"American Psycho" Filmmaker Mary Harron Explores Manson Cult in "Charlie Says"

Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.

Joan Didion, THE WHITE ALBUM

Another “pinch myself” moment for me this year has been the opportunity to speak with Mary Harron, one of my favorite filmmakers. She has directed pieces of work that have stayed with me and have got under my skin, in a good way, specifically “American Psycho” and the Netflix series “Alias Grace.” Her latest film “Charlie Says” is no different.

Fifty years ago on August 9th, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten invaded the home of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and murdered her along with four other people. This is a fascinating and tragic moment in history that has been studied, obsessed about, and captured many different ways onscreen. The quote above by Joan Didion opened Harron’s film, and set the tone. The Sixties were a time of free love and spurts of violence, and the Manson murders was a microcosm of all of that.

This year, many adaptions about Charles Manson and his cult have come to the screen, such as Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” and Mindhunter’s latest season. For the first time onscreen, a narrative film tells the story of the Manson cult and murders through Leslie van Houten. We see her story onscreen through flashbacks during her time in solitary prison with fellow Manson cult members and murderers, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel. The flashbacks are spurred from their relationship and conversations with Karlene Faith, who is from the Feminist Coalition, and teaches the Manson women about feminism, and also listens to their stories. The film’s title, “Charlie Says,” comes from Leslie and the other girls explaining their behaviors and actions based on, well–what “Charlie says.”

What I took away most from my conversation with Mary and my viewing of “Charlie Says” is when you elevate history onscreen, it is important to be honest. Most of Harron’s films revolve around one main character, and her lens reflects that. “Charlie Says” is different than the others because she is honoring the truth behind Leslie’s story, and although the film is subjective, it is grounded in history. I’m grateful for this movie because it sheds light on a woman in history that could have been easily overlooked, and it wouldn’t have been as powerful of a story without Mary Harron’s direction. Hope you enjoy my interview with the masterful filmmaker, a legend in her own right, Mary Harron.

I don’t think you can’t consider women’s lives when you are looking at a time in history.

Mary Harron interview with Film Comment about “Charlie Says”

“Charlie Says” is available now on VOD

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this specific project?

Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron

MARY HARRON: It was Guinevere Turner’s script, she was actually writing it for another director. I was just talking to her about the script a year ago. I didn’t initiate the project. I’m interested in the 60s, obviously having growing up in the 60s. And I’m interested in cults, religious cults. It was actually Guinevere’s project, she just gave me the script to read as a friend. And I thought, ‘This is really up my alley. If the other director drops out I’d be very interested in directing.’

MARTIN: I’m interested in how the story was adapted. It says the film is based on The Family.

MARRON: I don’t think she really used the text. There’s a lot of different Manson sources, and obviously she used Karlene Faith’s book. There are various biographies. When I was preparing my take on the characters, I read the biographies written about the particular cult members. I read Helter Skelter years ago, and I also listened to You Must Remember This podcast.

Photo of real-life Manson cult followers (L-R) Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, courtesy of You Must Remember This podcast

MARTIN: Yes! I love that one, that’s how the series started.

MARRON: I think what I got most out of the script, when I was working with Guinevere on additional scenes in the rewrites, Susan Atkins’ autobiography and memoir, and Tex Watson’s autobiography and memoir were very useful. And Karlene Faith’s account of the women in prison, which is the main source for Leslie Van Houten’s story. That was all really interesting. There are a ton of other books we’ve sourced, and I’m sure Guinevere read even more. 

MARTIN: Can you talk to me about your casting process?

(L-R) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, Hannah Murray, Mary Harron, and Sosie Bacon “Charlie Says” premiere at 75th Berlin International Film Festival

HARRON: I took a year off from developing the project, because I did this series for Netflix “Alias Grace”. So I was out for that, but then we started looking for Manson. Producers always want to go for a big name. They kind of had to go through that cycle, but I wanted to find someone who could really make sense of the character. That’s how I found Matt Smith. I did months of auditions for the girls. Hannah Murray, a fantastic British actress I had known from “Game of Thrones,” had read for me in London, which I didn’t realize until after I had cast her. I always remembered this amazing girl came to read for the role that Sarah Gadon ended up playing in “Alias Grace.” And I thought, ‘What happened to that girl, she was such a great actress?’ I couldn’t remember her name. And then I finally pieced it all together that this was Hannah Murray who interviewed for me years ago. She actually auditioned on Skype, and was so amazing that I was like, ‘There really is no on one else that has matched her.’

