This week, The Student spoke with Mary Harron, director of Netflix’s recent miniseries Alias Grace. Mary has always concerned herself with the female perspective, as well as the complicated world women have had to navigate in their fight to be acknowledged. Alias Grace is based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. Despite Mary’s impressive repertoire, which includes I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Moth Diaries, she was actually very down to earth, and answered questions with a clear passion for what she does.
So you started out as a journalist and then moved to the BBC. How do you think these experiences have informed your work, especially working on historical dramas like Alias Grace?
When I was starting out in television, I was a researcher for documentaries before I started directing. It’s good training for immersing yourself in the subject, and I think it’s certainly affected my first film. I Shot Andy Warhol totally came out of research, because when I was a journalist I’d written about the Warhol factory and I’d written a lot about the Velvet Underground, and then I was the researcher on a big documentary about Warhol, so that idea of immersing yourself in a world and setting somebody’s life against their historical setting, considering their life as a product of different factors [is important to me]. This is even true of Alias Grace, you know Grace’s life – not that I wrote the script, or the source material in this case – was enormously affected by the time in which she lived.
Other networks tend to gloss over the grittier aspects in this period. Was this the motivation, having worked with the BBC, behind taking on such an alternative storyline?
Yeah, I think it’s funny because I really like Taboo which was on the BBC. It certainly immersed you [into it] – I envy the sort of dirt they had in that. But we consciously felt that we were anti-Downton Abbey. There’s a tendency to sentimentalise the relationships between masters and servants. So both that and the sheer hardship of life in the 19th century were things we wanted to get across.
Were you particularly conscious of the reception of The Handmaid’s Tale series too, and how that was made?
Well it’s funny, we only heard that The Handmaid’s Tale was going to be made while we were in production and then it came out – because we had such a long production period. When we were editing, The Handmaid’s Tale came out and then it was a big success. I think Sarah Polley and I thought ‘oh no, no one’s gonna like ours now because this one’s been such a success’, and because in some ways it’s more stylised, and visually more striking probably, so we thought ‘oh no everyone’s gonna say it’s not as good as The Handmaid’s Tale’. What we hadn’t predicted is that it would help us so much, because it kind of set the groundworks, and because people saw it as more The Handmaid’s Tale being the future and Alias Grace being the past, as almost two halves of the same.
Alias Grace pays particular attention to the world of women in that period, for example the quilt making, the religious details which Grace describes her chores. Why did you decide to give these details such prominence?
I mean, Margaret Atwood devoted a lot of time to the domestic detail. One thing I really admired in Margaret’s book – and Sarah Polley captured this in the script – was the incredible historic research. Margaret Atwood really bore into the period, and one of the things that strikes you as soon as you look at it is the unbelievable amount of domestic labour, and how difficult it was to do anything. I wanted to show visually how difficult the stages were to fulfill one simple request. This was in the script, but then I said to Sarah – this is something that happens with scripts – if something isn’t written into the script, and described in detail, it’s not going to get put on the schedule. So if you want a shot of the sunset you have to write into the script, same thing if you want to see Grace scrubbing the floor. So Sarah wrote in more details line by line so we could actually cover that stuff. We shot tons and tons of domestic labour, because we thought otherwise we’re gonna gloss over. You see, it was so important because this is a 16 year old girl working really from dawn until dusk with this extremely heavy domestic labour, and that’s kind of startling when you realise how rough life there was, with this whole servant class to do this heavy, intensive labour .
You give Grace a lot of close-up shots during these scenes, too.
Yeah, my husband, John Walsh, who works with me – we collaborate a lot – came in and did all these macro shots. We wanted to look at the minutiae – the needle going into the fabric. I insisted on makeup to redden Grace’s hands, to make them look roughened by work, because she was a laundry maid and the soap was incredibly rough so your hands would just be raw. It was also that, in terms of the sewing, she’s always busy. The quilts are extremely important in this – obviously you know in the book each chapter is the title of different quilt styles. So Margaret Atwood has threaded that all the way through the book and I think she’s very fascinated about silence, or speaking, or who tells whose story, and – women being silent in that period – a lot of women’s histories going unreported. Nobody asked them, nobody recorded them. Of course they wrote letters, but a lot of women’s history and a lot of what was recorded at that time was lost or was never written down. I think it’s the idea that women spoke through their quilts, or they expressed themselves through this very feminine-domestic art form.
It was definitely interesting to have such a high profile show explore a craft that a lot of people just see as something mothers make for kids.
What’s interesting about these ‘cosy’ things – quilting, embroidery, sewing – is the idea that this will be woven into a very violent story with blood and aggression, and that the two things coincided. The visual style of it – which was true even in Sarah’s first script – had this calmness, these calm conversations with the doctor while she’s sewing, and then these flashes of her violent image. What she is remembering flashes into her mind about the murders. That was it – we wanted the serene rhythm of sewing, and these jarring moments of memories of either the murders, or of the abuse she suffered in the asylum. You know, they’re both part of her life. They’re both real.
