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'Charlie Says' offers feminist light on notorious Manson murders

'Charlie Says' offers feminist light on notorious Manson murders

For more than 20 years, the team of Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner have been collaborating on some of the daring and original independent films of the past two decades; I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, and The Notorious Bettie Page. Their feminist and explicate approach to material makes them a fearless team and part of the reason their most recent collaboration is so exciting; a feminist look at the women guilty of the notorious Manson Murders. Charlie Says tells the story of Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) first months off of death row (after California overturned the death penalty) when grad student Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) was asked to help them move past their continuing undying belief in Charlie Manson (Matt Smith). While this won’t be the only film focused on the “Manson Family” this year, it’s unlikely we’ll see a film which types such a unique and empathetic approach to the story, thanks to Harron’s keen eye and strength with actors and Turner’s subtle and touching screenplay, drawing on some of her own first-hand experiences having grown up in a cult. While the story is tragically serious, these two longtime collaborators and friends were wonderfully chatty during our interview at the Tribeca Film Festival, especially with the excitement over Hannah Murray’s other project, Game of Thrones.

Lesley Coffin: Let’s start with Hannah and the rest of the cast. What was the casting process for this film?

Mary Harron: Well, I always take a long time with casting because I like to do a very long, intensive search. Hannah was cast over Skype because she was still filming in Europe. And it was funny to be watching this blurry image of Hannah Murray and just felt that even over Skype she had set the bar so high. And it turned out that she had auditioned for me years before and always thought, who was that amazing young woman. And then looking at her credits I realized, that was her. She’s a remarkable actress. She doesn’t really look like Leslie but that ultimately didn’t matter. So often you start the casting process thinking you should find someone that resembles the person, but it’s so much more important to find their inner life and capture the emotional qualities. And in my conversations with Guinevere about the script, it was clear that Leslie was a seeker looking for enlightenment. And Hannah had that quality, and the innocence Leslie had when she first met Charlie Manson.

Guinevere Turner: Sosie Bacon actually looks a lot like Patricia though.

Harron: She does. But what really won her the part is that she is very likable but also down to earth. And that’s true of Pat. She’s extremely likable. And I think that the scene at the end, of her covered in Sharon Tate’s blood, that is in my opinion the most disturbing image in the whole film.

Guinevere Turner: It’s hard to conceive that she could have done that.

Mary Harron: And she also gives that speech to Leslie about what they’ve just done which is just stunning. She doesn’t just have doubt, she has suppressed doubt, and self-hypnosis.

Guinevere Turner: I’ve literally sat through the film in its entirety probably 8 times, and I cry at the end every time because of there performances. Between Merrit weeping and Sosie’s whole world breaking and Hannah’s reaction. They’re just heartbreaking.

Harron: And Susan was a challenging role to cast, but a director told me to look at this actress Marianne. And she came in and was just fantastic. She has great range, but she understands how to play sexy Sadie. She brought this rebellious thing to the role. Finding her felt like finding the last piece of the puzzle. Although we had a great cast in general, Kayli Carter is great as Squeaky and this is Julia Schlapepfer’s first movie role and she had to take all her clothes off in front of a fire on a cold night. And she just nailed it.

Lesley Coffin: Having done movies based on real people before, was it less important to have people with close resemblance to the real people in this case, compared to casting someone to play Andy Warhol or Bettie Page?

Mary Harron: I learned so much making Bettie Page. We saw hundreds of people while casting Bettie and people came in in full gear, black bondage and wigs. And Gretchen Mol came very slim, blonde, looking Scandinavian. And as soon as she came in the room I thought, there is no one else for this role. She has that innocence that was so key to Bettie. So it doesn’t matter. It’s all about their essence. And you put her wig on and pad her a little and she looks like Bettie. With Matt Smith, he’s 6 feet tall…

Guinevere Turner: …Charlie was 5’2. My height without heels.

Lesley Coffin: And very scrawny too.

Harron: He was. And Matt is super fit. But he said, give me baggy clothes and he gave Charlie this hunched walk to look smaller. And then you give him shaggy hair and a beard and brown contacts, and suddenly he doesn’t look like Prince Phillip anymore. When you start with the inner self, a film can build the exterior stuff you need.

Lesley Coffin: When it came to writing and developing this story, why did you feel Leslie was the character that could provide audiences the best entry into this world?

