While Mary Harron gained international attention with her feature film debut, the exhilarating “I Shot Andy Warhol,” she already had made a reputation for herself as a punk-rock journalist in Britain; a music, theater, and television critic for various publications including the Guardian and the New Statesman; short filmmaker and screenwriter for various TV outlets including the BBC, WNET New York and Fox Television; and all-around iconoclast in terms of preferred subject matter.
“Andy Warhol,” her gritty portrait of “Scum Manifesto” author Valerie Solanas which took seven years to make its way to the premiere screening at Sundance in January ’96 launched Harron’s career as a feature film director, and now international audiences are enjoying Harron’s characteristic attention to our era’s most provocative characters.
Harron and co-writer Dan Minahan wrote and researched the script for “Andy Warhol” together. It was a daunting process, given the task of having to re-create such well-documented public figures as Warhol, who also was represented, albeit less convincingly, in such pics as “The Doors” and the more recent “Basquiat.” In addition, the production required nothing less than the re-creation of Warhol’s legendary Factory, and a credible interpretation of the complex character of Solanas, who is played compellingly by Lili Taylor.
The film played for the first time at Sundance last year. “I was surprised by how many people came to see the film,” Harron recalls. “I was kind of overwhelmed by the festival I wasn’t expecting all the attention, and it was slightly scary because I hadn’t been to a festival before.” Harron also recalls that the one shadow looming over Sundance was the question of her film’s distribution future: The Samuel Goldwyn Co., which was supposed to release the film, was undergoing severe difficulties, and no one knew how or when the film would open theatrically.
The film eventually opened domestically through Orion in April, while Harron traveled the world attending film festivals. “I think we were best received in Cannes,” Harron says. “And Cannes, after Sundance, was probably the most exciting because it’s most like a fantasy come true; it does live up to all its billing.”
Between flights around the world, Harron has managed to complete two feature screenplays. The first, “The Betty Page Story,” takes a look at one of America’s most famous pin-ups and was written for HBO. Harron collaborated on the script with Guinevere Turner, who also wrote and starred in a previous Sundance hit, “Go Fish.” “Gwen will play Betty,” Harron explains. “It’s been a lot of research work, and I would say it’s more like ‘I Shot Andy Warhol’ than a traditional biopic.”
Harron and Turner also have collaborated on an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” the brutal novel that stirred considerable controversy after it was published in the early ’90s. “Chris and Roberta Hanley, who are producers with Ed Pressman and who had optioned the book, contacted me after Sundance,” Harron explains. “They felt that I might share that sensibility, and I think because it is such a notorious and controversial book, everyone felt that it might be safer to get a woman to write and direct it.”
In their adaptation, Harron and Turner have shifted the focus of the book away from the violence. “I think the book has kind of been misunderstood,” Harron says. “And most people who attack it haven’t read it. I was interested in it as black comedy and as a social satire of the ’80s. So we’ve done our own version, one that is not as violent as the book. The violence is obviously extreme, and something that I would not want to put in a film. But you can actually keep what’s interesting about the book without having all the violence.”
And if all this hasn’t been enough to keep a director and screenwriter busy, Harron is pregnant, due in late May. This means the shooting schedules for the Betty Page project and “American Psycho” are in flux, although Harron thinks the Page project will happen before May.
For Harron, Sundance last year marked both a beginning and the continuation of a career rich with surprises; it will be interesting to see her take on sex and satire in the near future.