Just as the uncommonly strong and scandal-filled 79th edition of the Venice Film Festival was beginning to wind down, Andrew Dominik’s wildly ambitious Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde arrived on the scene Thursday to reignite discussion. The director and his cast — including star Ana de Armas — spoke about the NC-17-rated film’s creation shortly after its very first press screenings.

“I did this movie to push myself, because I thought it was a gift,” de Armas said of her decision to take on the daunting task of playing the Hollywood icon. “And this movie changed my life,” she added. 

Nearly three hours long, Blonde is based on Joyce Carol Oates’ acclaimed, 700-page novel of the same name, which The New Yorker once dubbed “the definitive study of American celebrity.” Dominik, known for his visually arresting films The Assassination of Jesse James (2007) and Killing Them Softly (2012), spent 11 years developing the film and trying to bring it to fruition. The movie examines the whole sweep of the actress’ life, from her troubled childhood as Norma Jeane to her superstardom as Marilyn Monroe, holding close to an impressively intimate first-person perspective throughout. The film also stars Adrien Brody as Arthur Miller, Bobby Cannavale as Joe DiMaggio and Julianne Nicholson as Norma Jeane’s troubled mother. 

Dominik said he knew de Armas was right for the part of Marilyn from their very first meeting. “It’s a little bit like love at first sight,” he said. “When the right person walks through the door, you know.” De Armas, who is Cuban, then spent a full year working with a voice coach to adjust her accept and capture Marilyn’s intonations. And once the film was in production, the crew shot at the actual locations where Marilyn lived — including the very room where she spent her childhood and the Hollywood home in which she died. 

“I truly believe that she was very close to us — she was with us,” de Armas said of the shooting process. The actress explained that the entire cast and crew shared a sense of purpose and the feeling that they were “doing something bigger and something more special than just a film about [Marilyn]. “We were in her service, in a way,” de Armas added. “She was all I thought about. She was all I dreamed about. She was all I could talk about. She was with me. And it was beautiful.” 

Dominik revealed at the press conference that a brief production delay resulted in Blonde‘s very first day of shooting taking place — “entirely by coincidence” — on August 4, the anniversary of Monroe’s death. “Her dust is everywhere in Los Angeles, you know,” he said. “And it definitely sort of took on elements of being like a seance.”

Remarkably — although perhaps not surprisingly, given Venice’s reputation for a tame press corps — Blonde‘s NC-17 rating and graphic sequences went entirely undiscussed during the press conference. De Armas has previously complained about the rating, saying she felt it was unjustified, while Dominik has embraced it. In February, the director definitively told Screen Daily: “It’s a demanding movie. If the audience doesn’t like it, that’s the fucking audience’s problem. It’s not running for public office. It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right?”

When Adrien Brody’s turn at the mic came, he described Blonde as “storytelling that is as brave as it is essential.” The actor said he admired the film for trying to close the gap between the global public perception of Marilyn Monroe as an icon and the painful, traumatic life that Norma Jeane actually led. 

Brody explained: “The fact that she’s so revered and so loved by men and women alike, and yet her inner struggle, her sadness and all of the unresolved traumatic moments in her life never left her — it feels almost criminal to me. … We’re very fortunate to have someone like Andrew, and someone like Ana, who were able to pour their artistic sensibilities into representing [a reality about Marliyn] that I feel is lost upon most people. And this perspective of being inside of her is such a gift to us, and it was such a privilege for me to be a small part of helping to bring that out.” 

Blonde also stars Julianne Nicholson, Xavier Samuel, Evan Williams, Lily Fisher, Toby Huss, David Warshofsky, Caspar Phillipson, Dan Butler, Sara Paxton and Rebecca Wisocky. The film is produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Tracey Landon and Scott Robertson, with Christina Oh as executive producer.

Blonde will play in select theaters starting Sept. 16 before releasing globally on Netflix on Sept. 28. 

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