‘Blonde’ DP Talks Interpreting Marilyn Monroe’s Life Through Experimentation and Excess: “We Were Just Pushing Things”

Blonde cinematographer Chayse Irvin has been left scratching his head over his Marilyn Monroe film that launched with a 14-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, only to run into a buzzsaw of criticism for apparently exploiting the suffering of the screen icon, played by Ana de Armas.

Irvin tells The Hollywood Reporter that Blonde — as it graphically depicts the abuse and trauma inflicted on Monroe from her troubled childhood to a shock death at age 36 — was never intended as a celebratory biopic many may have expected.

Instead, Irvin and director Andrew Dominik deliberately set out with woozy imagery, alternating use of digital color and monochrome, varied aspect ratios and horror movie tropes to remain true to Joyce Carol Oates’ dream-like novel where, fusing fact and fiction, Monroe steadily spirals into despair.

“I remember Andrew saying that the film won’t be respected or credited because it defames an American hero. And that the society, the collective, wouldn’t accept that, to a certain degree. Yeah, I can see that he was right,” Irvin recalls director Dominik saying as they finished shooting a controversial scene where Monroe performs oral sex on U.S. President John F. Kenney (Caspar Phillipson).

Irvin, best known for collaborations with artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph and camerawork on Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, insists Blonde creates a cinematic lens through which audiences see Monroe’s chaotic life from her perspective.

The Hollywood Reporter talked to Irvin about creating an unorthodox portrait of Monroe forever in terror and alarm, and his use of “wood shedding” — a jazz term for improvising on your own to achieve polished performances on stage — to come up with camera tricks and techniques he developed on the Blonde film set.

With your camera, you depicted a Hollywood icon in endless turmoil. How did the cinematic vision come about?

A lot of the motivation came from the book. Joyce Carol Oates’ book where she wrote an abstracted beginning and an end and I rendered a version of that image in my mind where Marilyn was reliving her life at the moment of death. And she was looking back on these series of events with the sentiment that she had when she was letting go. She was sort of confronting all these demons in her life. That opened us up on a creative level and a cinematographic level to help articulate her inner experience through a series of metaphors. One example is how we were changing aspect ratios. We’re trying to capture particular moments that had been photographed in your life and emulate them, almost directly, and then stage a scene within that image that we have. And that image that we had would be a photograph from her life, of her, for example, driving into a premiere. And we would recreate that image almost identically, and then stage the scene that was from the book, essentially, or scripted in the screenplay. But it all had that same core idea, that she was reliving this moment.

Can you recall some of the camera techniques you used to portray the confusion and disconnection Monroe would have felt?

There’s a plethora of techniques that I used. I didn’t necessarily have a clear idea of where the metaphor would apply, how it would have a particular meaning, the image and the technique. It was much more intuitive. In the preparation for the film, I worked maybe six months before we started shooting, and in that time I would experiment and come up with ideas and cinematic devices that I can put in my pocket and pull out when I wanted to take us out of the ordinary. I use the term woodshedding. It’s a jazz term. My family members are jazz musicians. In jazz, if you would woodshed — you sort of create happy accidents, where you come up with a harmonic device that then you can stick in your pocket and pull out during a set, if you felt you were doing something traditional, or not quite what you like, and you want to pivot. So I did the same thing.

Can you give us an example of woodshedding, say early in the film when Monroe is in a threesome with Cass (Xavier Samuels) and Eddie (Evan Williams) and the camera sequence becomes all twisted and distorted.

Yeah, that’s a great example of woodshedding. I discovered while setting up for an event in a studio in Brooklyn where we had young models with a timeless look, from different eras, and we could dress them in period clothing. And I bought from a plastics store a very thin four-foot-by-eight-foot sheet of mirrored poly and I put it on stands and I started bending and distorting it and I would shoot the reflection of that. I could see that their bodies were both basically distorting and fragmenting and stretching. So in the sequence in the film, I had the art department purchase several sheets of that poly, and we just kept them on the grip truck. It wasn’t until that moment, when we were talking about how to do the scene, that I asked for it to come off the truck and we framed up the shot and Andrew Dominik just started howling over his enjoyment of what it was giving us, because it completely defied any expectations. It took the scene into a place where even love is expressed to the extent of hyperbole. These moments where there is love, it’s so magical. And in some cases it’s so magical, it’s repulsive.

There’s another scene where Monroe’s third husband, Arthur Miller, asks her why she’s so distant. And as he does so, Miller suddenly goes out of focus to accentuate another seeming hallucination by Monroe. How did you do that?

Yes, in that shot specifically, we did a body mount. Ana was wearing a harness with the camera attached and I would guide her into the different sections in the home. And on the lens, there’s this filter called the Cinefade. It basically synchs an iris motor that controls the exposure and the depth of field, and an ND filter that has a motor on it as well. And as you rotate it, it does an exposure compensation. So you essentially can affect the depth of field without changing the exposure. We had planned that move. During rehearsals, we had found a really interesting point to cue that particular sensation. And now again was an improvised moment because I had been using the Cinefade, not for that specific device, but to control the exposure almost consistently throughout the film, it was on the camera. So I think in that moment we were in this interior, and it felt like Marilyn was blocking these voices from the outside and she was more captured in her neurosis. I love that moment in the film, when she turns around and she looks at the camera.

