'Charlie Says' Director Mary Harron Talks Depicting the "Tiny Choices" of the Manson Women

Courtesy of IFC Films

The helmer explains how she worked with her creative team, including writer and close friend Guinevere Turner, to deliver a story of the serial killer's followers that she felt had yet to be told.

[The following story contains spoilers from Charlie Says.]

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.

Charles Manson is at the center of this film, but this is not necessarily a story about him. What about this project's female focus made you want to tackle it?

There are two things I thought were very important in this. One was that Guinevere said, "What happened to them?" There’d been almost nothing written about them after the trial was over, and they've been in prison for what? 40 years? They were involved for a very brief period really, like a couple of years, that have defined their entire lives. And in everybody's mind, they are those girls in that cult from the summer of '69. So what happened to them after? How did they feel about Charlie? How do they feel about what they did? What evolution happened?

The other thing that I thought was very important was that [Guinevere] was dealing with the story of the women who actually had been involved in the crime. The easiest way to do it is to do the Linda Kasabian story, and there have been a couple movies like that. But to me, that's like letting us off the hook. Just doing the story from the perspective of someone who's innocent is not interesting to me. Following the journey of someone who you may find a very likable person and seeing how they fell into doing these crimes — what took them there? That is a question I wanted answered.

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 said before you wanted to follow what happened to the women after the murders, and you do, but you don't go much farther past the moment they realize what they’ve done. How did you decide that that was going to be the developmental endpoint?

It was complicated because I don't think it was [Karlene Faith's] initial purpose to bring them to the light of revelation. I think she really did feel that these were women spending life in solitary confinement, and she just needed to open up their minds to the world. But to me, the journey was that for three years they still believed in Charlie. I was stunned when I heard that. Three or four years and they still believed in Charlie? How could they do that? And the more I found out about the story and how they were kept in solitary confinement, the more I understood how they never got Charlie out of their heads. They were completely feeding each other. But also, there's a bigger question about prison, about atonement, about guilt. 

From the title alone it’s clear that this story isn't just about what Manson’s followers did. It's about how he got in their heads to do it. When you were directing this, what about that relationship were you hoping to reveal?

This goes to one reason I was interested in making the film. Through keeping this extremely isolated environment, it was a certain kind of dehumanization by which [Manson] was able to do this. So in some ways, this film was about domestic abuse. That dynamic of the family is the dynamic of an abusive family with an abusive patriarch. It's the father that you love, you want to please, but can’t.

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.

You mentioned the close-ups, which end up not just being visually appealing but really developmentally revealing for your characters. How were you working with the actors to execute those scenes where their character’s inner turmoil manifested?

I have to give credit to Chace Crawford for this because he's fantastic in that scene where Tex doesn't know whether to kill Sharon Tate (Grace Van Dien), a pregnant woman. There’s also a wonderful performance by Sosie Bacon, too, when she comes back and tells Leslie about the murders, and she’s like, "It's okay, right? They were very young and it didn't feel right. But I know it was." But in most cases, it's just talking them through it in real detail. I talked to all three — Hannah [Murray], Sosie and Marianne [Rendon] — in some detail about their character's path, really focusing with them on the mixed emotions, the moments of decision, the turning points.

This story centers heavily on the women of those 1969 murders and raises questions about the nature of victimhood. But while you feature Manson’s female victims, there isn’t as much focus on them as the Manson girls, even during their murder scenes. Was that a conscious decision?

Initially, there were more scenes of Sharon Tate and the couples that pair off, but it just didn't work structurally. We were leaving the family arbitrarily to go to Sharon Tate. I felt that in the end, we should see the victims through the eyes of the girls, of the perpetrators, but make it as vivid or as terrible as I could within those scenes. But I did want those little bits of the victims to be present, and I think and hope that the women are. It was very important to me that the victims stay in your mind. These are human beings; these are real people; these are nice people. But in some ways, for the truth of telling the story of the Manson women and how they got there, they were also complete strangers. Those girls had no idea who these people were.

You spent a lot of time with the three Manson women, but you also prominently feature another central Manson follower: Chace Crawford’s Tex. Why did you choose to focus on him even though you don’t delve into his life after Manson?

This was very much about the three women in prison. It's their memories and they're our link back to it. But, with Tex, I thought it was so interesting because he was this good looking, all American, in a college, frat farm boy. So what were the things that brought him there? It was a vulnerability in him that Charlie used to gain dominion over him. I think Manson, in particular, enjoyed dominating and bringing down these seemingly good-looking, more successful people. Someone like Leslie who had been homecoming queen, or Tex, who'd been popular in high school and a sports guy. He loved dominating them and bending them to his will. That scene, which is a real account, when they're at the family sex orgy scene, and he's saying, "Oh, Tex doesn't know how to please a woman” — Chace and I talked about [Tex’s] almost fear of Charlie, the hold Charlie had over him. The idea of being humiliated — it's not just one gender, you know? I wanted to show that it was not just women that Charles Manson hypnotizes or manipulates. 

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. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.