Over the course of her 16-year feature filmmaking career, award-winning writer/director Mary Harron (“American Psycho”) has only made four films. Her latest, “The Moth Diaries” (opening this Friday via IFC Films, and currently available On Demand) is her first feature to hit screens since her saucy black-and-white biopic “The Notorious Bettie Page” opened back in 2005. One thing’s for certain: this is one filmmaker who’s selective about her projects.
Since “Bettie Page” wrapped, Harron’s been keeping busy writing and directing for TV (including for HBO’s “Big Love”), and developing a punk film with her husband, writer/director John C. Walsh (“Pipe Dream”) that will hopefully see the light of day soon.
“The Moth Diaries” finds Harron dabbling in the horror genre for the first time, adapting the metaphorical vampire coming-of-age bestseller of the same name by Rachel Klein. Sarah Bolger (“The Tudors”) stars as Rebecca, a young student at an exclusive female boarding school, who is haunted by her father’s suicide. Her close friendship with Lucy, her roomate, means everything in the world to Rebecca. So when a new student, Ernessa (model-turned-actress Lily Cole) swoops in and attracts the attention of Lucy, Rebecca gets jealous. Turns out she has a right to be concerned; Ernessa might very well be a vampire.
Indiewire sat down with Harron in New York to discuss “The Moth Diaries,” and what unites her body of eclectic work.
You sure like to keep your fans waiting!
It’s not by choice. Whenever this happens — when there’s a long gap — you usually find a couple projects that didn’t happen. I was involved for a long time with a New York punk film. It’s a story I’d still like to do at some point, but it was a long development process, and then we lost the rights to the source material. In between that, there were rights issues to be sorted out with “Moth Diaries.” So I went and did TV. My husband and I wrote several TV pilots, which were also really interesting because I love TV. This is a great age of television. The pilots paid the rent, and they were very interesting to do, although they didn’t turn into series.
So I’ve been busy, but what I’ve done hasn’t hit the screen.
Now you yourself have a background in punk, having worked helped launch Punk, the first punk magazine.
I was part of the New York underground I guess, which was a wonderful world.
This is the first film of yours to tackle teenage adolescent angst. I guess in some ways, it’s your most punk film.
Funny enough, the original book was set in the 60s and my original idea was to set it in the 70s and use Siouxsie and the Banshees and all this kind of angst music. But then I couldn’t get the rights. I was persuaded out of it, party because it’s more expensive, but also because then it’d be another period film. In a way what really appealed to me had nothing to do with period, and I’d done three period films before. It doesn’t really matter what era the world of the school is. It’s kind of timeless.
You yourself have two daughters. How much did that play into your interest in adapting the book?
I guess because I live very much in this world…when you have children it throws you back in your memory to your own childhood a lot. I had been thinking a lot (my daughter had just turned ten when I read the book) about these very intense friendships I had, that were more intense than anything else in my life… until I got married. You’re just united as one and you throw everything into these friendships.
Then I read this book — there’s this female romantic, but it’s platonic love. That’s never represented. Teenage girls’ emotions is always seen in terms of boys, or perhaps a rivalry with another girl. I wanted the primary emotional focus of love and devotion to be on another girl. But it’s not just a lesbian film, because that’s also misleading. Not that that isn’t part of many adolescents, but it doesn’t have to be. The unspoken, uncovered world is those romantic relationships. That was my primary interest. The supernatural element is more a vehicle for telling that story.
You must have known going into this, that critics would harp on the fact that this is yet another vampire film.
Actually when I started, in 2005, I had never heard of “Twilight.” Unfortunately it first went to Paramount and then Paramount — after I had developed the script with them — felt it was not sufficiently genre horror for them, which I understood. It’s not really a studio movie. But I had already spent two to three years on that. By that point the “Twilight” films had already start to come out. So in a way I wish that I had been able to get it done very quickly, and just get it out there. And now I just have to live with the fact that it came out post-“Twilight.” What can you do?
How has it been defending that aspect of the film on the press circuit?
I don’t mind defending it, but the thing that I regret, is that I think if I had gotten it out earlier, people wouldn’t have had any preconceptions. But I think people went in with a lot of preconceptions, sometimes hostility. It’s like, “Oh, another one.” But I say give it a chance.
Well for one thing, there’s no fangs in the movie.
In a way the whole vampire thing is metaphorical. In the book it’s totally vague. To be honest, it’s more of a ghost story than anything.
You can’t control the zeitgeist. You just have to put it out there.
The film reminded me in many ways of “Thirteen.”
Certainly the friendship where one dominates the other is very, very common. Certainly something I see happening, even with my own daughters, is that you have to, at that age, cut yourself off from your family, and step outside of that unit that protects you and find something else; a new family. That’s why people bond so intensely. The girls become these intense besties because they need a home. They also have hormonally crazy amount of emotions that they’re just not ready to share with a boy. The boys are really just fantasy figures. Boys and girls to me really seem to be on separate planets at that age.
You’re a filmmaker who doesn’t like to repeat yourself. What do you think is the connecting thread that unites your work?
I have noticed that they all have isolated central charters; characters cut off from their society. I, of course, have children and a family, but I certainly did feel isolated growing up. I did have the experience when I was 12 of changing countries. I moved around a lot.
You’re from Canada right?
Yes, but even within that my dad was an actor so we moved around a lot. When I was 12 we moved from Canada to Europe, so at that adolescent stage I had to be in a whole new country, a whole new environment. I think that sense of isolation is definitely something I draw on. It definitely spoke to me in this as well.
And the madness. There’s elements of madness in all of my films. Even in “Bettie Page” — the film ends right before she has a meltdown. But I’m not interested in ever doing the same thing. I think I like — which probably gets me into trouble sometimes — things I don’t really know how to do.
Things that scare you?
Yes, I like that. You must do the things that frighten you. Everyone wants me to do another “American Psycho,” but you can’t really recreate that. That was a really amazing book and project. Not that I wouldn’t love to do another black comedy, but if that material isn’t there, you can’t do it. You can’t fake it.
I also don’t want to do something that’s edgy again, just for the sake of it. It has to be interesting.
Was the backlash you experienced making that, something that deterred you from making something in that vein?
No, because it was probably my most successful film. The funny thing is after that you’d think I’d be sent a lot of interesting things, but I just got sent a lot of serial killer films. It’s like, do you really think that’s what that was?