Interview: Mary Harron
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Mary Harron's new film, The Notorious Bettie Page.
Now Harron returns to feature films with The Notorious Bettie Page, a biography of the iconic Fifties pinup, famous for her raven-haired bangs, voluptuous figure, and irrepressibly campy poses. Working again with Turner as co-writer, Harron explores the model's brief career, but stops short of exploring her disappearance in 1957, a mystery which endured until reporters tracked her down in 1992.
In Los Angeles, Harron discussed her take on Bettie Page's strange life, the making of the film, and casting blonde Gretchen Mol in the title role.
Question: It was interesting that you maintained a tone of innocence throughout the whole film. Dealing with a subject like this, how did you inject that innocence?
Harron: I think the style of the film was partly determined by the photos themselves, because that's how we know Bettie. The spirit of those photos is oddly innocent and incongruous. The first photos I saw were the Irving and Paula Klaw photos, where she's always wearing some, you know, bondage boots and laced up corset, and she's always smiling—very radiant and happy. There's just something very incongruous and odd. And the photos themselves are very naïve. They're supposed to be vaguely S&M scenarios, but they're always next to someone's living room couch, or lamp—suburban furniture. All is very odd and disconnected. Then of course Bettie herself, clearly that's always what she projected in the photos—some kind of playful, happy—like a little girl playing dress up. We wanted to reflect that about her.
Question: When you see her filmstrips and her pictures, you tend to think there's some kind of desperate situation behind them—that these people are being forced into doing something that's very distasteful. But in fact they're having a pretty good time. It's hard to reconcile those two things.
Harron: Yeah, some of the photos are very hardcore. You look at them and you think, my God. Leather masks, and ball gags. “Bettie, what are you thinking?” There will always be a big question mark over the story, because it is odd how she could do some very hardcore scenarios and still somehow maintain that sunny detachment about it. That's why I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the studio, because you can't understand the photos until you go back behind them, and recreate the atmosphere in which they were taken, which was mainly Paula [Klaw]. “You're on the clock. Get ready. Move those lights.” Very matter of fact, and businesslike, and quite jolly. The fact was that she was working with models who were friends of hers. For them it was this great living where they just had to wear some crazy costumes and tramp around in high heels. It's only by understanding the atmosphere of how those photos were made that you understand the feelings that [Bettie is] projecting.
Question: Do you have a sense of how the smut business has changed? Now we seem to have a different consensus on how the people who end up in it are victims, and people who have no choices?
Harron: I think also it's very different to actually have sex on camera. Believe me, that was going on in the Fifties. There were stag movies. People were making sex films back then. Not as much as they are now, but that was [still] a different world from what the Klaws were doing. The Klaws actually thought what they were doing was not against the law. They knew they were skirting close. But they thought as long as there were no men in the movies and as long as there was no— Irving Klaw was obsessed with pubic hair. He was obsessed with nudity, because they thought that was clear cut. You can't have nudity in the photographs you send through the mail. They didn't think of themselves as pornographers.
Now of course, post-Sixties, once full frontal nudity became common and could be sold on the newsstands, there was an escalation with Penthouse and Hustler, and then there became a porn industry, which I've never investigated. So I'm not sure. I haven't talked to girls who do that. But emotionally, psychologically, to actually have sex on camera—I think that's a different world. I believe in the pinup world [in the Fifties] there were some sinister forces, but Irving Klaw was not involved with the Mafia, even though some other people were. I'm not saying it was innocent, but it was like a mom-and-pop operation. Now it's such another world because the biggest source of pornography now is the Internet.
Question: What did Bettie Page think of your film?
Harron: I think she liked it, I think she was enjoying it, then when the Senate hearing— I wasn't there when she saw it, but I heard the Senate hearings made her uncomfortable. I think that is not a happy memory for her. That was upsetting to her. I think that she was very pleased with Gretchen [Mol]. I think she really liked her performance. I hope that they're going to meet eventually.
Question: Did the rape scene bother her?
Harron: I think it did, but for some reason it was Senate hearings.
AboutFilm Question: How much of the personal details in the film are things you know for a fact happened, and how much is speculation?
Harron: Very little. The abuse by the father and the rape scene are both things she's talked about in interviews. Not surprisingly for a woman in the 1950s she did not talk about it to people at the time. It was when she was in her Seventies that she began to really talk about them. The conversation with John Willie, the photo session when they're talking about Jesus—that's made up. [Willie] did work with the Klaws. He may or may not have photographed Bettie. There's different opinions about that. But we wrote in that scene because I wanted a scene where she's confronted about religion versus posing.
AboutFilm Question: There's some interesting things that happen later in her life—there's been stories of a nervous breakdown and a police arrest—but you chose to stop the film basically when she stopped her modeling career. How did you reach that decision?
Harron: We spent a year or so trying to incorporate the scenes of her breakdown, which happened much later. The problem is, if you cut from her pinup heyday to those scenes, it's like from Mars. What happened? How did she get there? If you don't show the very, very slow descent that happened over fifteen years, it just isn't credible. It's such a different person.
Also, in order to show the breakdown, you had to show her in middle age. Her whole life and career was based on her being a young and beautiful woman, and her whole identity—everything—had been being a pinup. Even though she left modeling and found Jesus, I think getting old was very hard for her. Also she had the failure of several marriages. You'd have to go into the details of what happened in her personal life, and the disappointment particularly in the final marriage. Her world fell apart on her. It wasn't a sudden cataclysmic thing, it was a very slow descent. Obviously she had a difficult childhood, traumas in her childhood, but [the effects] didn't appear until later, so I thought either we make a film that focuses on the later part of her life, or we do one about the Fifties. I always wanted to make a film that was as much about sex in the Fifties as it was about Bettie herself. So that was the decision.