And Sarah Gadon was great in that role – how goes through all these emotions so seemingly effortlessly was really impressive. Obviously you’ve cast her before in The Moth Diaries?
Well, she was so wonderful to work with, because I realised in The Moth Diaries that she has this ability to show very, very subtle shifts of emotions, you know like a lot under the surface.
I think it’s the first episode where Grace is in the mirror, staring at herself and considering the many different people she’s supposed to be.
Yes she can do remarkable shifts with very little, she’s very finely calibrated. With a lot of Grace’s performances, still she’s withholding, she’s only letting the doctor know what she chooses to show, so we had to have this sense of mystery, which I think Sarah has captured very well. Some people are just emotionally all out there, but she has this certain reserve, that mystery, and a charismatic quality as well. You have to feel that Grace is able to draw in all these men.
If we could also talk about Nancy – you portray her very empathetically. We see her role as adversary but also her more vulnerable moments. How did you navigate between these roles?
I think that Nancy is a tragic character, and absolutely one of the most interesting characters. Margaret Atwood is great at showing how women can turn on each other, and I wanted to show that an oppressive society doesn’t always just make people noble victims or create solidarity among victims. People turn on each other because they want to get ahead. With Nancy she wants to get this little bit of prestige, or the little bit of material success that she’s got, and she’s living really in terror because she knows that she was a servant herself and she knows that she could be thrown out at any time. So it’s very poignant in a way, her situation. At the same time she’s sometimes very mean to Grace – and they’re mean to each other, and I kind of love this. Because, you know, Grace is also quite controlling, and it’s funny, two controlling women in a kitchen, sorting out Kinnear’s laundry, you can just see there’s that territorial dispute. Grace even says in the novel “if it’d just been a bigger house, we might’ve all gotten through this okay”. There’s this suffocating atmosphere of territory and rivalry. Also, I wanted somebody to play Nancy who could bring empathy to the character. Even if somebody’s playing a character that you might classify as unsympathetic, you want the actor to love them and commit to them, which Anna Pacquin did fantastically.
Particularly with Doctor Jordan, it’s interesting that you changed his ending. Was this something to do with you interpretation of whether she’s telling the truth?
There’s a lot more of Doctor Jordan in the book than there is in the series, and I certainly felt like, as much as i liked the doctor in the story, we really needed to focus in on Grace – it’s Grace’s story. Simon Jordan is important insofar as this, but his independent story of this woman that he gets engaged to or whatever is not relevant to us, you know? I think this story that we’re telling is his destruction at the hands of Grace, how his obsession with her is what destroys him.
And obviously this isn’t the first time you’ve dealt with this bitchy homosocial environment. You did the same thing in American Psycho, but that was obviously with the men.
I mean I think there’s social rituals and competition in male and female worlds with a very distinct dynamic I suppose, these kind of rivalries and sniping and the discomfort between them.
The topic of sex and the bed is also one of great anxiety for Grace and all the women really. How did you try to amplify this tension?
Obviously one of the images that was very important to me was when Mary Whitney dies. There was an enormous amount of blood, and I remember saying to Sarah Polley, you know, ‘more blood, more blood!’. It needed to be really soaked with blood, with the idea that when you lift off the covers, you see that the mattress soaked in blood and that she bled to death basically. Because, you know, many women died, not just from an abortion, many women died in childbirth, and so I wanted the physical manifestation of what had happened to Mary, for it to be so bloody, so shocking.
Do you think Grace was guilty?
Oh, I will not answer that, Margaret Atwood would be very angry with me! Margaret always says: “You cannot answer that question”.
And no doubt with its topic of women’s sexual oppression, it was well-timed to coincide with the #MeToo movement – how much do you think this affected its reception?
I was surprised yeah, it worked to our advantage really. We showed it in bits before the Harvey Weinstein thing broke but then when it was due to premiere on Netflix, it happened just that week practically.
So looking into the future, we’ve been told you’re working on something else which Matt Smith has already been cast in?
He’s playing Charles Manson, yes, in a film about the Manson girls – and do you know Hannah Murray? She’s one of the Manson girls.
Can we expect to see similar relationships between the Manson women as we see in Alias Grace?
Actually the Manson girls were very supportive of each other, kind of like sister wives. Of course that supportiveness also reinforced their mutual submission to Charlie. It was all about “killing your ego”, to eradicate your will so you could be a better cult member.
Finally, is there any advice you could offer to young women at the university thinking of going into a similar field?
There is no one path and I personally followed a very roundabout route in to directing. I didn’t go to film school. I started by doing research jobs in television that I actually learned a great deal from, and kept working on my own projects in my spare time. Just keep your eyes on the prize by working away at your own stuff. There are years and years where no great progress is made and then bang, a lot can happen at once. But it happens because you’ve been quietly working away. Patience and endurance are what is needed.
Alias Grace is currently out on Netflix.
Image: Eric Charbonneau via Netflix