An Interview with Mary Harron
A 2013 study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism shows that in the last decade there has been no sustained increase in female directors of independent films shown at the Sundance Film Festival. In Hollywood, it’s worse: of directors of the top box-office films from 2002 to 2012, only 4.4 percent were female. Amid those dismal statistics, director Mary Harron’s perseverance in the industry is an inspiration for female filmmakers, and she is an example of how to endure an artistic life packed with both praise and controversy.
Harron was schooled at Oxford, and began her career as a music journalist. Though rarely described as a feminist filmmaker, she often explores subjects central to the lives of women. In her first feature, I Shot Andy Warhol, she humanized the radical writer Valerie Solanas, who is usually dismissed as a footnote in the biography of Andy Warhol. Next, she brought an unexpectedly female perspective to one of the great sociopathic misogynists of contemporary fiction: Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Many feminists reacted to Harron’s adaptation with outrage, accusing the director of sanctioning the book’s extreme violence toward women. In later films, she explored the fraught tragedy of Bettie Page’s life as a complicated sex symbol, and the volatile relationships between teenage, vampiric girls in The Moth Diaries, which received less than glowing reviews. These characters are controversial, marginalized, and loathed. Harron chronicles their falls from grace.
I met with Harron for coffee on a rainy winter day in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. We were both soaked. She was sharp of dress, and sharper of mind. She was open, thoughtful, and careful in her presentation of both herself and her life’s work.
I. THE ROLLER COASTER
THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with your childhood—what did you think you were going to be?
MARY HARRON: I was very ambitious at a young age. When I was six, I would tell everybody that I wanted to be an authoress. I always had great, unformed ambitions to see the world and do interesting things. When I was a teenager, we moved to London. I thought at first I would go to art school, but then I started going to the National Film Theatre. It was a very important place to me. I would go there on my own, and I got a membership on my own. They would send you this magazine, Sight & Sound. I have very vivid memories of that magazine—I remember one issue that had the cover of Coppola’s The Rain People. That image stayed with me. A lot of times I didn’t see the films, just the stills. I first saw Fritz Lang’s M there. At sixteen I was going there a lot. I saw Double Indemnity. I would read about the films in the catalog, and I would build the films up in my mind. Those films really affected me. I started seeing those films, and I had this idea in my head that I might write a screenplay one day.
My first couple terms at Oxford I did acting, but I can’t change my accent so I got parts only in American plays. I ended up doing film reviews, which got me into journalism, and I was then set on this path of being a journalist. It never occurred to me to be a film director, partly because I hadn’t seen a single film by a female director, but I liked the idea of being a writer moving to Hollywood and being unhappy; that sounded romantic and fabulous to me. I mean, I’d lived in Hollywood as a child; my father, Don Harron, was an actor under contract with Paramount.
BLVR: What was it like growing up as a child of an actor and being exposed to the world of fame? Did you have an understanding that the people around you had some sort of fame?
MH: Oh, totally. I think you absorb your parents’ career struggles and their disappointments. When I was eleven and twelve, I spent summers in Los Angeles with my father and first stepmother. Her name is Virginia Leith; she was the lead in Stanley Kubrick’s first film. I really absorbed her stories. I grew up interested in the underside of Hollywood, which I think David Lynch does really well. One part of a summer I stayed in West Hollywood; at that time it was a place where you were aware that there are big stars and these other people who were only briefly in touch with fame. I remember being really interested in the sad parts of Los Angeles, of which there are many, and knowing we weren’t up in the citadel on the hill, but we also weren’t on the bottom. Sometimes we were in the money and a part of that world, and sometimes we weren’t. I was very interested in the poetry of failure as a child.
BLVR: It seems that actors are often toeing the line between anonymity and fame, success and failure. Is that dynamic part of why you’re drawn to these tragic figures in your work?
MH: Growing up, I was lucky that my dad was never out of work. I was very fortunate in one way: that I never experienced real hardship, because my dad is this real dynamo. He was always working, so I had a sense of the ups and downs and endless disappointments, but at the same time I was never worried that we couldn’t eat or pay the bills. In that sense it was a good thing for me, because I realized you can always make money; you just do a lot of things. In a practical way it was good training because I knew you had to always be prepared to do a lot of different things to make it.
BLVR: Your career reflects that in some ways—do you feel like you have to work on stuff you don’t want to?
