Awards Insider Exclusive

Kate Winslet Embodies an Unsung American Icon in Lee

Winslet digs deep in her portrayal of groundbreaking wartime photographer Lee Miller. Inside the biopic that was two decades in the making.
How Kate Winslet Embodied American Icon Lee Miller in ‘Lee
Photos Courtesy of Kimberley French

Two decades ago, Kate Winslet and Ellen Kuras met and bonded on the set of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—the former serving as the movie’s co-lead actor, the latter as its cinematographer. While wandering past a bookstore in New York one day during production, Kuras came across a book about Lee Miller, the groundbreaking fashion model turned wartime photographer. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, Kate looks just like Lee Miller,’” Kuras recalls. “So I bought two copies of the book. I gave Kate one and I kept the other.” Years later, Winslet bought an antique table that was owned by Miller; she then rediscovered the book on her shelf, and got to talking with Kuras about it again. Winslet had a thought, Kuras recalls: “She said, ‘Why was there never a film made about this incredible person?’”

So arrives Lee, eight years in the intensive making for Winslet, who plays the eponymous character and produces the biopic. She developed the project with a fierce determination worthy of its subject, even as financing didn’t fully come together until filming had actually started. “Making films, it’s really full on; you have to push it up the hill, and everyone has to believe in you,” says producer Kate Solomon (The Program), whom Winslet recruited to work with her on Lee. “It’s creating this groupthink of, ‘This is going to happen and it’s all going to be fine,’ because so many 诲辞苍’迟 happen. And that’s what Kate has.”

As they got deeper into piecing Lee together, Winslet and Solomon realized they needed to meet the realities of their budget. They pared down the script, which was originally written by John Collee and Marion Hume, off of a story devised by the pair as well as Lem Dobbs, with Golden Globe–nominated scribe Liz Hannah (The Post) joining on later. They acted out scenes in Solomon’s kitchen, going beat by beat to see how they could make it work in the scrappy world of indie filmmaking. “It’s just a dedication to getting it done,” Solomon says of Winslet.

This is also how Kuras, a noted cinematographer for Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, returns to the story. She received an Oscar nomination in 2009 for helming the documentary The Betrayal, and thereafter, began her shift into narratives, directing episodes of major TV series like Ozark and Inventing Anna. She felt ready to make a feature, and Winslet came calling back at just the right time. She asked Kuras to direct the movie. They’d always wanted to work together again; here was their fated opportunity, given 尝别别’蝉 origins in that New York bookstore. And anyway, who better than one of indie film’s great D.P.’s—one of the only women to reach that level at the time—to take on the story of a true trailblazer behind the camera?

Ellen Kuras, Andy Samberg, and Kate Winslet.

Lee Miller was born in 1907 and, in her 20s, emerged as one of New York’s most sought-after fashion models, posing for the top photographers of the era. She ran in surrealist and artistic groups, counting the likes of Pablo Picasso and Paul ?luard and Man Ray among her social circle; the latter collagist and painter became a kind of collaborator (and lover) with Miller, a relationship that allowed her to hone her own photography chops. Lee begins after Miller has established herself independently, at the dawn of World War II. She feels a kind of call to action. “For someone who was objectified, to take the step around to the other side of the camera, I was really intrigued by: What is she seeing, what is she looking at, what is her point of view?” Kuras says. “It was with that same kind of approach that I took to this film.”

Her opening shot, composed with cinematographer Pawe? Edelman (Ray), flashes forward to Miller in a combat zone, risking her life with her camera in hand. Kuras designs it so that we see Miller navigate the space in slow motion and tinkers the soundscape by drowning out the battlefield chaos and emphasizing Miller’s interiority. “I want to be able to hear her breathe, I want to hear her heartbeat, I want to be with her, I want to see with her what’s happening,” Kuras says. The next scene takes us further into the future—Winslet in older-age makeup as she sits for an interview with a younger man (Josh O’Connor). The interviewer displays her incredible photos and asks her for the stories behind them—a canny, fitting way to structure the film, which then flashes back to her time working for Vogue in the thick of the war, rushing toward spaces no women had gone before.

“You find this middle-aged woman who’s just thrown herself in the middle of this battlefield—that is what Lee Miller did,” Kuras says, as if still in awe. “She went out there and threw herself into war to be able to search for the truth. She knew that there was something there. She wanted to find out what was happening on the front lines. It was not a place where women were permitted. Women weren’t seen. So she was a surprising but galvanizing presence wherever she went.”

Marion Cotillard with Winslet.

