Q&A: Toronto filmmaker Mary Harron on her new Charles Manson movie, cults and her thing for psychopaths

Q&A: Toronto filmmaker Mary Harron on her new Charles Manson movie, cults and her thing for psychopaths

Photo by John C. Walsh

In the new film Charlie Says, Toronto director Mary Harron retells the story of the notorious cult leader Charles Manson from the perspective of his female followers. Harron, who first achieved mainstream success with American Psycho in 2000, spoke with Toronto Life about feminism, Donald Trump, and why she has such a thing for psychopaths.

The Manson Family has inspired a lot of film and TV over the years. What makes your version different?
I wasn’t interested in retelling the murders and the trial, since that’s been done a lot. Our screenwriter, Guinevere Turner, came across a book called The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, written by the Canadian feminist scholar and criminologist Karlene Faith, who teaches in jails and became good friends with Van Houten, one of Manson’s most loyal followers. She was sentenced to death for her role in the 1969 murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. When California suspended its death penalty, she got life in prison. This movie is about what happens when you wake up and realize “Helter Skelter” was all a lie.

Charlie Says a feminist take on the Manson murders. Is that how you see it?
I was in college during the second wave of feminism, and I always thought that movement, in part, had something to do with the counterculture being so sexist. The ideal vision of womanhood in hippie culture is long skirts, embroidering and baking bread in the kitchen while the men are outside chopping wood. These people thought they were so radical, but embraced these incredibly regressive gender roles without even realizing it. That was something I wanted to show in Charlie Says.

The portrayal of the woman was very humanizing.
I grew up thinking these women were zombie cult girls, but they’re surprisingly regular people who were manipulated through isolation and mind control. Manson came from a world of unbelievable trauma, but most of his followers came from average middle-class homes. That was the other important side of the story I wanted to tell: how a group of normal young women—and a few men—got so tied up in this world that they were willing to commit murder just because someone told them to.

The Manson murders were 50 years ago, and yet cults are still popping up today. Have you been following the NXIVM sex cult story?
I couldn’t believe it when the news about NXIVM broke. I actually cast Allison Mack for an episode of the TV show The Following—which, crazily, is about a cult—while she was allegedly a part of the organization. She seemed like a lovely, completely normal girl. The Manson Family lived on a ranch and they were completely cut off from radio, TV, newspapers—that isolation, I think, is part of the reason they lost their minds. That isn’t true of NXIVM. But it does reiterate my point that things like this can happen to completely ordinary, talented, charming people.

What made you want to cast Matt Smith as Manson? Did you watch The Crown and think, “Man, that Prince Philip would make a great psychopath”?
Matt is one of those chameleon-like British actors who can really transform into any character. My casting director sent me scenes from Lost River, the 2014 movie that Ryan Gosling directed where Matt plays a pretty scary criminal named Bully, and I thought, he’s the one!

American Psycho turns 20 next year. Was that when you first got a taste for murderous men?
One thing leads to the next and sometimes, you take what you can get. I actually started my career doing a lot of comedic work, and my next project isn’t violent at all.

What’s it about?
It’s based on the final days of Salvador Dali.

Not violent, but not exactly your classic protagonist.
It’s true. He’s definitely an outsider. I guess I’ve always been interested in deviant behaviour and pariah characters.

Does being Canadian influence your work?
My husband is a New Yorker and we definitely see the world differently. Most Americans grow up with this idea that they live in the most powerful, most important place. I grew up in Canada, but went to high school in England and was kind of an outsider there. Now, I think I have more objectivity.

Canadian Psycho wouldn’t have had quite the same disturbing appeal.
Right. I think if that movie had been done either by an American or a man, it would have been totally different.

Speaking of American men, are you interested in taking on the current POTUS?
I’d love to do something about the Trump era, but I’m not sure anything I could come up would compete with the real deal. While I was making Charlie Says, I thought a lot about his leadership style: the pathological narcissism, the need to control the people around him and his desire to eliminate dissent. There’s definitely some crossover.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.