Interview with "Charlie Says" Director Mary Harron
Photo credit: Patrick McMullan
In the new film “Charlie Says” (directed by female filmmaker Mary Harron) we see a new perspective on the women who committed infamous crimes under Charlie’s influence. We see how the three women who killed for him—Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón)—remain under the spell of the infamous cult leader (Matt Smith). The film helps us empathize rather than criticise these women and we get to see firsthand the mental and physical abuse they experienced.
The film was written by Guinevere Turner. It stars Matt Smith (MAPPLETHORPE, “The Crown”), Hannah Murray (“Game of Thrones”), Sosie Bacon (“13 Reasons Why”), Marianne Rendón (“Imposters”), Chace Crawford (“Gossip Girl”), Suki Waterhouse (INSURGENT, “The White Princess”), Kayli Carter (PRIVATE LIFE), Annabeth Gish (“The Haunting of Hill House”) and Merritt Wever ("Nurse Jackie").
Cultured Focus had the opportunity to dig deeper into the filmmaking process of “Charlie Says” by speaking with the director - Mary Harron:
CF: Why did you decide to work on the topic of the old and yet unforgettable crime that happened? What is about this story you wanted to say differently and bring to the audience’s attention?
MH: I don't think there has been a film that concentrated on the women who were accused of the crime. There were two things that interested me. One was the story focused on the women who were involved in the crime rather than what other films had done. I thought it was much more dramatic and challenging to understand the women who were involved.
CF: These women are portrayed as murderers but in your film we see them as victims. What is the research you had to do in order to understand their psyche and their reactions as well as Charlie’s?
MH: I did a lot of research. I found a ton of autobiographies written by members of the families. There are a lot of different accounts by people involved. What was interesting was their memories and what they found attractive and appealing about Charlie. In one of the books Diane writes is that he saw her the way that none had ever seen her. He had this charismatic effect that some people have as if you are the only person in the room. But once he had you, then he would ignore you, was mean to you, and play with your feelings in order to keep you hooked.
CF: A lot of relationships are with people like Charlie. This film is an eye opener for women in abusive relationships.
MH: I hope. For me it is a a story of domestic abuse on a grand scale. They were called the family and it is an abusive family with an abusive father at the center of it. There is a scene where they have a dinner and he slaps Susan. It looks like a classic abusive dad at the dinner table. The way everyone is terrified and the way Patricia says and acts like there is nothing going on. That's how abuse is enabled.
CF: You are a feminist filmmaker. What is the message you were conveying with these women through this film?
MH: Be careful who you let dominate you. I think people always have to be careful about giving up their inner voice and the voice of conscious. In order to go with Charlie you had to silence a lot of your doubts. Because they believed in him it was almost a religious worship. After the murders happened, when Patricia describes him to Leslie, she knew it didn't seem right but believes it was the right thing to do. She immediately silenced the voice of consciousness.
CF: This film is great in the midst of the MeToo movement. If a male director did it, I think it would look different. How do you feel as a female director who had something to say in the midst of the MeToo movement?
MH: It is great to have been given that chance and I have been lucky for the last 25 years. I am sure six years ago I wouldn’t have been making films at all. I hope that the MeToo era might make people more open to looking at women films.
CF: What did you learn about yourself and as a female filmmaker after this film? Did you come out differently after it?
MH: You come out differently after every film. It is a very intense but distilled experience. It terrifies me about certain things like the mechanism of abuse and how things happen in real life. I think Turner’s script was very good at that. I feel she did have this experience early on in life and she had a deeper insight that most writers wouldn't have.
CF: Is there anything else that you wanted us to see from these three female followers that would make us look at them and the whole Charlie tribe differently?
MH: It is something that Guinevere told me early on about the hold Charlie had on these women. In Patricia's case she was madly in love with Charlie and he was the love of her life. In Leslie’s case she wasn't romantically in love with Charlie. There was a very intense and wonderful friendship these women developed and also what kept them in the cult. We love female friendships but not when it is keeping you trapped. Together they reinforced their submission.
CF: What are some of the techniques and challenges you had in making this film come to life?
MH: We shot extremely fast. It was a low budget movie and we had only 20 days to shoot. The violence scene had to happen at the end of day. It is very hard to reset after bloody scenes - it is hard to clean up. In the final scene of violence, we did only one take since we weren't able to reset. We shot the violence and sex scenes very fast.
CF: The way that I could tell a female director did the film was by the intimate scenes that Charlie had with these women. Did you want to add a female touch to the love making scenes?
I think it's instinctive. I think a male director would have wanted to make the sex scenes hot. There was something very intimidating about the sex scenes. Some women were not having great sex with him, they were submitting. He was a powerful sex machine.
CF: What do you think mad these women lose their minds. What did Charlie do to make them believe things a normal person would not have?
MH: They were doing a lot of drugs every day and that would affect your sense of reality. They were also isolated. They weren't watching TV, they were just on the ranch. The more isolated you are from the outside world, the more demonizing it is. He had a thing that all cults have - we are the saved ones and everyone else is corrupt. They felt special; that they were disciples and he was Jesus.
CF: Did you use your Canadian lense in making this film and why did you choose filmmaking as a career?
MH: I moved from Canada when I was 12 and grew up in England. I was affected by my Canadian heritage by not being American - Canadians never think they are the center of the world. When I was a teenager, I was very interested in old movies. I was in London watching old movies in the National Theater but I never thought I would be a director. I thought I will be writer and write a movie one day. I was a journalist for two years after college and then I got into the documentaries. In my 20s, I started writing scripts. I had a desire to make movies and it seemed like an impossible goal. It is a dream job. I can't believe I ended up doing it.
“Charlie Says” opens up on May 10 in select theaters in LA, Orange County and New York. The film was an Official Selection at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. August 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family Murders.