‘Dalíland’ Director Mary Harron Explains Why She Keeps Making Movies About ‘Awful’ People

The filmmaker also talked to Jezebel about Dalí's life in '70s New York, portraying his muse Amanda Lear as trans, and working with Ezra Miller.

‘Dalíland’ Director Mary Harron Explains Why She Keeps Making Movies About ‘Awful’ People
Image:Magnolia Pictures; Lionsgate; MGM

Mary Harron doesn’t like to call her movies “biopics,” but she does like making films about real-life people. Her first movie was 1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol, a depiction of the failed attempt by SCUM Manifesto’s Valerie Solanas to assassinate Andy Warhol. Movies about Bettie Page (2005’s The Notorious Bettie Page), Anna Nicole Smith (2013’s The Anna Nicole Story), and Charles Manson (2018’s Charlie Says) followed, as did American Psycho, which didn’t qualify as anyone’s definition of a biopic but kind of feels like it, as few fictional characters occupy a space as large in pop culture iconography as Patrick Bateman.

Harron’s latest is Dalíland (out Friday), a portrait of a late-career Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) in ‘70s New York City. He’s surrounded by a crew of loved ones, fellow partiers, and hangers-on, including his wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa) and his muse Amanda Lear (Andreja Pejić). This world of forgeries, orgies, and casual sexual harassment is viewed through the eyes of James (Christopher Briney), a gallery assistant who enters Dalí’s world and quickly endears himself to the artist.

Over a Zoom with Jezebel, Harron discussed her new movie, working with Ezra Miller (who plays a young Dalí), portraying Amanda Lear as trans, and why she is so drawn to subjects that others deem “awful” people. A condensed and edited transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: Dalíland is your fifth biopic.

MARY HARRON: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think of any of them as biopics, really. Maybe The Anna Nicole Story was kind of more traditional. But I feel like they’re always focusing on some real-life aspect rather than trying to tell a whole life. I think this is very true of this one. It’s not trying to tell the whole life and it’s not trying to sort of explain [Dalí’s] part in art history. This is much more a portrait of him in a twilight time, a very unlikely time, because he’s in New York and it’s ‘70s culture, which, weirdly enough, he’s sort of fitting in with. And there’s this crisis with his marriage. So it’s just really quite a specific time frame.

It feels very much like a period piece in that respect. It also strikes me that by profiling him post-peak, you get to see more vulnerability there. At another period, his grandeur might come off as justified, but here we get to look at his self-concept and the reality side-by-side and with clarity.

That was what I wanted. First, I didn’t want to do another biopic about an artist. And then my husband, John [C. Walsh], who wrote the script, wrote me a memo saying that this is about fear of death, a man terrified who’s dancing as fast as he can to keep away these specters of death and aging. And the idea of this swirl of parties and people and entourage is to keep what was always there from coming for him. He was so eccentric, and it’s very hard to ever understand genius, but in this aspect of the fear of aging he’s completely mortal and completely human and relatable to us.

Was it tricky at all to set something in the ‘70s when the cultural mores were different, especially around sex and consent, just knowing that a contemporary audience with its own ideas would be viewing this?

I’m sure people will disapprove of some of the behavior, but, I was there in the ‘70s. This is also a personal thing. I moved to New York as a young person in 1975. And so I remember the atmosphere, how exciting it was. I’m a great believer in not censoring the past. I like trying to present the past as the past and not do a wistful, comic version of the past.

Public disapproval is something that you’ve been dealing with for years, right? I mean, there were protests when you were making American Psycho. “Cancel culture” isn’t a new thing.

I’ve always dealt with this. And it’s funny because I dealt with it in a different way. With I Shot Andy Warhol, people felt that it was outrageous to give a platform to this radical feminist assassin, and that her story should not be told. And now the culture has moved more towards her.

Director Mary Harron Image:Magnolia Pictures

What do we gain by creating a sanitized version in the present? I just feel like we should deal with it. Not that I want to create something that’s oversexualized or exploitative or whatever. But these are the things that people do. Do we want to understand our history and what humans are capable of? I had this very much with Charlie Says. A lot of people were very offended that I chose to tell the story of those women [the so-called “Manson girls”]. But it was like, well, we need to know. People are still doing this thing. People are still entering cults. What is it? What is it about women who enter into an abusive cult? I just want to understand them. That was what interested me in that story. They could be my cousin, they could be my sister. I just need to understand. And I think in order to do that, you take on unpleasant sides of behavior. The idea of just presenting a more idealized version of, like, all these movies set in the past, where all the women are so feisty and independent and feminist—you know, really, you would be locked up and sent to a convent. This would not fly. And I just feel that’s kind of Hollywood sentimentality: Hollywood is cleaning things up. It’s just a different brand of it.

You’ve been making these bold choices since the ‘90s. Has it become more difficult to have that ethos and really stick to it?

