Mary Harron speaks about Charles Manson with the detached empathy of a psychiatrist. In discussions with Matt Smith, who transforms wildly from the Prince Philip we know and love to hate on “The Crown” into the famed cult leader in “Charlie Says,” Harron’s new film, the director emphasized Manson’s tough upbringing. Manson was institutionalized from a young age, having “grown up in prison” from the age of 12. He was raped and beaten up due to the fact that he was “small and weedy.” Her insights about him are intensely precise, displaying an almost intimate knowledge of this larger than life figure’s innermost psyche.
“[Manson] learned to survive by manipulating others,” said Harron. “He was, in some ways, completely feral. He was animal in his instincts, because he’d grown up, for the vast majority of his life, in a place of danger. And so, like a wild animal, he was completely focused on, “Can I fuck it? Can I kill it? Fuck, kill, or fear. Fear or flight. Are they prey, or are they predator?'”
It’s this unsentimental empathy that makes Harron’s films so compelling, that make her the definitive psychopath auteur. She brought the same unique insights to Patrick Bateman when working on 1999’s “American Psycho,” her best-known film.
“With Patrick Bateman, the way in, with me and Christian [Bale], was, ‘This is someone who’s not a human being, and he really would like to be one, or at least to pretend to be one.’ He’s like somebody from Mars who’s trying to imitate human behavior. That gave Christian a way in,” she said. “When you’re trying to find your way into a character, both director and actor…it’s just finding the motives and mechanisms of their behavior, how they operate, and within a situation, how are they functioning.”
From watching her films, it’s easy to conclude that Harron has always had a thing for psychopaths, though good luck getting her to admit that. Her first feature, “I Shot Andy Warhol,” dramatizes the story of radical feminist writer Valerie Solanas, most famous for writing “SCUM Manifesto” and — you guessed it — shooting Andy Warhol. Produced by Christine Vachon and Tom Kalin, the film stars Martha Plimpton; Steven Dorff as Warhol muse Candy Darling; and Lili Taylor as Solanas in a career-making role (Harron has a knack for those). After its Cannes premiere in 1996, “I Shot Andy Warhol” became a classic of the New Queer Cinema.
Incidentally, “I Shot Andy Warhol” was released the same year as Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat,” which also featured Warhol as a character, played by David Bowie. “Charlie Says” is coming out in the large shadow of Quentin Tarantino’s Manson film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Harron was on a jury with Tarantino at Cannes one year, and looks forward to seeing what he does with the topic.
“I like Quentin. I’m excited to see it, and I know it’s going to be so different. I think his focus is on Hollywood in the ’60s, from everything I’ve seen, and definitely, I almost feel like there will be hardly any crossovers. It’s a big topic,” she said. “I love his films. I mean, he should make the film he wants. I mean, honestly, men should make the film that they’re interested in. What I don’t like is when people pretend they’re interested in women, and do kind of boring female characters, just because they feel they should. I mean, make films about what you care about.”
Harron chalks the unfortunate timing up to how long movies take to make, rather than claiming any foresight of the zeitgeist. (Guinevere Turner, Harron’s co-writer on “American Psycho,” had been working on the “Charlie Says” script since 2015). There was no thought to timing “Charlie Says” to the 50th anniversary of the Manson murders, coming up this summer; that’s just a coincidence.
“There’s other reasons for it; [it’s] kind of an apocalyptic time now. I think there are parallels with the ’60s. I think there’s a big culture war, but it’s really the same culture war that opened up in the ’60s, I think, that we’re still dealing with, and there’s certainly divisions that way,” she said. Harron added that she’d been reading Alan Moore’s graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, “From Hell,” which got her thinking about the cultural fascination with serial killers.
“I think it’s a bit of motiveless evil. I think there’s a nightmare quality to it, the nightmare that we all carry, even as children, the nightmare of fairy tales, also, that you’re safe in your castle and someone will come and attack you, or steal you away, or do harm to you.”
Might there also be parallels with a certain egomaniacal cult-like figure occupying the White House?
“There is obviously a connection, because, I mean, we’re at a time of different cults. There’s a number of cults. ISIS is a cult. In terms of connection with [Donald] Trump, Trump is a narcissistic leader with no empathy, with a sort of brilliance for bullying, and for sensing weakness, and for manipulation, and seems to have no core, real motive, apart from domination and wanting attention. That’s a parallel.”
What makes “Charlie Says” so singular is that it puts the focus on the women. Smith’s Manson is a supporting role, albeit a crucial and chilling one. The movie begins after the murders, with three of Manson’s followers in solitary confinement; Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon); and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón). Between classes from a kindhearted grad student (Merritt Wever), the film visits their time on the Manson family compound in flashbacks.
“For all that’s written about the Manson case, not that much attention was really paid to the women,” said Harron. “I mean, they wrote their own stories, several of them, but nobody went and interviewed them in prison. And I realized, when [Turner] said she was looking at them in prison, I have no idea what happened to them. And there’s lots of stories about Manson in prison, and he loved to give interviews in prison. Lots of people tried to talk to him, but people didn’t focus on what happened to them.”
IFC Films will release “Charlie Says” in theaters on May 10.