I flew to London to meet her in person, and while I was there they said Matt Smith is in town, and he’s into meeting about Manson. He did an amazing reading for me. Sosie Bacon came in for the role of Leslie, and then she ended up playing Patricia Krenwinkel. I cast Marianne Rendón, who I think is wonderful, as Susan Atkins. I chose these three women as the film’s primary focus because those were the three that were in prison. Others might have stayed a short time there, but those three were on death row, and then in solitary. They were in this isolation unit for years together, and that was such a fascinating story no one had ever told. No one had ever really looked into the story about what happened to the girls after the murders, after the trials. 

Photo of real-life Manson cult followers (L-R) Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten

MARTIN: That answers my follow up question, which is about what do you feel you represented in this story on film that has never been represented before?

MARRON: Yes. I’ve been offered a Lifetime movie about it, but that movie was written by two guys, and I don’t think it captured the real feelings of the women’s friendships, and their relationship. They set them up more as rivals, and that didn’t seem right to me. It didn’t make sense. There was all of this solidarity between them, and that was a problem because it kept them in the cult because of their friendship. It was part of the powers that bound them. 

“Charlie Says” Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Tex Watson is an interesting character. People had given up their personal will to someone else. Originally Guinevere wanted to call the film “Kill Your Ego”, because Manson was always saying you must “Kill Your Ego”. Of course, if you kill your ego, that could lead to enlightenment, or it could lead you to being an empty vessel to be manipulated into his commands. 

Matt Smith as Charles Manson in “Charlie Says”

I felt there had been a lot of stuff out there about Manson, but not how his mind control had actually worked. The criticism was how did they come to do these terrible and horrifying things. And that Lifetime movie had centered, like a couple previous movies have, on Linda Kasabian, because she was turned witness, and was not involved with the murders. That seemed to me kind of a cop-out. If you’re going to do a story on the Manson girls, you’ve got to do the story on the girls who actually participated in the murders, and try to explore why and how they came to do these things.

MARTIN: Was it intentional to have the past be in orange and warm colors and the present in the jail to have cold and stale colors?

“Charlie Says”

MARRON: Yes it was. The cinematographer and I felt like the past scenes of the ranch are vivid, warm, golden and handheld, with a lot of movement. The past was so real to them. In prison, it was almost like their after life, whether if they are in limbo, or almost as if they have died. Their life is very still. There’s very little action. It’s more about faces and the colors are all blues and grays. It’s all very cold colors and it’s all very still, because their life in prison is cold, still and disconnected from the world. Their memories are of an extremely vivid time. So yes, that was an intentional choice.

MARTIN: I appreciate that you take the viewer in deep. You don’t shy away from the hard-to-watch parts–the sex, the violence, etc. Could you talk about that?

MARRON: The whole point of doing this film was to figure out what it was like to be there, and what it was that brought people in. Initially there had to be certain things that were free to them, you know? They would try to cast off their parents. You had to show what their daily life could be, like with the orgy scenes, the feeling of them, and how they all interacted together. I thought that was very important. This is what it was like, you know?

MARTIN: Definitely. And from seeing your past work, even going back to “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” it’s interesting to me what you choose to show onscreen when it comes to love, sex and violence. It’s like the story guides the lens.

“American Psycho” (2000)

MARRON: Well there’s some graphic things in “American Psycho”, but it’s kind of colder and more dispassionate. With “Charlie Says,” we’re trying to capture the experience. We’re trying to capture Leslie’s experience and it’s more subjective to show how it was for her. The film brings the viewer deeper into her experiences, and how she falls into the Manson family. You have to be with her. You have to get to know the family as she is getting to know them, so you’re following her journey step-by-step. It was very important that you see them and you find out when she’s finding out. 

