Mary Harron: directing the undirectable

It’s hard not to feel depressingly boring when you interview Mary Harron. She’s incredibly rock’n’roll, wearing leather trousers at 50 which I can’t pull off at 20, and confidently moves from talking about her childhood spent on film sets (her first step-mother was scouted by Stanley Kubrick) to Christian Bale’s “bionic” ability to sweat on command. 

So I find it somewhat surprising that she waxes lyrical about Oxford, its polished image about as far from her rough-and-ready time on the New York punk and independent film scene as you could get. She is convinced her decision to read English at St Anne’s instead of going to film school was a help not a hindrance. She claims, in your typically romantic English student fashion, that “Shakespeare taught me more than any script-writing course … it was more important for me to learn about Paradise Lost than camera lenses.” She says of her time in Oxford in the 1970’s “it gave young men an education in the classics before they went off to rule the world.” Incidentally, one of those men was Tony Blair, who she went out with as an undergraduate; something which once again I can’t reconcile with her wild child image, but Blair must have been more into his New York Dolls than New Labour while he was at St John’s.

When Harron graduated she put all her possessions into a bin bag and moved to New York. While this was something which most of us would at least mention on Facebook at some point in a humblebragging status update, she nonchalantly says “It never occurred to me to graduate and get a job… I thought you just went off and had adventures.” She arrived to a thriving punk scene and launched her career as a music journalist by being the first person to interview The Sex Pistols (she was only asked to do it because she had a tape recorder).

After a stint researching documentaries she turned to film. Having written about pop-art for ISIS as an undergraduate, she wanted to write about the woman who was ignored by Warhol’s biographers. Her first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, took seven years to make from page to screen. She wrote about Valerie Solanas, a misandrist who wrote the SCUM (Society For Cutting Up Men) manifesto and shot Warhol in The Factory because he turned down her screenplay. Harron saw in Solanas a compelling individual who – much like the techniques used in Swift’s A Modest Proposal – used her manifesto to kill men off satirically.

I asked her what drew her to the character and with a shrug she replies “You can only do what interests you. I’m not a particularly unhappy person but I like people who are not obviously ‘good’ ” adding that she specifically likes “female characters who are bad in some ways and that have a lot of different passions.”

After finally completing I Shot Andy Warhol her next film was an adaptation of Bret Easton-Ellis’ American Psycho. The film pushes genre to its limits and lurches from extreme violence to social commentary. The mix of humour and horror (Patrick Bateman, the deranged protagonist’s favourite weapon is a nail gun) is in equal parts hilarious and unsettling. Even Easton-Ellis, notoriously difficult to work with, was impressed, tweeting in 2012 “Just caught some of Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” and was surprised how good it is. I’d been lightly dissing it but I’m wrong.”

Part of the reasons for its success is how well it tapped into our generation’s psyche by satirising commercialism and utilising the obsession with pop-culture it mocked. When Patrick Bateman is instructing the two prostitutes he has hired to undress, he monologues about the highs and lows of Phil Collins’ solo career. It’s simultaneously unnerving and ludicrous and even over a decade after the film’s release, our selfie-generation can relate to Bateman’s timeless narcissism.

Harron wryly tells me that Bateman’s stainless steel kitchen (which was purposefully designed to look like a morgue) has been copied by Kanye West in two of his music videos.

However she is unwilling to dismiss our generation’s self-obsession: “We are human beings and we are always vain. It’s funny because I have two teenage daughters and yes they do a lot of this” [here she mimes taking a selfie] “but I find young people are quite earnest and politically engaged, I think my generation was probably more hedonistic.”

Following American Psycho, she directed The Moth Diaries, a horror set in a boarding school and then television with acclaimed dramas including, The L-Word and Six Feet Under. As a female director – something which is frustratingly still an anomaly in Hollywood – she has to be flexible. When she started out she says “I never thought I could direct films ever, because there weren’t any woman directors. It seemed extraordinarily ambitious.”

A report released last year proved that women directed only 5 per cent of the top 2,000 US box office hits in the past 20 years.

I ask her, as every journalist must ask her, what it is like to be working in this male dominated world.  Her view is that “The biggest problem is a lot of unconscious prejudice. For executives and people financing movies they have an idea of what they’re comfortable with and it’s a guy – the idea of a strong confident male director in a chair. Hollywood and the film industry runs on fear and paranoia and anxiety. Everyone’s afraid of losing money or losing their job so they go for the person or the image of the person who makes them feel safe.”

When I ask her if she sees this changing she is doubtful: “Not any time soon. There may be a little more carefulness but that kind of change would be very slow and incremental. It will take a lot of pushing and gradually undermining it.” Luckily the advice she gives young filmmakers, especially women, goes back to the idealism evident in her rose-tinted-spectacles view of Oxford and her impulsive move to New York:  “In my life I have fallen into things randomly. Sometimes in life you have to put yourself in the position of having things happen to you.” Sounds like the perfect antidote to boredom.


PHOTO/Allstar Picture Library