Director Mary Harron Talks ‘Anna Nicole’ and ‘American Psycho’ Validation
If the prevailing Hollywood wisdom to recruit a promising upstart for a tentpole blockbuster was in place just a few years earlier, the director of American Psycho would be helming a Justice League movie right now. But Mary Harron, like so many other incredibly talented female filmmakers, has endured significantly more obstacles than her male counterparts in maintaining a healthy, varied career. And even if The Notorious Bettie Page and her new film, Anna Nicole, weren’t far more sophisticated than quite frankly they even needed to be, she’d still be ready to tackle superhero-sized material.
Spinoff Online recently spoke with Harron about the home video release of Anna Nicole, the Lifetime movie about the late Playboy Playmate and model Anna Nicole Smith. In addition to talking about the appeal of exploring Smith’s life, she offered her recollections about the experience – and fallout – from American Psycho, and the difficulties and obstacles female directors in Hollywood face as they, like the men they work alongside, aspire to bigger and better things.
Spinoff Online: What about Anna Nicole Smith’s story first appealed to you?
Mary Harron: Initially I thought, oh, do I want to do another beauty queen story, because I’d done Bettie Page. But then I thought, oh, it’s so different now – Anna Nicole is kind of like Marilyn Monroe for the reality TV age, and it’s such a different thing now. I was always affected and saddened by the whole story of her and her son – that really stood out to me. I really wanted to make that in a way almost the most important thing, because it is a tragic story because of what happened to her son and what that did to her. So there was a lot going on because you had the fun and the craziness of her story, all of the kind of outrageous behavior, but it was also so sad.
Given Lifetime’s success with making movies that are sort of sensationalistic, what were things you had to kowtow to, and what did you want to do to avoid making this too campy or belittling?
Well, the story itself is so kind of lurid that you didn’t have to add anything – her life was made for this melodramatic story, full of incredible, outrageous highs and lows, working at this fried chicken place and becoming a world-class model. But one thing that Lifetime does because it’s very female-centric is, you know, you can do a sympathetic take on Anna. It would be very much Anna’s point of view, a woman’s point of view, and I thought that was very important for this – for it to be her story. And the original script that was sent to me when I was deciding whether or not to do it was really sympathetic to her; it wasn’t just doing her as a caricature. And then the thing about the campiness is she was kind of campy; I mean, she embraced that. She kind of works with that. So it was complicated.
She had so many different phases to her career, and her life. What was the process of condensing these melodramas into one story that you felt like was cohesive and yet ran only 90 minutes?
It’s hard, because in a way you could do a little miniseries about her. You could definitely have done a whole thing just about her and J. Howard – the Texas years. You do a great film just about the reality show and all of the complications and the complexity of that. But the thing that I wanted was that the biggest throughline be Anna and her son, and the script was very long – we had to cut out quite a bit to fit it into 90 minutes, which is actually less than that because of commercials. It was a shame. But to me there was actually three important people in her life: J. Howard, her “Daddy,” her son and Howard K. Stern. And it was interesting to me that the most important relationships in her life were not sexual, basically – that even though she’s known as a sex symbol, J. Howard was a father figure, basically, a sugar daddy. There was her son. And then Howard K. Stern, who knows the ultimate truth of that relationship? But it seems to have been not sexual, and to be more like partners in crime – like he was the person who was going to make her famous. So I tried to focus on those when we were trying to tell the story – what were the key relationships.
The entertainment industry seems to create a divide between male and female filmmakers in a way that never seems to target the gender of men, but always of women. How much does your gender have to be a priority or a thought when you’re taking on projects, whether it’s this or something else?
Well, I mean, honestly, if I’m going to do a female love story, it’s going to be female-centered. You could do a story about Anna Nicole that was very objectifying, that was just about her outrageousness, her sexiness. And I was interested in what her experience was, just like with Bettie Page. I was interested in what it was like for Bettie to be a pin-up, not how sexy she was. But one thing that happened when I was offered the project was it’s hard to get a film made with a female central character – it’s really hard. You can spend years trying to do it. And it was like, oh, good, this is just coming in, and it’s about this very interesting, very complicated woman. She’s got her good side and she’s got her bad side. She’s a lot of different things in one, so I was like, oh, this is a chance to tell an interesting female story – I don’t get the chance to do that too often.
