As both director and writer, Mary Harron has produced some of the most memorable explorations of gender onscreen. From I Shot Andy Warhol to The Notorious Bettie Page and even her sly and stylish deconstruction of American Psycho, Harron’s films have always approached the interrelationship of violence, gender, and victimhood with incredible intellect and honesty. The same is true with Harron’s latest project, the six-part Netflix series, Alias Grace.
Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel with a script from Sarah Polley, Alias Grace bears the hallmarks of Harron’s directorial method. It is simultaneously lush and violent, tender and brutal, deeply intellectual and empathetic. I had the pleasure of speaking with Harron last week about Alias Grace and her other films. Our conversation, which ranged from the details of how Harron approached her latest project, to her thoughts Grace’s unreliable narration and depicting a botched abortion, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What attracted you to Alias Grace?
MARY HARRON: It was fantastic. When Sarah Polley sent it to me, she sent me all six scripts. It was very unusual for a series to have every episode already written. I was able to read the whole thing and get a sense of the scale of it. It’s incredible material; just a great story, apart from the sort of political dimension or anything else, it’s just a great story.
Had you worked with Sarah Polley before or did she approach you unexpectedly?
I knew her already because, years ago, I had a movie in development that I wanted her to play a big role in. I had met her a few times and got on well with her then. Then, I’d met her at premieres of her movies, in New York and elsewhere, after she started directing, So, I knew her that way. But it was a big surprise to me that she was sending me six scripts.
It must have been very intense to read all six scripts at once.
It was crazy. But they’re very gripping. I can tell really early on if I like something or not. I always feel like if I want to do something, I can see it in my head. I guess I could see the story and the whole approach—the character, the complexity, and the tone of voice really, really appealed to me. The tone, especially, really captured me.
You brought up tone, and one of the things that really struck me while watching Alias Grace is that it seemed almost like a cousin to I Shot Andy Warhol in many ways. They both raise a lot of really complex question about sanity and gender and violence. Are those themes that you are attracted to as a filmmaker?
I must be! What you’re attracted to is what you end up doing. I’m very interested in this idea of madness, of asking: “Were they driven to it? Is society mad? Is that what makes them mad? Is it their terrible experiences that make them mad?” I’m interested in women in history and in women in society. I’m particularly interested in women whose lives were affected by the time that they were born into.
I always felt that with Valerie [Solanas], if she were born ten years later, her life would have been much better. In addition to coming from a bad family—having an abusive father—and poverty, she was badly affected by being in college in the 1950s which, in 20th century America, was the most conservative time for women. If she had just been a few years later, she would have hit the beginnings of political feminism and had more allies.
What’s interesting about Alias Grace and I Shot Andy Warhol is that even though both are period pieces, they seem to both raise very pertinent questions—or, questions that are pertinent at this very moment. Watching Alias Grace, watching Grace’s anger, watching these complex questions play out in the middle of the Weinstein allegations and its aftermath, it all seemed very entangled. Do you think these stories transcend their historical moment?
Obviously, they’re stories of the past being interpreted through a contemporary sensibility. I feel like our society has changed but in some ways, our society hasn’t changed. Women have much more mobility and women have more freedom to protest, but still, there’s that question of “Who are you?” Women are trying to fulfill all of these roles, trying to be who people want them to be. There are all of these things about identity and certain rights, especially rights over your body, that are still going on. In a harsher, 19th century society, you just see it in a more brutal way.
Alias Grace is a very brutal story and a very violent story. You certainly didn’t shy away from depicting that violence and you haven’t in your past work, either [Harron directed American Psycho]. In some ways, the violence in Alias Grace is fetishistic—Grace is an unreliable narrator, she admits to embellishing the abuse she suffered to better feed the appetites of men listening. Did that back and forth—Grace’s experience of violence, but also its transformation into a fetishistic narrative—determine how you approached or represented violence?