MH: Yes, and, frankly, you’re always up and down. You’re successful and then you’re not. In some ways as a young person I probably had a wider perspective on a career than most young people do. It’s a different upbringing than if your parent is an optometrist or something. I had a real sense of the roller coaster growing up, and what it can give you as well. I had another experience with my stepfather, Stephen Vizinczey, who wrote a book, In Praise of Older Women, that did well. We went from having no money to having a lot of money to losing it again. So between these two men, I watched two art careers and I learned a lot from watching them. So I’m interested in celebrity and the elusiveness of fame.
BLVR: There’s such a range of kinds of fame. There are people who have face fame, and they have no privacy, and then there are people who are famous but not recognized in public. What was your experience throughout your career of fame’s effects on yourself and the people around you?
MH: I had a very valuable experience once. In my early thirties I was working in television as a researcher. I was really stuck for a period of five years. I got to TV when I was thirty. I hated being a music writer, and kept wondering why I couldn’t be doing the exciting things that my friends were doing in television. I was so bored with being a researcher. I was doing theater reviews for the Observer and I was just determined to get somewhere. Out of that I got offered to present a TV show. So one summer I was the co-presenter for a late-night talk show, because they needed an arty girl. I kept my regular job as a researcher; I would do the show and then come back to my job and find work piled up on my desk.
I remember once when the show was on, I went into the bank and they said, “Oh no, you don’t need ID.” I would get weird fan letters, and then once the show was over, it was gone. No one recognized me. It was just gone. So you don’t have to worry about fame being a problem, because it just disappears like that. That was a great experience for me—to have both the intoxication of a little bit of celebrity and then have it vanish.
BLVR: Have you seen it, firsthand, challenge someone’s ability to produce?
MH: I think any big success is paralyzing. I have observed it in others. I had a lot of friends in music, like my friends in Gang of Four. Their second album was so hard for them to make. It’s hard when your first thing is something everyone loves. Actually, that never happened to me. I was lucky that my first film, which is actually the best reviewed of all my films, didn’t have that success. My films are very divisive, but the one thing I always wanted was to go to Cannes. To me that’s what success meant, because I grew up in Europe. I went, and it was great, but the French critics didn’t like my film at Cannes. I was always aware that it wasn’t one of those films—even at Sundance it wasn’t a loved film. At Sundance, when they like a film, they stand up and applaud and cry—no one was doing that at my film.
BLVR: Do you like that response? There’s a part of everyone that wants their art to be well received, but what’s your feeling about mixed reactions? Do you like the complexity, in a way?
MH: I have in me a certain suspicion or fear of mainstream success and total acceptance. If you get totally accepted, that’s a problem or dangerous. That’s maybe what I’m not entirely comfortable with.
BLVR: Some of the figures you’re drawn to, like Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol—it’s hard to imagine making a film about her that is mainstream, because she’s such a controversial figure.
MH: When we were at Sundance, a lot of people were there. Lili Taylor had just come up as this big indie star, so the film was getting attention. I was in a pressroom and I saw the review in the Hollywood Reporter and it was a horrible review, and I wasn’t surprised. I thought they were all going to be like that. With that film it was OK because I was expecting it, because of the subject matter. In a way I didn’t take it personally.
BLVR: What was the origin of that film? How did you become interested in Solanas?
MH: I was part of the punk scene, and even before that my sister introduced me to the Velvet Underground. I was very into them, and then at college I wrote a big piece about Warhol for this university magazine. I spent a summer looking at his movies; there was a retrospective of his movies in Notting Hill Gate. Then when I moved to New York after college and went to CBGB’s I had a context to put what was happening into place. The first time I went to CBGB’s and Lou Reed was there: you were very aware of Warhol in that whole world. Later, when I was a music writer, I got the idea to do a piece on Warhol’s influence on pop music. I interviewed him briefly, as long as you could, which wasn’t very long. I met him at a dinner party through one of my friends who was higher society than me. Then years later I worked on a documentary about the Velvet Underground and Warhol; I did all the interviews myself. I knew about Solanas but she was just a tiny reference. Then when we were editing, I was walking to my house in South London, and I was walking up Railton Road and I passed a left-wing bookstore with a copy of SCUM Manifesto, by Solanas, in the window; I bought it and read it on the subway. It was a life-changing, cataclysmic experience because I thought, This is a work of genius. It completely changed my perspective. I was working on all these biographies of great artists in that reverent way. Warhol, Pollack: all serious, revered people in the canon. I had the idea that I would do a reverse-engineering documentary focusing on the least important person—if you take the world of Warhol, tell it through the least important person. Because when I read SCUM Manifesto and thought it was brilliant, and then I realized that a person you see in rags on the subway could be this brilliant person; it really opened up the world. The people we are told are the most clever or talented aren’t necessarily so. This work was completely brilliant, and apart from this one thing, she’s forgotten. There’s nothing written about her. Why not tell a story about that person—the totally obscure person?
