American Psycho director Mary Harron explores the Manson Family murders from the perspective of his female disciples in Charlie Says.
The name Charles Manson is synonymous with evil, and fifty years after his crimes he is more polarising than ever. His larger than life persona and ability to command attention made him a cult figure with a distorted rockstar-like status amongst some of history’s most notorious figures.
With Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood and the second season of Mindhunter currently stirring up new interest in Manson, there can be no mistaking his impact on popular culture. That morbid fascination has also captured the attention of American Psycho director Mary Harron and her long-serving screenwriter Guinevere Turner, who explore the story from a new point of view in their latest collaboration, Charlie Says.
Matt Smith (The Crown) plays Charles Manson, but the film’s focus is on the three women who carried out his murderous demands, telling their story through an effective use of flashbacks as they recount their experience with a prison psychologist.
Speaking with STACK, Harron explains why we’re so fascinated by Manson and why it was important to tell the story from a new perspective.
“The nature of the crimes and the fact that Sharon Tate was a pregnant movie star was polarising at the time, and still is. Not to mention Manson’s performance and the theatrics of the girls during the trial, dancing and appearing to have the time of their lives,” she says.
“Guinevere had originally written the script for another director but when they were no longer available she showed it to me, and I was immediately struck by the story’s point of view.”
Charlie Says takes a pragmatic approach, detailing the day-to-day life on Manson’s ranch. A commanding figure, he acted as a saviour to free-loving drifters, and as the story’s focus tightens we see his insecurities, instabilities and disconnection take hold.
Harron describes the human side to Manson: “One of our actresses called him a prophetic loser, and that was the product of a dark childhood. He had an abusive upbringing and had been through the prison system where he was raped. I would never condone or excuse his crimes but the story behind the madness is important to help contextualise his character.”
The ‘Manson Girls’ at the centre of the film are Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon), who have spent half a century in prison (Atkins died in 2009). Their killing spree occurred over two nights in 1969, with Manson preparing the victims and leaving the girls to carry out his heinous plan.
Harron’s film rejects tabloid sensationalism, approaching the characters on a human level in an attempt to understand what turns ordinary people into zombie-like disciples. Early into pre-production, the director realised that her preconceived notions of the Manson Girls were a product of Charlie’s commands, rather than their true personalities.
“That’s the premise of Charlie Says. Charlie says dress up. Charlie says dance. Charlie says kill people. I wanted to know what that journey was like psychologically and how a person can go from one extreme to the other.”
Matt Smith gives a chilling turn as Charlie and while he may seem a curious casting decision, Harron had confidence in him from the get go. “I had known Matt for years. He had performed in the musical version of American Psycho and although he doesn’t physically look like Charles Manson, he definitely embodies the spirit in his performance, which I think is more important.”
From Harron’s debut film I Shot Andy Warhol, through to American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page (the latter two written by Turner), a notable trait of her work is the overriding themes of violence and pop culture, with her exploration of the human condition at the edge of sanity something of a trademark.
“It’s not really intentional” she insists. “These things sort of define you. When you make one of these movies it’s expected of you to make more. I also come from a background of music journalism and arts, which puts me in a position to tell these stories.”
As well as expanding upon her fascination with those concepts, Charlie Says solidifies her as one of cinema’s most prolific female voices, although she remains modest about that fact.
“Guinevere and myself, we’re not all that politically correct but we do have feminist voices without being so self-righteous.” And when asked what defines their enduring working relationship, she notes that, “we both like to laugh and find the same silly things funny.”