London 1956. It was meant to be the film pairing of all time: the great British thespian Sir Laurence Olivier and the luminous American movie star Marilyn Monroe in the film she produced and he directed, THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Clashes and problems abound. Olivier’s bombastic, overbearing direction and her new husband’s dismissiveness [celebrated playwright Arthur Miller] feed Monroe’s insecurities. She seeks allies, finding one in the young third assistant director Colin Clark, a recent Oxford grad and son of the scholar and author Sir Kenneth Clark.
The film MY WEEK WITH MARILYN recounts Colin’s memories of that troubled film production, and of one magical week in particular.
Director Simon Curtis relied on Production Designer Donal Woods and Set Decorator Judy Farr SDSA [Oscar nominee for THE KING’S SPEECH] to re-create the making of the 1956 film and the accompanying environs.
Sir Laurence Olivier [Kenneth Branagh] represented the old: stage actors transitioning into movies; whereas Marilyn Monroe [Michelle Williams] epitomized the new: movie stars born of film. She came to life in front of the camera. And she was breathtaking. However, Olivier, the staunch traditionalist who was hoping to reinvigorate his film career, refused to accommodate Monroe’s idiosyncrasies, her tardiness and her devotion to Method acting. Thus, her behavior became more erratic, his more pedantic.
“It was such an intriguing script,” Farr says. “Set in that dark, old-fashioned England, with old fashioned cars and everything mucky and dreary. I can’t imagine anything more awful for Marilyn than coming to stodgy post-war Britain, especially from America where everything was new and bright.”
Williams agrees, “What Marilyn was anticipating happening and what actually wound up happening were two very different things and they created discord and unhappiness for her in England. She was expecting to go to London and make a movie with the most esteemed actor of the time and hoped it would bring her the respect that she deserved and craved. When she arrived, she felt she was being laughed at and mistreated.” And the setting added to her despair.
The stages and dressing rooms were old and worn. Farr recalls, “The photographs we found of the studios from that time revealed that they hadn’t done anything to the dressing rooms since the 1930s…literally, they had been just the same in the 50s.”
“We were very lucky to shoot in many of the locations where the real story had taken place,” Curtis discloses, “notably Pinewood Studios and Parkside House, which is the house that Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe rented they when were in London.”
At Pinewood Studios, the current production was able to use the exact dressing rooms that Olivier and Monroe had 55 years ago. “In the script, someone says, ‘Marilyn doesn’t like brown. She doesn’t like red. She doesn’t like this color, so maybe we’ll just paint it cream.’ That’s why her dressing room is cream in our film,” says Farr. “The original photographs of the 1950s dressing rooms show them as just tiny rooms, not the glamorous sort of places they had in Hollywood. So I think Marilyn must have had a real shock. Coming to England in that time when everybody had these silly exaggerated manners and this clipped way of speaking with the very formal etiquette…where, as a kid, all I ever wanted to do was to be in America, because it was so fantastic and bright…the fridges the cars and the clothes…so she must have come over here and thought, ‘What is this weird old-fashioned place?’ There is a difference between visiting history and living with it!
Thus, both productions feminized Monroe’s dressing room to an extent, including a pink velvet chaise, a floral print chair and pastel colors. Olivier’s dressing room retained the masculine, British red and mustard gold, with an assortment of reading chairs and an old standing lamp. Farr remembers, “I asked a couple of elderly managers at the studio, ‘Where did you get the furnishings? Did you have a store of furniture and accessories?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, we just brought stuff out of other offices and put them in.’ So it’s a real mish-mash, a muddle. There was no sort of continuity at all, such as the studio furniture being similar or matching—it was all just a real jumble.”
“We also used the original stage that they used for THE PRINCE AND THE SHOW GIRL,” she says. “They still have the dirty old cloth sound-proofing with the chicken wire over the top, and the lovely old wooden floors. Obviously, we had to take a lot of stuff away and we did a bit of painting in the studio itself, and then we built the oval room of the set from THE PRINCE AND THE SHOW GIRL. With our limited budget, we couldn’t do absolutely everything that they had done on the original film. That would have been great, but in fact, I think it was probably quite nice that it had touches of things that were slightly different. We used the French chairs, the cream with gold trim that were actually in the original film—Farley, the company who owns them has a still photograph from the original film of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier sitting on those very chairs. The framed photograph has been in their office for thirty odd years. I remember going in there and seeing it many times. And I realized, ‘Oh my god, I can actually use those!’ And there they were, the original chairs that she and he had sat in, which was just fantastic!”
