Spinoff Online recently spoke with Harron about the home video release of "Anna Nicole", the Lifetime movie about the late Playboy Playmate and model Anna Nicole Smith. In addition to talking about the appeal of exploring Smith’s life, she offered her recollections about the experience – and fallout – from "American Psycho", and the difficulties and obstacles female directors in Hollywood face as they, like the men they work alongside, aspire to bigger and better things.
Spinoff Online: What about Anna Nicole Smith’s story first appealed to you?
Mary Harron: Initially I thought, oh, do I want to do another beauty queen story, because I’d done "Bettie Page". But then I thought, oh, it’s so different now – Anna Nicole is kind of like Marilyn Monroe for the reality TV age, and it’s such a different thing now. I was always affected and saddened by the whole story of her and her son – that really stood out to me. I really wanted to make that in a way almost the most important thing, because it is a tragic story because of what happened to her son and what that did to her. So there was a lot going on because you had the fun and the craziness of her story, all of the kind of outrageous behavior, but it was also so sad.
Given Lifetime’s success with making movies that are sort of sensationalistic, what were things you had to kowtow to, and what did you want to do to avoid making this too campy or belittling?
Well, the story itself is so kind of lurid that you didn’t have to add anything – her life was made for this melodramatic story, full of incredible, outrageous highs and lows, working at this fried chicken place and becoming a world-class model. But one thing that Lifetime does because it’s very female-centric is, you know, you can do a sympathetic take on Anna. It would be very much Anna’s point of view, a woman’s point of view, and I thought that was very important for this – for it to be her story. And the original script that was sent to me when I was deciding whether or not to do it was really sympathetic to her; it wasn’t just doing her as a caricature. And then the thing about the campiness is she was kind of campy; I mean, she embraced that. She kind of works with that. So it was complicated.
She had so many different phases to her career, and her life. What was the process of condensing these melodramas into one story that you felt like was cohesive and yet ran only 90 minutes?
It’s hard, because in a way you could do a little miniseries about her. You could definitely have done a whole thing just about her and J. Howard – the Texas years. You do a great film just about the reality show and all of the complications and the complexity of that. But the thing that I wanted was that the biggest throughline be Anna and her son, and the script was very long – we had to cut out quite a bit to fit it into 90 minutes, which is actually less than that because of commercials. It was a shame. But to me there was actually three important people in her life: J. Howard, her “Daddy,” her son and Howard K. Stern. And it was interesting to me that the most important relationships in her life were not sexual, basically – that even though she’s known as a sex symbol, J. Howard was a father figure, basically, a sugar daddy. There was her son. And then Howard K. Stern, who knows the ultimate truth of that relationship? But it seems to have been not sexual, and to be more like partners in crime – like he was the person who was going to make her famous. So I tried to focus on those when we were trying to tell the story – what were the key relationships.
The entertainment industry seems to create a divide between male and female filmmakers in a way that never seems to target the gender of men, but always of women. How much does your gender have to be a priority or a thought when you’re taking on projects, whether it’s this or something else?
Well, I mean, honestly, if I’m going to do a female love story, it’s going to be female-centered. You could do a story about Anna Nicole that was very objectifying, that was just about her outrageousness, her sexiness. And I was interested in what her experience was, just like with Bettie Page. I was interested in what it was like for Bettie to be a pin-up, not how sexy she was. But one thing that happened when I was offered the project was it’s hard to get a film made with a female central character – it’s really hard. You can spend years trying to do it. And it was like, oh, good, this is just coming in, and it’s about this very interesting, very complicated woman. She’s got her good side and she’s got her bad side. She’s a lot of different things in one, so I was like, oh, this is a chance to tell an interesting female story – I don’t get the chance to do that too often.
But the one thing that was difficult is that it’s kind of PG, so the biggest challenge was that you couldn’t show very much. And Anna was a very outrageous person for a lot of her life, and you had to sort of cut to black. You can’t show real nudity. At one point I was filming the strip club and I had some shots of this girl who just had pasties on, and I got a message back, like nope, nope! So it wasn’t terrible, but it was like, OK, those are the limits you have to work with.
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