MARY HARRON TALKS CHARLIE SAYS, DALI LAND, AND ART IN THE AGE OF #METOO
by JEENA SHARMA
Director Mary Harron has had a busy year. After the success of her 2017 Netflix Original Series, Alias Grace, the American Psycho filmmaker has been swamped with work. In the past year itself, Harron taken on three different projects including the soon-to-be-released, Charlie Says, Dali Land, and recently announced, The Highway That Eats People. The filmmaker is currently also working on an unnamed project, and is understandably exhausted. “My brain is so full at the moment, I’m two projects ahead. I’m hoping to have a week for myself,” she tells me as we meet for coffee at a quaint Upper West Side café.
Her upcoming film, Charlie Says has been the topic of discussion mainly for its subject: Manson murders. The tragic event that occurred in the 60s has already inspired two other films --including Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Haunting of Sharon Tate starring Hilary Duff -- inviting accusations of being exploitative.
But Harron is no stranger to controversy. "When I started directing for the BBC I did short films and they were basically funny or satirical and that what I was known for. Somehow after my first movie, I Shot Andy Warhol, and especially American Psycho, it became ‘oh she does dark and violent films. She’s a dark and violent person,” she laughs.
Even before American Psycho officially debuted in cinemas in 2000, it became the subject of pervasive contention for its violent and unnerving sequences involving women. Feminist activists and groups dubbed it “misogynistic” and fiercely protested the release. Harron, however, remained unfazed, confident that film was in fact feminist and satirized toxic masculinity.
It’s this same sense of steadfast confidence that has solidified her as a distinctive voice in the industry.
In an exclusive chat with AS IF, the filmmaker talks new projects, feminism, and why she doesn't want to be boxed into stereotypes anymore.
AS IF: Tell me about Charlie Says. How did you end up coming onboard with this project?
Mary Harron: I’m old friends with Guinevere Turner and we have this other project called The Highway that Eats People. Anyway, we’ve been working on that and she was also working on this other project for a different director about the three main Manson women who went to prison. So one day, she just showed me the script because we show each other our writing and I said, ‘this is really good and if it doesn’t work out with the other director, I’d be interested in it.’ Eventually, the other director did have to drop out and I came on board. It’s an interesting story especially for me. I remember the 60s when I was young. People were really affected by the murders when they happened. Everyone was just so curious about it...
About why he did it?
Well, I think we knew why Charlie would do it. He’s not that enigmatic; he’s a very deformed human being. He had a terrible life, and it warped him. It’s hard to say if he was a sociopath or a psychopath but he was definitely not sane. There was a lot of hate and anger and he was a deeply disturbed person who also wanted to keep his hold on his followers.
Did you happen to speak to anyone involved or close to Manson?
No we couldn’t. I mean, Manson’s dead but we wouldn’t have wanted to talk to him anyway. The story is really about what happened to these perfectly sane women. Not all of them had great backgrounds, but nothing terrible either. It was all normal kind of unhappiness, and unhappy families. Susan Atkin’s parents were alcoholics but then again, lots of people grew with alcoholic parents or divorce. Nothing in their backgrounds would explain why they did what did or how did he get them to do these terrible things. So it’s really a story of brainwashing and the dynamics of a cult.
It reminds me of this actress called Allison Mack who was part NXIVM, the sex cult and everyone was so shocked when that came out.
Oh, yes! I knew Allison, I worked with her. Weirdly enough – really, really weirdly enough. She was very nice, and really normal, a good actress. Okay, so here’s the crazy story, Guinevere and I were at lunch on set with Grace Van Dien, who plays Sharon Tate in the movie and she tells us her stepsister was in a cult called NXIVM. She then told us this fascinating story about it, and how her sister got involved. And all this time, I’ve been thinking that, ‘oh these California cults are a product of the 60s with the political disturbance and upheaval of the time.’ So it just seemed so strange that there would be this kind of a cult now. When I first read about it, it mentioned this actress, who was one of the leaders and it turned out to be Allison. I’d worked with her on an episode of The Following, which is a show about cults starring Kevin Bacon, father of Sosie Bacon who was playing Patricia Kriwenkel. It’s just a lot of weird co-incidences. I really think if you had said to Susan or Leslie or Pat or Tex Watson -- who did most of the killing -- ‘Oh, come and live with us, and you’re going to stab perfectly innocent strangers,’ they’d be just as shocked.
