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‘Blonde’ Director Andrew Dominik Reveals Why He Depicted Marilyn Monroe’s Unborn Fetus In His NC-17 Film


Four months ago, Blonde director Andrew Dominik told Variety that his Marilyn Monroe biopic would “offend everyone.” He was discussing the film’s NC-17 rating—which, according to the Motion Picture Association, came from “some sexual content“—and many assumed he was referring to depictions of sexual assault. After all, the Joyce Carol Oates novel that the film is based on features a prominent, disturbing scene in which Norma Jeane (not yet dubbed Marilyn Monroe) is raped by a studio executive.

But in Dominik’s adaptation, that scene, though horrifying, is brief. It’s hardly NC-17 levels of explicit—almost none of it is shown on screen. “The way we handle [the rape scene] is we just kind of waterski over it,” Dominik told Decider in a recent phone interview. “I was just trying to skate through it and hit you with the consequences of it later.” Far more shocking is the way Blonde depicts Marilyn’s abortion and miscarriages, via frequent cuts to a visual of the fetus —whom she calls “Baby”— in her womb. (There’s even a scene where we hear the fetus speak to Marilyn through voice-over, asking her not to hurt it.) It’s here, perhaps, where Dominik risks offending far more viewers, many of whom are still reeling from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to an abortion in the United States.

That was never his intention, he told Decider. “Obviously, with Roe v. Wade, being rolled back—the sort of gradual erosion of freedoms that are going on in this country—there’s a temptation to see what’s going on with [Norma Jeane] through that lens. But it’s got nothing to do with that.” The Blonde writer/director spoke to Decider about why he chose to depict the unborn babies on screen, as well as the movie’s Netflix release, NC-17 rating, and more.

Blonde. L to R: Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe with Director Andrew Dominik
Photo: Matt Kennedy/NETFLIX

DECIDER: It’s a gorgeous movie, and I was happy I got to see it on the big screen. But a lot of people are going to watch this at home on Netflix. How are you feeling about that?

ANDREW DOMINIK: About being on Netflix? Well, that was always the deal, you know what I mean? They were the only people that would pay for it. It’s very much designed to work on an iPad—the way it’s graded, the stereo mix. I personally think a film should work under any circumstances. So many classics that I’ve seen, the first time I saw them was on TV.  I mean, obviously, it’s more impactful on a big screen. 

Do you hope audiences will see Blonde on the big screen first, or are you OK with them seeing it on Netflix only?

I’m okay. I’m okay with it. I have to say, the big screen experience is getting less and less big, you know?  And to be honest with you, I sort of trust my projection at home better than a lot of theaters I visit. I mean, I love movies, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time, I don’t have this kind of purist attitude towards it. I think a film works or doesn’t.

One of the more striking visuals is the way you shift between black and white and color, and various aspect ratios. Tell me about that choice.

There’s no story sense.  If you know Marilyn Monroe’s life, you will recognize images all over the movie. The basic idea of the movie is that we’re viewing the world from inside her sort of fortress of the self. She’s misunderstanding the world, according to childhood trauma. She’s projecting that trauma outwards onto everything around her. You’re dealing with familiar imagery—literally photographs that you’ve seen before—but you’re changing the meaning of those images according to how she feels. A shot like her and DiMaggio on the window, which we think of as a romantic image, becomes, from her point of view, an image where her sensitivity is being snuffed out by him. The film’s doing that constantly. “Bye, Bye Baby,” is a song about abortion. You’ve got the razor on the throat, and the director yelling, “Cut!” Everything has new meanings. You can only do that if you’re beginning with a setup that’s familiar. You can only flip them on their head if you have an association with them already. So, there’s no sense to it, it was just what I wanted the film to look like. It was the collective memory of her.

So, a scene is black and white if the photo it was based on is black and white. If it’s color, it’s color. People sit there and go, “Oh black and white means of the past and color means now,” or, “Black and white means sad, color means happy.” It’s none of that. If you look up Marilyn Monroe, if you flip through a book on her, you’re going to see these mixtures of imageries. And that’s the way we think of her, I think. 

Blonde. L to R: Director Andrew Dominik, Boom operator Ben Greaves, Bobby Cannavale as The Ex Athlete, and Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe.
Photo: Matt Kennedy/NETFLIX

What was your relationship with these classic Marilyn Monroe movies going in, and how did you incorporate those movies into this version of her story?

What’s fascinating about the movies is the way in which they can sort of comment on her life. She’s raped by Darryl Zanuck, and then she gets a part in a movie where she plays a starlet who sleeps with producers to get parts. It’s almost like it’s mocking her a little bit or, or it’s taking something ugly and dressing it up for Hollywood razzmatazz. I think some of the attitudes are really interesting. Like, them trying to cast her as the castrating female in Niagara. If you look at Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a certain way, that song, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” it kind of romanticizes transactional relationships. You could look at it as good fiscal advice, or you could look at it as romanticizing prostitution. There are very interesting attitudes that run through the movie. I mean, of course, I love Some Like It Hot. I think that movie is just a great film. The idea of turning it into a nightmare—it’s considered to be the greatest American comedy—to take that and turn it into a nightmare is really fun. 

So much of this movie is so painful, but, for me, the most joyful sequence was her relationship with Cass and Edward. It’s sexual but it almost feels innocent and naive. 

There’s nothing wrong with sexual, right? 

