Liz Garbus Interview

Acclaimed director Liz Garbus hit the red carpet last night at the 56th BFI London Film Festival for the premiere of her latest documentary, Love, Marilyn, in which she draws inspiration from newly-discovered letters written by the icon to give us a fresh, poetic look at the life of a superstar – with a little help from a few of her actor friends.

After the screening, Garbus was on hand to discuss her oeuvre with us. Here’s what she had to say:

What was your idea behind the cast of the film and why were they keen on participating?

Often in documentaries when you have text like this it’s done through voice over, but in this film we felt that their performance would reflect back upon Marilyn’s own issues around performance and so we would operate on those different levels.

They came to it because they saw in Marilyn – in these documents – something they hadn’t seen before, parts of her they didn’t know, and they did come in, I think, to celebrate that. Not that she is a saint, but that she is a woman with flesh and struggles and feelings, and that image of her is less known and less discussed so I was blessed to be able to draw on their talents for that.

What were your guiding principles for what you were looking for in terms of telling that particular arc of the story?

The documents provided the bones of the story and the documentary, archival photographs, sort of fleshed it out. Because there has been so much done on her I always question myself, you know, what is the raison d’être? Why are we doing this? We’re doing this because there’s a voice that’s in these documents that’s really important.

I walked into Harrods the other day and there’s a new makeup line with Marilyn’s face on it. I feel almost protective of her. I want this voice to be part of what we see and know of her. I only knew her, before making this film, as a two-dimensional image and now I see the third dimension. That’s what the goal of this film is, so in the story we relied on the documents to provide the framework and then filled it out with more documentary material and great interviews.

How did you extract the performances from your actors? Did they all do the whole read or were you extremely selective in what you gave to each actor?

We were selective but, of course, there was overlap in certain passages because I wanted them to intercut and I wanted it to constantly have the energy that I imagine Marilyn brought to the page when she was writing. So much of this was probably written in the middle of the night. Of course there were those that were more composed, but I wanted the readings to have that type of energy. Some of the actors and actresses were very interested in certain aspects and I worked with them on what they also wanted to do because I felt that if they were drawing from something we would learn something from their interpretation of it. Others were assigned more specific material, so it was kind of an ebb and flow.

The movie is entitled Love, Marilyn… What do you ultimately love about the icon, Marilyn Monroe, having got to know her through this filmmaking process?

I think she was someone who worked incredibly, incredibly hard. Everybody who you talk to about her talked about how incredibly driven she was. I think that she was, as a woman… and sometimes this sounds overly simplified, but she was a trailblazer in many ways. She was dealing with sex and sexuality amidst the 1950s grey flannel suit America in a way that was very bold. She was victimised of course and took advantage of the sexual roles then, but I think it really was a pre-cursor to the sexual revolution. I found her to be very brave in discussing those issues in the audio interviews and what I read of her, and I think she was a clever, very beautiful wordsmith; I think she had a way with words when you see her in press conferences and read the writings. She was incredibly clever and wonderful to listen to. Those are just some of the things that I love about her.

How did you work together with the composer and choose this specific music to reflect this woman?

Well, there’s music that Phil [Sheppard] composed, there’s music of the era that comes from Marilyn’s films, and there are a bunch of modern tracks that I included because they had words or feelings that felt really appropriate for the passages. Philip is an incredible composer and I worked with him on my last film, Bobby Fischer, and he brings a gorgeous tension and beauty that’s tinged with darkness that I felt was perfect for Marilyn’s story. And we worked together by talking about what every scene was trying to deliver and then he would deliver musically what I felt emotionally.

There are lots of conspiracy theories as to whether or not she intended to commit suicide… what do you think about it yourself?

Most of the people who knew Marilyn well feel that it was an accidental overdose. They felt that she was being treated by too many doctors who were too willing to give her all sorts of things; they draw parallels to Michael Jackson’s death and they knew her. From what I know of her, from the work that I’ve done, she didn’t seem to be at a point in her life where she would have chosen to die right then. She seemed to be very optimistic, she had a lot of plans and she had a lot of ideas about her career. Of course she had dark moments of deep, deep depression in which she did consider suicide; we know that she did have overdoses, but I don’t believe that she chose to end her life that night, and I base that on really talking to people who knew her.