Interview: Simon Curtis, ‘My Week with Marilyn’

This week, CineVue met up with British director Simon Curtis to talk about his newly released homage to Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier and the amazing story of Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn (2011). The film blends two of Clark’s publications, The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, beginning as the 23-year-old leaves home in search of a career in the moving pictures. Clark is awarded the position of third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), where Olivier’s grand theatrical style struggles to combine with Monroe’s lengthy method acting process.

Joe Walsh: You have previously worked predominantly in television. How did you find the move to directing a big budget film like My Week with Marilyn?

Simon Curtis: I have directed for television – a certain type of television – for example Cranford, which had a very big budget and a big ensemble cast, so day-to-day on the set I wasn’t in unfamiliar territory. I have also worked with American actors – my wife is an American actor – so there was a lot about this that was familiar. I would say the post production is very different, the rush to get it finished that there isn’t in television.

JW: The real Colin Clark has provided some great material in both The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week With Marilyn. When did you first come across Clark’s story?

SC: I bought them both in a book shop when they were published and loved them. It was some years later that I looked into the rights and whether they were available.

JW: The story is so fantastical that it is almost unbelievable. Were you at all worried about being able to ground the characters enough to provide a sense of emotional investment for the audience?

SC: It’s a fairytale that is nevertheless real. I think of it as a true story, but I love that there is that dream-like element to it. With the characters, I am not sure that I thought about it quite like that. Really, I was inspired by films like Lost In Translation (2003), the idea of two people who come into each other’s orbit and have this intense experience with each other, and go their separate ways for the rest of their lives.

JW: What was it like adapting the diaries for the big screen?

SC: The central point was to tell Colin’s version. Of course we did a lot of research around the period and characters, but it was always returned to Colin’s point of view. If you did the Miller or Olivier version of this film it would be very different. Obviously, what I loved was the fantasy, the dream of this job. When I read the books, I loved the idea of this young man who not only got this golden ticket of a great job with all these great people, but who also became intimate with Marilyn.

JW: For My Week with Marilyn you’ve assembled the cream of British talent. What was it like working with the likes of Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judy Dench?

SC: Wonderful in short. I had worked with them both before. Judy was in Cranford, so I had worked with her a lot fairly recently, and Kenneth and I entered the British professional theatre at roughly the same time – he much more successfully so – but our paths crossed a number of times. On the set they were just so wonderful – they brought so much to the day. It was just a joy.

JW: Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe is impeccable. How did you come to cast her?

SC: In theory, the idea of casting Marilyn was nerve-racking, but once [Williams] had read it and once I had met her I felt very confident with her. I always liked her work; I can’t think of anyone better to play Marilyn aged thirty. I am just glad that her performance has been admired as much as I hope it would be.

JW: The film deals with the great cinematic icons of Olivier and Monroe. Were you at all concerned about making a film depicting such important figures?

SC: It was intimidating, but also exciting if you know what I mean. A lot of interest in the film is because of who they are playing – they are not playing just an actor or a director. I suppose a part of being a director is to be the optimist and go into denial. Now people are saying to me “Do you realise how many staggering pitfalls this film could have faced.”

JW: How did it feel to work on the same Pinewood locations that The Prince and the Showgirl originally used?

SC: One of my starting points was to say to my Heads of Departments and actors, “Let’s try and recreate”, because there is so much reference material that is available to us that struck me as interesting and valuable.

JW: My Week with Marilyn has had some great critical reception prior to its release. Do have any hopes for the upcoming awards season?

SC: I certainly hope the film opens well because it’s a love letter to film and acting – I think that helps us with the awards. But I just hope people enjoy the film, which they seem to be in the previews I have been to all over the world. If next year – in the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death – the actors got some sort of recognition, I couldn’t be happier about that.

My Week with Marilyn is released in UK cinemas on 25 November 2011. Read our full review here.

Joe Walsh