I agree. How do you see that sequence, when she’s dating the two of them?

Cass and Eddie… they’re kind of like a sexual awakening, but it’s not the greatest. They’re three damaged souls and they understand each other. It’s something sort of almost sibling-like, about their relationship. I feel like they see her. But you know, it’s the ’50s. You can’t have a child out of wedlock with a couple of gay guys and have a career. So, it’s always going to end in tears. I also think that the beginning with Arthur Miller is pretty joyful. But it’s a couple of moments. Up to that point in the film, it’s just so harrowing when Cass and Eddie enter, you’re just looking for something to cling to, you know? Her life has been kind of hell up until that moment. Yeah. I mean, you know, life can be a bit like that. And it’s often a relationship that can kind of lift you out of, out of that sort of prison of the self, if you like. A lot of Americans just see a ménage à trois, coded as perverse. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Although, you know, they’re not the greatest, in the end. 

Blonde. L to R: Xavier Samuel as Cass Chaplin, Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe and Evan Williams as Eddy G. Robinson Jr.
Photo: Matt Kennedy/NETFLIX

Ana de Armas has said she didn’t understand why the movie got the rating that it did. Can you provide some insight on that NC-17 rating? 

I didn’t want to make an NC-17 movie. And I actually felt that we colored between the lines. But I think we exist in a time now where nobody’s really sure what the boundaries are. Do you know what I mean? What’s cancelable and what’s not?  It seems like, you know, people are very scared of being criticized, particularly when it comes to depictions of women. I think they probably just erred on the side of caution. 

The ratings board is a lockbox. They don’t tell you why they give you what they do. I mean, they give you sort of hints as to how you could make your film more palatable to them. But it feels like a moving target. If I could have cut it back without hurting the movie, I would have done it, but I couldn’t. And it’s a Netflix movie. It’s not like it’s depending on its theatrical life. So I guess there’s an advantage for being on Netflix. That kind of stuff doesn’t apply. 

Right. So, it sounds like you did consider editing the movie in relation to the rating?

Yeah, of course. Of course. If I could have done it without making the movie bad I would’ve. Not bad, but you know, less good. 

There was a lot of talk as to how Blonde would handle the sexual assault scene from Joyce Carol Oates’s novel. How did you approach adapting that scene for the screen?

The way we handle it is we just kind of waterski over it. Her feelings follow way behind. I mean, she’s having a big day anyway, going in to read. It’s almost done as a musical number, in a way. And I think that’s the way traumatic stuff happens. It just kind of happens and, you’re just going to kind of numb shock, you know? She’s looking for an acting exercise to get her through the situation. The feelings follow later, when she’s doing sense memory stuff in acting class. That’s the idea of it. It’s fragmented. People who are traumatized are kind of used to trauma, and then they’re always just stuffing it down to keep moving forward. At some point, those boxes are going to need to be unpacked or they’re going to explode. I was just trying to skate through it and hit you with the consequences of it later.

For me, the more difficult scenes to watch were her miscarriages and the forced abortion. For that, you involve this representation of the fetus on the screen. Why was the image of the fetus—and eventually the voice—important for you to include?

Well, I think that’s really the central concern, in a way. Her childhood was extraordinarily traumatic because her mother didn’t want her. She’s an unwanted child. For Norma, having a child is incredibly intoxicating, because it means that she can re-parent herself. She can undo the damage that was done to her. I think we understand that because she’s rescuing Baby from the drawer that she was locked in. But, I also think that her experience of motherhood is her own mother. From her mother’s point of view, having a child destroyed her life. She was abandoned, and she went crazy, and she tried to kill Norma. I feel like Norma’s damned if she does and she’s damned if she doesn’t. But, I feel like both feelings are equally true—this sort of joy of being able to undo some wrong, and this kind of terror at what the consequences may be. Baby’s real to her, but Baby is also her—a fantasy of her, you know? It’s a fantasy. All of that stuff is from the book. I feel like the losses of Baby are the big stressors on her. 

The reason to sort of show it was because that’s the way Joyce handled it. Baby was real. I wanted Baby to be real. Obviously, with Roe v. Wade, being rolled back—the gradual erosion of freedoms that are going on in this country—there’s a temptation to see what’s going on with her through that lens. But it’s got nothing to do with that. It’s about what Norma’s feelings are about it.

It is hard not to think about how the movie plays into the abortion debate, especially after Roe v. Wade was overturned. That’s not something you were thinking about at all during filming?

Oh god no! I mean, I wrote the thing in 2008. I’m not trying to comment on anything. It’s not up to art to lead. If there’s a failure of leadership in America, it’s not because of Hollywood. Do you know what I’m saying? Art has nothing to do with… I mean it can reflect that, or whatever. But I wasn’t thinking about that at all. This is about Norma’s feelings about it, and Norma’s feelings about it are valid. She’s not existing in 2022. It’s not about 2022. It’s about the ’50s. 

It does seem inevitable that people are going to view it through this abortion debate lens. Do you wish viewers wouldn’t see it that way?

The fundamental idea of the movie is that we don’t see reality. We’re seeing reality through the lens of her own personal fears, desires, prejudices, and traumas. People are looking at Blonde through their own lens.  If you’re a person who’s very concerned about that stuff, then, of course, you’re going to look at it [that way]. People go to the movies to see themselves reflected. It’s difficult for some people to not see that, if they’re clinging to black and white views of the world. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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