‘Charlie Says’ Director Mary Harron Talks Depicting the “Tiny Choices” of the Manson Women

Director Mary Harron had been approached by Lifetime to add yet another entry into Hollywood’s ever-growing catalog of Charles Manson murder tales, but the cable network’s story wasn’t the one she wanted.

The story she was most interested in was in the hands of her long-time collaborator, writer Guinevere Turner, who had been busy working on a distinctly different script long before Harron came on board. It was one that focused not on the infamous cult leader but on his followers. Specifically, the “Manson girls.”

For Harron, these were women who had gone so undercovered in the extensive media and silver screen re-hashing of the infamous ‘60s serial killings that they had been trapped by time.

“They’re in their 70s now, and I know people get so mad when we call them the Manson girls, but they still are girls in the public imagination,” Harron says of his followers.

Harron’s latest film Charlie Says, which hit theaters last Friday and stars The Crown and Doctor Who alum Matt Smith as Manson,was a chance to change this. Turner was uniquely positioned to tell this story — as the former member of a cult — and her script was deeply researched. The writer used “20 sources,” Harron, who directed the project, says, including material from the book written by the Manson women’s former prison teacher and feminist scholar Karlene Faith as well as books by Manson family members Tex Watson and Susan Atkins.

Harron had also already worked with Turner on both American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, so the “very good friends” were sharing early drafts between them, even when another director was still attached. Those deep connections — to both the circumstances around the event and each other — helped Harron unpack and eventually portray all the “tiny choices” of the Manson women, from their first to their final days as members of Manson’s cult.

Below, Harron talks with The Hollywood Reporter about her new film, why she wanted to explore those choices and how she worked with her creative team to deliver a Manson family story that she felt had yet to be told.

Many of these serial murderer dramas are told through the lens of male directors, but two women are behind Charlie Says. What do you think you captured that a male perspective wouldn’t have?

One of the things that Guinevere really captured in her script was the solidarity between [the women]. They were like sister wives with the incredible support system they had. When Guin and I talked early on, just about Leslie [Van Houten, played by Hannah Murray in Charlie Says], she said that Leslie was not romantically in love with Manson. He had a hold on her but as much as, or even more so, as her friendship with Pat[ricia Krenwinkel, played by Sosie Bacon in Charlie Says]. The women had this very deep and profound relationship. So when Leslie has this chance to leave, we knew that one of the things that would have made her stay, and made them all stay, was their relationship with each other. If they left, it would be deadly to their female friends. They weren’t — I mean, I’m sure there were rivalries — but there was a lot of supportiveness in the women that unfortunately kept them chained to each other.

You explore the dynamics and development of Charlie’s relationship with his followers through the film’s shifting use of color and light. How did your team approach executing that visual journey?

Crille Forsberg, a really great Swedish cinematographer, and I developed these color schemes very early on as we talked. We were saying the ranch should be warm and inviting with golden light. The cabin should have a moving camera — be very, very visceral — with a lot of movement. And the prisons are very static, cold blue-gray. In certain locations, we used lenses that we don’t use anywhere else. Very static shots are the only thing we used for extreme close-ups, as it’s all about what’s happening in the faces. And for the ranch, particularly, we looked at one of my favorite movies, Badlands. We looked at that because it’s the right period and for the way the violence is done where it’s so random and casual. Then [in the film] there’s this girl who’s sort of enthralled to the lead, but she’s also sort of slightly hostage, you know? So we looked a lot at the shooting and the feel of that.

The very last scene of the film is something we see earlier, just with a different outcome. Why did you end there and not with the women’s realizations while in prison?

A lot of thriller, serial-killer scripts, they’re mysteries. They’re kind of gripping, and then you get to page 90 and it says, ‘Oh, he did it because of his sister,’ or ‘She did it because she hated her aunt or mother.’ It wraps it up, and you never think about it again. But real human behavior — with the most serious events in your life — we never, ever have a final answer on, ‘Why did I do that then?’

Sometimes in moments or terrible situations, you’re just paralyzed. You wished for [Leslie] and everybody’s sake she’d have run out of the house and knocked on a neighbor’s door. I wish she would have gotten on that motorcycle. We all wish that. And in an interview from Karlene’s book, I read that when the van first came to pick Leslie up to join the Manson family, the van was late. If it had just been another five minutes late, she would have just turned around. So it’s about those tiny choices and really that there are no simple answers. 

The full interview was published at The Hollywood Reporter on May 13, 2019.

Leave a Comment