In structure, Lee might initially appear like a typical World War II docudrama. It’s no secret the milieu is well-trod territory for global cinema. But look closer and you’ll see the film’s unique mission and effect reflecting Miller’s unique perspective and art. In their research, Winslet and later Kuras went to the residence where Miller lived and died, and met up with Miller’s son, Antony Penrose, who’s dedicated much of his life to preserving his mother’s catalog and her legacy. (The Lee screenplay is based on his memoir, The Lives of Lee Miller.) He gave Kuras access to all kinds of contact sheets and unpublished work to provide a fuller picture of exactly what Miller saw during the war and, in turn, who she was. “??One expects to see pictures of battle, pictures of the soldiers,” Kuras says. “So many of Lee Miller’s photos were about the people, what happened to the people… She was very much about showing what we never saw, showing what we didn’t see.”

Lee honors this thoroughly, as does Winslet in her tough, empathetic, remarkably observant portrayal. The film is never more fascinating than when Kuras holds the camera on her star surveying the tragedy surrounding her, a gaze that previous depictions of the war have largely ignored. “I could think of no one else who could actually be that character,” Kuras says. For Penrose, who visited the set and watched the film for the first time with Winslet by his side, the embodiment by the actor was profound. “She was so accurate,” he tells me. “When I was watching it for the first time, there was a moment when I actually thought that it really was my mom, and I had to sort of take a grip and say, ‘Hey, this is a movie. That’s Kate, that’s not your mom.’”

Penrose actually asked to appear in 尝别别’蝉 most gut-wrenching scene, opposite Winslet, as an extra. Kuras imagines the moment that Miller captured her famous, harrowing photographs of the prisoners in Dachau, one of the earliest sites of Hitler’s reign. While the set was in Croatia, it still carried the hauntings of war; the film had assembled background actors with real scars from shrapnel during their own period of war. Penrose wanted to stand with them. Solomon, the film’s producer, remembers fearing how it would come off, until his explanation convinced her. He said to her, “My mother stood with those who were misrepresented and underrepresented and targeted—the victims. I would like to stand and represent them as one of those people.”

Winslet and Samberg.?

The Lee Miller of Lee is hardly idealized. Winslet’s determined interpretation ranges toward irascible and pained, particularly in the later timeline as she reluctantly looks back at her trauma—without having the language to identify its impact on her. Further depth comes into the way she interacts with those closest to her, from old friend Solange d’Ayen (Marion Cotillard) to eventual husband Roland Penrose (Alexander Skarsg?rd) to, most notably, Life photographer David Scherman (Andy Samberg), who becomes a kind of lifeline and collaborator to Miller during the war. In all the shades of Miller presented here, Penrose never balked. “My mother had a saying, which was, ‘You can say anything you like as long as it’s the truth,’” he says. “[Producer Troy Lum and Winslet] were great respecters of the authenticity of the story.”

Despite the film’s scope, Lee dealt with limited resources and found creative ways to authentically capture time and place. In the Croatian village of Kupari, Kuras and her team found an abandoned hotel that had weathered the Bosnian War. “It was an artifact just standing there,” she says. The production staff transformed it into a crucial location. Then there’s Winslet’s determination, which pushed things along mightily. In rehearsals, the star fell and injured her back, which some feared could impede the tight shooting schedule. “It was, like, ‘Just, like, strap on a thing, keep going, take painkillers,’” Solomon remembers of Winslet’s attitude. “Kate’s drive is very similar to 尝别别’蝉 drive. You’re going to make it happen.”

That sentiment speaks to the quietest, most riveting scene in Lee, which finds Winslet and Scherman sneaking their way into Hitler’s apartment in Munich. Kuras and co. closely followed the historical record here—they were the first press ever to set foot inside, as the war was drawing to a close—and gradually built toward one of the most controversial, provocative, and essential photo series in Miller’s career. It begins with some genial, familiar banter between the two characters—Samberg showing off those familiar comedic skills in what’s largely a dramatic performance—before the mood turns unsettling and unpredictable. They find Hitler’s bathtub. Miller decides to get in it, naked, and asks—insists, following his hesitation—that Scherman photograph her.

“She understood the meaning of being able to stomp her dirt and mud-laden boots on Hitler’s prissy bath mat—it was the mud of Dachau, which she had just seen and witnessed,” Kuras says. “Lee Miller had a great sense of irony. Even though we may not have seen that in photographs, we wanted to be able to capture that.”

One could argue it’s all of Lee rolled into one scene: The story behind the photograph. The person behind the camera. The star in total, mesmerizing command.

Lee will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9 and is currently seeking distribution. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage.

Listen to Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast now.