I also want to talk to you about the casting choices. Matt Smith has been seen as an unusual choice for playing Manson because he doesn’t physically resemble him at all. Why did you pick him?
In an ideal world, everything matches but it’s much more important to get someone who can understand the inner life of a character and also someone who can convey the character. They have to have the powers of an actor to be charismatic and volatile; someone who could project and perform that kind of magnetic character in a way that was believable. He made him very human and kind of pathetic, just as Manson was. He brought out the human pathetic side as well as the scary side.
Was he your first choice for the character?
I don’t think he was my first because physically he was so different from Manson. I don’t really go into these things with one person in mind, anyway, it’s really a process. In this case, a lot of people came, and read for the role. When Matt came, he met with me, and said he was happy to read for it. We had a fantastic audition, and it was very exciting! And once the person who comes in, who’s right for it, you kind of know.
Was it challenging to convince the producers of your casting choices though? I know that was a problem during American Psycho with Christian Bale.
I mean, they always want someone super famous, you know? But the great thing about Matt was that, he was famous but it wasn’t the kind that going to get in the way. He tends to physically transform. It’s why he’s very different when he’s Prince Philip versus when he’s the Doctor. And he’s also completely different looking as Charles Manson. Even physically, he kinda does manage to make himself smaller for the role because we talked about that. He suggested his clothes in the film should be too big for him so he appears smaller plus he’s very skinny so that helped as well. But in the end, you forget about the physical appearance, that’s the great thing.
I also read that you didn’t want to cast really famous actresses to play the Manson women…
Yes, unless they were absolutely perfect for it. But I think for a story like this, there is an advantage with having people who are not necessarily super famous. For instance, Hannah [Murray] is of course known for Game of Thrones, but looks very different in this movie. The point is you want people to really immerse themselves in the story and sometimes stardom can take you out of it.
That’s why you didn’t want to cast Leonardo Dicaprio for American Psycho at the time
Well, with Leonardo, I felt like, having a very young fan base of teenage girls would’ve made the project really difficult and left it open to attack. There were a lot of reasons why I thought this wasn’t a great idea but that in particular.
American Psycho also met with a lot of controversy even before its release with feminist activists labelling it misogynistic. What was your initial reaction? Were you angry?
Not really, but I felt a lot of that was actually based on the book because this was before we made the movie. The main attacks came when the movie went into production, before anybody had seen it. People had an idea of what the movie would be based off the violence in the novel. And a lot of people actually attacked the book without even having read it.
There’s also this idea that since you directed the movie, the story was filtered through a female lens, and made it less problematic. But do you think the book itself was misogynistic?
I felt like I almost brought out the true nature of the book, which is a satire on masculinity. I think that’s in Brett’s [Easton Ellis] writing. I didn’t impose that or project that onto it, because the violence in the book is so graphic, that’s really all you can see initially. But I think the reason people are so obsessed with the book and the movie has more to do with the satire and comedy with all its quotable lines. It has this absurdist quality.
Why is toxic masculinity such a central focus of your work?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s of course very much a focus in American Psycho and Charlie Says. With Dali Land, I don’t think so much because it’s more like a portrait of an artist, also because no one could talk about Dali as a traditionally masculine figure.
Really? Because there are so many stories about how he was abusive...
I don’t know about that. I mean, he didn’t really have a traditional sex life. He didn’t really have sex with anyone except maybe his wife a couple of times. I think you can accuse him of bad behaviour towards human beings and other artists; it was more the bad behavior of an artist and narcissist. It wasn’t so much about masculinity. But going back to your question, maybe masculinity has been a theme that has emerged in my work but every film has been different. With I Shot Andy Warhol, which was my first film, I was interested in the Scum Manifesto, I mean I loved it. But there was a lot of irony in the fact that [Valerie Solanas] decided to shoot Warhol because he was gay, and had a whole world of drag queens. He treated a lot of men like shit. I think he kind of brought being gay or the gay sensibility into the mainstream. Just because a man behaves badly or an artist behaves badly, it doesn’t mean they’re a representation of classic masculinity in the way like it was in American Psycho.
