Most known for 2000’s American Psycho, director Mary Harron has eerily combined social commentary with gruesome, grotesque violence. With that in mind, the Manson Family and the shockingly random Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 seem like a perfect centerpiece for her to examine.
And that’s exactly what her latest project, Charlie Says, does. Based specifically around the experiences of the three incarcerated women from the Family, the film dissects the pathetic, dehumanizing jargon Charles Manson (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith) used to create killers out of innocent people.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Mrs. Harron about her upcoming movie, as well as the casting and stylistic choices behind it. See what she had to say below, and enjoy!
As a director, what drew you into telling this story about Charles Manson? Or rather the women around him?
Mary Harron: Like many people, I’ve been fascinated by the Manson women because they seem like such unlikely candidates for murder or violence. They’re these, you know, young hippie girls who we don’t typically associate with violence in the Sixties. But Guinevere Turner’s script, the particular take she had on it [was] to look at them in prison, as well as in the Manson family. To look at what happened to them after the crimes was, I thought, very interesting.
Yeah, I thought that was interesting too. Especially with Leslie, in particular, because she didn’t really seem too much of a hippie to me, I got more of an All-American vibe from her at the beginning of the movie.
Mary Harron: She had been a homecoming queen. She had been a pretty wholesome American girl; she had taken [acting classes] and had been in communes. But for her to take the journey into the Manson family was pretty steep, you know?
With that in mind, we do get a taste of it in the film, but I wanted to get your perspective on it. What do you think it was about Manson that allowed him to brainwash people to this capacity? To murder people? To be like, “I’m willing to die for you?”
Mary Harron: I think it all happens – it’s a gradual process of manipulation and control. I don’t think any of those young people, if you had said to them, “join my family, and [we’re going] to go in the middle of the night and murder perfect strangers horribly,” none of them would’ve joined, you know? It was a process of many months of isolation and constant manipulation. [He] was a charismatic guy, and he seemed to have great confidence in what he was saying. These were all vulnerable, insecure young people with someone who had a very seemingly worked-out vision of what the truth was, and what salvation was, and how terrible the outside world was. And he created this idea that if you stay in the family, we’re the only people who are really saved. You know, if you think of it in religious terms, [they thought] he was like Jesus. They thought he was like an incarnation [of Jesus] – some of them literally thought that, that he was like a version of Jesus. And if you think about that, not that he was this crazy guy, but that he was a prophet and that he held the truth. [It] was a long process of him working on them and their vulnerabilities and their insecurities and presenting himself as the leader with all the answers.
Yeah, absolutely. I know there were a lot of instances where [the characters] were referring to Manson in that way in the prison. Especially in a lot of those sequences.
Mary Harron: Yeah.
So, with that in mind – I keep saying “with that in mind” – we all know Matt Smith from Doctor Who. What did you see in Matt Smith that you thought you could take those terrible characteristics of Charles Manson and apply them to the Doctor?
Mary Harron: Well it’s interesting. He did a couple things – I mean, you know he did Doctor Who and then he was very different in The Crown, and then he did a film that Ryan Gosling directed (Lost River) where he was playing someone – an American character – who was really kind of creepy and sinister and very compelling. And [in the scenes of him in that], I thought “oh, that’s amazing. He really can transform.