Interview: Mary Harron
With Charlie Says, filmmaker Mary Harron attempts to bypass the mythology of Charles Manson and zero in on the experience of three of his female followers: Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel. That might not be the most popular project to undertake, given the cruel and senseless murders of innocents committed by Manson’s circle, but Harron has already been through the ringer in this respect with American Psycho (2000), and she’s continued her variations on transgressive violence, infamy, and reflexive structure with the Margaret Atwood miniseries Alias Grace (2017). Working again with screenwriter Guinevere Turner on Charlie Says, she flashes back to the Manson ranch from scenes of the three acolytes in prison in the 1970s, where they spout Mansonisms to a graduate student, Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), who’s attempting to initiate a course-correction in a burgeoning era of feminism. It may seem that there is little new left to say about Charles Manson, but Harron—who chronicled the punk moment and beyond as a music journalist (“I am sitting by the stage where Joey Ramone has wrapped his tall languorous body and his long long hands around the microphone to deliver ‘The Blitzkrieg Bop’”)—brings to this latest brush with historical notoriety a sense of the profound loss of self that was twinned with the unpardonable taking of life. I spoke with Harron on the Lido after the world premiere of Charlie Says at the Venice Film Festival, where she enjoyed the prospect of a breather before her next feature, Daliland.
How long did it take to make Charlie Says?
We ended up having probably five weeks prep, although I had been casting for months, and casting is everything. I’ve got to start casting very early, and then I want locations to start early. Those things don’t cost a lot of money, and they’re essential to a film. Then we had four weeks shooting. Honestly, I think as I get older I get less and less time to shoot. We started shooting in March, and I think we finished the first week of April. It was such a short shoot time, which means that you have less footage. There’s not a lot of stories that I would want to do this way, but there’s something about Charlie Says that lends itself to that, probably because it’s disturbing material. In some ways it was better to do it fast.
It’s not the sort of world you want to live in for a while.
Yeah, and then it does make everyone focus, and we had a very fast post. I had a great editor, Andy Hafitz, and it reminded me of my very first movie, I Shot Andy Warhol, which was very low-budget, with a very young crew actually, a lot of people out of film school, and a wonderful spirit and a young cast. It was similar in that sense, the camaraderie and the real ensemble feel.
I was thinking about I Shot Andy Warhol a little, and Warhol being the center of attention, because here you’re also going behind the big story in a way.
You have a notorious star attraction in Manson, but you go behind it, and around it.
That’s absolutely true, and the other thing they have in common is that in both of the films it’s the people that everyone has the least sympathy for. No one’s sparing sympathy for Valerie Solanas, no one’s sparing sympathy for Leslie, Pat, and Susan, but I find their stories and even their bad actions fascinating and ultimately tragic.
How did you think through their portrayal, in terms of an audience who might go into the movie with a different mindset?
It’s funny, Guinevere and I have talked about this. She got to know Karlene, and Karlene said, you’re not going to show the murders in detail? And when we were in production, I said I wanted to show the LaBianca murder in detail—in real-time and not in a graphic way. It’s graphic, but we don’t show the actual killing. When Leslie does her thing [stabbing Rosemary LaBianca 14 times], it’s generally considered that LaBianca is already dead. So you’re not actually showing the moment of murder, but you are showing the bloodiness of it. I wanted to do it as flatly and realistically as possible, and in real-time.
What was important to you about real-time? Was that a way of escaping the mythos of it all?
Yeah, and escaping aestheticization. Not doing abstract images—these were ugly, brutal, stupid, utterly pointless, incompetent, and extremely sad murders. And I think these girls, and Tex, didn’t know who these people were, or why they were there. What unlocked it for me was reading that Leslie, in the middle of the murders, wandered down the hall into the middle of a room and just stood there.
Yes, you show her staring at a painting.
