Screenwriter Guinevere Turner admitted it was difficult watching the filming of the Manson family murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others for her latest film, “Charlie Says.”
“I’m just empathetic,” Turner explained over a recent lunch in West Hollywood. “Just to even look at Grace Van Dien, who plays Sharon in the movie — she’s standing there in the corner with her pregnant prosthetic, sobbing to get ready for the scene where she’s begging for her life — I was crying.”
Turner thought, “ ‘How have all the decisions in my life brought me to this moment where I am watching this actress play this victim of this horrible crime?’ I was dying. There was chatter on the set and I was like, ‘Can you take this all seriously?’ because the other actors were also covered in blood having to get into that head space. It was deeply disturbing.”
“Charlie Says,” opening Friday, marks the third feature film collaboration between Turner and director Mary Harron. Their previous projects were the controversial 2000 “American Psycho” and 2005’s “The Notorious Bettie Page.”
Turner debuted as an actress and screenwriter in 1994 with the Sundance hit “Go Fish,” a milestone of New Queer Cinema. She continued to act and write, including a recurring role on “The L Word,” where she also served as a story editor, in addition to directing seven short films.
“Charlie Says” is the second movie released this year that travels back to 1969 Los Angeles, when cult leader Charles Manson and his “family” committed those murders.
The horror film “The Haunting of Sharon Tate,” starring Hilary Duff, disappeared quickly earlier this year and will be released on DVD June 4. Quentin Tarantino’s anticipated “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” set to premiere in competition at Cannes before it opens in July, also touches on the killings.
What sets “Charlie Says” apart from those films is that the story of the cult and murders are seen through the eyes of the three women who committed the murders for Manson (Matt Smith) — Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) — after they are sentenced to life in prison and isolated together in a cell block. (Atkins died in 2009; Van Houten and Krenwinkel are still incarcerated.)
The women’s lives change when social worker Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver) arrives with the hope of rehabilitating the trio, still very much under Manson’s spell.
The producers of the film met with Turner in 2014 because “they wanted it from a woman’s perspective,” Turner said.
The screenwriter also thought she was the perfect choice because for the first decade of her life, she grew up in a communal life — “they certainly wouldn’t call themselves a cult” — with the Lyman Family. (The commune has since evolved into a very successful home construction company.)
Turner was born into the compound in 1968, when it included 100 adults and 60 children. She wrote about the experience in a recent New Yorker magazine article, “My Childhood in a Cult.”
“The reason I really wanted to write this movie is because things can be so sensationalized or not gotten right in terms of how things are great and then they go bad [in a commune] and how ideals turn didactic and then forceful and then pushing you more and more to the ridiculous until this idea of ‘How did I get here?’ ’’
She was curious for her mother, who left the Lyman Family in 1979 and later became a vice president at Morgan Stanley, to see the film.
Harron, who wasn’t initially attached to “Charlie Says,” noted she was excited when she learned Turner was writing the movie. “I always wanted her to do something about her childhood, but she was not ready to write it. This is a wonderful way for her to use what she knows and the workings of that kind of commune. It seems a perfect match for her.”
Though people knew about Manson, who died two years ago at 83, “it is interesting that there was no focus on what happened to the women and their state of mind,” Harron said.
“I was really trying to answer the question: How did he get them [to join the cult] and get them to do these horrible things?” Turner said . “I started reading about human trafficking and sex trafficking. This one guy, a human trafficker, said the most profound thing that has stuck with me [and I used in] the script. He said: ‘I go to a mall. I see a bunch of teenage girls hanging out. I insinuate myself in the conversation. I tell a girl she has pretty eyes. She says,”‘Thank you.” I move on to the next one. Finally, when I find the girl and say, “You have pretty eyes” and she says, “No. I don’t,” that’s my target.’ Isn’t that bone-chilling?”
Though it revolves around the three women, “Charlie Says” focuses on Leslie Van Houten, who Faith, the social worker, bonded with the most and about whom she later wrote the book “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten.”
“Karlene stayed in touch with all of them,” said Turner, who spent a lot of time with Faith at her home in Vancouver before her death in 2017. “Karlene and Leslie were good friends for so many years. There are so many tentacles to the story, but one of them is Leslie had a retrial and she got to be out of prison for [six months]. When she did that, she and Karlene were together. Karlene had a network of women who were in L.A. and found a place for her to stay and really tried to help her out. She had a retrial and then went back in.”
Turner was disturbed when she learned the three women were kept isolated together for the first five years of incarceration. “There were a couple of other people who came and went in those five years, but the worst thing you could have done for these women psychologically was give them only each other to talk to. I mean, that to me was shocking, having grown up the way I did and just knowing so much. When the David Koresh, Waco, Texas, things happened [in 1993], I was thinking to myself ‘Don’t confront them with guns.’ It’s the apocalyptic vision coming to life.”
Turner acknowledged there has been criticism of “Charlie Says,” wondering why she didn’t explain why these women were “susceptible to do this thing. My response is that I hate movies that tell us why people do crazy things because we don’t know. You and I can have the same upbringing and make different choices.”
Van Houten, she noted, “had a lovely family. Susan had a rough time, but there’s a million women who left home at 16 and didn’t kill people. There’s no logic to it. I’m always mad when the big reveal is, like, the woman was sexually abused. All the things that people do as adults cannot be directly explained by their childhoods.”
Manson, who had spent more than half of his life behind bars, read Dale Carnegie before he was released in 1967. “He had asked every pimp and con man who would talk to him, ‘How did you do it?’ He was in pimp school [while in prison]. The big thing I got when he came out was, he was looking to be a pimp. Then circumstances of what the world was like in 1968, he was like ‘Holy crap. There’s all these young people who are just ready for someone to tell them what is going on because the world is upside down.’”
There is a moment in the film when a woman who works in the prison asks Faith if she would be as sympathetic to the three women if they had murdered her sister.
“I wrote that because it’s a question I had to ask myself over and over while I was writing it,” said Tuner. “I would think to myself: ‘Yes, I think these women in their 60s should be let out. They made horrible shocking, disturbing choices and they were manipulated. The have 100% atoned, the two who are alive. Would I feel that way if it was my sister? It’s so hard to say, but part of me knows that part of me would say ‘Rot in hell. Never ever walk. Never ever have a normal life.’ But I’m so anti-prison that I don’t know.”