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Interview with Liz Garbus

Marilyn head resting on hands

HBO

Why this story?

Liz Garbus

What attracted to me were the documents that were found. I had made a film called 'Bobby Fischer Against the World,' and the producer on that film, Stanley Buchthal, was an advisor to the estate of Marilyn Monroe. The Strasberg Estate had held on to the documents and over time, decided to release them. When I got to look at them and got to know them, I began to see a Marilyn Monroe I hadn't known before. I think my ideas about her were ill formed. They were based on two-dimensional photography, the mythology and lore we hear about her.

HBO

When you have a topic people are familiar with, what challenges do you face?

Liz Garbus

Everyone thinks they know who she is. There's an upside - you don't have to prove that you have an interesting topic because everyone is interested from the get-go. The downside is they think they know and have heard everything. In the film we talk about that right from the beginning. So much has been written and said about her, but there's a side that hasn't been explored that's very modern and very relatable.

HBO

It's remarkable how contemporary her issues were.

Liz Garbus

That was the reaction that I had. The woman I found in there and wanted to portray I felt hadn't been in portrayed in that light before. What I found in these documents were the notes of a real woman, a human being who I actually found really related to my own life.

HBO

What aspects of Marilyn surprised you the most about her?

Liz Garbus

Her ambition. Her commitment to her career. Her bravery taking on that system. One example: Leaving Hollywood at the height of her fame and coming to New York and enrolling in beginning acting classes. It was very brave. Can you imagine if a big star did that today? You can imagine the kind of flak they'd get. Whenever she was announced with a new husband or boyfriend, people would ask, "Are you going to keep working?" And her answer was: "Of course. There's no change in plans." That fascinated me - no one asked Arthur Miller if he was going to keep working. I thought that was a very modern response.

What I found in these documents were the notes of a real woman, a human being who I actually found really related to my own life.

HBO

Marilyn's friend Amy seems like a hoot.

Liz Garbus

Amy Green is a treasure. She'll regale you with more stories than there are in the film, like how the first time they met, they were playing charades at Gene Kelly's house. It's an amazing opening for any story. It also says something about Marilyn that she liked to be in the company of such a sassy, strong woman.

HBO

Why did you decide to have different actors to play Marilyn?

Liz Garbus

When you have inert materials, diaries and notes, the question is: How do you bring them to life in film? Different filmmakers have approached this in different ways over time. Ken Burns, of course, famously has them read as voiceover by actors. Because so much is about acting itself and becoming a great actor, and so much of what Marilyn was obsessed about was that question, I thought it would be informative for viewers to have actors process her thoughts on acting. So there would be another layer of understanding in watching her interpretations.

Whenever anyone watches a movie about Marilyn, and there have been many in which a single actress has portrayed her, you're always comparing that actor to Marilyn and in a certain way that's distracting; "Oh this actor is this, and Marilyn is more that." You can't relax or listen to what the director, screenwriter or actor is trying to do. By having multiple people read, relieving the audience of that game of comparison, perhaps the words come through less adulterated.

HBO

How did you settle on who would play which parts of her?

Liz Garbus

We were looking for variety of actors and actress. We start with a list of our favorite actors and we work from there. Only Marilyn is portrayed by multiple actors and that's because I was looking to get a lot of different energies and experiences, and again, to take you away from the physicality of Marilyn in order to just listen to her words.

HBO

Did you direct your actors?

Liz Garbus

It's a collaboration. They have their interpretation, I have mine. We talk; we find what's best about either and find what works best. They're great actors and come with their own sense of interpretation.

HBO

Are there any current celebrities who you feel would be equally worthy of this kind of treatment?

Liz Garbus

I don't think so. Maybe 50 years from now one can look back and see who's had that impact, but nobody really has had the impact that Marilyn had on the vision of American femininity. She came to fame at a time where we were leaving grey flannel suit 1950s, and pushing toward the '60s and sexual freedom. I'm not sure we can look at today's actors and actresses and decide - I think hindsight will have a lot to do with that.

Love, Marilyn

Docs Summer Series 2013