08-03-2022 12:00


Mary Harron Interview

Interview by Alicia Reginato, Head of Talent for the Sitges IFFFC

You’ve had a long career as a film director, and your beginnings were in journalism and in TV. How did that influence you and maybe determine your criteria when you started making films?
I think the big thing that affected me in journalism was just doing research. So, a lot of my films are historically based and are very heavily researched. I try to stick as close to the story as I can. When I first started working on I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, I became convinced that the truth was usually more interesting than a sort of Hollywood-style biography. And I felt like when people made films about a real-life person, they tried to impose a Hollywood template on things. A sort of traditional story arc. Whereas the reality was usually weirder and more interesting. So that affected me. And then there was just the simple fact that I was just coming from documentary where there’s a certain way of filming. You kind of film with what you find in the world. As opposed to coming in with, you know, storyboards. And I’m still more of that kind of improvisatory filmmaker, I think.

Yes, that’s true. You mentioned I SHOT ANDY WARHOL. In your filmography, there are several films with characters such as Bet- tie Page, Valerie Solanas, the Manson girls. What is the commo- nality that you’ve found within these female characters? These kinds of pop culture icons?
Well, Bettie was obviously someone that people loved, but they were all kind of misunderstood. They were all kind of marginalized people, I would say. Definitely. They all had a certain kind of madness, actually. I suppose you could certain- ly say if not mad, per se, they had elements of madness. This is also a little bit true of Gala. She’s a big part of the new film that I just directed, and that my husband John wrote, about her and Salvador Dali?. Gala is a little bit mad. At least, people certainly thought so. And certainly, a lot of people disliked her. So, I think that, for whatever reason, I’m attracted to these more marginalized, slightly pariah figures.

It’s interesting, the commonality of the stories. And it’s interes- ting your take on these stories, these characters, that are perceived as mad and not maybe necessarily later on viewed as mad because time has passed and we view things differently. So, it’s kind of in there, in your work, that these people were beyond their time. Is that part of the attraction for you?
Yes, I mean, I think Valerie was a visionary as well as suffering from mental illness. She was kind of a prophet. I mean, a lot of what she said, which was considered so crazy and outra- geous in terms of her analysis of feminism, later became quite accepted. I think that she saw the world with a clarity. She saw the injustice, you know, the insanity of a completely sexist society. And no one listened to her. So, she had that kind of frustration of someone who sees something other people don’t see. I find that very compelling.

Another interesting female protagonist was in the series ALIAS GRACE. A very Canadian production! What was the difference for you, coming at it as a director? The difference in shooting films versus the mini-series? This one seems to have your handprint all over it: you directed all the episodes, you produced it.
It was very much Sarah Polley’s production. She had initiated it and she wrote all the scripts. She initially was going to direct it herself. And when she brought it to me, I said, ‘Oh, we should just divide them up between us. You know, I can’t possibly direct six episodes of the show. And we should just split them.’ She said, ‘No, one person has to do them all.’ And so, I realized after we started how right she was, because with something like this you really are directing it like one long movie. It was very much like a movie, because it wasn’t self-contained episodes. It was like a movie that you shoot for 65 days. The hardest thing was more the endurance test of such a long shoot. Then, generally speaking, I would say that the difference between te- levision and film is that in television the writer is usually more important. Traditionally it’s because the writer is creating a world which goes on for years and years, if it’s episodic. The director just comes in and does their job and leaves. A mini-se- ries is much more of a collaboration with writer and director. Also, when I read it (Alias Grace), I felt like, ‘Oh, this could have been written for me’. It seemed just so perfect for me.

Did you enjoy doing it?
Oh, yeah, I loved doing it. I also loved the material. I mean, I’m Canadian and to me it was discovering a whole part of my own culture. Which is this very kind of brutal 19th century history. I think Canadians like to think of themselves as being like Scandinavians, you know, ‘we’re sensible, we have this social welfare culture.’ And of course, in the 19th century, it was just a very brutal class-ridden system. Not just a racist and classist society, but a very cruel one. And how harsh the treatment of prisoners was, how harsh the treatment of servants was, how terrible the treatment of women was. It was very interesting. One of the things I really loved about Margaret Atwood’s book - and Sarah scripts that were very faithful to it - was that it really was like entering another time. A lot of time, when people do a period film, they’re not really doing the past. They’re just doing modern characters dressed up in old clothes. But this was really like the past is another country. People really did think differently back then. Women thought differently because of the conditioning, because of the society. And I really felt it was very truthful about the time and what a woman’s life was like. What was also great was that it went on for so many months, so you really got to dive into it and create a world. So yeah, that project was one of my best experiences.