I guess “American Psycho” is also kind of subjective, in some ways, but “American Psycho” is kind of satirical in some ways. And “Bettie Page”–

“The Notorious Bettie Page” (2005)

MARTIN: Another great one!

MARRON: Thank you. I’d almost like to name it “The Ballad of Bettie Page,” it’s almost like telling the tale. It’s more of a look from the outside, a story in the 1950s. Each film dictates the story, and the story dictates how you do it. There is not a lot of violence in “Charlie Says,” but when it’s there, I wanted it to be very intense. So if you were going to show the murders, you really had to show, in this case, it’s the Tate-LaBianca murders, in detail and almost in real time. So you would be with Leslie through her perspective, which is very much taken from two accounts–Karlene Faith’s accounts and Tex Watson’s accounts. 

“Charlie Says”

It’s my favorite scene when Tex is killing somebody, and then Leslie is in another room where Patricia is fighting someone. This is taken from her account which is from Karlene Faith’s account, where she just ran into another room and just stood there, paralyzed. 

MARTIN: Was that when Leslie was staring at the painting of the sea?

MARRON: Yes. And I could imagine this exactly. It’s like a scary dream that you can’t get out of. I wanted to get that dream-like quality of being in the Manson family, because there is all of this stuff happening within a short period of time. This is different from anything I really tried to do before. They all have crazy, dream-like moments, like in “American Psycho”. They all tend to be about one person, but the style in each film is different. In this case, I felt like the violence was very necessary to be sort of graphic, at least for a short time because I felt you couldn’t just present these women as nice girls in prison. That is what they are like when they are with Karlene, they seem very sweet. If you just present that portrait of them, the nice part, it doesn’t really do justice to history. In order to understand the whole story, you had to show what they did. It’s funny because some festivals rejected the film because of the violence. But for this film, the violence is necessary. It’s a historical film. It’s all true, this is actually what happened

MARTIN: The Manson murders happened fifty years ago. Any relevance or parallels to where we’re at in 2019?

Matt Smith as Charles Manson in “Charlie Says”

MARRON: It’s frightening what people emotionally need in terms of the beliefs that guide them. It’s always worth seeing how much of a danger it is to give up your individual will. Charlie was, in many ways, just a con-man. I mean he had a certain charisma, certain gifts of manipulating people, but he was just a small town criminal with a talent for manipulation. Yet he got these young, perfectly intelligent people to do these terrible things. There are comparisons with Trump…

MARTIN: Right.

MARRON: It’s amazing what people can be manipulated into, and we must always be on our guard. We’re looking at the process by which people are put under someone’s spell. 

MARTIN: Being a female filmmaker today, do you see change?

Mary Harron on “Charlie Says” set.

MARRON: I see enormous change, there are way more female-directed films today. Which is great, and makes things very much easier, but it doesn’t mean it’s ever easy, for men neither. For anyone who tries to make a career in independent film and try to make films with your own voice, it’s always going to be extremely difficult. It used to be very, very difficult, especially for women, but I feel there’s been more opportunities opening up, and a lot more women rising up and being successful. But to have a sustained career is always going to be difficult, and I think women have to fight the tendency to blame themselves if things don’t go well. For any young woman who’s starting out, you just have to settle in for the long haul and recognize that there will be many ups and downs. 

It used to be that women never got the chance to do the “big” movies, but it seems to be changing somewhat. It’s still kind of an ancient system, male dominance, you know? I feel it’s changed a lot.

AnnaSophia Robb To Star In Mary Harron’s directed Quibi Horror Series ‘Emma’ Deadline

One great thing I think is happening for female filmmakers is it’s very important to do all things that you find interesting–if it’s on TV, or if it’s on digital, streaming, or on film. Right now I’m filming this film that will be shown in 10-minute episodes on your phone. It’s Jeffrey Katzenberg’s company and they’re doing a bunch of these types of projects. You think, ‘Somebody is giving me money to do this thing.’ If you find it interesting you should do it. If you don’t find it interesting, you shouldn’t do it. And I think it’s important to keep working. 

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