Yes, and when I read that, for the first time, I saw myself doing that. I wouldn’t know what to do, I wouldn’t want to take part, but I somehow wouldn’t have the presence of mind to run away, or call for help. Maybe I would, but I could just so see myself and understand just standing there staring. “This isn’t happening, and I’ll just stare at something and time will stop.”
And the painting offers no solace.
It’s some banal image, something to focus on, an object. The whole quality of those last two days is like they’re in a nightmare. For the final few weeks, in all the different accounts I’ve read, written by family members, it’s very strange and dreamlike, like a bad dream. And I felt that prison is the wake-up. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a dream where you’ve killed somebody, or done something horrible—it’s the worst thing in the world. In my dreams, it’s always someone that I don’t know, and I’ve done a terrible thing, and I don’t know why I’ve done it, but I know that I’ll never be happy again, that my life is ruined. But then you wake up, and you say, no, I didn’t do that, that’s just a dream. But in their case…
Charles Manson and the “family” commune were like the ultimate nightmare for parents worrying about hippies or free love.
It confirmed every worst fear that they had, every awful thing that they said that hippies were doing, like exploitative sex, endless drugs that will drive you crazy
There’s even some whole-earth environmentalism stirred into there.
Yeah, he and Squeaky were passionate environmentalists.
What’s also strange and unnerving is when Manson says something that actually isn’t insane.
I think he read a lot of stuff, some Eastern religion—the thing about life and death being the same thing. He had a very weird Charlie idea about it. The first thing that grabbed me when I read Guin’s script, which I read actually just as a friend initially, was this scene with Sandy by the fire, which is both very manipulative and somewhat scary. He’s saying, “You’re beautiful.” Everybody kind of wants to hear that: you’re beautiful with all your flaws.
That’s the deep manipulation of it. She felt that she was finally being seen. But she was being seen by a psychopath.
There’s an interesting book by [Manson follower] Dianne Lake—she says that she felt seen by him. And he didn’t care about any of them.
He can sound a bit like an ad man: every line he says has a hook to it.
That’s really true. When I was talking to Matt [Smith] about how to play it, I talked to him about Manson as an animal, a kind of feral creature. Someone who had grown up in prison from the age of 12, and was raped and abused and had learned how to survive, with a cunning, a radar, an animal instinct about spotting danger and weakness. A lot of people in prison can have that when you’re living in constant threat. He also had read Dale Carnegie and was really influenced by it, and even Scientology.
Learning from the best.
Learning from the masters. And probably whatever pop mysticism was around. And I hate to say “Donald Trump,” but…
It’s in the air… The fire scene palpably renders the idea of abusers: they get you into their pull, you go into it thinking they’re protecting you, or seeing you, and by the end, you’re hurting yourself and others. And then you’re complicit.
And then you’re really committed. That was very true, and when I asked Guinevere early on, I’d say, how did he get the girls to do it? It was step by step, little by little. She said also that his voice was always in their heads, because he was always talking. More than we show, because he was so annoying. Matt said to me, “I’m really annoying in this movie.” Part of that is a cult thing. When I was very young, after I left university, for a while I wanted to write a book about cults but I was too young to put it all together. I went and investigated a couple things, did the Unification Church weekend, because I wanted to write about them. I was initially a journalist. I felt very paranoid because I was pretending to be a convert.
Also, what if it works?
I’m so not a joiner, I have to say—I’m not a true believer. I just thought it was unbelievably boring. They give you lectures 10 hours a day, and it’s like physics class or something. It was so palpably ridiculous. And they give you really bad food like white bread and bologna sandwiches. And there were these Italian New York guys, and at the end of the day they asked how they felt about it, and they stood up and burst into tears and said it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen. So part of me thought, I don’t understand this. Obviously, the logic of it doesn’t make sense—it didn’t matter, it was an emotional need. Part of the talking was both to wear you down, and maybe fill you up with things to think instead of things to say.
Playing upon people’s stresses and anxieties, and attaching it to something, to some villain.