“American Psycho is the most appropriate example of toxic masculinity because it’s about wall street, the power structure, capitalism, and the American upper class; it’s about a predatory society overall.”
I think often when men do behave badly though, it’s almost always towards women
That’s probably true but with Warhol and Dali specifically, they were bad to both men and women. There are so many stories, for instance, where Warhol treated young men terribly. I mean, he was a great artist but that doesn’t mean he was great human being and same goes for Dali. With Dali in particular, a lot of people felt like it was his wife Gala who behaved more badly. But American Psycho is the most appropriate example of toxic masculinity because it’s about wall street, the power structure, capitalism, and the American upper class; it’s about a predatory society overall.
In a recent interview with New York Mag, you mentioned that the Brett Kavanaugh hearings evoked the American Psycho world for you where women didn’t exist for the men in the world, they were objects. Do you think that was also true for Charles Manson in a way?
Yes, in a way! I mean, he also had been a pimp so he also acted like a pimp. It’s very interesting that after the murders when they were all in prison that he never tried to get in touch with any of the girls. They were obsessed with him for years and it took them years to detach themselves from his influence. But he just forgot about them. They were just gone. I don’t think they were real to him. They served a function and didn’t have three-dimensional presence for him. His followers were mostly women so his brainwashing worked most powerfully on women. He kind of understood best how to manipulate women. But he also strangely enjoyed dominating these traditionally masculine, handsome, young men. He enjoyed getting his power over them or humiliating them, as we show in the film.
Do you think you hold some sort of fascination with serial killers given that they were primary subjects of two of your films?
No more than anyone in America, really. I also don’t see Charlie as a serial killer. He’s more of a mass murderer; he’s a cult killer. I’m certainly very interested in [serial killers], but I don’t know if I’d say particularly fascinated by them. You can say I’m into violence and murder, I guess. I mean serial killers are interesting because there is that terror of the anonymous killer. What’s particularly frightening – which is also true of Manson – is the motiveless killing. The killing of innocent strangers is so disturbing and scary because it doesn’t have the rationality of a crime of passion or even a murder for gain. It’s the terrifying randomness. The Manson murders were done out of some crazy theory he had that he was starting a revolution but it’s also hard to know how much of it was out of his desire to attack society and cause pain to the people who he felt were privileged. I mean, he felt excluded from the society and grew up in prison even as a child. I think one of the biggest questions is not just why he did it, but how did he get them to do it. It’s kind of a mystery – at what point could they have walked away? Because when you watch the film, you’ll like the girls. They’re likeable people. And hopefully you’ll see that they’re not that different, they’re not another species. They’re your cousins, or someone you might meet at a family reunion.
But Dali Land, I think, stands out a project because like you said, you’re fascinated with violence
I mean, that’s not the only kind of films I want to do. It’s also just that, those are the kind of films that come my way now. When Dali Land was first offered to me, I was kind of hesitant because I’d already done an artist movie [I Shot Andy Warhol]. But then I showed it to my husband, who I write with. And he said, ‘well, it’s really about a marriage and that’s so interesting.’ We look at the end and beginning of this legendary marriage, and that’s interesting to me. [The film] documents a very specific time in the late 70s to 1980 with some flashbacks to the beginning of his career when he met his wife, who was a very instrumental person in his career. So it isn’t trying to tell the whole Dali story, it’s really about the twilight years of his life.
What’re your thoughts on separating the art from the artists in the heat of the #MeToo movement? Do you think that’s possible?
