Simon Curtis has some impressive British TV directing and producing credentials behind him: The award-winning BBC miniseries Cranford, a 1999 adaptation of David Copperfield with Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen and Daniel Radcliffe, adaptations of Uncle Vanya, Twelfth Night and Edward II, and even episodes of Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes Off and the American legal drama The Practice .
So, the director wanted to get things right when he set out to make his first feature film. One couldn’t imagine things going any better than My Week with Marilyn, the entertaining, eye-opening account of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl. That 1956 film starred Marilyn Monroe, who executive produced, and Laurence Olivier, who directed. Here, Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh step into the roles of those iconic performers.
“It was a gamble,” confesses the 51-year-old filmmaker about his project. ”There were other things I had talked about doing. I decided to hold out for this because it was the project I loved.”
In fact, the grey-haired Curtis has been acquainted for years with the intriguing behind-the-scenes intrigue and romance that occurred during the production of The Princess and the Showgirl. He read the two books that were the basis for his film—The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn—when they first came out in 1996 and 2001, respectively.
Both were written by Colin Clark, who used family ties to get a job as an assistant director/gopher/Marilyn confidante on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. This offered him a unique look into the world of filmmaking and of the project’s producer/star. In the film, the eager-to-please Clark, who would go on and become a documentary filmmaker, is played by Eddie Redmayne, who won a 2010 Tony award for his role in Red.
“This is really the story of my first job and his first job,” says Curtis. “I remember my first job in the theater and I got a pittance, but I remember being in the same room with all these people I looked up to. I think everybody has a story like that and it’s universal. That’s what really appealed to me—and that he grows up and learns a lesson.”
Curtis, who is married to actress Elizabeth McGovern, claims that this saga has universality that he—and he believes others—can relate to.
“I loved them, from the first time I read them,” Curtis says in relation to the books. “And that was really my way into the movie. It was this young man’s journey—the dream first job, getting to work on this particular movie and making contact with Marilyn. It was Colin Clark’s diaries that were the starting point.”
Shot for seven weeks at four different British film studios, My Week with Marilyn centers on a crucial moment in the careers of Monroe and Oliver, according to Curtis. “What was really of interest to me about this period was the turning point for Marilyn,” he relates. “She set up a production company, she moved to New York (from California), she was with (writer) Arthur Miller and she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. And she thought all of these things would help her become this highly regarded serious actress.”
As for Olivier, Curtis says this film was intended to help his career. His previous film, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, flopped. “He had done the play (The Sleeping Prince) on stage with his wife Vivien (Leigh). The package came together that was irresistible, and Marilyn had bought the rights to the play. He thought he couldn’t turn it down.”
Curtis thinks it’s interesting to note that the performers would follow the fluffy The Prince and the Showgirl with what many consider their greatest artistic triumphs: Marilyn’s role as ukelele-strumming sexpot Sugar Kane in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot and Olivier’s downtrodden dancehall star Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer at the Royal Court Theatre.
Luckily, Curtis’ two primary actors couldn’t turn their parts down either.
“I am a great believer in getting the best actors for the part,” the filmmaker explains. “When Michelle and Ken signed on, they were magnets for the others. We wondered if we can get so and so and we said ‘Let’s see if they sign on. If it’s something they like and they like the script and it’s something they can do from home. Let’s see if they can sign on.’”
Williams was Curtis’ first and only choice to play the sexy, vulnerable, manic Monroe.
“Michelle Williams loved the script and wanted to meet me,” Curtis recalls. “I met with her in upstate New York and remember taking a bus back to Manhattan hoping she would say yes. Something obviously spoke to her in the part.”
What made the part particularly challenging for Williams was the fact that My Week with Marilyn depicts three different facets of the actress: “Marilyn’s character in The Prince and the Showgirl, Marilyn as an icon and the vulnerable woman behind everything,” is how Curtis sees it.
Williams dug into the part, diligently listening to recordings and interviews and watching archival footage of Monroe. “She is such a conscientious, hard-working person in her own right,” Curtis says of the actress, who has been nominated for Oscars in Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine and has a good shot of being nominated for her turn in this film. “Michelle would study the performances and she’d have an iPad on the set. She is the hardest-working actress I know. I was really lucky to have someone working that hard playing the part. Watching her performance is one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened in my career. It was clear she was doing something remarkable.”
Getting Branagh as Olivier was a coup for the film as well. The British actor-director has been likened to Olivier since early in his career.
“He was brilliant because he knows the agony and ecstasy of directing,” Curtis says of Branagh, who is now the same age Oliver was when he made The Prince and the Showgirl. “In fact, when we started, he was doing post-production work on Thor (which he directed). His name has been associated with Olivier since his first film, Henry V. But I would just be a fool not to harvest his expertise. It was a joy to see his performance unfold.
“He gave me support and I really trust him and his instincts and was happy to have him there.”
According to the director, what made My Week with Marilyn palatable for Curtis and, in particular, Williams, was the fact that the script “wasn’t a biopic, not a whole life story, but a specific story set in London in 1956. If it was different, it would have been intimidating, not just for me but for the actors as well.”
As for exposing the real side of Marilyn Monroe audiences may not know, Curtis thinks his film succeeds on that count.
“She is a very famous name and an incredibly famous face but people don’t really know the actor,” says Curtis. “They haven’t seen the movies nearly as much as they know who she is. And they know the soap opera of her life.” In many ways, The Prince and the Showgirl was supposed to change that. With a new marriage and production company, this period was supposed to be a turning point in Monroe’s life.
“Unfortunately, it ended up being the story of how all of these things went wrong.”