Guinevere Turner: I think that when I took this project on, I looked at everything to do with this case. And then I found Karlene’s Facebook, which is primarily about Leslie. And the more I spoke with her, the more I realized how close they were and felt I had the most access to understanding her as a fully realized person. And I also think it’s important, as did Mary, that it’s important to focus on the women who committed the crime. Because they are the hardest to look at.

Lesley Coffin: What made you even want to write a film about these murders, before finding the Facebook?

Guinevere Turner: The producers came to me and said, we want to make a movie about the Manson girls. And I was just like, blah, I hate the term Manson girls. They are women who’ve been in prison most of their life at this point. But because of my upbringing, and never wanting to make a movie about my own life, I still felt that I could bring something to this that most people couldn’t, a sense of coming from the inside. And had an opportunity to make something that didn’t just focus on the sex and drugs surrounding the “family” but would shine a light on the women, who’ve been so poorly represented in other projects.

Lesley Coffin: When were you brought on board?

Guinevere Turner: I made the deal to write it in 2014 and it took me about a year to write it because of all the research. And I think Mary came on board in 2015 or early 2016.

Mary Harron: But we’d been talking about it just as friends for a while, as we always do.

Lesley Coffin: Because you have to cut so much out, the things you choose to keep in are that much more important. One interesting piece is the decision to include the side story about Charlie’s relationship with Dennis Wilson and his industry friends. Why did you feel it was important to include that part of the story?

Guinevere Turner: It’s the A to B to C of it. Charlie wanted to have a record deal. He loved having a family and being a leader, but he wanted to be a famous singer. So, he essentially pimped the women at the ranch to Dennis and his friends. It’s strange that he wanted to be part of Hollywood and have fame, while talking about cookie cutter people who all deserved to die. But it’s all part of his journey and he changed when he did get what he wanted. He felt he was losing control and went even farther than he otherwise might have. So, it can be argued that if someone had given him a record deal none of this would have happened. They’re also victims of the fact that Terry Melcher didn’t give him a record contract.

Mary Harron: He needed a way to keep control over his followers. And he felt very damaged by the rejection. Expectations were so high and he believed he could be bigger than the Beatles.

Lesley Coffin: And we see all his followers feeding that belief as well, telling him how successful he’ll be and that he’s a great singer. Like radical groupies.

Mary Harron: What’s interesting is, there was a core group that would have never left Charlie. Squeaky never left, Pat and Susan probably wouldn’t have. But he was just terrified to lose anyone. He grew up in horrible conditions without anything or anyone, and somehow became the king of his own little world. He had power and authority, but he felt it was slipping away because he couldn’t fulfill the promise of this Rockstar career.

Lesley Coffin: In all your collaborations you seem to pay such close attention not just to the aesthetics of the period but what the era represents philosophically for the characters. The ideas of greed and materialism in the 80s with American Psycho and sexual repression with Bettie Page. What aspects of this area did you really want to explore with this film?

Mary Harron: I remember this time well. And I don’t think there five years in our history where we’ve seen such a rapid cultural change. From 1968 to 1973, the change was just astounding to witness. I was in college in 1972, and that’s where I first saw the feminist movement. Because it wasn’t part of the hippy culture. And I looked around and just thought, how did everything change so fast, visually and politically. Especially how quickly the women’s movement grew in the 1970s.

Lesley Coffin: That really is an interesting element of the film, because they seem to be of a different generation from Merrit’s character. They were so repressed, and the “family” dynamic was so sexist but it was just five years earlier.

Mary Harron: Oh yes. And that was true of the counterculture in general. I’ve always felt that the women’s movement of the 70s came out of women being so angry at how hippies had failed women. There was so much misogyny within radical politics of that time.

Guinevere Turner: Women were being handed counterculture, but their place within it was exactly the same.

Mary Harron: They were right back on their backs and baking cookies. And that led to a lot of anger and Karlene is an embodiment of that. She’s a woman in her early 30s and had lived through radical politics.

Guinevere Turner: But she’d also traveled around the world and had four kids. She was divorced and trying to get a degree, living in a communal space. She was also not saying she was a lesbian until her last child turned 18 because he didn’t want something out that could be used against her. I couldn’t have created a better character to embody the time.

