Canadian writer-director Mary Harron has only made three feature films but they all attracted a devoted, cultish fanbase. As part of the Birds Eye View film festival, she’ll be presenting her own masterclass at London’s ICA cinema on March 7, just before a screening and Q&A of The Notorious Bettie Page.
LWLies: The films that you've directed – American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page and I Shot Andy Warhol – and produced – The Weather Underground – are all very esoteric choices; how have you managed to secure such undeniably 'cool' film projects in such a competitive industry?
Harron: It is not easy. All three of my films got turned down everywhere – by every studio and independent company – before they finally found a home. That's why I haven't made more films! It's not for want of trying.
LWLies: Does being a non-American female director help or hinder your pitches?
Harron: I don't think most people know that I'm Canadian. Americans aren't very interested in Canada. To them it's just a frozen wasteland attached to the USA. I'm not sure if being female hurts or hinders. I suspect there's an unconscious bias at work where producers take a man more seriously. It's like they want a director who is a fantasy version of themselves, some dynamic boy wonder. On the other hand, there are so few female directors you do get to stand out more.
LWLies: Many directors will produce more commercial features to fund their personal projects, but you seem to do well without sacrificing your choices. Is that the case, or am I romanticising your films?
Harron: Umm, you're probably romanticising. I'm not against doing a commercial project at all. But making a film takes takes at least a year or two of your life, not to mention the time you have to then spend publicising it, so I want it to be something I really like. In the past it's been easier for me to finance my life through television. LWLies: You have directed individual episodes of shows like Big Love, Oz and The L Word, what benefits are there to directing a TV show as opposed to a film?
Harron: You are in and out in a month, which is easier than trying for five years to make a movie. It's well paid, which independent films are not, and you get to practice directing. And, on the whole, I think television in the last few years has been more exciting than film; I don't think anything has matched The Sopranos. I prefer making films because in episodic television you are basically a hired hand, and the writers and producers have the final say. But I admire a lot of television drama. And it's fun for me to direct someone else's script, because in film I usually write my own. LWLies: What will your masterclass at the ICA – part of the Bird's Eye View Film festival – focus on? What sort of experience will you expect the attendees to have?
Harron: Actually, we haven't discussed the content yet! I hope a lot of it will be questions from the audience.
LWLies: You both write and direct screenplays, who else working at the moment do you admire for a similar talent?
LWLies: So, what's your next film going to be; and will you return to film after spending time in TV?
Harron: My next film is The Moth Diaries based on a novel by Rachel Klein. It's a vampire story set in a girls' boarding school. It's modern Gothic, kind of an update of Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. I'm very excited about it, and I'm in the casting process right now.