never feels like she’s Marilyn. She always feels like she’s Norma. But then when she sees this person onscreen that is Marilyn, it’s not her. And I think that’s somewhat confusing, because she never feels like she was that person. She’s not inside Norma. Marilyn is both an armor and a prison. Sometimes, it’s the thing that’s gonna get her through, and the other time it’s the thing that’s keeping her trapped. But I think if you’re unwanted—if your fundamental experience, your primal experience of life, is being unwanted—then to be desired is not something you can really cope with that well. It’s what you want, but at the same time, you maybe don’t have the connectors for it.

The dress-blowing scene in The Seven Year Itch is such an iconic moment in pop culture, but it has seldom been shown from Marilyn’s perspective—and you have tried to do that with many moments in her life. How did you want to tap into her psychology at both the height of her career in the early ‘50s and at the end of her life in the early ‘60s, when she was going through these harrowing cycles of self-destruction?

That’s the whole idea of the movie: to take all of that familiar stuff and project her internal drama onto it. So we changed the meaning of all these things that are familiar to us. The shooting of The Seven-Year Itch is almost presented like a human sacrifice. [The song] “Bye, Bye Baby” becomes a song about abortion. She’s holding a razor by her throat [in a movie scene], and the director yells, “Cut!” Everything has a new meaning, and it’s all according to how she feels, and the great thing about doing that with a famous or iconic person is that you have all this iconic imagery that you’re able to turn inside out. I think that’s the process by which we all go through life—we’re projecting our feelings, our fears and our desires onto the world around us. The audience sitting in the theater is doing exactly the same thing. They’re projecting it onto her, and it’s this sort of weird projection of fantasy onto other things and, really, we’re not seeing the world. We’re just seeing ourselves.

Cinematographer Chayse Irvin, director Andrew Dominik, and Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe (from left) filming ‘Blonde.’ Matt Kennedy/NETFLIX

This film has a similar style to the films of Marilyn’s time, jumping from color to black and white and playing with different aspect ratios.

It’s all based on pre-existing imagery, and some of the imagery is colored and some of it is black and white. So if we’re basing a scene on a black and white photograph that’s in a particular format, we do it in that format; if it’s in color, we do it in color. If the scene has no kind of reference to it, then we end up just doing it widescreen or something like that. There’s no story reason. It’s not like black and white is sad and color is happy, or black and white is the past and color is the future. I’m trying to put us within the collective memory of her; I’m trying to trap her within the collective memory, and [scenes in the movie] are selected on that basis. It’s not storytelling. It’s an emotional [experience]; it’s based on trying to harness your associations with images that you’ve already seen and put those associations in service of the story.

Was there a particular picture or scene from her life or movies that you were really adamant about recreating in this film?

All of them! There was a bible of 750 images. I think we probably ended up with 150 or 200 of them in the film. The way we went about coming up with a look for the film was we went to all of [her] houses. She lived in 28 houses in Los Angeles, and we went to all of them to see which ones we could get into, and which ones didn’t need too much work to bring them back to what they were. And a lot of these places had photos taken there, so we just set up the photo and you can find a photo of Marilyn Monroe doing anything.

You can find x-rays of Marilyn Monroe online. You want Marilyn on an airplane? You can find it. You want Marilyn cooking? Marilyn at the beach? Marilyn in bed? Marilyn having coffee? It’s all there. Her relationships are rendered in pictures that have become iconic, and we wanted to use all that stuff, so we just did it [based] on which ones we could afford. [Laughs.] Which ones could we do? Which ones were taken in this location? It’s pretty bizarre. You’re setting up a shot, and it’s the same room, it looks the same. You’re using the same lens, and you’re waiting for the exact time of day, and the only thing that’s different is the actress—and even she doesn’t look that different. It sounds like [you’re] conjuring something. It’s not the way you usually approach a film visually, and I think that’s what was exciting about it.

There has been a lot of talk about the film’s sex scenes and NC-17 rating. Especially for a woman whose sex appeal was weaponized and commercialized throughout her life, sometimes without her permission, and long after she died. What do you have to say to the people who feel the amount of nudity and sexual violence could be exploitative?

Well, I’m not sure it was done without her permission, right? I think that the film is remarkably un-sexual. There are very few scenes of sex in the film that titillate in any way. It’s usually presented as something deeply uncomfortable or vulnerable, or sexual violence—I don’t think that that’s exploitative. When you design stuff that is there to titillate, that presents her as desiring, that’s the very definition of exploitation. To puncture it, to make it ugly, is not exploitative. It’s the opposite. Let me ask you this: What do you think was more exploitative—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Blonde? One of them is actually romanticizing “whoredom”; it’s romancing a transactional relationship. Basically, she’s saying, “I will fuck for diamonds, and this is a dance routine about it.” That seems, to me, to be exploitative. Showing someone being brutalized by a studio head doesn’t seem like it’s exploitation. If you’re getting off on that, there’s something wrong with you in the first place.

You’ve admitted that you used to have a very superficial view of Marilyn Monroe before you read Joyce Carol Oates’s novel and began to connect with the person behind that persona. How do you hope this work of fiction, which is still based on the key events of her life, will help the general public see her in a different light after all this time?

I’m not sure that it does really present her in a different light. I think Blonde the film has a lot in common with most of what’s written about Blonde [the novel]. The author is trying to protect her or rescue her from a cruel world that doesn’t understand her, and I think Blonde the movie is doing the same thing. I think it plays into that very powerful kind of fantasy that we actually have about her, but I think it shows the limits of that fantasy or what’s destructive about it. It’s as much about the viewer as it is about the subject, and I have to say I’ve never made a film [where] I can tell more about a person from their reaction [to the film] than I have with Blonde.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Blonde is now playing in select theaters and begins streaming on Netflix on September 28.

‘Blonde’ Director Andrew Dominik on Turning the Iconography of Marilyn Monroe Inside Out