HNS recently had the opportunity to interview Guinevere Turner, the writer of films such as “American Psycho” and the soon-to-be-released “Charlie Says.” She was kind enough to talk to us about how she came to the project, the unique experience of bringing it to screen and what she feels is an important message to be found in the events associated with Charles Manson and his “girls.”
Turner, herself, was raised in what most people would consider a cult so she had a unique perspective in writing the story. Despite her personal connection, she was more interested in exploring the larger, social questions of, “how could a young woman go from a countercultural, free love seeker to a murderer of strangers in less than a year? And more importantly, “Could that happen to me, given the right circumstances?”
The below is a transcript of the interview with some light editing so it will make more sense when you read it. Be advised that there are spoilers in this interview and there are also mention of some heavy topics that could be a trigger for some.
Our Exclusive Interview
HNS: Well I watched the movie and I really enjoyed it, if that’s the right word for it. I mean I guess that be something that should be “enjoyed” but I’m a student of psychology so I found it very fascinating, the perspective that was taken with “the girls” vs. just telling kind of the horror of Charlie Manson and all, the crime itself, you know.
GT: One of the things I wanted to explore, and one thing people ask me, is how did Manson get the girls to do these things? If you look at the facts, most of them had known him a year before they were committing the crimes for him and that is kind of mind boggling. And from my own experience, when I was looking at adults, and thinking “how could you believe all that crazy stuff? So I was trying to show how people get coerced and manipulated.
HNS: I remember when I was growing up and hearing about Charlie Manson and the whole story. Well, I don’t remember the whole story because I was very young when it happened. But I remember the book “Helter Skelter” and all the conversation around it and just being kind of generally terrified of this guy. I don’t remember a lot of story about the girls except that everybody thought they were kind of nuts. But, like you said they weren’t really part of the narrative with Charlie Manson. However, I think they probably should be right up there with him because theirs is the more interesting story in a lot of ways.
HNS: I know that you had a personal interest in the story from you own upbringing; was it a story that was brought to you, or did you initiate it? Did you think hey this would be a great movie to explore or did somebody come to you after “American Psycho” and propose it to you?
GT: The latter. Which was interesting because you know they wanted to meet with me because they knew, and by “they” I mean the producers, they knew they wanted to hear it told from a woman’s perspective. It was kind of a funny meeting because I said “Never mind ‘American Psycho’, here’s this book that was written in 1971 called “Mind Fuckers” and it was about the family I grew up in, so I’m going to go with that I’m the only person who can write this.” It was also kind of a relief for me, or an exciting prospect, because I have been asked to write about my own childhood a million times and in various mediums and I always said “no”. And with this I thought “oh here’s a project where I can bring that with me and leave it.” You may feel it as a texture in the story but I’m not talking about my own family and my own people that I grew up with. This seemed like a great outlet for something that I’d been trying to try to navigate for myself in terms of writing about it. So, if they wouldn’t have been interested in that aspect of what I was bringing to the table and they just wanted, you know, another movie that was about the sex and the drugs and the murder, murder, murder, then I don’t think I would have done it. But they did. It took me more time to find the book that Karlene Faith wrote that ended being such a huge part of what makes the movie unique and special.
HNS: Yes, the context you brought definitely came through. I’m wondering why you chose to write it with Leslie Van Houten, versus Karlene Faith, as the storyteller.
GT: Because we need to see how the girls were manipulated and you can’t tell that from Karlene’s perspective. And I chose Leslie specifically became I became friends with Karlene in real life before she passed away two years ago. Leslie and Karlene were genuinely friends and had remained friends for the entire time until Karlene passed away. I felt I had a sense of who Leslie was because Karlene had told me the most stories about her that aren’t in the book and that really gave me a fair picture of who this person is and so it seemed like I would be making the least up!
HNS: Well that’s fair. What book are you referring to?
GT: The one she wrote that the movie is based on is called “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie van Houten,” and it is good because you read about the time that I represent in the movie and then you head back to look at the advocacy of her prevention to be let out on parole. I learned from Karlene the real details of how they talked to her about it before they kind of, each of them, realized what had happened to them and how they sorted the details of Charlie said, to what they did.
HNS: I watched this movie as an older woman and I think socially, as in American culture, I’d like to believe we‘ve come to the point where we can watch these women and have a degree of empathy for where they were and how they were manipulated into this. I’m wondering if you think that that’s really just kind of a recent thing? If you tried to tell this story maybe 10 years ago… I think maybe #metoo has been a lot of that, maybe we could still not be open to hearing the story and putting some humanity into these girls and seeing this could be almost anyone.
GT: That’s an interesting question. When you are talking about a movie, you’re always aware of prejudice. I think that you’re right, people might not have been as receptive to this perspective because at the end of the day this movie is about their process of getting manipulated and it really replicates an abusive relationship, the personalities of that relationship, like how women, well people, but predominantly women, get trapped inside domestic violence or just an emotionally abusive relationship. How people get manipulated; it’s how human trafficking works, all of it. I think our society is more aware of all that just because of now how things are changing with the #metoo movement and this is just a new generation of people being like, “what?” (laughs) And we’re like “yeah, it really was like that!” and they are “really?” and then we are all embarrassed that we were putting up with a lot more than we even fully realized. This is how things worked! But also, regardless, one of the interesting things about social movement is that even if people think, “that’s bullshit,” they are less likely to say it. So, if people are rolling their eyes, they are rolling their eyes privately because they know we’re all going to be, like “what do you mean?”
HNS: Your “American Psycho” fans may be disappointed this is not a true “horror” film.
GT: I’m aware that there are people who are going to be disappointed because this is not a horror movie. You know there is a whole genre of people who love thrill killer stories and love stories like this, I like to call it “the Goth place.” But really, these people (in the movies) aren’t real, as in actual people, and fantasizing the details of a serial killer– its not that cool. In this case, people died horrible deaths!