This is all seems part of the film striving to be told very much from the perspective of Monroe?

Yeah, it was very much about trying to explore her point of view and subjectivity. That was sort of the core of every moment, which Andrew had made pretty clear. But he was also pivoting quite a bit during the execution of a scene. He would always get these really dynamic performances and he would make adjustments every take that were quite different. Even though the dialogue was the same. It was always a different sentiment or a different feeling behind each take. He would make those requests from the actors quite intuitively and on fly. That really helped me come up with ways to support the actors, in the real feeling that they had, and the messages and the meanings they intended for their inner experience, their psychological experience.

That’s where the woodshedding helped?

Yes, I was able to have these things that may act as metaphors. And you don’t really know until you try these things. To preconceive all that stuff I think would have lacked a human touch.

In terms of preconception, you strike me as a cinematographer who doesn’t look to work off of storyboards.

I feel like the human brain and its thoughts are actually a form of limitations. Because we can’t think of certain things that are new if the brain is operating off of memory. So when I try to preconceive things, I always fear that it’s always coming back that from reference. And the film is an example of that. We were referencing very, very specific shots throughout. But then other sequences completely defied that rule. We wouldn’t have an image from her life that articulated or supported those moments. We would just create from our own senses.

There’s one scene of Monroe and Joe DiMaggio at home and seated against a back-lit window. That sequence was referenced from a famous magazine shot, but in the film’s dialogue shows the screen legend being demeaned, an entirely different metaphor for her life.

Yeah, he [Dimaggio] became dismissive. And you could see her talent and her desire to express and love, but it was rejected. One of the messages in the film is that she was always judged as Marilyn. And she was actually Norma Jean. Every time she reaches out to present herself as Norma, that’s rejected and the only time she’s accepted is when she’s Marilyn. You see all these men howling and her dresses blowing and she’s accepted and then she gets home and she’s Norma and she’s being abused and there’s resentment towards Norma. And it always ripples from childhood when she was Norma.

To show the contrast between Monroe in public and Norma Jean at home, you appear to alternate between digital black and white for her public shots and technicolor for her private life. Can you talk about that use of color, or not, with I sense you had no hard and fast rules in mind?

In some cases it was based off the images that we have of Marilyn. We recreated those and the aspect ratio. For example, a lot of images are still photography, which guided us to the 4:3 aspect ratio or another word for it is 133.1. In some scenes there wasn’t any example [of] color. And I as a cinematographer, I don’t like to use symbolism. I like metaphors, as a metaphor to me is full of multiple meanings, rather than a singular one. So as we were trying to conceive black and white and color, it was more intuitive. We wanted to feel a void and a particular meaning attached to her emotional state. So we sort of danced around and it helped us more with the sense of confusion. Marilyn, she was diagnosed with what they call now bipolar, but then it was called manic depressive. It’s like the emotional state is a river and constantly moving and strong. So what most informed the choice was what was happening before.

One example near the end of the film has Monroe in a waking nightmare because she senses someone in the house, possibly FBI agents. You shot that scene using an infrared in pitch darkness. Why?  

That sort of came from woodshedding as well. Because I discovered that you can capture in the infrared light a black look in someone’s eyes. And it created this sense of fear. I had done this experiment where I shot myself, a portrait, and I had an infrared light bouncing off a piece of mylar [plastic] and I was flashing it in my face. And none of the infrared light is perceptible and I was in a pitch black room. So if a light was shining in my eyes, I would squint. If it’s infrared light, I would have no reaction and it was almost like an image of me completely docile, or asleep. I’m glad that we had that opportunity in that scene, to execute where she’s walking around her house with that sense of fear. And I was trying to capture a realism as if you were walking through your house and it’s pitch black, but we’re exposing it differently as if it was a dream or she was a ghost.

The extent to which you wanted to expressionistically convey Norma Jean’s perspective, one of terror and madness, near the end of her life, was that in part to critique the celebrity culture that gave rise to Monroe and her legend in the first place?

The film does study the consequences of popular culture and specifically with Marilyn, her feelings of alienation, of never really getting to be who she wanted to be. There’s scenes where she does articulate her dreams, including with the baseball player, the former athlete. She talks about how she admires these writers, including Chekhov. And she knows this isn’t acceptable, so then she talks about babies, which is actually really heartbreaking because she had just had an abortion in the film. But her need for acceptance and love was threatened and all she could do in their place is pander. And yes, there’s these moments of tragedy.

To convey that tragedy, you and Dominik push scenes to the point of absurdity, of hyperbole as you put it. And that’s drawn criticism with a shot, for example, coming from inside Monroe’s vagina during her abortion. How do you react to what some see as exploitative, when you wanted to convey Monroe forced to do something against her will?