BLVR: Just this last year some friends of mine organized a twenty-fifth anniversary for Solanas, and then they got so many individuals protesting that they stopped the event. She’s still this controversial figure who is marginalized and written off. Why do you think that is?
MH: I think about what she said about women who are toadies. I think that’s still relevant—there’s a notion of feminism I sometimes think of as idiot feminism, and that Hollywood is big on, a branch that is not smart or fully thought through. Like having a woman in power or talking about sex is some totally modern form of empowerment: that’s ridiculous. What will remain interesting about her is that her work is both blindingly insightful and mad at the same time, which makes it radioactive. It will never lose its power, because the craziness is what allowed her to go there and get those insights. She wasn’t making a career. Academia has choked feminism in a way. Bless her.
II. BETTIE PAGE AND KATY PERRY
BLVR: People have referred to you as a feminist filmmaker. How do you feel about that label?
MH: I feel like it’s marginalizing in a way. Then again, I really dislike it when women reject feminism; that’s ridiculous. I am a product of feminism. Without feminism I would not be making films. So in that sense I would definitely claim that label, but I just don’t think I’m an ideological filmmaker in any way. I don’t know how anyone could see anything I’ve done and see that. I do think I do women’s histories, and in that sense you could fit me into the label of a feminist filmmaker.
BLVR: It’s just that you’re not setting out to make a message.
MH: No, I’m not trying to make the world a better place.
BLVR: People often refer to you as Canadian. Do you think of yourself that way?
MH: Mostly I’m just not American. I spent four years of my childhood here, but I think if you’re Canadian you have a very different perspective. You don’t think you’re at the center of things.
BLVR: David Cronenberg has this great line, “I don’t have a moral plan. I’m a Canadian.”
MH: Bless him for saying that. One thing I’m not is a moralistic filmmaker. I’m not trying to tell people what to do, and I’m not trying to lead. Americans always think they have to lead. I’m interested in ambiguity.
BLVR: I have a friend who is trying to sell a novel and no one will buy it, partly because people say the female protagonist is difficult, which is a depressing reality. In terms of choosing your subject matter, do you feel like it’s a harder sell to make a film about a difficult woman?
MH: Yes. I was lucky with my first film because it had Warhol in it. That was the selling point. So, in a way, Warhol sold Valerie, but I was interested in the meeting of the two. My second film had a male protagonist, and then with Bettie Page I had a big problem in terms of its reception, because people were expecting something different from what I gave them. I wasn’t prepared for the criticism I got on that film, because she’s such a lovable figure, but a lot of men were disappointed in that film because they wanted it to be sexy. They wanted the male experience of Bettie, and in a way that makes it my most feminist film, because it’s about what it’s like to be Bettie. And for Bettie it’s not about being sexy; she’s not getting a sexual charge, she’s playing dress-up. She’s just being herself, having fun, and when she’s doing bondage she’s not doing it to be sexy. But there was a lot of anger among critics that I had not made a sexy movie.
BLVR: It doesn’t seem that sex was a huge motivating force in Bettie Page’s life, which was surprising.
MH: Yes, just like Katy Perry, who is a great image-maker and parodic, but not sexy. She’s campy in the same way Bettie was, and they both have an enormous need for attention. They’re constructing personas and images. It’s interesting because these women are doing it for themselves. What do women get from being in front of the camera? These are people who have an urge to display themselves, but they need a persona to armor themselves.
BLVR: It was also a movie about an era that was a turning point for women.
MH: Yes, it’s a movie about one woman’s life at a particular point in time, during 1950s sexuality and politics, the crackdown on pop culture, the beginnings of fetishism creeping in. That’s what interested me, the world she existed in. I was thinking a lot about my mother, who was a young mother during that time, and how women would absorb expectations of [their mothers]. In a way, I think that film will last as a portrait of the time, because those themes will remain interesting.
BLVR: So I haven’t seen the Anna Nicole Smith movie you did for Lifetime, but I know about it. With Bettie, Valerie, and somewhat in The Moth Diaries, you make sure to give some context of these women’s childhoods.
