It’s often discussed how few female directors there are in Hollywood, but one that has been working behind the camera in TV and film since 1989. Since then she’s directed for some of the best dramas on cable television, including episodes of The L Word, Oz and Six Feet Under, but she’s best known for her feature films like American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, both of which she wrote with Guinevere Turner.
Queer women might just be some of Mary’s biggest fans, myself among them. Her first movie was I Shot Andy Warhol, an indie produced by Christine Vachon‘s Killer Films focusing on lesbian feminist Valerie Solanas, most famous for attempting to kill the king of pop art. And in 2011, Mary featured a queer storyline in her vampire boarding school tale, The Moth Diaries.
In a new interview with The Believer, Mary talks about her childhood love of film and her career. Although highly-respected, she’s taken some hits with some poor reviews, and I Shot Andy Warhol was widely criticized because of its perceived glorification of a woman who was an attempted murderer. Mary explains how she became interested in Valerie Solonas:
I was part of the punk scene, and even before that my sister introduced me to the Velvet Underground. I was very into them, and then at college I wrote a big piece about Warhol for this university magazine. I spent a summer looking at his movies; there was a retrospective of his movies in Notting Hill Gate. Then when I moved to New York after college and went to CBGB’s I had a context to put what was happening into place. The first time I went to CBGB’s and Lou Reed was there: you were very aware of Warhol in that whole world. Later, when I was a music writer, I got the idea to do a piece on Warhol’s influence on pop music. I interviewed him briefly, as long as you could, which wasn’t very long. I met him at a dinner party through one of my friends who was higher society than me. Then years later I worked on a documentary about the Velvet Underground and Warhol; I did all the interviews myself. I knew about Solanas but she was just a tiny reference. Then when we were editing, I was walking to my house in South London, and I was walking up Railton Road and I passed a left-wing bookstore with a copy of SCUM Manifesto, by Solanas, in the window; I bought it and read it on the subway. It was a life-changing, cataclysmic experience because I thought, This is a work of genius. It completely changed my perspective. I was working on all these biographies of great artists in that reverent way. Warhol, Pollack: all serious, revered people in the canon. I had the idea that I would do a reverse-engineering documentary focusing on the least important person—if you take the world of Warhol, tell it through the least important person. Because when I read SCUM Manifesto and thought it was brilliant, and then I realized that a person you see in rags on the subway could be this brilliant person; it really opened up the world. The people we are told are the most clever or talented aren’t necessarily so. This work was completely brilliant, and apart from this one thing, she’s forgotten. There’s nothing written about her. Why not tell a story about that person—the totally obscure person?
The interviewer makes a note that last year San Francisco-based queer writer Michelle Tea tried to organize a celebration of Valerie’s work but was forced to cancel after heavy protest. It’s clear that Valerie is still a polarizing figure.
Lili Taylor as Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol
“I think about what she said about women who are toadies,” Mary said in The Believer. “I think that’s still relevant—there’s a notion of feminism I sometimes think of as idiot feminism, and that Hollywood is big on, a branch that is not smart or fully thought through. Like having a woman in power or talking about sex is some totally modern form of empowerment: that’s ridiculous. What will remain interesting about her is that her work is both blindingly insightful and mad at the same time, which makes it radioactive. It will never lose its power, because the craziness is what allowed her to go there and get those insights. She wasn’t making a career. Academia has choked feminism in a way. Bless her.”
But the fact of the matter is, the only way Mary could sell a movie about Valerie — a woman, a lesbian — was to use the well-known male figure in the equation.
“I was lucky with my first film because it had Warhol in it. That was the selling point. So, in a way, Warhol sold Valerie, but I was interested in the meeting of the two.”
Mary says her interest in The Moth Diaries came from reading the book her film was based on, and falling for the friendships the young women shared.
“It affected me strongly and brought back my own childhood and these incredibly intense friendships I had in my preteens. These great loves,” Mary said. “It seemed to me that this is a love and relationship that is almost never written about. People make films about all kinds of relationships, but they won’t do these extremely intense platonic love affairs that happen between young girls. In a way they are more intense than anything else you ever have, and that’s what I wanted to make a film about, though it was in the context of a horror film.”
Unfortunately the film didn’t do as well as she’d hoped. Critics weren’t enthused by the story, and box office numbers were low.
“The Moth Diaries had a rough ride, much rougher than I was expecting,” Mary said. “I had to do soul-searching after that to find a way to keep going. I tried to think back on how I found the courage to make my first film when no one thought I could do it. You have to go back and find that part of yourself again. At any age you can start over. You have to drop the idea of where you should be in your career. And you have to do without a lot of love. Not everyone’s going to love you.”
Mary also said she turned to Guinevere Turner to work on American Psycho with her after her work “the first big, successful lesbian film.”
“We knew that no one could lecture us about feminism,” Mary said of the experience. “That gave us a lot of strength. We didn’t have to apologize or add some bullshit moral lesson to it. We felt we could trust our instincts and do what we thought was interesting.”
Mary said her time spent directing the 2004 L Word episode “Liberally” was “very open”; “[they] let me find my own style, but other shows I’ve done, like the final season of Six Feet Under—you’re obviously not going to shape the style at that point.”
But that episode of Six Feet Under, (“The Rainbow of Her Reasons”) brought Mary back to working with Lili Taylor, the new actress she’d cast as Valerie Solanas back in the beginnings of their careers. And like everything Mary Harron does—up through her most recent work on Lifetime’s Anna Nicole Smith—has a very feminist sensibility that Mary doesn’t see so black and white.
“I feel like it’s marginalizing in a way. Then again, I really dislike it when women reject feminism; that’s ridiculous,” she said. “I am a product of feminism. Without feminism I would not be making films. So in that sense I would definitely claim that label, but I just don’t think I’m an ideological filmmaker in any way. I don’t know how anyone could see anything I’ve done and see that. I do think I do women’s histories, and in that sense you could fit me into the label of a feminist filmmaker.”
Here’s hoping she isn’t planning to stop with her work anytime soon, and that others will follow suit.