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Andrew Dominik on the ‘Acid Trip’ of Making ‘Blonde’

Toolkit Ep 170: The "Killing Them Softly" director talks about his 12-year journey to bring Joyce Carol Oates' fictionalized portrait of Marilyn Monroe to the screen.

Blonde, Ana de Armas

“Blonde”

screenshot/Netflix

Writer-director Andrew Dominik wrote his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Blonde” in about four weeks — and then waited 12 years for the opportunity to bring it to the screen. “There were many times I swore off ‘Blonde,'” Dominik told IndieWire. “When it breaks your heart, you want to let go of the damn thing, but it just wouldn’t leave me alone.” That struggle resulted in Dominik’s boldest and most philosophically dense film to date, which is really saying something when you’re talking about the guy who directed “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Killing Them Softly.” The lengthy gestation period might have been torture for Dominik, but the result is an epic study of trauma and Hollywood’s exploitation of it in which every image, sound, and performance is impeccably calibrated; the film has a purity and perfection that only come from a director who has had a long time to let it marinate.

Not that perfection is what Dominik is after. “I don’t believe in perfection,” he said. “I believe in imperfection that reveals truth.” To that end, Dominik’s work with actors is exploratory rather than prescriptive. “It’s a process of discovery, and that’s what you’re really shooting, the actor discovering something.” The performances in “Blonde” are uniformly terrific, but the movie unquestionably belongs to Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. She inhabits the role so completely both emotionally and physically that there are recreations of iconic images and film scenes in which the viewer does a double take to make sure they’re not watching the actual Monroe. “She was always better than I thought she was going to be. I mean, I couldn’t have shot that movie in 45 days without her because she was the rock around which the whole thing had to function.”

Listen to Dominik discuss his filmmaking process below: 

You can listen to the full discussion above, or via subscribing to the Toolkit podcast via Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, or Overcast.

45 days is an astonishingly brief shoot given the breadth and ambition of “Blonde,” which spans decades and is packed with period detail and an abundance of locations, many of which are familiar to anyone who consumed mass media in the 20th century. For Dominik, there was an advantage to the tight schedule. “It’s less boring,” he said. “I have done stuff where you shoot take after take of a 15-minute dialogue scene and you start to bore yourself. There’s something about having to operate from instinct, particularly for the crew. There’s a lot of camera protocol that I try to dispense with and just throw them in before they’re ready, and it’s amazing how good they are on instinct. You’ll see a focus puller who doesn’t know what the actor’s going to do, and they pull focus really well when they don’t know what’s coming. Then on the next take, when they do know what’s coming, they’re not as good.”

“There’s something about that sort of panic that really gives the film a kind of visceral quality, I feel,” Dominik added. “I do like to put people under pressure, at least behind the camera, because I think they work better. There’s something raw and authentic about it. I mean, it’s great to do a movie like ‘Jesse James’ where you’ve got 75 days to shoot it. But this was great too. ‘Blonde’ was like an acid trip. Every day you look at the day and go, ‘How am I going to make this day? I’m not going to make this day.’ And then somehow you make the day, because there’s an urgency to the whole thing. Which, I think, translates [to the finished film].”

The cinematic fever dream that resulted from Dominik’s approach has already divided critics and audiences, who have responded to the film with hatred, admiration, and everything in between (though there does seem to be nearly unanimous praise for de Armas’ performance). To Dominik, the reactions to the movie are tied in with why Monroe continues to loom so large in the public imagination. “I think Marilyn Monroe represents a kind of rescue fantasy,” he said. “Most of the stuff that’s written about her has this impulse behind it of, ‘I really knew her, I understood her.’ You read that in Norman Mailer’s book, you read it in Gloria Steinem’s book, and ‘Blonde’ is no different. I think she appeals to that strong desire to rescue, and maybe the shadow side of that is a punishment fantasy. I think that that’s not a good thing — if you want to rescue somebody, they probably need rescuing from you. I mean, that’s what the film’s doing. It’s basically saying, here’s this person nobody else in the movie understands, but we, the audience understand everything and wish we could just step in, or we wish they would notice, or we wish they would see her as she is. And it’s constantly thwarted and denied. I think that the people that don’t like the film are following that same instinct, they want to protect her. They want to protect her from me, and even the ones that love Ana but don’t like the film, they want to save her from this horrible movie! So I feel like it’s a measure of success of the film in a way.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher.

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