Ahead of tonight’s Gala world premiere of Love, Marilyn, director Liz Garbus (pictured inset) talks exclusively to realscreen about her decision to go “out on a limb” by using A-list actors to bring the writings of Marilyn Monroe to life.
Liz Garbus’s latest documentary opens with a camera panning across a bookshelf, revealing just some of the hundreds of books that have been written about Marilyn Monroe, arguably the most famous sex symbol and Hollywood icon of the 20th Century.
With last month having marked the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death, networks and producers have been scrambling to produce or rerun Monroe programming, either broadcasting films that featured the Golden Globe- and BAFTA-winning actor in her heyday, or airing new documentaries that looked at her oft-complicated private life.
But with Love, Marilyn, which after previewing at Telluride enjoys its world premiere tonight (September 12) at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Garbus is aiming to stand out from the crowd by portraying Monroe using the actor’s own words.
“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that there’s been a lot done on Marilyn,” Garbus tells realscreen. “In fact, that’s the starting point of our film – that so much has been written and said about this woman.
“But what I felt, as a filmmaker and a lover of film history, was that we have been presented with a not entirely complete picture of one of the most famous people in the 20th Century.”
Garbus came to Love, Marilyn via Stanley Buchthal, who produced her last documentary, Bobby Fischer against the World. In addition to his film work, Buchthal serves as an adviser to Anna Strasberg and her family, who oversee the estate of Monroe, and in 2010 he edited the book Marilyn Monroe: Fragments.
“Anna Strasberg, during a move about 10 years ago, found a couple of boxes in storage that hadn’t been sorted through, in which were a lot of Marilyn’s writings: composed, organized business letters; middle-of-the-night scrawled thoughts; poems; notes; recipes… a whole bunch of notebooks, scraps of paper, and a ton of other stuff,” Garbus recalls.
“She sat on it for quite a long time and then finally with Stanley decided to try to get them out into the world, because they really showed the inner Marilyn. When Stanley was working on this and putting them together in a book, he told me about the documents and I had the opportunity to see what they were doing, and I was blown away.”
Garbus secured funding from French-headquarted producer-distributor StudioCanal to make a doc, but faced a key question in how best to bring Monroe’s disparate writings to life.
“It felt like there were many different Marilyns expressed in these voices, in the same way that all of us have multiple facets and sides,” Garbus reflects. “She was sometimes a confident business woman and sometimes an anxious wreck. Sometimes a faithful, loyal lover, and other times an adulterer. She had all of these different sides, and what was exciting to me was an opportunity to give voice to these different sides.”
In a bold artistic choice, Garbus decided to have well-known Hollywood actors appear onscreen and read out Monroe’s words, as well as those of her friends and lovers.
Among the A-list stars tapped to voice Monroe are Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Lindsay Lohan, Uma Thurman, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood; while Adrien Brody voices Truman Capote, Jeremy Piven takes on Elia Kazan, Ben Foster plays Norman Mailer, and Hope Davis represents Gloria Steinem.
“I felt like I was going out on a limb,” admits Garbus, “I was doing something that I hadn’t done before and that, actually, I hadn’t really seen before. There wasn’t a roadmap.
“I’ve never made a narrative film but I imagine it’s pretty much the same process – you reach out to actors through their agents and representatives with the material, and the first step is to get those agents excited. They in turn will express support to their clients.”
Garbus says the actors who came on board “didn’t do so because they were being paid lots of money,” but because they responded deeply to the material. “I thought that that response, in and of itself, was also quite interesting,” she says. “Actors who are working in Hollywood today related directly to the experiences Marilyn had 60 years ago.
“It was very much a collaborative process because they’re not performing Marilyn, they’re not being Marilyn, they are bringing out the various facets of Marilyn with their energies – calm, collected, frantic… all of those different energies – but they are still themselves.”
In addition to the thespians’ performances, Garbus uses a wealth of archival footage, backed by a vibrant soundtrack featuring big band offerings from Monroe’s era, alongside songs from contemporary female acts such as Feist and Au Revoir Simone.
“I had an amazing research team who went to Denmark to scour through the archives there, which there were a ton of,” says Garbus, “and of course there was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where we unearthed the letters of Arthur Miller and Billy Wilder.”
Still photographs also proved to be a key component of the film. “Marilyn is one of the most photographed people in the world, so of course there are many,” says Garbus. “But what was special was building relationships with photographers who would give you ones that hadn’t been seen before.”
On this front, Garbus found crucial collaborators in Josh and Amy Greene, the respective son and widow of noted Monroe photographer Milton H Greene.
“Milton Greene was Marilyn’s business partner when she started Marilyn Monroe Productions, and he shot a lot of 60mm film of Marilyn behind the scenes on her movies, at her wedding, and at the Greene home in Connecticut,” Garbus explains. “We were able to transfer a lot of that stuff, which had never been transferred before, and it’s some of the best stuff in the film. I’m really grateful to the Greene family, because I think it shows Marilyn the human being; an unguarded person.”
Love, Marilyn looks set to be Garbus’s most high-profile doc since her 1998 effort The Farm: Angola, USA, which won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and an Oscar nomination. And while the 105-minute feature arrives in Toronto without a North American distributor, it is one of the most talked-about docs at the festival, with U.S. net HBO among the parties interested in potentially acquiring the film.
For Garbus, meanwhile, the doc is her second consecutive biopic, following on from last year’s film on late chess genius Bobby Fischer. “With Bobby and with Marilyn, those have been my partners, lovers, friends and enemies for the past three or four years,” she laughs, “but they’re fascinating partners to have.
“You become totally obsessed with them, and every ounce of footage that pours in is like a gift from the grave; I loved the process. For Bobby, I felt his story hadn’t been told in a complete way in documentary, so that was a project where I felt a certain obligation to history to tell the full story.
“For Marilyn it’s the opposite, actually, I felt I didn’t have that obligation at all,” she adds. “I had an obligation to bring my own point of view of these documents, but I didn’t need to cover every biographical beat, and we really didn’t.
“There was a lot that we felt had been amply covered elsewhere. So the films were very different in that sense.”
Love, Marilyn has its TIFF Gala world premiere at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall tonight (September 12), with repeat showings at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on September 13 and 16. International sales are being handled by StudioCanal.