But the one thing that was difficult is that it’s kind of PG, so the biggest challenge was that you couldn’t show very much. And Anna was a very outrageous person for a lot of her life, and you had to sort of cut to black. You can’t show real nudity. At one point I was filming the strip club and I had some shots of this girl who just had pasties on, and I got a message back, like nope, nope! So it wasn’t terrible, but it was like, OK, those are the limits you have to work with.
One of my favorite films is American Psycho. How do you feel like you’ve grown or changed as a filmmaker between then and now?
Well, it’s hard to say. Really, it’s just whatever story you’re telling pulls you forward. I’m sure I’ve learned things technically, and I was working more blind then, but I had a good group of collaborators. But what was funny about American Psycho is that it wasn’t that successful at the time. It’s only in the last five years that it’s become this big cult thing, because there’s so many Internet parodies, and Kanye West has done like two videos based on it, and there’s a musical in London based on it. It’s a crazy thing that, for some reason, its success was delayed.
Do you feel a sense of validation that culture has sort of come around to appreciate it?
Oh, I feel it’s a validation. But I think it’s unusual to combine elements of horror and violence with black comedy and with this social satire – that was a kind of odd combination for people. They weren’t necessarily used to watching a movie with that kind of tone. I always laugh about the first premiere at Sundance, when people didn’t know what to think – they didn’t know if they were supposed to laugh. And, you know, me and my husband were laughing away at our favorite scenes, and people just didn’t know what to think. And now people know how to take it. And I mean, I would love to do another black comedy, but a good social satire like that doesn’t come along every day.
Now that you’re discussing it, it seems like this film and American Psycho share in common protagonists who don’t sort of understand how to deal with their own success. Do you think about, or even see in retrospect recurrent themes in your films that are important to you?
Yes. I think I’m always interested in the temptations and perils of success or fame or money. That’s always interesting to me. And then I think everybody in these films are kind of traumatized in one way or another (laughs), but in very different ways. I mean, Anna is kind of a lovable person even when she is being a bad mom – that was kind of different. And that was true with Bettie Page as well – there was kind of a sweet quality to them as well, a kind of innocent quality, even though they were involved in the sex industry. And I think Patrick Bateman is kind of overwhelmed because he’s very paranoid and kind of status-conscious and everything. So I think what I like is characters who are complicated.
After making a movie for television like Anna Nicole, what opportunities does it present you, and what challenges do you face in trying maybe to go back to film?
There is much more [back and forth], and I think it’s interesting with Lifetime because they’re getting film directors in there. Allison Anders did June Carter, and we talked for this. Because it’s never easy to get an independent film made, and I think Allison and I both had the same feeling of like, this is great – this is giving us a chance to make this film, about a woman we’re interested in. And so I think you always have to take opportunities where they’re offered, when you get a chance to make a movie. I mean, who would have thought that Netflix was going to be doing TV series? So I think you sort of grab what you can. I mean, I do have a film project that I’m working on, and I’m not abandoning it, but I think I have had a lot of trouble and delay in getting films made that had a woman as a central character – it always is difficult. So when this one came along, I was like, I don’t even have to go out and try to get shit, get financing – here it is! And after I read the script and the more I looked into Anna’s life, it was like, oh, my God, this is such a great American story, a great end-of-the-century, crazy story about celebrity in the age of reality TV and what that is. It was interesting to get to make a film about that.
You mention Allison Anders. Lexi Alexander wrote a blog post a few months ago about her frustration with finding work. Is there a sense of solidarity among female filmmakers? And do you feel like you have trouble finding opportunities because of the focus of your stories, or because you’re a female filmmaker trying to tell them?
Yes, obviously American Psycho had a male protagonist and the project I’m developing now has a male protagonist, and I don’t want to be restricted to that either. And also I want to say I can do action as well; I don’t want to say, no, I just do emotional stuff. But there is a lot of solidarity, actually. I’m part of a female film group, a group of female directors in New York who meet every month, called Film Fatales. So yes, I think there’s a lot – and we need the solidarity, really.