Yes, I think we have to. Otherwise, you won’t read any 19th century novels. They were products of their time or I’d say they simply reflect the attitudes of their time. And they’re not going to fit in with the attitudes we have today. Also, I don’t think they hated women. I read a lot of 19th century novels and it really depends how good they are, how three-dimensional the women portrayed are, but there are a lot of social attitudes particularly in Victorian English fiction that’s clearly absurd. So you just have to tread your way through it and see what’s good in it.
Do you think supporting these artists/writers in a way though is like glorifying their work?
I mean, so we shouldn’t read Anna Karenina because he wasn’t nice to his wife?
And then there’s [Roman] Polanski, who wrote great female characters. I myself am very influenced by his work. The Hitchcock heroines also inspire me because they’re spunky and admirable. All the women are very interesting in those movies. I think a part of your education is to see through the prejudices of the time that may affect a work and see what you can take from it, what’s inspiring, what’s profound and has great insight into human nature. It’s funny because one of my favorite novelists is [Honoré de] Balzac and I read him over and over again. But you know, he was conservative; he believed in absolute monarchy and was very right wing in that way. What’s funny is that his books aren’t at all like that. His portrait of the society is so unsentimental, humane, and rich. So in a way, it doesn’t matter what his stated politics was, his portrait of the human condition was completely inspiring. He has fantastic female characters, actually.
So you mean we should stay open to everything and view it as education?
Yes, exactly! I mean when people are studying that, there is this tenacity to be like “oh I don’t want to look at that and I don’t want to read that.” It’s like, well then, you’re cutting yourself off from something inspiring and great.
What do you think about the argument that these people wouldn’t have had the platform to be as inspiring as they are or to create the work they did if they were actually punished for what they did?
They wouldn’t have been punished for what they did because they were just members of their society and no one would have thought any of that was wrong. I mean, all the prejudices held against women at the time weren’t punishable. They were just attitudes that were part of the time. You and I now are probably thinking and saying things that in 30 or 40 years someone’s going to look at and wonder what’s wrong with us. Like 30 years ago, people said all kinds of things about someone who was gay or trans. Now, we look at those people, and go like, “Oh what was wrong with them?”
This of course is different to people who engage in criminal or abusive behavior. Like Charles Bukwoski who beat up his wife, he should’ve been arrested and charged for it. I mean, it would’ve just been better for the society if it was punished.
These are difficult issues. People are now trying to find ways to look at the art of the past in the light of very radical and sudden change of perspective. It’s very interesting. There’s just like a shift of focus like a camera and suddenly something is very sharp and clear. Everyone was horrified at the stuff that was going on and I think it’s a good thing.
It's also not just about women. You go back and look in all kinds of novels in the 19th century - French, Russian, and English – where the attitudes towards indigenous people are ridiculous. It’s out of ignorance and if you’re teaching this at a school, I don’t think you can say, ‘don’t read this book.’ You simply have to say, ‘Look, this is the prejudice of the time. This is how they saw women.’ So you can go through the book and make up your own mind about what’s truthful to you and what’s valid, and what is just the prejudice of the time. I’m just choosing examples from 150 years ago because it’s much easier to see then these very obvious delusions that people held. Like you know, the British thought they were the greatest people on earth and everyone else was inferior. It just seems ludicrous when you read the way they talk about the British. It’s laughable but it’s like, they all thought that. Frankly, it's probably just how, in 50 years people will look at the way people talk about being American.
It’s funny, that a lot of people, with even a liberal persuasion would just assume that America is the greatest country in the history of the world (laughs). And it’s like, ‘okay really? Well, there’s been a lot of great civilizations in the world and you’re just one of them, you know?’
Anyway, not to go on a rant about America, my chosen home, but I think about this sometimes: What are my assumptions now that someone will look at years from now? But then there’s that and there are some very obvious things like if you beat your wife up, you should go to jail, or if you abuse your children, you should be arrested. These are things that are very clearly wrong, they aren’t ambiguous. Those aren’t excused or justified by being “brilliant,” you know? That’s human behavior in the real world that should be punished. That’s all.
“There’s a certain Hollywood thing about saying the right thing, you know. I would like to think that it would have an effect beyond that. In the short run, maybe they’ll make some sentimental movies about some abused woman or whistleblower that triumphs, and then they’ll forget about it.”