I think that is true of every cult, creating a fear of the outside world. The “plastic people.” Build the wall. If you leave this cherished group of people, then you’re cast into darkness.
I also thought of the Manson cult—for these women—as the substitution of one false consciousness for another.
They’re escaping the backgrounds that each came out of—whether it’s being the good daughter, being in a good middle-class family… Something was not working there, and then it got replaced by something vastly more destructive.
Yeah and they’re also escaping a rigid patriarchy for one that was actually much more rigid. We don’t get into all this, but Charlie had tons of lures, and he was very obsessed about how things were done, and it’s just outstandingly controlling.
And they all live on this sunny ranch. It’s interesting how you shot the ranch sequences because there’s a cognitive dissonance there—they’re shot in this perpetual sunset, so it’s kind of beautiful, but at the same time it’s horrific. It looks like a California paradise.
Yes. They all talk about that, that it was all love, it was nothing but love. It’s creepy when you’re having sex with everybody that anybody tells you to, but they were so steeped in looking for a hippie ideal as well. So you have to arrive at a place wanting to believe in that. And you have to meet your leader, wanting to believe in him. So your defenses are down.
And to go through how we shot it: Crille [Forsberg, the DP] and I looked at Badlands. It’s just such a great movie, and we talked about the way they did the violence: affectless, motiveless, banal. There’s build-up and tension in that movie, obviously, but there’s a randomness about it. And Crille used something called the Varicon—he flashed the film, flashed a color on the footage.
This is something that you would do on film, and we’re trying to reproduce the same effect digitally. Crille said he didn’t want pink in skin tones, and he wanted something in the shadows— some color in the blacks—to create a look with digital that was similar to film of the late ’60s, early ’70s. Crille hasn’t done a lot of movies, but he’s famous for videos, like David Bowie’s “Lazarus” video. But he really wanted to do narrative so he came and worked for very little money on this film.
Matt Smith had said, when he auditioned, that he improvised a lot. It’s a big thing to take on Charles Manson, anxiety-inducing, and he said, if I’m going to do it, I’d like to improvise. I said that’s fine as long as we’re keeping to the schedule. I told Crille about this, and he said, I do a lot of videos, and when an artist has worked for a year on a song, it’s not for me to tell them where to stand, and so I’ve got very good at following people. So we did a lot of stuff like the fight with Susan after the dinner, that’s all handheld and mostly in one take. If you’re trying to sustain a dramatic mood, it is really nice to be able to stay in the shot. You’re trying to capture it as it happens, almost like documentary.
Then the scenes in the prison in the ’70s are an interesting counterpoint.
We said we’re going to do the ranch scenes very warm, kind of golden and alluring, and the prison is still, cold blue-grey, classic portrait lenses. Crille said, “Like Bergman’s Persona,” and I said yes. I remember my editor first got the footage and said, oh, this is two totally different looks. And for the killings, we had a whole meeting on it on how to do it—flat, very hard light, and the words we came up with were “just information.” Just show what happened. It was actually too bright, too front-lit—we toned it down. And I wanted to say, here you are—why are you here? They’re here and this is what they’re doing. Which probably people will have objections to.
You’re also not showing every beat of the murders.
Because I didn’t want to show it. And I don’t want to see all that, all the blood, the knife going in. I’m not really a body-horror person. There will definitely be problems with how people will react. I think I’m comfortable disturbing them.
You went through the gauntlet with American Psycho in that regard already.
It might be similar on this one actually. I’m getting that feeling.
In the case of American Psycho, some people seemed to think the movie was making light of horrific things. But I don’t know how people talk about that movie as if the book hadn’t existed in the first place. It’s a bit the same way with this one, for me. The Ed Sanders book for one thing is all over the place. It’s all out there.
No, no, the stories are there. Earlier on you were saying, what do you do about the sympathy. And you cannot just show nice girls in prison—you’ve got to take her on a journey where you really are empathizing with how they got to the place they ended up. But if you’re going to have sympathy with them spending 40 years in prison, and not show what they did or not show why, then it’s sentimental.
