'The Haunting of Sharon Tate' Director on Casting Hilary Duff and Handling Controversy
This summer marks 50 years since cult leader Charles Manson and his followers murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others in her home on Aug. 8, 1969, in addition to Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next day.
Hollywood is marking the anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders in three films: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, IFC Films’ Charlie Says and the first of the bunch, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, a horror flick that re-imagines the actress’ final days. It is now available on VOD and opened in select theaters over the weekend.
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Writer-director Daniel Farrands says the anniversary had little effect on the conception of the movie. The premise came to mind on the set of his previous movie, The Amityville Murders, which added a supernatural twist to the 1974 murders that inspired The Amityville Horror. He chose to adapt a new crime movie in a similar style.
“I wanted to do a story that would change the narrative so that the victims would be able to rise up and take their power back, if you will, from their would-be killers,” Farrands tells The Hollywood Reporter.
He combined the facts of Sharon Tate’s death with an alleged quote from her, published posthumously in Fate Magazine, where she recounted a nightmare eerily similar to her actual death. The result is a fictionalized version of the actress’ last 72 hours, incorporating elements of psycho-horror, slasher and home invasion movies.
The Haunting of Sharon Tate made headlines in early 2018 after former Lizzie Macguire star Hilary Duff was cast in the lead role and Tate’s sister, Debra Tate, publicly expressed her disappointment with the premise.
“It doesn’t matter who it is acting in it – it’s just tasteless,” Debra told People in February 2018. “It’s classless how everyone is rushing to release something for the 50th anniversary of this horrific event.”
When asked about the criticism, Farrands says, “I get it. I am not one to tell her or any of these people how they should feel...but I do hope on some level that people realize that this was made in honor of the victims.”
Read the full conversation below.
You've had a long career in horror, and now you've made an Amityville movie, based on the murders of the DeFeo family, and you're in post-production for The Haunting of Nicole Brown Simpson. Have you thought about what draws you to these stories?
It's interesting how there just seems to be this ongoing fascination with these cases, and I think sometimes it's good to shine a slightly different light on them. I don't want to exonerate or glorify anyone, and the last thing on my mind with Sharon Tate was to glorify the Manson clan or Charles Manson himself. If anything, they were the boogeymen.
I grew up in the early '70s, not long after the Manson murders took place, and it was still very much in the zeitgeist. I remember my mother talking about it, and I remember the book Helter Skelter and this whole notion of this horrible subculture as the underbelly of the '60s and how culture changed after the murders. It was no longer "peace and love," it was "lock your door, don't trust anyone" after that. I think that resonated with me as a very, very small child, and I think my generation grew up with this heightened state of fear.
I think that's the enduring thing about these stories. I think they're so horrific and they were so profound in the impact they had on us as a culture. I think that's part of the reason they live on.
Why do you think there is so much media about the Manson murders and the Manson cult?
Because the event is so incomprehensible, and I think in some ways we're trying to make sense out of the absolute senselessness. When you look at the motive, and I put the word "motive" in quotation marks, it's so insane that any sane person can't wrap their brain around the logic of it all. There was no logic. So I think people are still, 50 years later, trying to make sense of it all and find a place where they can feel some closure. And I don't know that there ever will be closure.
One of the issues is that there have been a lot of sensationalized versions of the story, and I think our version might be accused of that. But I also think that what we attempted to do was portray the victims as real people. My movie is set in a realm of fantasy and is not attempting to track the moment-to-moment events of the true crime. I felt it freed me up a little bit from that heavy responsibility of having to be so married to the facts, and I could kind of explore the relationships.
What was your research process like?
I actually revisited the book Helter Skelter, and it's funny, because a first-edition copy of the book just happened to be a prop on the set of The Amityville Murders, so I just picked that up to familiarize myself with the facets of the case and the procedural aspects. But then I put that aside and I read biographies and watched several documentaries about Sharon Tate to see who she was.
What I took away from all the reading I did and people I talked to who had actually met her, she was just a sweet, gentle, kind soul. And that makes her murder all the more horrific and shocking, that she was so pure, not to mention that she was eight and a half months pregnant. It's such a terrible tragedy for her and the other victims whose names I think, sadly, have been lost to history. I think few people remember the names Abigail Folger, Steven Parent, Jay Sebring or Wojciech Frykowski, who were also killed that night.
I find the whole thing tragic, and I thought if I was going to approach this, the last thing I was interested in doing was another movie about the Manson family doing drugs out in the hills of Chatsworth. That wasn't the story I wanted to tell at all.
How did Hilary Duff get cast as Sharon Tate?
It was kind of serendipitous. I didn't have a specific actor in mind for the role. Hilary was suggested to us by one of the producers, and we arranged a meeting. I remember when she walked up to this little cafe here in the Valley, she just looked like someone who lit up a room when she came into it. There was something very natural about her. Although she'd been raised and groomed around Disney, she's a very sympathetic, kind and good-natured person. Honestly, it was her smile, the way she smiled reminded me of the way Sharon Tate smiled.
Did making this movie change your view of Sharon Tate and the Manson murders at all?
If anything, making the movie gave me more sympathy for the victims. Like Steven Parent, this young boy who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, selling his buddy a stereo, and as he was driving up to the gate, the Manson clan was there and shot him in the head. If anything it probably made me more incensed at the insanity of it all.
And it made me think about where their lives would have gone. How many films would Sharon Tate have made? Would she have given it up for motherhood? We'll never know, because these people took those moments away from them. Like Abigail Folger, she was an heiress to the Folger Coffee fortune, but she was also very much an activist at that time, working for the homeless of Los Angeles. You wonder what the potential of their lives would have been had they not been so cruelly taken away.
I'm sure you're aware that Sharon Tate's living sister, Debra Tate, called the premise of the film "tacky" and "exploitative" in February of last year. How do you respond to that line of criticism?
I mean, I get it. I am not one to tell her or any of these people how they should feel. I haven't walked an inch in their shoes, much less a mile, so I can't even begin to comprehend the horror they've lived through for 50 years. Debra Tate was not even a young woman when her sister was killed and has very bravely gone to every parole hearing for these murderers. Her mother, Doris Tate, was incredibly instrumental in getting the laws in the state of California changed to advocate for victims. I get it. I do wish that she hadn't pre-judged this one so much; I think it was probably a knee-jerk reaction after seeing the title and seeing that it's based on a quote that her sister gave to a reporter about premonitions she supposedly had.
That's not really what the movie is about, though. Like, yeah, it's a scary movie and it tells a very scary story because it was, but it's also set in a more fantastic realm where it's more of a spiritual thing. So that said, I sympathize, but I do hope on some level that people realize that this was made in honor of the victims.
Actually, I sent an email to Ms. Tate and explained much of this, and I didn't hear from her, but I also didn't hear her say anything else about the film. Maybe she will, but I think, in a way, maybe I quelled some of her anxiety about it. I hope I did, but my heart goes out to her.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
by Brian Davids