Over the years since that fateful summer of 1969, when Charles Manson and his followers killed seven innocents in cold blood, there have been no shortage of films made about the subject. Nestled deep within the American psyche, the infamous cult leader passed away in 2017, though he will undoubtedly endure as a figure of mythic proportions for generations to come. With the 50th anniversary of Manson’s crimes approaching, Mary Harron is one of two elite filmmakers presenting their first films on the matter: As Quentin Tarantino made final adjustments to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in order to have the film ready for Cannes, Harron was making her third festival appearance, in support of Charlie Says.
In order to take on such an iconic subject matter as the summer of ’69, Harron knew she would need a fresh perspective on it—a new way in—finding one in a script by long-time collaborator and friend Guinevere Turner. Centered on the female followers of Manson, who wound up in prison—still brainwashed by the man they loved—the film considers how the women came to this point, as the prisoners are asked to consider that very question for themselves. Like many people who lived through the ’60s, Harron had once dismissed Manson’s acolytes from afar, without considering what made these “crazy girls” tick. “Then, I sort of realized, I have no idea what happened to them,” the director recalled, speaking with Deadline in Tribeca. “That question of how they lived with what they’d done, how they looked at Charlie, how they felt about the crimes, about their life in the Manson cult, all that was really interesting.”
Of course, to tell the story of these women accurately and effectively, Harron needed her Manson—a performer who could embody the complexity, charisma and contradictions of the man. “Because otherwise,” Harron said, “the girls just look like fools.” A tall British actor known for his work on The Crown, Matt Smith might seem to some like an unusual choice for the part. But to the director, who has done “several real-life films based on historical sources,” capturing the inner life of a character always trumps the physical realities of who a person was. “What Matt got is a combination of things. He got this sort of electric quality; he’s very changeable, very live-wire as a performer, but he also got the insecurity that’s a big part of Charlie. Because Charles Manson was not a monster. I mean, he’s a monster, but he was not a supernatural monster,” she explained. “As Guinevere says, he was a charismatic loser…a failure in life who just hit lucky and had a gift for manipulating young people.”
Given the films the director has made to date, including American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, it’s surprising to learn that she considers sex and violence two of the more difficult things to shoot. “I think it’s very hard to do, actually; sex and violence are both very hard things to film, and there’s some of both in this film,” she shared. “I approach them, in a funny way, similarly, which is [to] take it step by step, and almost do it as choreography.”
Making its debut at the Venice Film Festival last fall, Charlie Says is set for a May 10 release through IFC Films. Backing Smith is an all-star ensemble, which includes Merritt Wever, Suki Waterhouse, Chace Crawford, Sosie Bacon, Kayli Carter, and Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray. To take a look at our conversation with director Mary Harron, click above.
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