Mary Harron: Hippy Days

September 5, 2019
The director of American Psycho takes on the Manson Family in her latest film, Charlie Says.

I hate to use the term pop culture, but you seem to be drawn to these stories, from American Psycho, The Notorious Betty Page, I Shot Andy Warhol. Is it something that you’re particularly interested in?

I think it’s funny because that’s definitely true of me. But at the same time, it’s also because that’s what people ask me to do because my first couple of films were in that area. It’s a bit self-perpetuating, so you have to fight that a little bit. I did do Alias Grace, which was a 19th century drama.

Do you have a distinctive memory of the Manson murders?

Yes, I do. I was then in Canada. I was growing up Canadian, but I moved to England when I was 13. But in the holidays, we would go back and stay with my mother and my poppa, and I remember, in Toronto watching television and this came up. And I can’t remember whether it was just the murders, whether it was the need for assurance, but I know that there was a definite hippy connection. And I think that maybe it was when they were all arrested and it turned out that it was some sort of hippy cult. I was 16 and I remember thinking… oh, there are those hippies. Everyone’s going to hate hippies, and just feeling sad about this horrible crime, but also sad because I was young, and it was like hippies were a good thing. Very sad about it, but all the implications of it, both the terrible crime and what it meant.

Was it always the intent to make Charlie Says from the female perspective?

I came in fairly late because Guinevere Turner, who wrote American Psycho and The Notorious Betty Page with me, had written the script. Guinevere and I have been friends for 25 years and we always talk about what we’re doing, and we show each other the scripts we’re working on. She lives in LA and I live in New York now, so I just see her whenever I go up to LA and we have lunch or whatever. She was telling me about this project. I knew that Guinevere had grown up in a cult. She wrote about this recently in The New Yorker. She’s younger than me, but she grew up in a sort of 1980 occult, and left that cult when she was 11. I knew that she had a really unique insight, and would have a unique, incredible, intuitive understanding of how a cult operates. And when I read the first draft of the script, which I just read as a friend, I thought, ‘Oh yes, she’s really captured something about all this.’

From that point, it was not for me, it was for another director. She’d been commissioned to write it. They already had a director. And I said, ‘You know, this is really kind of up my alley.’ And by that point, she had decided to do it both from the point of view of the Manson women, but also, she was looking at them in prison, 3 or 4 years after the murders. And both of those things seemed very interesting to me and things that hadn’t really been investigated properly on film. I said, ‘If the director decides not to do it, I’d be interested, so that’s how that came about.

Having it from the female perspective brings up all sorts of MeToo stuff. Was that something you were consciously looking at thematically?

I signed on to it before MeToo. What interested me, quite apart from trying to understand how the girls gave up their free will in this way, was that I was a young teenager during the hippie era. And it was weird, even then, how sexist it was. The female ideal was passive: flower child or Earth Mother, and it was a very male dominated culture. And that’s one of the interesting things that I thought the script could look at, was how the hippie culture, in their search for freedom and new ways of living, they actually embraced the kind of 19th century stereotypes of men and women. Women are in the kitchen, birthing babies, and cooking, making bread and men are the leaders. I thought that was an interesting thing to look at. It was very true in the radical politics, too. Women really had to fight to have any voice.

You have been directing for a while now, is it any easier now with the social consciousness shifting that has happened lately for greater female representation behind the camera?

I hope that for someone starting, it’s easier work than when I started because when I started, there were so few female directors. And you didn’t have a lot of role models, or paths. But honestly, it is always very hard to get a film made. It’s always very hard to get an independent film made, and I usually don’t want to cast big stars. I want to cast who I want to cast.

There are opportunities, great opportunities. Like I said, I did this whole Netflix show, Alias Grace. I got to do six Sarah Polley scripts, and that was an amazing experience to get to do a full-scale historical project like that was fantastic! That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. You couldn’t get a series like that done. So, there’s great opportunities. It’s harder than it ever was to make the kind of films that I make, which are independent movies, under 10 million dollars. It has always been hard, but now I think it is harder.

What else are you working on?

A film about Salvador Dali, in the last years of his life, and he will be played by Ben Kingsley. His wife, Gala, will be played by Lesley Manville. My husband [John Walsh] and I wrote the script. And then, Guinevere and I have another project after that, which is based on an experimental novel. It’s about a group of homeless teenagers in the Northwest. It’s a bit surreal.

Charlie Says is available on DVD and DIGITAL now

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