MH: That’s important to me. I do that because these women all had abusive childhoods, and particularly with Anna I thought that was very important. I like the film; it’s not my script, but it’s a great story and she’s a fascinating figure. I wish I had thought to do a movie about her myself. It would have been fantastic because you could have been no-holds-barred. Doing a movie for Lifetime, there are so many restrictions on nudity or sexuality, which is obviously limiting when it comes to Anna Nicole Smith. It would have been nice to do an uncensored version.
BLVR: How did you get interested in adapting The Moth Diaries?
MH: One of my producers gave me a copy of the book and I really loved it. It affected me strongly and brought back my own childhood and these incredibly intense friendships I had in my preteens. These great loves. It seemed to me that this is a love and relationship that is almost never written about. People make films about all kinds of relationships, but they won’t do these extremely intense platonic love affairs that happen between young girls. In a way they are more intense than anything else you ever have, and that’s what I wanted to make a film about, though it was in the context of a horror film.
BLVR: I notice in your films you take the stylistic conventions of the genre and subvert them.
MH: I always say to my husband: I make unpopular versions of popular things. I make a horror film and it’s not a horror film. None of my genre movies function as genre movies. When people see the conventions, they think they’re going to get the straightforward genre—I don’t give them that and they get mad. People see that and they think I don’t understand the conventions because I’m not a good filmmaker.
III. A TIDE THAT YOU CAN’T HOLD BACK
BLVR: We should probably talk about American Psycho. It’s heralded as this great cult film, but that’s not the experience you had at the time, is it?
MH: Five years after the film came out, I was shooting an episode of Six Feet Under and Susie Bright was on the set and she said she’d just seen American Psycho, and she asked me why it hadn’t gotten more attention. That was five years after it came out. It gets so much attention now that I’m bored with it, but it was only after five years that it got all this attention. There were a lot of YouTube parodies and Christian Bale became famous, which also helped.
BLVR: Many people say it would have been a much different film had it been shot by a man. You linger on the female faces, when a male director might not have. Were you conscious of that?
MH: It was a very conscious decision to play it off the faces of the women. That’s why I cast Cara Seymour, who is a great stage actress who could carry those scenes. Those scenes come through her face; most of the film focuses on him, but the perspective in those murder scenes wasn’t through Patrick Bateman but the women. That was a conscious choice.
BLVR: Were you nervous making that film, because the book was so controversial when it came out? What did you think it would do to your career?
MH: Yes, you can’t take on something like that without being a bit nervous. I’d already been through something like that. One of the things that allowed me to do it was having done I Shot Andy Warhol. I asked Guinevere Turner to come on—she had done the first big, successful lesbian film, Go Fish—so we knew that no one could lecture us about feminism. That gave us a lot of strength. We didn’t have to apologize or add some bullshit moral lesson to it. We felt we could trust our instincts and do what we thought was interesting.
BLVR: So many movies are so hypersexualized that even if the protagonist is a woman, the film is made from the male gaze. How did people react to American Psycho?
MH: Half the audience loved it. Half hated it. That, to me, was a good reaction, and an appropriate one.
BLVR: A lot of people talk about how with directing so much of the magic lies with casting. Leonardo DiCaprio was supposed to play the role of Patrick Bateman, is that right?
MH: I had already cast Christian Bale to play the role, and I was standing in my kitchen in the East Village, and I got a phone call saying, “You should sit down. Leonardo DiCaprio wants to be in your movie, and we’re going to pay him twenty million dollars.” I told them that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. He’s not right for the role, and he has a fifteen-year-old-girl fan base. You can’t cast him coming off Titanic. I think he’s a great actor, but he wasn’t right for it; Patrick Bateman is a very specific character. Christian Bale had something, an authority and a darkness, whereas DiCaprio is more of a poetic actor. Some actors can draw from their own darkness. Both Bale and Lili Taylor have this fathomless place in them; when you look at them you can go far into them. They can both play very saintly and very bad. I mean, Christian Bale played Jesus in something. Christian is also a great comic actor and he brought that to the role. We had a very similar take on the character. I think, being partly British, he thought the role of Bateman was funny and approached it with humor. He loved the patheticness of the character, how embarrassing Bateman was. Trying to be cool and failing so badly.
BLVR: Can you talk a tiny bit about the shift in working in TV? What kind of world is it?