At any point did you vary the amount of time devoted to the ranch?
I cut some of the ranch actually, just because in the end it was saying the same thing, so there were maybe three or four scenes we cut. It’s funny because some people prefer the prison, and I was worried that maybe everyone’s going to be bored with the prison. There’s actually stuff going on in the prison. In some ways every day’s the same at the ranch: he’s always talking, and that’s how the brainwashing was, because you’re always under the thumb. The script shows a progression of manipulation, and of darkness, because it did get darker and darker after Terry Melcher [visits].
Was Terry Melcher coming to hear Manson play always a pivot point for you? Manson’s rejection by the pop culture firmament.
It wasn’t until we were in the edit, and I said, you know, Terry Melcher, that’s a turning point. I love that scene, which is slightly comically grotesque, because you just see this Hollywood upper class, with the Jaguar, and [Manson and company] looking to him like scruffy, scruffy losers, and they’re like chic hippies. And it’s very unfortunate for everyone involved and for the world that Charlie met Dennis Wilson. You could make a movie about him, he’s a tragic figure. But they were all looking for fathers in their different ways, and he obviously had a horrible father.
Our music consultant on the film, Andy Paley, who had worked with Brian Wilson, said that you’ve got to remember how uncool the Beach Boys were in 1968, because it was the British Invasion, the Beatles. Even though they were doing Good Vibrations and Pet Sounds, he felt guilty about all his money, he wanted to have a hippie facility, and he was drawn in just the same way Tex was, and like they all were, to a manipulator like Charlie, with his word salad of mysticism.
These overlapping universes—the Hollywood beautiful people and the Manson story. Both larger than life.
It’s interesting about monstrousness. There are people who are psychopathic murderers, who, you know, that’s what they’re gonna do. But someone like Charlie, he could’ve ended up as one of those people living with three or four followers, do you know what I mean? And not have killed anyone. He was always dangerous, and he could’ve been an abuser who might’ve killed a person, or the woman he lived with. But the idea of this particular set of murders—we wanted to get across the weird, random, unplanned, spontaneous, and pointless quality of it. And Guin wrote a great thing actually at one point: he was a loser, basically, desperate to keep his hold on these followers who he had convinced that he was a god.
He couldn’t lose face.
I think that’s what it was. He had to keep upping the ante, he couldn’t lose face. He had been humiliated all his life, he had never had any power, he’d never had anything good. And suddenly in this miracle, he’d landed in Haight Ashbury, at ’67, ’68, at just the right time, with a gift for talking to women, and he ended up in this, by his standards, paradise ranch, Dennis Wilson’s his buddy, he came to parties telling him he’s going to record him. Charles Manson’s life was never going to get better than that, and he could lose it all. I love Matt’s performance because I think he gets a very human desperation.
I think he also doesn’t fall into the trap of pitching the charisma as appealing. You’re able to understand what’s going on, how it all works, without getting seduced and consequently entertained.
I felt the same thing about Patrick Bateman actually. I did not want to make him cool. And a lot of people wanted him to be cool, a lot of actors. It’s like, really, you think he’s cool? When Christian [Bale] came in, he thought he was as ridiculous as I did. It may have been a British thing too—we just had the same sense of humor, we thought it was pathetic, and you’re going to show the really dorky side of him. It was the same thing with Charlie, the kind of desperate loser. I really like Matt’s performance in the scene where he’s in the bathtub, and there’s just a shot when he turns away from the girl who’s standing up to him, and you see his face—he’s facing camera and with his back to them—and there’s this kind of shame in his face. It’s like he’s retreating back to that very familiar place.
And in the end it’s such a shock to go to the sessions with the graduate student, Karlene. And again, it’s a situation where you wonder about sympathy—part of me as a viewer just doesn’t want to care about them, really, because of what they did. Do you know that place?
