Joyce Carol Oates on her first appearance at a film festival, leading the jury and the film version of her novel ‘Blonde’ | Features

Joyce Carol Oates attends a film festival for the first time. The American writer was this week in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, for the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF), where she was president of the jury for the NIFFF international competition.

Oates discipline and work ethic are recognized. Aged 84, she walks and jogs every day and having published around sixty novels and written non-fiction and plays, she remains as prolific as ever. Her latest novel, “Babysitter,” about a real serial killer in Detroit, is due out later this summer. She’s hard at work researching a new book, Butcher, set in 19e-century New Jersey. She also teaches at Princeton and NYU.

She recently saw and says she approves, Netflix Blond, the adaptation by Andrew Dominik of his book of the same name, published in 2000, on Marilyn Monroe. It’s a project that’s been in the works for a decade and to which stars such as Jessica Chasten and Naomi Watts were previously attached before, as Oates puts it, “they got old”.

The film is finally finished with Cuban actor Ana De Armas as Monroe. It will be broadcast on Netflix from the end of September.

Oates talks to Screen about her judging experience, going to a film festival for the first time, and the types of movies she likes to watch.

What’s it like watching three or four movies a day?
I have never seen so many films at once. It is an unusual experience. It’s not ideal for me because people work on their films for years. To respect the unique quality of the work, you really need space around it, time around it. But the film festival is by nature a festive and crowded occasion… the public is very enthusiastic. They clap a lot, they shout… they sort of sing. Someone said fans of fantasy film festivals are especially weird. They are a self-selected group.

But I made a conscious effort to think about the movies and jotted down some notes. The jurors take all their meals together. We talk about the movies over and over again and so we get consensus on how we feel.

How do you watch movies normally?
Before Covid I used to go out to the cinema with my friends but with Covid we were really forced to stay indoors so we watched movies on our TV screens with Netflix and Amazon Prime. I watched this wonderful series called Peaky Blinders. It’s one of my favorites.

I found the writing excellent. The script was most unusual, a kind of pseudo-realism, heightened realism, almost like an opera. The use of contemporary music was so original. All the actors were very good and the surreal elements were used very well. It was a time in English history that I knew nothing about, Birmingham, after World War I and heading into World War II, the rise of British Fascism with Oswald Moseley and Diana Mitford. This mix of historical figures and fiction is very well done and the issues discussed have political relevance today.

When do you usually watch movies?
I usually work all day. I start my writing at 7am and I work most of the day with my own writing. In the evening, I like to take a break from reading and use my eyes in a certain way. Watching movies is a different use of one’s vision.

You tweeted recently about watching Antonioni The Adventure again and how different it looked from the first time you watched it.
When I first saw Adventure, Antonioni was such an exotic name. It’s still a very interesting film. It doesn’t seem so mysterious to me anymore. It seems to be about people who are quite confused and make mistakes. Now they are younger than me. When I saw it, they were older and more sophisticated. But now they’re actually younger and they don’t seem to know what they’re doing.

But Monica Vitti is so beautiful in this movie.
Well, she looks like a normal Italian. I guess you are right. But in the movie she plays a somewhat intimidated, insecure, confused woman… I guess adults themselves are cast with a kind of glamor when we’re young but when we get older we see they’re insecure , not always happy with what they do, what they do and look for meaning.

I guess that’s what Antonioni also shows in other of his films, like Red Desert, people who feel their way.

What else did you watch?
A friend and I have seen many black American films and goofy comedies from the 1930s and 1940s during the pandemic. We were in lockdown in New Jersey. We watched the movies in our house and then talked on the phone. It was a way to have a social life because I live alone and I didn’t see anyone except my cats.

How involved were you with Andrew Dominik’s film version of your novel Blond?
I was not very involved. I saw the original screenplay which I found excellent and which [Dominik] wrote. I approved that. Then I just forgot. So many things fall into oblivion, other of my novels that people think they’re going to do. They simply disappear. Andrew Dominik as an artist and director has an uncanny talent. He doesn’t make conventional films. He said everyone would find something to offend in the movie… maybe he had a hard time with the producers because he’s a lot more defensive than me. I saw the movie. It is very painful and touching. It’s not a feel-good movie. It’s not Marilyn Monroe who sings and dances. This is a woman who has been exploited by Hollywood, exploited by men.

Gerald R. Schneider