Mary Harron: I really related to her. This story is very personal to both of us, more so to Guinevere. But I certainly remember the time vividly.

Guinevere Turner: That’s why we make such a good team. I was born into a cult and experienced that life first hand, but I was born in 1969. And Mary was a teenager who saw all these things play out.

Mary Harron: And I think we both had a desire to work through those memories and say something about it.

Lesley Coffin: The reason this case still fascinates to this day, I know for me, is the mystery of what drew people to Charlie Manson. And I think as an outside, it can be hard to understand how or why a cult leader can draw people in. Did you come to understand what brought the members of the “Manson family” to Charlie?

Guinevere Turner: Well, first and foremost it was this tumultuous time and people felt a need for change. But I think it was something different in all these people, they were all young people in search of something, but it was something different from all of them. And they each had their own issues and insecurities. Leslie, Pat, Tex, they were all so different and it so important to drive the point home that there isn’t a type of person that would join a cult, there is something in all of us that could make us join a cult. You just have to hit on that one thing.

Mary Harron: The moment in Guinevere’s script which really made me understand was the moment with Sandy at the fire, when he as her take all her clothes off. And you think it’s going to be something weirdly sexual, and instead he shows her scars and tells her she’s beautiful and perfect. And asks everyone to kiss her and tell her she’s beautiful. And that’s this beautiful visual representation of this need we all have to be told you’re perfect just as you are. That’s all we really want.

Guinevere Turner: And it’s a key scene because while he’s manipulating Sandy, he’s also manipulating Leslie. That’s what draws her in fully is witnessing that moment. And at the end he kissed her feet, which is something he apparently did a lot. This Jesus moment.

Mary Harron: It was like he’s saying, “I have so much power but I’ll bring myself down for you.” And remember, they’re also tripping their balls off at that moment.

Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Lesley Coffin: In the New Yorker you wrote that you saw dramatic gender differences first hand growing up. One of the interesting things you deal with in the film was how differently he treated the men and women. His relationship with Tex particularly so completely different and disturbing in a different way. What stood out to about how he saw gender?

Mary Harron: I was fascinated by the character of Tex because he was this very handsome, All-American guy that Charlie was oddly threatened by. And he loved to humiliate Tex.

Guinevere Turner: Absolutely. And he seemed oddly willing to let that happen. There was something in his background that made him willing to give up control. He’d grown up religious but threw it away, so I think he was looking for a kind of authority figure, a father.

Mary Harron: He was willing to be subjugated. He wanted someone to tell him what to do. That is the primary commonality of people in cults, people are looking for something but they want someone to have already put the pieces together.

Guinevere Turner: Which is also how a lot of religions work. But you also need to reject society and your family to be a part of this thing that becomes your whole world.

Mary Harron: But he offered rules and structure, while promising freedom. And he was father to all these people who were trying to rebel against their parents. They wanted freedom but got something much more authoritarian instead. And you cannot forget that after all these young people had grown up sexually repressed, a lot of them in small towns and surrounded by religion, he was offering total sexual freedom. You can do anything you want, just enjoy it. Don’t be ruled by your inhibitions, we have no shame here. America is a very shame-based culture, and he offered an alternative.

Lesley Coffin: There is a scene I wanted to ask about because it really moved me and made me see the rest of the movie on a different level. And that’s when Karlene talks to the head of the prison played by Annabeth Gish, saying that she knows that if she breaks them free of this brainwashing, they’ll also have to take ownership of what they did and feel all their guilt. And she is tortured to know that because she also sees them as victims of abuse. That really guides the audiences through the rest of the film, but does it in such a deeply moving way. Where did that scene come from?

Guinevere Turner: That is actually based on something that is in her book. It a really moving passage.

Mary Harron: You read it to me. And I’m so glad you mentioned that scene because it is pivotal. She feels some doubt and agony knowing that she would be the instrument of their punishment and sentencing these women to live in purgatory.

Guinevere Turner: But I have to tell you, I kept re-writing that scene and was nervous until we shot it that it wasn’t right. Right up to being on set I was agonizing over it. So, I’m glad to hear you were moved by that scene because I was so nervous it wouldn’t get across what it needed to.

(C) Lesley Coffin (5/9/19) FF2 Media

Photo credits: Epic Level Entertainment, Roxwell Films