“The sofa we had custom-made,” Farr notes. “We took screen grabs of the original film and scaled it accordingly. My husband is a furniture designer, so he drew it all up and got one of his guys to make the sofa. It was purple as in the original film and huge, about 9 feet long, absolutely enormous!”
“When you actually look at what they used on the set of that film, some of the dressing, particularly those little figurines and things they had in the corner cupboards, was so tacky. It was really slightly unattractive! I kept saying to Corina Burrough, my buyer, ‘We CAN’T put those in there, they’re disgusting! We need something a little bit more tasteful.’ And the purple wallpaper! We actually made that. One of our painters printed it, because we couldn’t find anything similar. I mean, can you imagine putting that in your house?”
“All the paintings were hired. We thought about copying the one of a mother and child that hangs above the fireplace, but fortunately we found something that was similar. When you look at the original film, the paintings were appallingly bad, so we used similar sizes, similar styles, but better quality.”
Another major aspect of re-creating the 1956 filmmaking process was obtaining and providing the film equipment of that period: the lighting, sound equipment, and cameras. “We got them from all over the place,” says Farr. “We had experts come in to show us the equipment and how it worked. All the lights were fully practical, which was fabulous, particularly when the DOP said he’d like to have, ‘As many as I can that work, because I’m going to use them to light the set.’ The old sound boom, which you can see in the still photos as a silhouette, was great. The main camera actually was from one of the camera repositories at Pinewood and everything else was sourced from around the UK! It was another one of those KING’S SPEECH microphone situations. ‘Oh ugh, where are we going to get all of this from?’, because so much was just chucked away. But we did find what we needed, and I think in the end, most were working, which was brilliant. And then there were all the cables all over the floor—the fake rubber cables, which actually were just rubber piping which we had purposely tangled. That was our little trick on THE KING’S SPEECH. So it was straight off to the same rubber company and ordering hundreds of feet for people to trip over on the day of filming!”
The re-creation of the production offices required a bit of maneuvering. Farr points out, “Simon really wanted to do it as it had been, but it was so busy at Pinewood last year…unbelievably busy! So it was a real struggle to find a location. Eventually, Warner Bros. and Tim Burton let us use their offices as our production office. It had the original windows and architectural elements. We repainted and put a new floor down and hopefully created a good reproduction. I wanted a first-hand description of what the offices were like back then, so I spoke to Paul Hitchcock, who used to run Warner Bros. over here. I knew he had actually worked at the studios when they made THE PRINCE AND THE SHOW GIRL. We used the scheduling boards with the color-coded cards. You were using them in the States, and they had just been introduced over here. I rang up a couple of old ADs I’d worked with over the years, and off they trundled to their attics and dragged out their old boards, which was fantastic! So sending the runner over to the other side of England to collect them up was worth it.”
Then there was Olivier’s production office, also filmed on location in London. “We wanted to make him very smart, but also, again, that restrained English smartness,” says Farr. “We’re fashionable, but we’re not too fashionable. Ken Branagh was lovely, very complimentary to us. He actually did say, ‘I love the sets you’ve done for us. They’re fantastic.’ The scene where he has Colin bring in tea was fun, too, with the English 1950s tea set. Not the kitsch 50s, but that classy 50s. I remembered one, a Royal Doulton pattern that had been a wedding present to my parents, so we went on the internet and found pieces all over the place, and managed to put together a whole set."
Instead of the modern day craft service provided on the set for crew and cast, there was a tea trolley. “Again, we asked a lot of people who had worked there at the time, and were told, ‘Well, we had a tea lady, and it would be the same lady who went to all of the stages.’ She had worked at Pinewood for 25 years and knew all the actors and crew. How sweet is that? So we set up her tea trolley. In the background, we put together a little corner for the painters and another corner for the electricians—tables with paint and brushes, cables and light bulbs—and trolleys of other equipment for them…and, of course, the carpenter’s stuff and all his wood. Then the propmen had their brooms and cleaning stuff and all the extra props next to the set.”