Interesting, I was thinking about how you were saying it was a different time. And I mean, we don’t have to look that far back. In CHARLIE SAYS, there is this idea of what the Manson women thought they should be doing - whether it was brainwashed or not – it was not even that long ago. It’s interesting that it’s such a repeated motif in a lot of your movies, and in your work.
You know, I grew up in the 60s and early 70s as a young girl and teenager and I really remembered, even back then, resenting a certain thing about hippie culture and the way women were presented. The sort of Earth Mother idea. Which was basically women serving men. Even back then I had a resentment towards what was in fact a very sexist culture. Funnily enough, the Manson Girls are a kind of crazy version of what was normal in hippie culture. There was a certain kind of sexual freedom that really benefited men. I think a lot of women at that time were having a certain kind of sex... it was a bit like, ‘Oh, if you if you don’t have sex with me, you’re not free, you’re not liberated.’ For me CHARLIE SAYS was a way to explore something that I remembered. It was a time that I knew and felt like it deserved to be explored.

Going back to after I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, when the possibility to direct the adaptation of AMERICAN PSYCHO came out there were other directors in the loop, from what I’ve read. Other names were being tossed around, from Stuart Gordon to David Cronenberg, but the producers opted for you. How was that whole operation?Actually, they had all been attached earlier. What happened was the film was in development for many years. I would say that at least five years. I think Stuart Gordon might have been attached first and then someone else. Then Cronenberg was attached and he wanted to do it with Brad Pitt, and Brad Pitt dropped out. I think that Cronenberg wasn’t really interested in the nightclubs and the restaurants, which I kept saying was something that really interested me: the social comedy aspect. Then he moved off of the project a year or two before I came on. By that time there were several scripts floating around. They contacted me right after Sundance, after I SHOT ANDY WARHOL was at Sundance. I think that at that point, they realized that it would be very good PR to have a woman director. That it would save them many problems. That if they went in with a male director there were going to be huge problems. But then they had a long and crazy history because I wanted to cast Christian Bale and then Leonardo DiCaprio decided he wanted to do the lead role. And I didn’t want him. Christian Bale wasn’t famous at that point. So, there was a period of a few months where I was fired from the movie because I wanted to work with Christian and not Leonardo, and they brought on Oliver Stone. So, there was a point when it was going to be an Oliver Stone movie with Leo. And then they just couldn’t come to terms on the script so they brought me back.

And the rest is history. How did you feel about the fact that you were in a way being brought onto kind of – how should I say this? – to soften the PR angle of it. I mean, I know you were excited to do it, but did you feel pressure?
Oh no, no, I didn’t care. I mean, to me, I felt like a woman was the only person who could do it really. I felt that it actually gave me a freedom. Far from softening it - it allowed me to be tougher, because I wasn’t worried about being accused of being sexist. I had just done a movie about a radical feminist. A movie about the most extreme radical feminist. As I started working on it (American Psycho), I thought of Guinevere Tur- ner, because we were already working on Bettie Page together at that time - because that film took years to do. So, I thought, you know, Guinevere and I get on really well... we have the same sense of humor, the same sensibility. And I think that once Guinevere started working on it with me - you know, Guinevere is a lesbian, she had just done the first successful lesbian romantic comedy. We felt that no one could tell us what is sexist, you know? No one could talk down to us. We came in very confident in our take and I think a man would have been much more cautious, like, ‘Oh, can I show this? Can I show that?’ While we simply just felt like if we think it’s okay to show, then it’s okay to show. And also, neither of us was that interested in the violence. We also felt like the book, with Brett being gay, that his book was very much a critique of masculine culture anyway - straight masculine culture. It’s just that people weren’t seeing that. But we felt it was very clear, and that’s what we wanted to underline.

So, you had a good experience with that film. In fact, it sounds like it was more liberating in a way...
Yeah, I felt like even though I knew I would be attacked for it – and I was, for the violence... I mean, obviously, I wouldn’t say it’s easy taking on anything that’s super controversial. There were a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, you’re encouraging serial ki- llers’ and everything, and that’s a little bit worrying of course. You can’t help but think, ‘What if somebody goes and murders somebody and they say it’s because of my film.’ I mean, people do all kinds of crimes. Look at TAXI DRIVER or look at how people blamed JD Salinger for CATCHER IN THE RYE: ‘I read CATCHER IN THE RYE and I decided to shoot the president.’ The connection between a real-life crime and somebody reading a book or seeing a movie, is usually quite strange and tenuous. But you’re still worried about it as a creator. Although in the end, I don’t think that happened. At the same time, I felt like our job is to do the movie. Our job is to do something that we feel is truthful. To do this critique. I think the film does that in a sort of black comic way. It says it in a horror way. It says something about late capitalism in America. I think that’s why people still like the movie.

