We caught up with writer, actress, and director Guinevere Turner for an interview on screenwriting, Charles Manson (the 50th anniversary of the Tate-Labianca Murders is this year), the Manson women, film, plans for a forthcoming dark comedy about clinical drug trials, and much more.

Turner's credits include writer on American Psycho (where she also played Elizabeth), The Notorious Bettie Page, and her latest with director Mary Harron (who also directed those two films): Charlie Says, which examines something not usually plumbed about the Manson Murders: the un-brainwashing – a psychological process called deprogramming – of 3 of the Manson women who participated in the murders: Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón).  Charlie Says is available now on VOD from IFC Films.

Charlie Says is based on Karlene Faith's book on Van Houten's deprogramming – a process Faith herself saw firsthand, as she was the one who guided that process in all 3 women from behind prison walls (Merritt Wever delivers a solid performance as Faith in the film). The prison scenes in Charlie Says alternating with the scenes at Spahn Ranch (a balance elaborated on by Turner in the interview below) really show the heart of the film as a feminist take on the tragedies orchestrated by the depraved, megalomaniacal mind of Manson – played brilliantly by Matt Smith (Dr. Who, indeed).

I have to say I was initially skeptical of this casting choice, as I was not sure Smith had the dirtiness and manic, manipulative energy of a psychopathic hippie cult-leader like Manson but Smith's performance is unforgettable and bone-chilling in every sense of the terms. I couldn't be happier about being proven wrong here.

Smith's level of mastery over the mannerisms and sociopathic delusions of Charles Manson really gave teeth to that feminist message of the film. These somehow broken women all found their way to this demonic Svengali on a decaying western movie set in the California desert, where they were all taken in by his body language, coupled with initially subtle psychological techniques of manipulation individualized and directed to each of them that their emotional guards would start to fall.

From this point, Manson started to feed them LSD and other drugs regularly while either staying sober himself or taking less than they did; couple this with the Manson Family's regular orgies, Charles Manson's other uses of sex as a means of psychological control (including making one 14 year-old girl "purr"), and the weaving of his increasingly paranoid and reality-disconnected spiritual and socio-political teachingsThe Beatles talking just to him in "The White Album" record and the song "Helter Skelter" predicting a race war; Manson saying he is the incarnation of Jesus Christ on Earth – and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson recording a slightly-rejigged version of one of Manson's songs and not giving him credit (listen here to Manson's original, and here to the Beach Boys version – as the song is essential to understanding the history) – all became a powder keg waiting for its flashpoint.

We all know what came next, when the keg finally ignited, unthinkably-brutal crimes; brutality so shocking the coroner at the scene of the Tate Murders called it "an orgy of blood," unparalleled in his extensive forensic experience. Charlie Says is an inspired and penetrating look at the psychology of the perpetrators of "the crime of the century".

(L-R) Writer Guinevere Turner and director Mary Harron. Source: IFC Films.

Enjoy the interview below and catch Charlie Says on VOD now.

Hello Guinevere.

Hello Guinevere! To start things off, what did the genesis of Charlie Says as a project look like?

I first met with the producers of the project in 2014. 2014, you had to take a long time to make movies sometimes. And there was no director attached, they just wanted to make a movie that focused on the women and then I sort of really struggled with how to make it something fresh and a new perspective as this was all such well-treaded territory…

And then I found the book by Karlene Faith, that really informed an entire half of the movie, which is them in prison and then, sort of, getting un-brainwashed and realizing what they've done.

And then once I've wrote my first draft I sent it to Mary Harron, the director, as a friend, because we've made movies together before and we are – we read each other's scripts all the time. And she said, "This is the best thing you've ever written, I wish I could direct it&"…

So here we are and it's been a long process, I mean, I've probably rewritten it or pieces of it 25 times.

Wow. Yeah. Like Hemingway said, "the only kind of writing is rewriting."

It's not unusual from first draft to on the screen, but in this case it's like big things changed, I guess, as I sort of sat with it. You have an entire character that was a prison psychiatrist, for example. And then all of a sudden it just seemed like we didn't need it. But I worked a lot on that character, it was based on a real person, and then we're like, "Oh, we don't need that." It's very crushing.

Anyway, that's the nature of screen writing.

Like you said the Manson story has never really been told the way that Charlie Says tells it with the view that's showing how the Manson women were victimized too. So I think it's easy for people to see them as just villains, when it really wasn't that simple although they did fit the bill. What were the other challenges like with the view to telling the story that way?

What challenges... I guess the biggest challenge is, obviously, not losing sight of the fact that they did commit these horrible crimes.

Absolutely. They are anything but blameless.

And, whether or not, they were manipulated into it, people- complete strangers brutally died. I keep reminding myself at times as I was writing it and talking with the actors about that when they were playing them, and that was one of the biggest challenges is finding that balance.

Hmm. Very interesting, especially with the fiftieth anniversary of what happened this year. What were the other challenges like with it?

The other challenges... Well finding the balance between... This prison stuff is sad and it's just people talking mostly. Then the stuff on the ranch is pretty and full of people and action and sunlight and drugs and sex and sort of also trying to make sure that it wasn't that you would get disappointed when you cut back to the prison. Because it was not, even though we knew it was going nowhere good, it's a much more sort of visually dynamic world. So finding that, for me, finding the path between this is... I didn't want this to be Charles Manson's movie, but if you want to understand how they got where they got, you kind of have to get sick of his voice, you know what I mean?

Yeah. The voice of the puppet master – absolutely would have to study his lies to get that right.

