Filmmaker Toolkit Episode 169: Andrew Dominik on “Blonde” “Acid Trip”

Toolkit Episode 170: The Killing Them Softly director talks about his 12-year journey to bring Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional portrayal of Marilyn Monroe to the big screen.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik wrote his adaptation of Joyce Carol Oate’s novel Blonde in about four weeks—and then waited 12 years for the opportunity to bring it to the big screen. “A lot of times I’ve sworn off ‘blonde,'” Dominik told IndieWire. “When it breaks your heart you want to let go of the damn thing, but it just won’t leave me alone.” That struggle led to Dominik’s boldest and most philosophically dense film yet, which really says something when you talk about the guy who Directed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly. Dominik’s long gestation period may have been torture, but the result is an epic study in 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 can only come from a director who has had one long Time to let it marinate.

Not that Dominik is about perfection. “I don’t believe in perfection,” he said. “I believe in imperfection that reveals truth.” Because of this, 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 consistently terrific, but the film undoubtedly belongs to Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe. She embodies the role so completely, both emotionally and physically, that there are recreations of iconic images and scenes from the movie that make the viewer do a double-take to ensure they are not seeing the actual Monroe. “She was always better than I thought. I mean, I couldn’t have made this film in 45 days without her because she was the rock that it had to work around.”

Listen below as Dominik talks about his film making process:

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

“45 Days” is a surprisingly short shoot considering how broad and ambitious “Blonde” is, spanning decades and packed with historical detail and a wealth of filming locations, many of which are familiar to anyone living in the 20th century. Century has consumed mass media. The tight schedule had an advantage for Dominik. “It’s less boring,” he said. “I’ve done stuff where you do 15-minute dialogue sequence after 15-minute dialogue and you start to get bored. It has something to do with having to act on instinct, especially for the crew. There’s a lot of camera logs that I try to forgo and just throw in before they’re done, and it’s amazing how instinctively good they are. You’ll see a focus puller who doesn’t know what the actor is 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 that good.”

“There’s something about that kind of panic that I think really gives the film a kind of visceral quality,” added Dominik. “I like to put pressure on people, 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 have 75 days to shoot it. But that was great too. “Blonde” was like an LSD trip. Every day you look at the day and ask yourself, “How am I going to make this day? I won’t make this day.’ And then you somehow get through the day, because the whole thing has an urgency. Which I believe translates [to the finished film].”

The cinematic fever that resulted from Dominik’s approach has already divided critics and audiences, who met the film with hate, admiration, and everything in between (though there seems to be almost unanimous praise for de Armas’ performance). For Dominik, the reactions to the film are related to why Monroe continues to be such a big part of the public imagination. “I think Marilyn Monroe represents a kind of rescue fantasy,” he said. “Most of what’s written about her has this impulse behind it: ‘I really knew her, I understood her.’ You read that in Norman Mailer’s book, you read that in Gloria Steinem’s book, and Blonde is no different. I think she’s appealing to that strong desire to save, and perhaps the dark side of that is a punitive fantasy. I think that’s not a good thing – if you want to save someone, they probably need to be saved she. I mean that’s what the film does. It’s basically saying, here’s this person that no one else in the film 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 how she is. And it’s constantly being foiled and denied. I think the people who don’t like the film follow the same instinct, they want to protect them. You want to protect them from that me, and even those who love Ana but don’t like the movie, they want to save her from this terrible movie! So I feel like in a way it’s a measure of how successful the film is.”

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

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Lindsay Lowe

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