It was almost a homage to the horror genre. There’s another scene with JFK, or not JFK, the president. It was a very similar idea of this sense of humiliation and lack of control and how do we put it to a place of absurdity. Not in a sadistic sense, but more like where reality is completely distorted. Rather than show that scene in a realistic way — because I felt even the realistic way would have felt more violent, more of a violation — we went to a place that was actually much more psychological.

You’re talking about the scene where Monroe is performing oral sex on the president?

Yes. Yes, exactly. And shooting that scene was intuitive as well. Andrew and I didn’t really know how we weren’t going to do it. I chose in the moment to use a lens and focus on her eyes and slide around her eyes as she was experiencing this humiliation. It starts with her on the airplane and she’s nervous, tired. And the Secret Service officers pick her up and carry her through the hotel and she’s going into this new hurricane. I remember talking about JFK, and he didn’t seem like the superhero that we render him as today. And even when I read the biography of Marilyn Monroe, I remember that she basically spent the last year of her life in a relationship with Bobby Kennedy, JFK and Frank Sinatra. They were probably the three most powerful people in the world in some degree, and they’re all friends. And they were, in my view, lightly exploiting her. I remember Andrew saying that the film won’t be respected or credited because it defames an American hero. And that society, the collective, wouldn’t accept that, to a certain degree. Yeah, I can see that he was right.

Do you feel criticism of Blonde as exploitative comes from audiences not wanting to accept Monroe was so often abused in life against her will?

Yes and no. To a certain degree, I saw instances that were based off of facts, off of my experience reading biographies of her. But Joyce Carol Oates, her book is actually written from her studying Monroe’s childhood and wanting to sort of articulate what it was like through her life, almost like an avalanche. But this is done from sentiment of her taking her last breath and letting go of her life by confronting all the demons she experienced in her life. So even images where she’s in love, it’s this explosion of love and happiness. But then it goes to a place of resentment and disgust. These may not have been real, but it’s more what she would have been thinking as she goes through this process of letting go of life and confronting her demons.

With her marriage to the playwright, she was going into this place of darkness and drug abuse, and she did the movie The Misfits, and she had turmoil in her life. She was fostering these past traumatic experiences to help her act. All this stuff is bringing things to the surface and rippling events. These scenes in the film are actually more ripples from something her mother did. Or from her the lack of her father, how she saw these fathers in her life, and this mystery about who her father was. Because all she wanted was stability in the sense of having a stable love, access to love, and with that she had a deep desire to foster and raise children. Because that created that safety and that stability for her to receive love, but she couldn’t because she couldn’t give birth. So I don’t want to say we were going after something factual, the way it was really like.

What we were trying to harness was much more an interpretation of her psychological state. And that always came down to an out-of-body experience, that she was reliving her life as if she was outside of it. In that way, we had almost a film that could be pure, pure language, pure cinematography, pure sensorial devices like sound. We could deviate from spatial clarity. You didn’t really know the spaces in its entirety that we were shooting in to close up on this or that. And that’s one of the reasons why the depth of field was so shallow. I just wanted to create this sense that if anything happened abruptly then everything would fall apart. We were just layering these metaphors and trying to come up with ways to access or articulate what could be happening psychologically, to the place of the hyperbole or absurdity. We were just pushing things, because to us it was pure language.

As a fictionalized take on Monroe’s life, you were also undermining the idea of a Hollywood biopic?

Some of the controversy about the film is that it violates an expectation, because when you’re watching a film that is a genre known as a biopic, it’s typically done in a way that is celebratory. It’s sort of a puff piece, to be honest with you. People go to that to celebrate somebody that they may have felt connected to. Sometimes when you have these celebrity images in your mind, you feel like you known them personally, even though you don’t. And with Marilyn, the book and the film are not a biopic. It’s actually an experimental artistic endeavor, studying popular culture.

So when people feel they’re watching something that is really about Marilyn in a way, and they’re going to Netflix to look at something they feel is a biopic, it takes you on this journey that is completely not that. So I can see how people would feel like they have a particular expectation that the film follows the line of a biopic, but it doesn’t do that at all.  In a way, the reaction to the film to me has been part of the piece because it studies popular culture and how, even in this moment, people, the spectators, are projecting their version of Marilyn on the film. And when it’s showing these forms of horror, they start to reject it and they have negative feelings. I’m curious in a good way, because I feel like the film sort of challenged people in a particular way that stimulated these emotions. I think the film is actually an indication of its success, because there’s never a reaction of indifference towards it.

It was always measuring the film based on a moral view — is it good or bad. … To me, it’s a renegade thing. We’re in this area of cinema where it’s doing this particular wavelength, where we’re playing this conventional role and we’re basically changing that. It’s really rare where a film of this budget level can get released and where it’s this experimental. It happened quite often a few decades ago, but now it’s kind of rare. So I feel really blessed to work with a maverick like Andrew and do it in the way that he wanted, and to honor Joyce as an author in the way that she wrote her book, as this out-of-body experience.

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