Mary Harron Talks The Manson Family And Creating Her New Film CHARLIE SAYS

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson Family murders, in which members of the hippie cult led by self-styled prophet Charles Manson snuck into the home shared by director Roman Polanski and his wife, starlet Sharon Tate, and murdered the pregnant Tate and four other people. The brutality of the crime shocked the country and while the police investigation dragged on for several weeks, held Los Angeles in a grip of fear.

It’s a story that has been examined repeatedly over the years in books and film, but American Psycho director Mary Harron is taking a new approach to the material, from the viewpoint of the women who Manson inticed into committing the murders in her latest film Charlie Says.

“[Manson] grew up in prison so he was brilliant at spotting people’s vulnerabilities,” says Harron on the red carpet at the film’s Tribeca Film Festival screening last night of how the cult leader was able to manipulate Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten into carrying out the killings of the five people at the Polanski-Tate home on August 9, 1969 and then two more people the following evening.

But beyond the story of how Manson was able to control his followers, Harron cites “the horror of Sharon Tate’s murder” as one of the reasons why the story continues to hold such a fascination within our culture.

“[Tate was] someone so young and beautiful who seemed to have everything,” explains Harron. “I think there’s the fascination or the nightmare, the fear of these of perfectly innocent people and these crazy intruders in the middle of the night for no reason whatsoever suddenly having their lives taken away from them. I think it’s a nightmare we all have – things in the dark, things that can grab you even when you seem very happy.”

The horror of the Manson murders also serves as something of a capstone to a decade of time that Harron has been interested in.

“It’s this [period of] cultural revolution and upheaval,” she states of the 1960s. “It was almost like a civil war, culturally, and we still have the effects of it now. We’re still fighting it. I just keep returning to the way ordinary people can behave in such bizarre and strange ways. I’ve always been fascinated by cults too, about how people from normal lives and normal worlds suddenly get taken over by these very intense and strange ideas and end up doing things they never thought they’d do.”

Charlie Says has its origins in Ed Sander’s book, The Family, which producer Joe Rosen optioned back in 2013. The script was further augmented with material from Karlene Faith’s The Long Prison Journey Of Leslie Van Houten. But Harron encouraged her cast to look beyond the primary source materials as they began to work on their individual characters.

“With a real life story you always encourage people to do a deep dive and immerse themselves. They all took different sources,” she states. “And everybody who was in the Manson family practically wrote a book.”

Finding the leads for Charlie Says took Harron two years, but it is a process she understood needed to take its time.

“Sometimes the right person comes in at number 2 and sometimes it’s 150,” she explains. “Hannah [Murray], who plays Leslie {van Houten], auditioned on Skype, on a blurry Skype screen, but her performance was so truthful and powerful that was it, I just couldn’t think of anyone else in the part.

“To me the hardest thing to cast was Manson because if we didn’t have a charismatic and electrifying Manson then the girls would just look stupid. Why would they follow somebody who is not charismatic?”

Harron found that actor in the form of Matt Smith, perhaps best known for his turn on the long-running British television series Doctor Who. But it wasn’t Smith’s popularity from that show that would serve to be a concern for producer Rosen.

“I said to Mary, ‘Aren’t you at all concerned that Manson was five-foot two and Matt is six-foot plus?'” Rosen states with a chuckle. “She immediately said to me ‘Do you remember Capote where Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award?’ and I go ‘Of course.’ She said ‘They look nothing alike!’ I said ‘Alright, sold!'”

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About Rich Drees 7152 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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