I thought a lot about the context of where it’s being told in the story. Though some things, like the asylum scenes, I also took those as genuine memory. I’m also using those memories very fast. There’s a scene in the asylum where Grace is freaking out and the orderly is about to rape her. She’s sitting in a chair and he knocks it over and she tries to run away. I took that all as memory. When she’s telling them to Jamie, her husband, he gets a voyeuristic fascination out of hearing about them, and so does Simon, the doctor; but I took them as genuine flashbacks. But this is one of the tricky things, actually: Who is imagining these flashbacks? I think it could go either way, but I think it might be the doctor.
I wasn’t trying to milk that stuff. There’s another scene where the asylum doctor is putting his hand under Grace’s dress, and that’s more fetishistic. That’s what Jamie is imagining. There are subtle variations in them, I think. We also shot all of those scenes really fast.
Grace is an unreliable narrator in so many ways. How did you approach constructing a narrative essentially spun by an unreliable narrator? Did you make the decisions as you went along based on the scene…
It’s not always clear, is it? So you can’t make it clear. I approached it like it was real, thinking the audience could make a decision later. But when filming, I approached it as real. I wanted it to be as intense as if it were really happening, but let people perhaps have a different perspective on it later.
The way that you focused on the details in Alias Grace, like when she was put into this confinement box in the prison…
That’s real, by the way. It’s in the [Kingston Penitentiary] museum. It wasn’t in the book but we added it after we did a location scout and went to the museum and saw this box. I immediately thought that we had to include it. It would have really been used as punishment.
I didn’t realize that the confinement box was real—that’s even more harrowing.
All of that stuff is real, it’s all historical. This is how they treated prisoners in the 1840s.
Did you do a lot of historical research to piece together not just the prison scenes but Grace’s life as a maid and an immigrant?
Yes. Margaret Atwood has done a ton of research. There’s a lot of information about the penitentiary that you can get online. We went and did research during the location scout, too.
In terms of the housework, Sarah Gadon [the actress who plays Grace Marks] and I both read Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Margaret Atwood recommended the book to us and it was incredible to read about the amount of work that women did. That was fantastically useful. I love books like that—19th century domestic books and 19th century cookbooks. All of this labor is laid out very matter of factly.
The intensity of detail that you put in her day-to-day was really interesting. It was interesting to see how much burden she’s carrying in wealthy people’s households. Her resentment, and Mary Whitney’s resentment, over that produces a kind of empathy toward their anger.
They were just beasts of burden. They worked from morning until night, doing hard labor. And they were teenagers, just young girls doing this heavy and demanding work. The amount of work they did just to keep the household running was so much. Nothing was easy for them. Just making coffee was such hard work. We have no idea, our lives are so comfortable, even with just our access to domestic appliances. It’s interesting that it wasn’t that long ago; this is close to my great-grandmother’s life.
Grace has this nice line when she’s talking to Simon Jordan and, in a voiceover, she expresses this thought that he doesn’t even realize that the messes that he makes and who cleans them up. It felt like she was addressing a contemporary viewer in many ways…
Yes, it was a very “You have no idea” moment. And she really gets to the heart of these invisible women who are left to clean up his life.
Alias Grace is a really beautiful series in many ways. It’s very visually lush: the pink dresses, the flowers, the beautiful landscape, and rich household interiors. But it exists in real contrast not only to Grace’s labor but to the incredible violence. I was wondering how you teased out those contrasts while you were filming and shooting?
Some of the household stuff is a bit Downton Abbey. There’s that element of the country house society. But—and this is true of Downton Abbey, too—it was based on all of this oppression. People did not care about their servants at all. They only cared about their servants as it affected them. There was also this brutal sexual exploitation of young servant girls.
But, I still thought that didn’t mean that they weren’t nice looking houses! I felt—and Sarah Polley was very keen on this as well—that the farmhouse would have an almost romantic and very nostalgic haze over it. It was a very beautiful place. At the same time, that made the violence that happened there more shocking.
Did you have a favorite scene to film?
There are a few of them. I love all of the scenes of Nancy Montgomery [Anna Paquin] and Grace. There’s one scene in particular where Nancy and Grace are arguing about the painting [of Susanna and the Elders] and there is so much tension and Thomas Kinnear [Paul Gross] is playing off of that. There was so much going on emotionally in that scene. It was interesting to shoot this three-way scene that I felt worked well.
