No stranger to unusual true stories (1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol, 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page, 2017’s Alias Grace) and on-screen madness and violence (2000’s controversial American Psycho), director Mary Harron marries the two in her latest release, Charlie Says, which digs deep into the dark, bloody mythos of Charles Manson. Though he died in 2017, the guitar playing, folk singing cult leader – who hung out with The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and ordered his young hippy followers to commit a host of horrific murders – has crept back onto the pop culture landscape thanks to his appearances in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and the Netflix TV series, Mindhunter. Intriguingly, Manson is played on both occasions by Aussie actor, Damon Herriman, in largely fictionalised narrative frameworks.
In Charlie Says, however, Mary Harron takes a far more factual approach to the figure of Manson. The film is largely seen through the eyes of Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (played by Hannah Murray), one of Manson’s principally female band of followers, who was convicted of the murder of famous actress, Sharon Tate, along with others. “I would say that it’s very close to the facts,” the director tells FilmInk. “But when you’re doing a real-life story, you usually have to change the chronology of it a little, because real life just doesn’t have a lot of dramatic shape. Sometimes you just have to shape the order of events a little bit. But in terms of the characters, and the events, and the murders, it’s very much beat-by-beat based mainly on Leslie Van Houten’s account, as told to Karlene Faith [who wrote the book, The Long Prison Journey Of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond The Cult]. And also from [fellow Manson Family members] Tex Watson’s and Susan “Sadie” Atkins’ accounts, though I don’t go into those in tremendous detail. I did want the violence to be very true to what actually happened.”
And while Charlie Says is very much a film about Manson’s “girls” (Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel and the aforementioned Susan “Sadie” Atkins – played by Sosie Bacon and Marianne Rendon respectively – also feature heavily) rather than Manson himself, the bearded cult leader is certainly in the bloody, freaky mix, embodied by British actor, Matt Smith, most famous for playing Doctor Who and Prince Philip in The Crown. “He’s so intensely involved when he does a role, which is great, and it’s what you want,” Harron says of surprise pick to play Manson. “He’s also one of those British actors who is like a chameleon. He completely transforms – it’s like the Gary Oldman effect – he completely transforms. Physically, and whatever, he’s just unrecognizable in terms of becoming such different people. And it’s funny, because he’s so intense when he starts filming something else, that it’s hard to get him back. You nearly always need to drag your actors back after they finish filming because you need them to do ADR [additional dialogue recording], or some such, and it’s really hard to get a hold of him, because he’s so involved in the next project, even though he was very devoted to Charlie Says. Once he starts filming something new, it’s just so hard to reach him because he goes into this incredibly intense space. But he came back to do ADR, and he was fantastic. He managed to really go back into Charlie, flawlessly. He’s that kind of actor. You just need to give him a little pat and he’ll just completely go back there. He’s very, very committed, and I owe him a lot of respect for that.”
Charlie Says is released on DVD and Digital on September 4.