Mary Harron on Charlie Says: 'It's taking a very famous story and doing it from an unexpected perspective'

Mary Harron on Charlie Says: 'It's taking a very famous story and doing it from an unexpected perspective'

The well-known story of the Manson Family Murders gets a fresh portrayal in new film starring Matt Smith

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family Murders in Los Angeles, so it's hardly surprising there's a new film focused on the events surrounding the killings. Coming from Mary Harron and penned by her American Psycho collaborator Guinevere Turner, Charlie Says, however, offers a corrective of sorts to common portrayals of Charles Manson and his followers in film and television.

Manson (Matt Smith) is only the centre of this film in the sense that characters are focused on him and he's the inciting factor for decisions and the eventual crimes. The actual protagonists of Charlie Says, which jumps around in time from the months leading up to the slayings to the incarceration of the guilty parties years later, are the three women who helped murder Sharon Tate and others during that summer of 1969: Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón).

'It's taking a very famous story and doing it from an unexpected perspective,' Harron says of the film, speaking over Skype from New York. 'I wasn't that interested in replaying the story of the crimes. It was more how [Manson] got and kept control of these young people. That was the real reason I wanted to make it about the women, though it wasn't just women under his control. The idea of mind control and quite normal people, but troubled like a lot of young people are, turning into these kind of zombie cult followers in a few months or a year, and how anyone can have that effect on a group of people… the idea of cults has always interested me.'

There's a prevalent concept in pop culture of Manson as a terrifying criminal mastermind but, in Harron's film, he's almost a garden variety predator who just happens to have higher profile victims as a result of his actions. 'I think Matt Smith's absolutely brilliant in it,' Harron says, 'but some people are taken aback because it's a very human portrayal. As Guinevere said to me early on, Manson was really just a charismatic loser. Most of the well-known cult leaders are loser guys who have some gift for spotting vulnerability; that's key. And for manipulating young women; with most of them, the real goal of the cult is to have sex with a lot of young women. If you examine any cult, at the core, that's what it's motivated by for most of them.'

The three women were sentenced to death, but when the state of California lifted the death penalty, their sentence became life imprisonment. Through the character of a graduate student, Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), sent to teach them in their cells, the film portrays their gradual transformation upon facing the reality of what they've done. 'I'm interested in pariah characters,' Harron tells me. 'People who other people aren't very sympathetic towards. I was really taken with the original approach of focusing part of it on the women in prison, because that part of the story has never been told. I had no idea what happened to these women after the murders and after the trial. And I found I didn't want to justify what they did, but I wanted to approach them with understanding.'

Charlie Says is on DVD and VOD in the UK from Mon 29 Jul.