I loved the hypnotism scene, too. It’s probably my favorite scene because there’s so much going on dramatically. I was so worried about shooting a whole scene with someone under a veil, but in the end, I felt that it worked so well. I remember watching that through the monitor on the camera and seeing her face and the expressions that [Sarah Gadon] is doing under the veil, I thought, “This is much better than I ever thought that it would be.” When you see her eyes look at Lydia (the daughter of the household) when she grabs Simon’s hand, it’s just so heart-stopping. There are also a lot of fascinating expressions. I really enjoyed that scene.
You really relied on these kinds of microexpressions to articulate narrative points in the book that otherwise seem very difficult to translate....
When you have great actors, it just happens. If you don’t have an actress as great at [Sarah Gadon], you might as well not shoot it.
She was amazing…
She’s incredible. Edward Holcroft [Simon Jordan] was wonderful as well, he’s very subtle. They are both very subtle, skillful actors. I could get a lot in the silences between them. They had a great simmering tension.
Sarah Gadon had to film a lot of scenes that were very physically violent—being closed in this confinement box and sexual assault. How did you approach those scenes as a director?
If I have to do a sexual scene or a violent scene, I try not to do a lot of takes. My approach is to get the blocking right and be as matter-of-fact as possible in my instructions. Sarah Gadon and I really worked out what we were going to do before shooting. There were a couple of things I did in just one take. The scene in the asylum where they grab Grace and the door slams, that was one take. The sex scene with Mrs. Humphries and Simon at the end, that was also one take. It’s not that you can’t do more—if it was necessary I would—but I do try to get it done quickly. I think everyone needs to know what they’re doing and everyone needs to be prepared to shoot a scene like that. I don’t want to keep doing it and reshooting, I don’t like putting the actresses through that again and again. You don’t have to do that. Actors hate having to redo scenes like that, in particular, those very physical scenes.
Both the book and the series posit a fundamental question: Whether or not Grace was a perpetrator or a victim. Or, whether or not those distinctions even matter. I wanted to know if you had a definite opinion on that.
I honestly think that it’s so intertwined in her case, she’s someone who had no power in life and was a victim of circumstances. But it’s complicated once she gets to the farmhouse. It’s complicated how much action she took. So, it remains a mystery.
But when she’s telling her story, she’s taking charge of that. The most control she has is when she’s talking to Simon and can tell her story however she wants to. The victim or perpetrator is a very complicated question and, in a way, it’s the essence of the story. In her early life, she’s a victim. But is the last impression of her as a victim? I don’t think it is, really. And that makes it more interesting.
And her relationship with Mary raises a lot of weird questions about that as well….
That’s a beautiful relationship filled with loss and the crime that it turns out to be. That’s the original sin, isn’t it? It’s from there that everything else happens.
The abortion scene was Mary was very difficult but interesting to watch…
It was the first thing we shot, by the way. I think it’s a beautiful scene.
It was a really honest visualization of abortion, of a botched abortion, which I think is so rare on television. I was wondering about your thoughts going into that scene.
The first thing that we shot was the scene in the doctor’s office and it was really harrowing. It was a hard scene for Rebecca Liddiard [Mary Whitney]to have to do on her first day. But, that’s just what it is. This was going to kill this girl. It was very emotionally tough, very painful, and everyone is going through it. But that’s how it has to be.
Weeks later, we were on set in Mary and Grace’s bedroom in the Parkinson house, the scene where Grace discovers Mary’s body. I wanted there to be a lot of blood. I wanted it to be graphic. I wanted people to see what this was. Abortion is so taboo. In nineteenth-century novels, it would never be mentioned and even pregnancy had to be talked euphemistically. Even on television now, abortion is glossed over. But if you die of a botched abortion, it’s going to be bloody. Mary bleeds to death. I just think people need to see this. If you’re going to do it, you need to do it properly.