It definitely does. Do you think that horror and fantasy as a specific genre requires a specific language? Cinematically speaking, when you are shooting these horror scenes or scary scenes, or however you want to call them.
One thing that I do like about horror and fantasy is that it’s so flexible, so infinitely flexible. I think what I like about horror/ fantasy is that it gives you a lot more freedom than other gen- res. I think horror is the only genre where you’re really allowed an unhappy ending. Horror is the only one where the leads can die at the end, and everyone says ‘Yes, that’s fine. Yes, of course, they die.’ In everything else there is a certain kind of pressure to be uplifting or be positive. And I think with horror, it’s a kind of more anarchic genre. And I think that lots of people have found ways to say interesting things about their society. I mean, look at GET OUT. It said more about racism than a lot of the more kind of serious movies about race in America. Horror films can say things about women. They can say things about aging. Like what Cronenberg did with aging and sickness – fear of the body. At the same time, because they’re suspenseful, they’re entertaining. So as long as you make it suspenseful in some way, then I think you have more freedom than in any other genre.

It also seems like it’s finally getting its due in a way, with PARASITE having won Oscars, for example. It’s finally getting the kind of credit that it deserves. So, its perception has definitely evolved and it is being seen as a complex genre.
No film has said as much about class as PARASITE has in any recent Oscar race, and, yes, in such a subtle and complex way. I think that the horror element made it entertaining enough that people could swallow it. There was a wonderful film by a young Australian woman, RELIC, about aging. It’s about three women alone in a house. I’m sure you screened it at Sitges.

It said an incredible thing about mothers and daughters and aging and everything. So yeah, I think there’s a real oppor- tunity to say something through this genre. I think the new respect given to the horror genre actually started with GET OUT. To have a genre film so lauded during award season was incredible, and of course Jordan Peele loves genre, and was playing with that genre. Hitchcock, for example, never won an Oscar. So, it’s changing.
I’ve been working in a genre Festival for almost 20 years now, and the number of female directors has dramatically increased over the years. Why do you think that is?
I think it is women making more films. I think that women have entre?e in areas that are less prestigious. And I think because genre is less prestigious than, for example, a big Ho- llywood blockbuster film, women had an entre?e. I always say that the lower the budget, the more entre?e women have into it. I think that’s true. Almost all my films have been very low budget. So, I think that’s part of it. And then I think women also saw that there was a way to say things in horror that maybe people would listen to more so than compared to, say, a straight political film where they don’t. Also, it’s interesting, there are a lot of great female characters in horror. You have, for example, ‘the final girl.’ I think there’s a whole classic horror that is about a woman and her fears, her terrors of unk- nown assailants, of being stalked, of somebody coming out of the dark... that I think all women grow up with: a certain fear. And I think that women were an audience for these kinds of films. They were the characters in these movies, and then wo- men thought, ‘Well, we can make these too.’ I think I felt that with AMERICAN PSYCHO. In that film, you’re dealing with the fear of the bad date that goes wrong. What if you get invited home by somebody, and it’s Patrick Bateman, you know? I think that women feel they have a stake in all these stories.

Yeah, I agree they do have a sensibility in this genre. I just found it curious that they didn’t seem to be getting the offers to do it.
I think the reason why women weren’t getting the offers was partly because hardly any women were making films. And then I think that there was an idea of women not doing action films. That women should do Romantic Comedy or ‘weepies’ or, you know, Melodrama. And so, I think that it’s really only
in the last 10 years or so, maybe 20 years, that that’s been overturned as more women have started doing it. Obviously, there’s no reason... I mean, why should women do Roman-
tic Comedy? It’s really on your own sensibility, you know, whether you do Romantic Comedy or not. For example, you have the Soska Sisters - who are great, these Canadian sisters - their stuff is very extreme, you know, very inspired by Cro- nenberg and everything. And it’s like, ‘
Why wouldn’t women do body horror?’ You know, women and our bodies – we’re taught to focus on them from a young age. So, of course, we’d be interested in horror that involves the body, you know?

