November 30, 2020 Interview – Mary Harron
A highly regarded filmmaker and screenwriter, Mary Harron is a name in the industry most should recognize. Beginning her exploration into the world of entertainment as a music journalist, becoming the first journalist to interview the Sex Pistols for an American publication, Harron soon took her talents behind the camera. Directing and co-writing several beloved indie films that include 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol, 2000’s American Psycho, plus 2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page, she has kept up with an award-winning career throughout the years.
Most recently called on to direct the chilling Quibi film The Expecting, Harron found a new creative space to showcase her unique filmmaking style. A film that premiered exclusively through Quibi on October 5th, it is the telling story of a young girl who is pregnant and the horrors she experiences. One part supernatural, another part based in the material world, Harron does an exceptional job of keeping the tension high throughout each segment. Proud of her work on The Expecting, she recently took the time to chat about the project, her early years working in music journalism, her approach to filmmaking, plus a whole lot more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in the arts for many years. Interestingly enough, you began as a music journalist before going on to writing and directing. What initially inspired you to go into film?
Mary Harron – I was always a film fan. My dad was an actor so I spent time when I was a little girl in Hollywood; it wasn’t an unknown world. Then when I was growing up I spent my teenage years in London, and I used to go the repertory theaters to see a lot of old movies and educated myself. I didn’t know of any women directors. I thought maybe I might write movies, and be able to be involved that way, but I didn’t think I would be a filmmaker.
As a journalist I had a lot of friends who went into television to make documentaries – that’s why I eventually got into film. I was a music journalist and I got a job writing questions for people like Boy George and Madonna on a Pop music show, then I got into other jobs on TV and started directing eventually. It started with me working on scripts with films and I gradually got the idea that I could direct.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very interesting path. As a music journalist you write for Punk magazine. A part of the early Punk scene in America, you also have a very unique directing style. Would you say the Punk scene influenced you and the direction you have gone as a filmmaker?
Mary Harron – I think it definitely had a big effect. A couple of things about it is that the Punk scene embraced ‘the accident’ and flaws. I’ve loved, in films, things that were slightly flawed or camera flares. I also like the do it yourself quality of Punk. With Punk magazine, the kids I was working with just started a magazine; we all worked for nothing.
The early days of independent film was absolutely like that. When I wrote my first film, I spent years writing I Shot Andy Warhol, but I wrote the script for nothing; I knew it was my shot to make something on my own. I obviously had great producers and finance eventually. It was the idea that you don’t wait for permission, you don’t wait for a studio to give you the job; you just go out and make something on your own. That is very important at times.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. You have done a lot of great work throughout the years, including I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and American Psycho (2000). Now you have this project called The Expecting, featured on Quibi. Premiering back on October 5th, how did it come about?
Mary Harron – My agent sent me the script and they said it was something Quibi was starting. They were able to finance full-length projects, which is amazing, because you can spend years trying to get financing. I was really taken with the script, it really grabbed me. I’m a big Cronenberg fan and it had a certain body horror element. I’m also a big fan of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), that is a very seminal film for me. The idea that The Expecting focuses on a young woman and her experience, I was very grabbed by it and I could see the film in my head. I believe in the trailer there is a scene that is a dream sequence of a thing popping through her stomach, and that spoke to me about the weirdness of pregnancy. There were a lot of aspects of it that I immediately related to.
Cryptic Rock – Interesting to hear. Broken in segments, it grabs you and makes you want to watch more. Having a Horror theme, there is also an underlined theme of the unknown of pregnancy for a young woman.
Mary Harron – Oh yes, my favorite episodes are actually right at the end. (Laughs) What it builds toward, for me, is my favorite. Yes, it was very important to me and very much about what happens to Emma’s body. Also, her being kind of alone, feeling she can trust some people, and sometimes feeling betrayed. It’s both her out in the world and what’s happening inside of her – is this pregnancy good or is it bad? There are a lot of questions over what happens to her that I found very gripping.
Cryptic Rock – Those are very gripping. As a young woman, she turns to her father, but he is not out for her best interest. The guy she is with seems to care, but she is a strong woman who wants to make her own decisions. A message you get is this is her body and her decision.
Mary Harron – Yes, it definitely deals with questions of women’s rights over their body and who has the right to tell them what to do with it. It is a Horror movie that plays with real issues with girls’ rights, pressures, doctors, etc. I think it’s rooted in something real.
Cryptic Rock – It is. It is broken into roughly 8-minute segments, playing eventually into a full-length film. Is it a challenge to make the cuts for the segments?
Mary Harron – The funny thing was it was scripted in one way that there were cliffhangers at the end of every episode. Sometimes you end up editing it down, and then the cliffhanger changes, so you have to find it within what you shot to create tension. There was a little bit of construction in the editing room to make sure you ended on some sort of tense moment. One of the things I liked about the script is within it there are a lot of surprises; it is very good about keeping you guessing. There was usually enough kind of complexity in the story that you could end on a tense moment.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, and people can check all the episodes now. A lot of your work has been influenced by the feminist movement. As someone who has been a part of that, do you think we have made progress as a society?
Mary Harron – Yes, certainly in my film world. When I was growing up I could not even have named you a woman film director – maybe Leni Riefenstahl (Laughs). I didn’t know of any women directors, really. I didn’t know of any female heads of state – some day in America there will be one (Laughs). I do see progress, but I feel progress has to be protected. There is a tax on the progress we’ve made, just as there is a tax on racial justice. I feel that if we stay strong we can keep things moving forward.
Cryptic Rock – Hopefully. The progress does seem evident. Even in music, you are seeing more and more Rock-n-Roll acts fronted by women. What is very interesting is that, while the Punk scene appeared more equal, now you are seeing that spread over more into the mainstream.
Mary Harron – Yes. One of the first things that really struck me, and seeing a Punk-like image, was looking at the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses (1975). I had never seen a woman look like that, that kind of image of a woman was so inspiring. Then going to see Talking Heads play and seeing Tina Weymouth playing bass, which is amazing! It sort of went from there. I think Punk really started in opening that up in Rock music.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed. Last question. What are some of your personal favorite Horror films?
Mary Harron – I recently saw a film called Relic (2020) which I thought was really great. It was really inspiring to see a young woman director tackle a really female-centered horror story. I love Dario Argento. When we were filming The Expecting I watched a lot of Dario Argento. Deep Red (1975) is one of my favorites and I’ve always watched Suspiria (1977). There is another film, that is not a Horror film, but really violent called Only God Forgives (2013). It’s a visually beautiful movie and it was very inspiring when we were making The Expecting. I like a lot of old British Horror movies. I’m not very big on extremely graphic Horror. With Dario there is also someone who is going to be impaled by broken glass or something, but there are also very beautiful aspects in Dario Argento’s films.