He has a certain amount of screen time and you sort of have to listen to his gibberish a few times to, kind of, get worn down by him the way they did.

So also finding that balance was a challenge because we don't want his performance or his presence to overshadow all of the other kind of lesser scene and more subtle things that are happening in the movie.

Absolutely and I think you guys hit that balance really well. How did the process with Charlie Says compare to your process with American Psycho?

Well they're different because, with American Psycho, we co-wrote the screenplay, one. And two, it was an adaptation of a book and so there's an element of its own, kind of crazy challenges because if anyone has ever read the book knows they kind of despise cinema, and we figured it out, but at least the book is a contained thing.

Interesting.

The true story of the [Manson] murders and everything surrounding them is so complex and you can take it in so many directions.

And this time I wrote the screenplay on my own and she [Harron] came on later. So the process is really different because when she came on as a director, I was catching her up on years of research that I had done. And then she was reading things, the same texts that I had read, and finding out things that maybe we thought would be good in the movie.

So you know, it was like kind of living in a totally different city in terms of our collaboration, just because of the nature of the material, for one. And then also because of, you know, just because I wrote the screenplay on my own, so it seemed to serve a different dynamic between write and director, if you didn't co-write it.

What did that research look like? I imagine that was an interesting process in itself.

The research?

Mmm hmm (affirmative).

Oh, gosh. Almost everyone who has been anywhere near that story wrote a book about it. A couple people then became religious and wrote another book about it.

Oh wow.

Endless, endless, endless footage of Manson in prison talking. There's so many rabbit holes you can go down as unreliable narrators, but you kind of have to read them all and decide what I... Sort of sift through because there's a lot of BS out there.

It just looks like, for me, it just looks like three or four or five months of reading everything and really, like there are a couple scenes in the movie that are from an interview with Paul Watkins, who just in one interview from a San Francisco publication in the '70s, really gave such intense detail and I found only just photographs of, like a newsprint, alternative press magazine that was gold for detail.

[Read Watkins's memoir free here]

Charles Manson 1972 interview on death row in California’s San Quentin prison.

And so, that kind of knowing that that kind of thing is discoverable is actually kind of maddening because it gives you half... you have to go in every single direction you can.

I mean, I love research so it's fun, but it's also... I just knew, okay, just get ready to be a Manson scholar. Unfortunately, that's who I am now.

And that seems to have worked out well because people often... people get upset with this story and then they challenge me on things and I- I can just set them down because I can say, "Nope, this is what's true and I'll tell you why I know that."

So interesting, very interesting, I guess, is that the research, because between the internet and all the books and then all the things that are not digitized, I still feel like I missed something, some source that felt true.

Well, you know, I think it would be nearly impossible to catch everything that's reliable about it – considering the nature of it. Very interesting in just how the emotions that, like you said, that still brings up in people after 50 years…

Pivoting a little bit to a question I like to ask everybody, what makes a great film?

What makes a great film...

Big question, I know.

It's a great question. Let me think for a second.

Sure.

What makes them me, hmm. I'm just thinking aloud of some that I think are great. Well I can say this, I know it's a great film when I immediately want to watch it again. Which is to say that there's so much in it that you can't take it all in in one viewing and that means levels of detail and nuance and performance and, you know, the wallpaper. That's how I know it's a great film. Because we all know, you can enjoy some and then never think of it again. But if you're still thinking about it... My test is usually if I'm still thinking about a film a few days later, it's very good. And then if I immediately want to watch it again it's great.

Sosie Bacon as “Patricia Krenwinkel”, Hannah Murray as “Lesli Van Houten”, Suki Waterhouse as “Mary Brunner”, Dayle McLeod as “Gyspy”, Kayli Carter as “Squaky Fromme”, Julia Schlaepfer as “Sandra Good”, and Marianne Rendón as “Susan Atkins”, in Mary Harron’s CHARLIE SAYS. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

That's a fantastic answer and that's honestly one I don't think I've ever heard before. One other one that I like to ask everybody, what films and directors and performances would you consider most influential on you as an artist?

Again, that is a question I should have a really quick answer to, but as my research answer earlier may suggest, all of it. [Laughs]

[Laughs]

So who has influenced me, what's funny is that a screenwriter I love is Charlie Kaufman, but I don't write anything like him. So some of the influence is just admiration.

I grew up watching noir films from the '40s and '50s and I feel like my love of movies came from there and so, I think that watching those movies, sort of, influenced me and I have an instinct for story structure, just because I've watched those movies over and over… kind of satisfying.

Absolutely.

And I also read a lot, and I also write prose, and I am very influenced by pretentious shit I could say like [Franz] Kafka and Virginia Woolf but it's true.

Well, you know, that's interesting because noir is sort of what got me into movies. I think it was the noir-precursor – Fritz Lang's M –  that was the first one for me. And "The Trial" is one of my favorite books too. So not pretentious at all in my view.

And let's see, actually last question I had for you was what's next?

Well Mary Harron and I have written another screenplay that we are in the process of raising money for. So another movie with her. And I'm working on several projects, hoping to have a TV show.

Both Mary and I would love to step into dark comedy next, because we sort of miss... Like Charlie Says is not funny. There's nothing funny and we both... the thing that makes us collaborate well together is that we just, we laugh a lot together. We have the same sense of humor. So I'm trying to put together a TV show for us that is a dark comedy that takes place in the world of people inside of clinical drug trials.

Nice. We’ll definitely watch for that.

Which, I know is not that funny, but – I call it… it's kind of like The Breakfast Club meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

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