Directing with Mary Harron
New York City
Mary Harron is an independent film director whose diverse filmography includes ‘American Psycho’, ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’, and ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’. Her career began in journalism and led her to the burgeoning punk scene, a good training ground for working in independent films. She then transitioned to screenwriting and directing. In The Career Cookbook interview, Mary shares her thoughts on succeeding as a director, what a typical day on the job is like, and the rewards of working in a career that you love.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in the film industry?
MH: I always loved films and when I was young I thought I would try and be a screenwriter. I didn’t think of directing at that time. When I was growing up there were hardly any women directors and I thought it was a very technical job which made it seem very intimidating. I studied English Literature at college and did some acting, but then I got interested in student journalism. I was a journalist for a few years, first in New York and then in England. A lot of my friends from college were working in television and I started getting interested in documentary. Eventually I got a job as a researcher in television and the first time I went into a film editing room I remember thinking this was the world I wanted to be in for the rest of my life.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a film director?
MH: Actually most of the time you are waiting at home for the film to be financed. That means a lot of time spent on the phone and writing e-mails. I have written or co-written all my films so I also spend a lot of time at home writing. When a film is happening then how the day goes depends what phase you are in, whether it’s pre-production, filming or post-production. Pre-production is very busy and involves casting, choosing crew, working on the design of the film and shot-listing with the cinematographer. The shoot is the most arduous part of the job. It’s short and intense --- mine have all been from 6 to 8 weeks – with 12 plus hour days. My favorite stage is the editing stage of post-production, where you work just with the editor to turn all that footage into a film. After ‘picture lock’ when the edit is finished you feel like you are done but there are still many weeks of sound work, getting the score right, checking the print etc.
CCB: How did you break into the industry?
MH: Even after I started working in television I still didn’t think I would ever be able to direct a feature film. After a few years as a researcher I finally got a job as a director making short films for a documentary show in Britain and that went very well. I had also started writing scripts with a friend. Eventually I started working on the script for my first film ‘I shot Andy Warhol’. It started as a drama documentary and evolved as a full fledged feature film. I still wasn’t very confident but I believed in the story and somehow that just carried me along.
CCB: How did you learn about directing?
MH: I really learned on the job. I never went to film school. When I worked in documentary we had very small crews, just three or four people. My first day on the set of ‘ I Shot Andy Warhol’ I remember looking round at this big crew and thinking: “I have no idea what all these people do”. But eventually I picked it up!
CCB: Is it difficult to adapt somebody else’s work? Is this any easier if you have written the screenplay?
MH: I definitely find it easier to adapt a novel because then you have a story and a structure to work with, even if you have to alter it to find the demands of film. On my first film I definitely found it an advantage to have written the script. I felt that the actors trusted me because I had written it and they felt I knew their characters.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a film director?
MH: Most of all you need persistence because it is extremely difficult to get a film made, and there is a lot of rejection. You can’t allow yourself to get too self-pitying or bitter – you just have to hang in there. There are a lot of ups and downs, and you have to try and remain level headed through both the good times and the bad.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming film directors?
MH: I don’t think there is any one route to directing. I didn’t go to film school, but my husband John C. Walsh, who is also a writer/director, went to NYU film school and found it very rewarding. Film school does offer you the chance to make films without commercial pressure. It’s always good to get a job in film or television before you start directing. It’s good to be on the crew before you become the boss! Other than that I think you just have to think “By any means possible” and take any job you can that will get you experience. I also did a lot for free. I got paid virtually nothing for my first film, but it changed my life.
CCB: Do you feel that you have faced any challenges as a female director?
MH: I think it is more difficult for women directors. I don’t think it’s so much of a barrier in documentary, and there are a lot of women directing independent films. Doing television drama is not easy for women – it’s really hard to break in – and big budget films are even harder. I think these barrier are being broken down but the progress is slow.
CCB: Do you think that you possessed any advantages as a female director filming ‘The Notorious Bettie Page’?
MH: I definitely saw the subject very differently than a male director would. I was interested in her experience of being a pin-up rather than in her as a sex symbol.
CCB: Has your punk background influenced the way you make your films and been helpful working in the independent film scene? (Do It Yourself ethos)
MH: That experience has definitely been very helpful. When I first got to know the independent film scene in New York it reminded me very much of the old punk days where people would just start their own bands and magazines. The big record labels wouldn’t let them in so they did it themselves. That was very true of indy film in the early days. Of course just as the big record companies bought up almost all the punk labels, eventually the big companies bought up the independent film companies, but that’s another story. I still carry that idea, that if I can’t get a film financed my husband and I can get a camera and make something ourselves. We’ve made several short films that way.
CCB: Your three features are all period pieces although very different types of films. Is there something that is attractive about focusing on certain historical time frames?
MH: I’m very interested in the way a person’s life is affected by the era in which they live. This was particularly true for women in the twentieth century, where their lives and opportunities changed so much. I also really enjoy re-creating historical period. I do a lot of research through photographs, books, magazines and documentaries to get it right. However, the film I’m working on now has a contemporary setting and I must say it’s a relief to shoot a scene without having to worry whether the lamps or the window frames are historically accurate.
CCB: Do you think that the attitudes regarding ‘American Psycho’ as a film have changed throughout the years?
MH: Yes, when the film came out I don’t think it was considered a great success. In fact there was an article in the New York Post saying what a disaster its premiere at Sundance was! The film had some great reviews but also some very bad ones, and it did OK but not spectacularly at the box office. It was only when people started watching it on DVD that it developed this cult success. It’s definitely the film I am best known for and I’m surprised at how many young people have seen it and how many parodies (or homages) there are on the internet. It’s an unusual film in its blend of black comedy and horror and I think that at first a lot of people didn’t know how to take it. They weren’t sure where it was meant to be funny or not. And of course Christian Bale is brilliant in the film and his success has drawn a new generation to it.
CCB: Do you find directing film and TV projects to be very different?
MH: In film, especially if you have written the script, it really is your vision. In television you are implementing the writers’ vision. In episodic television unless you direct the pilot and therefore help to create the look and feel of the series, you are stepping into a world that has already been created. You have to produce something that fits in with what has already been done.
CCB: What has your learning curve been like from ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ to your most recent work to date?
MH: I feel I am always learning. After my first film I directed episodes of ‘Homicide’ and ‘Oz’ and I learned a lot from that because you have to work very, very quickly – it’s like director’s boot camp. I’ve continued to direct television in between films, both because I need to make a living and because it’s very good experience. I think you just absorb by doing. You get a feel for what lenses you like, what shots work, even if you’re not a very technical person (which I’m not). My new film is a psychological horror film with visual effects and that is really new territory for me, working with computer generated imagery.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job, most rewarding?
MH: The most difficult part is the rejection, when you can’t find anyone to finance your project. All my films have had a hard road before they got made. When you start filming it is so amazing to see the world you have been thinking about so long on the page finally made real. It really is magical, like a dream come to life.
Of course when you are filming there are stresses, producers pressuring you about the budget, personality tensions in the crew or the cast. I like to keep a harmonious set, but even if there is a lot of camaraderie there are always problems and there is never enough time. “Every day a mountain” is what I always think to myself. However, once you have made the film the rewards are incredible. If it’s a success you really do get an inordinate amount of attention for what you do, far more than people in really difficult jobs like nurses or doctors or teachers or firefighters. It’s really a very privileged world.
CCB: What are your career aspirations? What’s next?
MH: Having struggled so much with the budget on the film I’m making now it would be great to have more money. I would like to make a studio film at some point. I’m also writing several projects with my husband: we have a film idea and a couple of television projects. So I’m hoping one of those will come through soon.