MH: It’s different. You don’t set the tone. The really important people in TV are not the directors; they’re the writers. When I did The L Word they were very open and let me find my own style, but other shows I’ve done, like the final season of Six Feet Under—you’re obviously not going to shape the style at that point. The good part of working in TV is it’s like being a studio director in old Hollywood and approaching different genres. It’s a chance to try out different styles.
BLVR: I’m assuming there have been offers to direct films you’ve turned down. Do you have a personal method by which you choose your projects?
MH: Well, no one would offer me something like a Hollywood rom-com. But I used to get offered a lot of serial-killer films, but they never had any humor in them. I’m bored by films that revolve around a trick. I kind of know if a film is right for me; all the most important decisions are made intuitively. Like when the Anna Nicole Smith [project] came in, I was like, “Lifetime?” I had a bit of that prejudice. And while it wasn’t written the way I would write it, I found it interesting, a great story. I could really see it in my head when I was reading it. When I start to film it in my head, that’s when I know I want to do it. Movies are a commitment. They take years of your life and they have big consequences. That’s one of the bad things about movies—you’re stuck with the aftermath. If people aren’t going to like it, which is painful, it should at least be something you were committed to. Imagine having a bad reaction to something you didn’t believe in: that would be so much worse.
BLVR: Now that you’re a mother, what’s your perspective on how things have changed for women and what hasn’t changed?
MH: Well, it’s exciting to see my daughters and their successes. My youngest daughter wants to make films, and I think she’s going to be much more successful than either my husband or me. I see that women still have self-doubt, and at the same time I feel like I see all these fantastic young women, and they all have ambition and are so focused on their futures. I don’t think that’s an anomaly anymore. In the end there’s a tide that you can’t hold back. I think that with women, when they encounter setbacks and failures, there’s a way in which they have a hard time dealing with that. They say that depression is anger you turn on yourself, and I think women do that. I was reading about Giulietta Masina because I rewatched 8 ½ recently. She is in it for a nanosecond, but obviously it’s about [Fellini’s] marriage, and I wondered about why she did so few films after La strada. So I went online and apparently after La strada she made a non-Fellini movie that was a failure, and she was so mortified that she stopped acting for years; that seems to me a very female thing to do. There is a tendency to blame ourselves or turn our disappointment inward, which can make it hard for us to go the distance. We have to find ways to not torment ourselves. Why should you react to failure with self-immolation? Fuck that. Everyone who has had a career has failed. There’s absolutely no point in beating yourself up. Focus on going forward.
BLVR: What is the most challenging thing about the life you’ve led?
MH: Having discipline. Making myself write. I think morale is the hardest part, not comparing yourself to someone else. I think everyone compares themselves to someone more successful than they are. Everyone does it. You have to embrace your own rocky path. A critic once said to me, “The problem is that you’re not an art filmmaker and you’re not a commercial filmmaker,” and it’s true. I don’t fit into either category, because my films have elements of genre in them, which prevents them from being purely art films.
BLVR: In terms of being an artist, which is such a roller-coaster ride of challenges and disappointments, how have you been able to deal with self-doubt?
MH: Recently The Moth Diaries had a rough ride, much rougher than I was expecting. I had to do soul-searching after that to find a way to keep going. I tried to think back on how I found the courage to make my first film when no one thought I could do it. You have to go back and find that part of yourself again. At any age you can start over. You have to drop the idea of where you should be in your career. And you have to do without a lot of love. Not everyone’s going to love you.
BLVR: That’s a challenge, because love and acclaim are so fleeting; if you based your self-worth on those things you’d be in trouble.
MH: If you have had some taste of success, it’s extremely addicting. I think the withdrawal from that is what’s most devastating. I don’t think it’s the success that kills people, it’s the withdrawal.
BLVR: If you look back on your career, how would you describe it?
MH: I had long periods where I couldn’t make things happen, and then periods of enormous good luck. I guess the trick is to keep going in the periods when you’re not lucky, when your stars are not aligned.
BLVR: The most successful artists I know aren’t necessarily the most talented but the most persistent.
MH: It used to be that if you were going to be a female artist, you had to kill yourself, or you couldn’t have a family, a happy personal life—you had to be tragic. But no, you don’t, not in this day and age. There’s no need to be tragic or destroy yourself or jump off a cliff. That’s no longer the paradigm I wish to follow, or that anyone should follow. It is not necessary to be tragic. It’s bullshit that women can’t have it all. Why not? Other people do.