Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner sound a bit dazed as they pick up the phone.
“We got a fantastic review in The New York Times today, that’s all you can really dream of the day before it opens,” Turner says.
The veteran lesbian actress and writer ought to know: having penned scripts to American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page and Go Fish, and appeared in movies like The Watermelon Woman, she knows a good review when she sees one. The same goes for Harron, the director of I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page.
Turner and Harron, frequent collaborators, have come together to plug their latest outing, Charlie Says. The film revisits the scandal of the Tate-LaBianca murders as perpetrated by the Manson family in 1969. However, the movie relegates Charlie Manson (played by Matt Smith of Mapplethorpe and Dr. Who) to the background, choosing instead to focus primarily on murderesses Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray, of Game of Thrones), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) during their time in prison. Befriended by feminist teacher Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever of Godless), the three recall their murderous time with the Manson family.
Charlie Says opens in select theatres May 10.
Queerty caught up with Harron and Turner to talk about the film, the Manson family, and the lost queer hero in the mix.
This is your third film together after The Notorious Bettie Page. What made you want to make a film about the Manson family?
GT: Well it started with me. Unlike other projects, our producers said they wanted to meet with me and to do a Manson story focused on the women. At the same time, I know they wanted to meet with me because of American Psycho, finding a screenwriter. I said, “Guess what else: I grew up in a cult.” Which is true. There’s a book written by some Rolling Stone writers called Mindf*ckers about two cults—the Manson family and the one I grew up in [The Fort Hill Community]. I probably never again in my career will know that I got the job within 10 minutes of the meeting.
GT: And then I did so much research to find a new take on it. There’s been so much writing, so many documentaries, clips on YouTube of Charlie babbling away from prison. I finally found the book that Karlene Faith wrote, who is played in the movie by Merritt Wever. Then I sat from her perspective of working with [Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel], and I was relieved. I was like here’s a story no one’s ever heard before, and written by a lesbian!
MH: We see each other a lot. I always tell her when I’m going to be in LA, and she tells me when she’s going to be in New York. So she said she was working on this thing, and I thought it sounded fascinating. We were talking quite awhile while she was working on it with another director. I read the script to give notes and said: “This is really up my alley.”
GT: She said, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written and I would love to direct it.”
MH: I said, “If the director drops out, I’d be very interested in doing this.”
That’s amazing. Now you used two accounts of the case for the script: The Family and The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten. How did you go about blending elements?
GT: The fact that those are listed as my only sources is kind of a technicality. The Family was what was brought to me when I came on board to do the screenplay, and I read The Long Prison Journey and thought Wow, I need to start from square one and just do my own research. You know, there are so many ways to approach a story. I read a billion other narratives. People get so invested in this story, especially if they were personally connected to it. So I literally read, watched, and absorbed every single representation or conversation that I could find about it. So what’s on the page and on the screen is a result of a very deep dive.
And a dark one. Did you get to know Karlene Faith, author of The Long Prison Journey, and a major character in the film? I know she died in 2017.
GT: Oh, it took me a while, but we have a mutual friend, Karlene and I. She connected us. I took me a while before we got on the phone. She’s extremely protective of this story because since she wrote the book, people were always trying to talk to her. What were the Manson girls like, blah blah. She wasn’t interested in doing anything but the best service to them in terms of getting paroled. I eventually won her trust and spent hours and hours on the phone with her. I would go up to Vancouver and spend time with her. I was devastated when she passed away. When I wrote the first draft of the screenplay I asked “Karlene, do you want to read it?” She said, “Just take me to the premiere.”
What kind of insight did she offer you?
GT: She and Leslie were friends for all the years between 2014 when I met her, and the early 70s when they met. So a lot of the insight was really about who Leslie actually was. Her book is very much a work of advocacy, and she’s unabashed about that. I also got a sense of who Karlene was as a woman of her time: this very active feminist activist. She also stayed closeted. The minute her last child turned 18, she became a full out-lesbian. So I had access to that information which I passed on to Merritt, which informed the character. I was devastated when she passed away. I was so proud of myself that they said “Write a story about the Manson girls” and I wouldn’t stop until I found a lesbian.
Mary, I know you’re Canadian. What do you, as an outsider, think that the story of the Tate-LaBianca murders says about American culture?
MH: I mean, I spent my teen years in London but then I would go back to Toronto for vacation. I remember being at my father’s place and getting the news about the murders on television. I think everybody who was part of the culture or a teenager then was very profoundly affected. I had my North American connection. I’d lived in Los Angeles part of my childhood, and spent summers there, so I had a pretty vivid impression of LA. I think the horror of it and the nightmare version that it was of hippie culture affected any young person in that time.
Guinevere, I know you grew up in a—I don’t want to characterize it as a cult, but in a communal fringe group, let’s say. How did your own experience inform your work here?
GT: It was exciting to me because I’ve always kind of wanted to find ways to tell my own story, but in a way wanted to do an autobiographical movie. This was a project where I could put some of my own experience into it. It’s subtle and contextual. And also, for Mary, because we’ve been friends for decades, she’d already heard so much of my story. Something I was interested in putting into this movie and this script was the everyday life. In a cult, sometimes it really does just work like a family: cooking, eating, preparing food, waking up in the morning, singing, hanging out. It was important to me to desensationalize it because you can’t live in acid-fueled orgy 24 hours a day. You still have to find ways to survive. Also, just kind of understanding how things can be wonderful, and how they can almost be the utopia they strive to be, and how they can turn on a dime and become something else entirely.