Yeah, I mean just the fact that we deal with having a period. We deal with blood since we’re like, twelve?
Exactly. So, it’s like, don’t tell us about it. We know. Just giving birth and pregnancy is a horror movie. I just did something actually, someday it’ll see the light of day. I did a thing for Quibi - Quibi was this big thing that Jeffrey Katzenberg did that then went bust. Mine was a kind of – l didn’t write it –but it was a series. Like a movie, divided up into little pieces about a pregnancy. So, it was kind of ROSEMARY BABY-ish. ROSEMARY’S BABY is, for me, a seminal movie. And of course, when I got pregnant, I made my husband John watch it. I said, ‘You got to see this!’ Because as a woman, pregnancy is kind of your own personal horror movie, as much as I loved being pregnant! Because suddenly, it’s that thing of like – you’re morphing. And weird things are happening, and there’s some alien being inside. So, you know, who knows about horror better than women?

On the flip side, with these genre films... As a spectator, when you’re watching a film, can you tell when the film has a woman behind the camera versus a man?
I think I am and this is not always true but I am able to see what they call the male gaze. And I can tell whether the director’s identifying with the victor or with the camera. Whether they’re showing us through the eyes of the predator, or identifying with the woman who’s running away. I think there are subtle things like that about how things are shot, when women’s sensibility stands out. It also depends on how much you’re doing a classic genre film, which tends to follow certain rules, and how much you’re doing a more ‘outsider’ horror film. Of which there’s more leeway. THE BABADOOK, for example, was really interesting. It’s hard to imagine a film dealing with so much about a mother and child, with so much about female guilt... There are certain films that are a little hard to imagine a man having directed that.

I feel that way watching a lot of your films. I just feel like the iden- tification with the women characters is... it’s special.
I felt that very strongly in AMERICAN PSYCHO. I think that a male director... take for example in the final violent sort of explosion when Christie, the prostitute, is killed. The point of view there does switch. It’s almost always Bateman’s point of view, except for two bits, the scenes where Christie is involved. It’s because she is the main victim I wanted to focus on. And when she’s on camera, you start to see the scenes from her point of view, you’re very aware of her anxiety, her tension, and her growing unease. Then it’s very much from her point of view as she’s watching him. That was a deliberate move. I didn’t want her to be just objectified, so to speak. I can also really tell – I think younger male directors may be better at this – but I can really tell when a man has directed some- thing with prostitutes. They tend to direct them as if it’s all sort of really sexy. Whereas, you know, it’s prostitution. It’s a job and women are not having a good time. It’s there to make money and get out of there. So, in those cases I can really see the difference between male and female direction.

You’ve done a lot of adaptations in your career. What is that like for you? What’s that process?
Honestly, it’s just so much easier. In a way, the easiest thing I ever did was AMERICAN PSYCHO because, you know, there was a book. There was a text. Also, THE MOTH DIARIES was a book. It simply gives you an existing world, you don’t have to create it. And usually, in other projects, like I SHOT ANDY WARHOL or THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, or even DALI? LAND – the new one – it’s just years and years of research and cons- tructing a world. The other thing that I like about adaptation, which I obviously also enjoyed with ALIAS GRACE, is that I don’t know all the answers, you know? And when people say, ‘Well, why didn’t Grace do this?’ Well, I don’t... For one, Grace was a real person so who knows why she did what she did. But also, it’s a book so, you know, ask Margaret Atwood. I feel like. l am just serving somebody’s vision I’m trying to interpret and I don’t have all the answers, which I like, actually. I like that it’s someone else’s. I don’t know... for some reason I like that!

Kind of sounds like a refreshing loss of responsibility.
Yeah, I think what happens is you’re finding your way with it. Which is quite interesting. You’re discovering it, as you work on it. You discover the answers. Or your interpretation of an answer. 

It’s funny, because that kind of brings back into the investigative background, even though it’s not in documentary, but there’s a seeking within the work.
Yes. And I always enjoyed that part very much. Before I did documentaries, I was a researcher in television documenta- ries. So, I did a ton of research on different films. A lot of things about artists, including Warhol. You would read everything about the artist and kind of reconstruct their world and talk to everybody you could find who knew them. And I really enjo- yed that part of it. I don’t think I would ever lose that interest. But then again, for example, Guinevere Turner and I have just written something that I think is going to be the next thing I do. It’s based on a crazy experimental novel. Again, that was another world you know. That was also kind of violent, also kind of horror, in fact! So, I like both, you know? I go from one to the other.

What is it that you most love about genre?
I think that is primal. It’s very close to a dream and nightmare. It gets very deep and kind of beyond your rational self. And films are like dreams, so it gets to an exciting place. I love Dario Argento and I always think, ‘If you can do something visually so beautiful that is like a dream’... Not that I’m that kind of director really, but I admire it. I’m not a surrealist, but I love Cronenberg and I love David Lynch. I love people who get into that very deep dream world. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t have that kind of mind. But I love watching it. And I love that aspect of the genre.





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