Do you think with all the allegations coming to light after the #MeToo movement and all the conversations we’re having right now, there'll be a real change?
I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see how much institutional change there is amongst fast food workers or people who have less of a voice. It’s difficult because these are crimes with no witnesses. There are certain structural things that make it difficult to prosecute these things. But here’s the positive thing, I think there can be a change if it’s talked about and people recognize that this behavior is completely unacceptable, and then there’s a complaints procedure. Honestly, if people are scared of getting in trouble for it, they won’t do it as much.
There’s also a steady rise in the number of films and shows that are suddenly talking about feminism or women’s issues. It almost seems like a PR or marketing strategy, not genuine effort. What’s your take on it?
There’s a certain Hollywood thing about saying the right thing, you know. I would like to think that it would have an effect beyond that. In the short run, maybe they’ll make some sentimental movies about some abused woman or whistleblower that triumphs, and then they’ll forget about it. But it’s more about if in five years time, will it be easier for any woman in any vulnerable position to be able to come out and protest?
Especially in TV, women on the staff as well as the actresses and actors are incredibly vulnerable. So lets see if people still feel they have to shut up about it or just ignore it or brush it off or whether they can say something, whether they’re able to go and complain.
What’s been your personal experience working in the industry?
I think anybody that’s been working in the industry has an incident of harassment or more than one. I mean, I feel like I’ve been a very lucky person but I could write a list of incidents, you know? I’ve experienced it myself and known a lot of others. I have two daughters, one is 18, and one’s 21. And my 18-year-old has just gone to France with a girlfriend of hers and they’ve been traveling but I feel like they’ve been very steeped. I was sitting down to warn her about things like, “if a guy asks you go out, don’t go back to his place. You have to have any meeting in a public place.” I mean, it feels kind of paranoid and they’re like, “oh, we know that.” In some ways, they also advice each other and the girls are more likely (I hope) to tag team together. She always had a women’s group or a feminist group in high school. I mean, it was a New York high school but you know.
Yeah, I think it’s quite amazing to see how politically involved teenagers are today.
Yes, and they’re very aware of their rights! So we’ll see. I’d like to think all of those #MeToo revelations caused a major change actually. It affected so many young girls and young men. That’s a kind of more optimistic take than you might be getting (laughs)
Is there a certain project that you really want to work on?
There is but I’m not going to talk about it. It’s in the works but it’s bad luck to talk about it. I’m excited about Dali, and I’m excited about The Highway That Eats People. And then, I’d like to do something that’s comedy actually. I just had a meeting with a friend of mine that produces a lot of satire or comedy. In part it's because I don’t want to be typecast. It’s hard because that’s all I get sent and offered. A lot of the directors I admire like Howard Hawk, they did things in very different styles, so I always wanted to be able to do that. When I started directing for the BBC I did short films and they were basically funny or satirical and that what I was known for. But somehow after my first movie and especially American Psycho, it became ‘oh she does dark and violent films. She’s a dark and violent person.’ (laughs)
Unfortunately, the Highway That Eats People won’t help me change that image because again, it’s a dark story. My brain is so full at the moment, I’’m two projects ahead. I’m hoping to have a week for myself. I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately.
Anything you like in particular?
I’m looking forward to watching Suspiria because I loved the original.
Did you hear about it got bad reviews ?
I don’t trust reviews. Critics are very bad about horror. Dario Argento got bad reviews. So I’ve always maintained an open mind, especially with horror because I feel like people don’t know how to judge it or categorize it.
Would ever consider doing a feminist revenge film?
I mean, I feel like everyone’s kind of doing that. Alias Grace was kind of that in a way. I think what I like are these very contradictory women, who are both victim and predator.
I was saying this to Magaret Atwood actually, that what her book Alias Grace was really trying to say was that people who are victimized, it doesn’t necessarily make you a better person. It can make you a very angry and dangerous person. That’s what happens when you abuse people and their anger may not always find the right target.