There was an almost surreal aspect to creating the Parkside House scenes. The actual house that was rented for Marilyn and Miller for the duration of the original film is still exists in a near original state today. Farr relates, “There are photographs of them outside that house in 1956, and it hasn’t changed in half a century! It was absolutely incredible. Obviously, it had been re-decorated inside, but the exterior of the house was still the same. It’s a beautiful house near Runnymede, where they signed the Magna Carta, just out of London.”
“We had no photographs of the interior, so we just had to make that up. It was a rented house so it’s not going to be personal, but it’s obviously going to be quite a smart house. We said, ‘Right. Okay. What should we do? What have we got in the budget?' Always the liet motif on a low budget film. So we just went in there and did the best we could to keep it in period and classy with our limited funds.”
Marilyn’s bedroom and bathroom at Parkside were created on stage at Shepperton Studios. Finding the appropriate bathroom suite keyed the selection of wallpaper. “Donal and I remembered the 50s glass splash guards for the wallpaper above the bath, and we used that instead of tiles,” describes Farr. “The paper was beautiful, so it was nice to be able to see it through the glass. We chose a green print for the bathroom to coordinate with the suite, and used corals for the bedroom, with pale browns and pinks.” Farr and team obtained some original Chanel No. 5 bottles, and Christian Dior provided an assortment of their scents. When Colin discovers Marilyn’s framed photo of Abraham Lincoln, she tells him that she never knew her father, so she thought Lincoln would be a good substitute.
Hatfield House for Windsor Castle
The Windsor Library scenes were filmed at the Hatfield House estate. Farr divulges, “We kept all the books, put in our own lighting and brought in furniture and furnishings, including the globes and red leather sofas.”
Queen Mary’s dollhouse was re-created, with a twist. Farr explains, “Queen Mary’s dollhouse, which is on display behind glass at Windsor Castle, is an incredible one-of…and it is massive, about 10 feet high. There was no way we could ever reproduce that unless we had an equally massive amount of money! Donal had the idea that we could turn it into a slightly ghostly looking dollhouse…, obviously, with the children and family inside emphasizing her yearning for a real family and real home, but making it very dreamlike, a slightly unreal sort of thing. And that was how we got around not using the real piece or trying to duplicate it exactly.”
Mayfair & street scenes
When it came to duplicating exactly, Farr turned to Asprey the royal jeweler who had been a great resource for her for THE KING’S SPEECH and for the upcoming season of DOWNTON
ABBEY, which she and Woods just completed. In MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, there’s a shopping scene where Monroe and Miller pause briefly in front of the shop and are suddenly surrounded by paparazzi.
“We couldn’t dress until the morning of filming which was a Sunday, because obviously we’re right in the west end of London. Asprey’s staff were brilliant and they brought out all their beautiful historical archive of things. They were a really, really helpful company, and because they know their inventory, they led us in decisions about the window dressing. We also dressed all the shops opposite Asprey’s, we’d done a lovely job— but I don’t think you get to see any of it. Perhaps if one looked very closely in the reflections, or catch a glimpse as they quickly move down the street…”
A similar circumstance occurred with the shot of Colin emerging from Sir Laurence Olivier’s offices in Mayfair. One entire side of the street had to be dressed to camouflage current construction—period vehicles and extras helped the process.
“I really enjoyed working on this film,” Farr shares. “It was a lovely film to do all around. David Parfitt and Mark Cooper, two producers I’ve worked with before, pulled a fantastic team together…the director, DOP, costume, make-up ,1st AD…everybody was just very, very nice and really professional. I had a top notch team whom I could rely upon to solve any of our fascinating challenges!”
She remembers, “I was working away on something and Corina was sitting opposite equally engrossed in research, when Simon, the director, poked his head round the door and said, ‘If THAT’s the standard I am to expect…’ Corina and I looked at each other wondering what terrible thing we had done wrong, and then he said, ‘I’ll be very pleased!’ A great compliment.
“Donal Woods is very, very special. He’s a strong leader, talented, and a really nice guy. We get along extremely well. He says, ‘Right, this is what the director is doing, this is how we fit. This is what we want to do and we don’t want to do this. We want to make this dark and we want to make that bright…’ It’s just a really good collaboration. As I say, it’s been a great pleasure.”