One of the most chilling movies to premiere at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival is the new feature “Charlie Says” that deals with the inner workings of the Manson Family before their infamous murders that brought an end to the spirit of the ’60s.
The film stars “Dr. Who” ’s 11th doctor, Matt Smith, in a truly mesmerizing performance as Manson and follows the point of view of one of his followers Leslie Van Houten, played by Hannah Murray of “Game of Thrones,” who ended up partaking in the horrific murders of Sharon Tate and her unborn child as well as many others. The film was adapted from the book written by Karlene Faith and directed by “American Psycho” and “Alias Grace” director Mary Harron. We spoke with Harron ahead of the film’s premiere at the TriBeCa Film Festival about understanding the long, ugly shadow of the Manson Family.
This movie puts the viewer in the headspace of Manson’s followers. What was it like exploring that perspective?
I think that was what was most interesting to me. I thought, if you’re going to do it, then you have to go and really follow the journey of the women who really were involved with these crimes. Sometimes people take the Linda Kasabian [a famous member of the Manson Family] story, who was the one who turned in case evidence and didn’t participate in the murders. That, to me, wasn’t interesting. You really want to take on the difficult issues of people that you like, if you follow their stories and end up doing these horrific things and you ask, “How did this happen?”
Why do you think this story is so relevant after so many years?
Anybody of my generation who was a teenager during these things, it’s part of our DNA, really. There is a lot of fascination of how this could have happened, how could this lovely hippy culture end up this way — at least with the darkest manifestation of it. I think there is a lot of fascination with cults because it’s the idea of you and me or sisters and brothers and children, regular people, joining groups and then becoming transformed into a group mind, in some cases doing terrible things, whether it’s people accepting suicide or people being asked to commit awful crimes How do people get to this point? Because it’s still happening!
I worked with a lovely young woman, Allison Mack, who turned out to be a part of that NXIVM cult that is currently on trial. I actually worked with her and she was very nice! I think we’re always fascinated with things that we can’t quite solve. That to me, is the most interesting mystery. Not who did it, because we know who did it. But, how did they come to it?
One thing that is truly prevalent with Charles Manson, and other manipulative figures throughout history, was his innate sense that he could sense people’s vulnerabilities and capitalize on it. Do you think that is why he was such a magnetic character?
Yes. I had already read certain books years ago and Guinevere [Turner, the film’s screenwriter] had done a lot of research. It was most interesting to me, actually reading the books written by the followers. What I was interested in was the real texture of their experiences. What was the day-to-day life like of the cult? I remember very early on, before I even took this project on, I was having lunch with Guinevere and she was telling me about the script that she was writing. I wasn’t even attached to it. I asked her, “How did he get them to do these terrible things?” and she said, “Step by step.” We were trying to capture that in this film, that slow evolution. Little by little, your autonomy is worn away. Which also happens, I think, in domestic abuse. You meet someone who is very charming and charismatic and then they enter a relationship — and they can be a super smart and intelligent, capable person — and step by step, they lose themselves and end up abused, dominated and lose their own will.