Sexual exploration plays a vital role in this film—the idea that both the men and women in the Manson family were attracted to opportunities to explore their sexuality, and sex as a commodity. Why is it in so many of the stories about cults we read, there’s always some bizarre emphasis on sexuality, either blocking it or exploiting it?
MH: That’s absolutely true. Sometimes it’s both. Often it’s a combination of the two, like in the way that Charlie says “You can’t have sex with that biker guy. I have to give you permission.”
GT: I think that it has to do with, a cult is rejecting society’s norms. You know, society’s norms dictate that you have sex in a certain way within acceptable parameters. So the idea of “Free Love” as it relates to sex sounds great on paper but is perhaps going to some extreme that isn’t just the way we’re supposed to do it. [Sexual control] is also a tool. If you allow someone to break free of how they were raised and think about their sexuality, it’s exciting and might feel like the path to enlightenment. Then there’s Heaven’s Gate, which is exceptional in many ways because it stifled sexuality. But I think there was a lot of homosexuality being squashed.
MH: It’s control. In most of these cults, they’re focused on an older man, even a few years older like Charlie was, having sex with a few young girls. Almost all of them, from the Baghwan [Rajneesh, see Wild Wild Country] to The Lyman Family to Manson to NXIVM, the one were’ talking about right now in Hollywood.
MH: And also the cult leader is usually a loser in some way, not someone who’s had a lot of success in life. But they are very focused, laser-focused on manipulation and control of vulnerable people.
And the film doesn’t obsess over Manson; you treat him as almost an afterthought. That’s a contrast with every portrayal I’ve seen. The most intriguing element in your film is the idea that these women were victims. They were abused, terrorized, sexually exploited. At the same time, all of them made a choice to do something evil.
MH: All of them suppressed their own doubts, which I think is really tragic. I think that’s where a lot of terrible behavior cults happen: when people stop listening to their inner voices. They don’t ask “Is this alright?” You’re in a world where everyone seems to believe. If you have doubts, that means you’re not good enough.
That raises the central ethical questions. Is there a way to forgive the actions of these women? Do they deserve it?
MH: I’m not trying to give an answer to that. I am just trying to raise that question, and to remind people this isn’t a simple story.
GT: That’s the big question of the movie that I would say, I hope, is to ask people personally what they think, but not to ever tell anyone what to think.
MH: These women didn’t start out this way. They just gradually lost their minds in this cult.
GT: To me, there’s a larger question about the prison system, and when someone has “done their time.” If there’s anything I would say about these women, it’s that there are people who have committed similar crimes who have been out of prison for decades. We don’t like it when you kill our movie stars. Let’s face it, it’s [the victims’] race and class that freaked people out in this profoundly racist way. All kinds of people of color are getting killed randomly, but what! Middle-class white girls? Then everybody freaks out. Talking about justice, I just feel like [the Manson women] should get the same kind of treatment people who have committed similar crimes have gotten. They are unicorns in terms of their levels of punishment.
Mary, in particular, focuses on stories about characters that toy with this idea of victimhood vs. being predatory. What’s the fascination?
MH: I don’t know. I don’t know if I even always see it that way. I am interested in female characters as people who aren’t obvious. Except for Bettie, who is, on the whole, a sympathetic figure, they’re very challenging. They’re challenging stories to tell because they’re not obviously sympathetic, or because they have done things that really alienate people. That makes them in some ways pariahs. Valerie Solanas is certainly a pariah. The Manson women are as well. They’re not simple, obvious victim stories. Those aren’t very interesting to me.
In both this film and American Psycho there are also scenes of horrible violence. How do you prepare your actors for that, to access that kind of rage?
MH: I think, in particular, with Hannah, we talked through what was going on. We don’t actually see the moment of stabbing. She read the account in Karlene Faith book about what Leslie was going through in her mind, and where she had all these doubts and just threw them out of her mind. She just decided to go for it like this animal, this animal intensity. So I think she just sort of immersed herself in that psychology. Really, that scene we only did one take. We didn’t have time to reset because the schedule was so tight, and it’s so difficult to reset a scene like that where blood is splattering on her face. With both sex scenes and violence scenes, you focus on the choreography so everybody can focus on what they’re doing, and know where they are. They just bring emotion to it, and I try not to do too many takes.
Male vanity plays a huge role in both of these films as well. What’s the fascination with it?
MH: I think, for this one, in the 60s, the male rock star dominated everything. It dominated hippie culture; that was the ideal, this young, male rock star. And that’s obviously what Manson wanted to be: a rock star. That’s an attractive image, and everyone loved the rock star, but that meant the women were fans. There was this imbalance in the roles that were offered.
GT: It’s funny, because the projects are so different, though there are obvious correlations. I think there’s just a lot of fun to be had with someone who, on one hand, is perceived as the pinnacle of power, and also is kind of a loser. That sort of demystifying them is funny and interesting and it’s an interesting thing to craft, fragile masculinity. It’s like, do you want to be Patrick Bateman? Cause if you do…what does that say? He has a nice suit, but he’s a loser and a serial killer.
MH: Vanity is an interesting thing. In a way, in these films, the men suffer too. That’s true of Patrick Bateman [the killer in American Psycho]: he’s always insecure. He never feels like he got the right table at a restaurant. He’s never good enough. With Charlie, he has this devastation of seeing his rock star dreams collapse.
That is one of the great strengths of this film. Others are mystified by Manson; you show him as this pathetic loser of a guy. He just manipulated a lot of people.
GT: Right. And he was good at it. If someone had given him a record contract, those seven people would probably still be alive.
Charlie Says opens May 10 in select theatres.