I know, I know, part of you doesn’t want to have to care and worry about them, because of what they did, and part of you is like, how far does humanity extend? Which is almost a Christian thing. Not that I’m Christian, or religious, but there is a beautiful idea that no one is beyond… You get that in Dostoyevsky. I always loved Crime and Punishment—is there no redemption for anyone? I think I always liked the really lost causes. [Laughs] They’re hard cases. But I also loved Merritt Wever, she’s so great.
She’s like a rock—you just feel the centeredness. And the tightrope walk she has to engage with them but not reveal too much.
Other people said, why don’t you show more of her story. And we had a scene of her with her husband and her kids and we cut it. We cut it before shooting it, because we were like, this doesn’t belong. And Merritt herself said, when she read that scene that we cut, that this isn’t about Karlene, this is about the girls, and that’s where you should keep the story. I think Guin said it’s kind of about “bad daddy” replaced by “good mommy.” There’s truth in that. But she has an incredibly empathetic and nuanced way where you also see her as an early ’70s feminist. I hope it comes across that for [Leslie, Susan, and Patricia], they’ve never left ’69. I’m of that age—I was 15 in 1968—and I remember how astoundingly the world changed in my late teenage years. And in ’72, when that wave of feminism started, and the hippie world seemed like it was just dying, I’d never seen such a rapid cultural change.
I’m still grateful that you did not ask this question, “why would you want to make a film about this”—but I’m gonna say it. I think a lot of women my generation have anger from being a young teenager living in the late ’60s, and just the crap that people said to you. And what the feminine ideals were before, which were kind of brainless really. If you have some critical attitude about anything, that was because you weren’t in touch with your body. You weren’t in touch with your feelings, you weren’t intuitive or careful. And I always felt, before I even understood it, that there was an awful lot of manipulation and unfairness within the hippie culture.
These are some of the rejoinders Manson has in the film.
Yes. This culture that these girls were escaping to for liberation was extraordinarily patriarchal. There’s that essay that Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, where she goes to a commune, and they’re in long skirts and they keep homemade bread in the kitchen.
They’re in touch with the earth, right?
Yes. [Laughs] They’re earth mothers. And she’s thinking about that phrase, “nothin’ says lovin’ like something in the oven.” Which is a real ’50s thing. So that’s your liberation. And I always felt that feminism of the kind that Karlene was involved with—she was a few years older than the Manson girls actually, and had really grown up in the ’60s—was a product of women’s anger who had been involved in 1960s politics. It’s like, no, this sucks.
Do you remember how you reacted to the Manson events at the time?
Yeah, I remember being in Toronto—I was a teenager, I lived with my mother in England, which is where I spent my teenage years, but I would go back to Toronto on vacations and stay with my dad. I was watching television and the news of the Manson murders was coming on. So I was 16. And I was thinking oh, it’s all over.
You felt that?
Yeah, I did. Because there was so much paranoia about hippies. It’s like, oh my God, they did that? But I do remember this—ugh—and then after that, it all did seem to get crazier.
Later on, in the ’70s, you wrote a lot about the punk movement as a journalist.
Yeah—which was also super, super reactive against this. It’s funny because I remember writing some really terrible things about psychedelia as a kind of snotty young person. And I love psychedelia actually now, and all the stuff in the movie I absolutely adore. Love, Forever Changes. I didn’t hear it in the ’60s, but I thought about the Manson murders when I heard that album. Because there’s all that paranoia—there’s a line, “Watching all the people die.”
I love Love’s music, the dark glimmer of melancholy in it.
Oh, always, the dark side of Hollywood, which is really fascinating. And you know that Bobby Beausoleil played in an early incarnation of Love? And then there’s the 13th Floor Elevators, who of course ended up in a mental hospital. Underground psychedelia.
Nicolas Rapold is Film Comment’s editor-in-chief.