AboutFilm Question: There probably is a film in that, though.
Harron: You definitely could do it, but you'd have to really do it properly. A couple capsule scenes wouldn't do it justice or explain what really happened.
Question: You haven't had any contact with Bettie, ever?
Harron: I haven't. In the early stages we were negotiating to get her life rights with her agent at the time, James Swanson. Later they had a very bad falling out. She does not think well of him now. But while we were negotiating with him, he was negotiating with somebody else, and he arranged to sold her life rights to somebody else. So contractually she was forbidden to talk to us. But I met with Billy Neal, her first husband who's in the film, and Paula Klaw, before she died, and various photographers. Bunny Yeager. We talked to a lot of people who were part of her life, but didn't get to meet her.
Question: Did you always want Lili Taylor to play Paula Klaw?
Harron: Yeah, I had her in mind when writing it. Lili's a great comedian, but doesn't always get a chance to show that side.
AboutFilm Question: How did you choose Gretchen Mol for this part?
Question: A lot of people came in for it. Even before we started auditioning, I looked through every brunette actress there was, many of them very talented, but somehow nobody was quite right. So then, as I had been unable to find the right person, we started to open up the casting. It's the sort of thing you do sometimes, abandoning preconceptions. You just let a lot of different people come in whom you wouldn't think would be right, among whom was Gretchen, who I initially had not considered for it at all, because I thought she could never look like Bettie. But then she came in and really within a few minutes, I thought, “Wow.” She came in blonde. She didn't try to look like Bettie. She just didn't make a big deal of it. [But] in a very quiet, natural way, she had found something in the character that no one else had, and that was a natural combination of a fun, playful sexuality and innocence—a sweet quality that was very important to the character. After that, nobody else really rivaled her for the role.
Question: You've now done a number of period pieces. What are the complications of attempting to recreate the Eighties, and the Fifties, and the Sixties, on an indie budget? Do you hope that someone will one day give you a lot of money to recreate the past?
Harron: Yes, that would be nice. It's very difficult finding locations. Exteriors [in New York] are very difficult, because it's almost all gone. There's just a few streets. Of course, Times Square is entirely gone, which is why we used the black and white archive [footage]. Also I like that material anyway. Years ago I did a documentary for the BBC about Times Square, so I'd seen a lot of that footage; I knew it was there. You can't just go anywhere and shoot. It makes everything difficult. You have to look at the windows. “Are those Fifties windows? Are those Fifties doorknobs? Are those Fifties light fixtures?” Air conditioners have to be removed. Every little thing has to be thought about, every item of clothing, every prop.
Question: You've said you wanted it to feel like a movie that was made in the Fifties. People acted differently in the Fifties. Did you give direction to actors in that sense?
Harron: Not really. because I think if they did real Fifties acting, it would jump out because it's very stylized. But I had people watch certain movies—Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, Underworld U.S.A. I looked at Touch of Evil—certain great black and white films of the Fifties. There's something a little heightened [in them]. Both Lili and Chris Bauer, who played Irving and Paula, they're doing a little bit of that heightened Fifties style. I was also getting them to take really fast, which was another Fifties thing. I wanted to do as much as possible in the shooting style of the Fifties, where you do a lot in one take, moving the camera, moving actors in and out of camera, rather than cutting fast, like you do today. In order to make those scenes work, and do as much as possible in one shot, the actors have to actually talk quite fast. So we did a lot of, “Faster! Faster!” in rehearsal.
Question: How many episodes of Big Love have you directed?
Harron: Just one.
Question: Has it aired already?
Harron: No. It's number six.
Question: What's it like coming into a series just for episode six?
Harron: It's fine. I've done quite a lot of episodic TV. You just come into it in a very different way, because it's not your movie. It's also the one time where I go in and work on somebody else's script, which is kind of enjoyable, actually. It's interesting, because it's not a way I might write myself, so it's trying to adapt myself to a different style. This is true of all shows. Then also, unlike something you've written yourself and lived with it, you get a script and you have to find it—find the intention in the middle of doing it.
Question: By episode six I imagine the actors are well into their characters. Is there much you can do directing-wise?
Harron: Yeah. You have to accept the characters they've developed. It's more about finding the moments in individual scenes. It's really about detail. But it was fun. And Chloe [Sevigny], of course, I love. I've worked with Chloe before. But it was a great cast—Harry Dean Stanton, and Bruce Dern. All those wonderful actors.
Question: Can you tell us more about the Legs McNeil adaptation you have in pre-production?
Harron: It's very loosely based on his book Please Kill Me, and it's set from about ‘75 to ‘78 in New York. We've added some fictional characters, because that book is such a panoramic tale of punk rock. For a movie, you have to focus it on a few characters. It will be a mixture of fact and fiction. And of course, that's a period film too because there's so little left of downtown. When I lived in New York in the Seventies, I had an apartment for under 200 dollars a month on St. Mark's Place, so that's almost in my universe.
Question: You don't even have CBGB's anymore.
Harron: No, it's very sad, it's ending. I just went there a couple of weeks ago. End of an era.
[Read the AboutFilm review of The Notorious Bettie Page]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Gretchen Mol]
Article and interviews © May 2006 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE images © 2006 Picturehouse. All Rights Reserved.
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