I don’t know if it’s more difficult. It’s just coming from a different direction. I haven’t felt so much on this one, but maybe there will be some on this one. Consistently, all the way through, it’s been: “Why are you making films about these awful people?” I guess that’s probably the key note of everything I’ve done. Why make a film about these awful people? I guess I’m fascinated by them, and I think their stories have something to say to us. Especially as a woman director, I never just wanted to do a story about a straightforward heroine. I remember being offered years ago the thing about the suffragettes, and the suffragettes are great, but I’m interested in contradiction or people who are good and bad, you know? Like Gala [Dalí]. Among muses, she’s in many ways sort of the worst or the most hated, but she’s also the most wonderful, because she stood up for herself. You can’t say, “Oh, she’s a wonderful person. She’s a heroine.” But she’s an epic, fascinating figure.

There are aspects of Dalí’s that you could have included that would have created an even darker portrait of him. Like the fascist stuff.

I thought of that. I guess the thing about Dalí is I don’t think he had strong political opinions. He was a tremendous coward. And he was so attached to Spain, and basically in order to live in Spain, he would kowtow to the fascists. To do that story is so complex, because his last dying words were to Federico García Lorca, who he had really abandoned. I think his abandonment of Lorca, and also to a lesser extent [Luis] Buñuel, weighed on him very heavily towards the end. And you could definitely make a film about what happened during the Spanish Civil War and why he ran away, what happened to Lorca [who was killed in 1936 by rightwing military authorities], which was so awful, and the regret that [Dalí] carried for the rest of his life. But you can only do one film, and this was a different one. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to evade it. I wondered about how to bring it in, but sometimes you’re trying to jam too much. And that was it.

Image:Magnolia Pictures

The rumor that Amanda Lear is trans is acknowledged explicitly in the film, but also supported implicitly in your casting of [trans model/actor] Andreja Pejić in that role. Do you think Amanda Lear is trans? Is that what the movie is saying?

I do believe she is. I met her when I was very young. I interviewed her for a music magazine when I was very young in Paris. And I mean, honestly, that was the first thing that anybody ever said about Amanda before you met her. It’s kind of cruel, there’s been a lot of investigation into her by French journalists. They found her original passport and ID papers. To me, it’s pretty clear that she is trans. Andreja Pejić and I talked about this. Andreja obviously is out and proud about being trans. We were like, “[Amanda] has her truth, let her stick to it. We support her in however she wants to present herself.” But I couldn’t in all conscience… Because the initial suggestion from the producers was, “How about Lady Gaga as Amanda or whatever?” And it was like, no, it has to be someone trans. It’s also a very important aspect of Dalí. Dalí had a lot of trans friends like International Chrysis. Dalí loved people who were in between or in the margins. I think he almost saw them as like angels or extraterrestrial—people who are “other.” And he felt comfortable with that because he also was other. To just make it banal, and she’s just another beautiful girl who’s a muse, that didn’t fly for me.

[Jezebel reached out to Lear for comment via the contact email on her website. We did not hear back but will update this post if we do.]

Did you shoot this before or after all of this stuff started coming out about Ezra Miller?

It was before. Ezra had been attached to the project forever. I had initially cast them as James. This was like eight years ago. We didn’t have the financing, and at the time they said that we couldn’t cast them because they weren’t famous enough. And then, of course, they became too famous. But they stayed with the project to play young Dalí. I met with them probably three years ago and we just had tea and talked about the character. They were making The Flash, but they were very disciplined and said, “I need some information, I need some research,” and I sent a whole ton of stuff. I wasn’t expecting that they would be able to do much more than walk through it, because they were coming straight from this very heavy shoot. And they arrived with a perfectly, perfectly thought out, worked out performance that was so impressive. They were very nice to everyone on set. They had to stay in a crappy hotel like everyone else. We all had a great time with them. I believe they were good in The Flash as well.

“Do we want to understand our history and what humans are capable of?”

And then I think when they were not working, everything went off the rails. I don’t know because I have not talked to them directly since then, but they seem to have had an absolutely epic breakdown that needed care and treatment. It’s really sad and awful. I wish them recovery and I hope they make amends to anybody they’ve hurt. It’s very sad, and in the modern world, to have someone go through such a psychological crisis in public.

Years ago in an interview discussing your interest in portraying Valerie Solanas’ life on film, you said, “I think there were elements of my own frustration and elements of what it was like growing up with an unfair attitude towards women.” Has working in the film industry ameliorated that frustration or intensified it?

When I first started in television, I was in documentary, which is actually a kinder place for women than feature films would have been. There were a lot of women involved, but still, I encountered all kinds of sexism from crews. And even today, people can assume you don’t know anything. Regardless of how much you’ve done, people will just assume you don’t know anything. But I’ve managed to make my own world. Yes, in the industry at large there’s still a male dominance, but believe me, from when I first suggested doing I Shot Andy Warhol, it’s improved greatly. And I’m so happy there’s so many young women [in film]. If my daughters wanted to go into film, I would be like, “Yes, there’s a whole world for you and you can do it.” I do feel like sometimes there’s a Hollywood feminism that’s celebrated that’s kind of sanitized: You know, it’s all okay with these feisty young women who will find a happy ending. And it’s like, okay, well, that’s just a Hollywood version that slightly takes the sting out of everything. But that’s Hollywood, and it will always be.

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