HNS: I thought it was much more interesting and horrifying to see these girls who were all American girls, for the most part. They were homecoming princesses, and these different things that make you think they’re going to have these perfect lives and then they ended up in this terrible situation.
GT: Yeah, it’s more horrifying but it’s not horror movie horrifying. Whenever you make a movie there are some people who are not going to see what they thought they were going to see.
HNS: You had worked with Director, Mary Harron, before. Were you guys kind of on the same sheet of music as far as how this story should be told? How much impact do you have, or influence did you have, after you completed the screenplay? Did you see what you’d been envisioning play out on the screen and casting and that type of thing?
GT: Well this our third film together and we’re friends. I go and do things without her being the director and I think of her as a friend. We were working on separate things and I gave her pages (of the script) to show her what I’d been working and she said, “this is the best thing you ever written and I wish I could direct it.” Because we’ve worked together, she’s a person who will also ask me what I think and I could do and say whatever I wanted on the set. I had done years of research and often she was telling actors “actually go ask Guinevere that question because she might know more.” I was talking to production designers and as a screenwriter you rarely get that kind of access on the set every day and that’s so special. It was one of my most special experiences because I was sitting right next to monitor and she would literally say “Did you have a note for that take?” At certain points with casting I might have said “that’s an odd choice,” but I kept in mind that she fought for the then unknown Christian Bale (American Psycho). She would say, “don’t mess with me casting wise, I have an instinct for people who are going to be famous.” When you’re casting there is this thing that if you get “big name” you get more money but then if you are casting 42-year-old women who are famous and available they will be too old and if you want to really get lost in the movie it is better experience to watch a movie where you don’t have any preconceived notions from seeing them in other movies.
HNS: I think that was important for this movie, just to kind of show that it was ordinary people who got caught up in something that was so much bigger than they were. But I will have to give a shout out for whoever cast Matt Smith as Charlie Manson. I was thinking “Matt Smith, that’s an interesting choice,” but he was scary good. And they were all brilliant but he was really good. I was thinking, “he’s really got this, I’m hoping he’s not channeling the man because, yuck.”
GT: Yes, obviously hundreds of people auditioned for it and he just gave an incredible audition. He did things on the set that Charlie would do, like making shit up as he went along, riffing on things. He would talk to Mary and work on things, for instance he asked if he could wear clothes that were too big to hide his “totally ripped” body and also his height, you know Charlie didn’t have those things, and he just really found the physicality as well as the volatility. And as Mary said, “you muss up that hair, grow a beard and give him brown contacts and your like ‘woop!'”
HNS: He disappeared. He was brilliant. I think you also worked pretty hard to find moments or personality traits that you could exhibit in the screenplay, that Smith could portray to really tell the story and move the story along as far as how Manson chose specific girls who already had that submissive quality to them; that there was something about them that wasn’t going to stand up to him and they would be was easier to manipulate. I’m wondering if you think he was just genuinely crazy or crazy like a fox where he was really working a kind of a revenge plan against Melcher with kind of the ultimate mindf*ck on these girls and it was all just part of a game he was playing with them.
GT: I mean it’s something I’ve obviously thought about a lot… I talked to Matt (Smith) about this because we were saying “did we ever really figure out who Charlie really was?” I think that Charlie was just manipulating people, he wanted to have a harem of women so he could get them to do whatever he wanted them to do. Once people really followed him and he got a taste of the power, I think he started to believe in his own hype. Then, when he didn’t get a record deal (note: this is where Melcher fits in the story), he was scrambling for something big because he was afraid they would leave him…. I don’t know how deep he was, actually, I think his behavior was very impulsive and he would use anything that just popped into his mind that he thought would work in the moment. And he had that instinct (of who could be manipulated) because he had been in prison, and a pimp and was a small time criminal. It was really important to me to have that one scene where he was in the bathtub and the woman comes in, that is one of things in the movie that I completely made up. It showed he couldn’t do this to just anyone, he found women with a specific quality that would allow it. When I was looking to find anything that would help me describe how he did it, I found in a story, a contemporary guy who was a human trafficker and he was telling how he would manipulate women into sex trafficking. He said, “I’ll go to them all and I start a conversation and I will tell her ‘You have pretty eyes’ and if she says ‘thank you,’ I’ll move on to another girl until I get to one that says ‘no, I don’t,’ and that’s my girl.” Its bone chilling.
HNS: Here’s my last question. I think we try to find a lesson to be learned from these kinds of situations. Is there a lesson that we can learn the whole thing and is it really important to find one?
GT: Its not really what I want people to take from my movies but more what can we learn from all of this now. The answer for both is the same and it is, that we can’t see “those people” as people other than us. We have to see that those people that are in cults now or were, or were in this story, were normal people. We all have our moments and our sensibilities and seeing “those people” as separate people from us creates a “us” and “them” mentality that is dangerous for all of us. For me, a lesson that I took from the actual story of Manson and the murders creates a whole other layer of what it meant to be a woman in a counter culture in the late 1960’s before feminism had really found its voice. This counter culture meant you had to do what all these men said and a lot of women ended up in really traditional gender roles and having sex with people when they weren’t always really aware. It was a unique and vulnerable time for women of that era. Because the world seemed like it was corrupt and evil and they really wanted to things like thinking and living and a lot of them, my mother included, did a lot of things they regret now. Women were very vulnerable.
HNS: I have about 40 more questions about that but we are out of time. Thank you again for meeting with me. I’m excited to share this movie with our readers, I thought it was great!
GT: Thank you!
“Charlie Says” opens in theaters on May 17. You can also read our review of the movie, here.