With “I Shot Andy Warhol” in 1996, Mary Harron launched her film career by portraying an artist with a complicated legacy, and that fixation has never left her. Her latest work, “Dalíland,” follows that trajectory with an edgy look at Salvador Dalí’s final years. While the legacies of many legendary creators have been re-evaluated in modern times, Harron’s own fixations haven’t stopped appreciating her problematic subjects.
“There’s a lot of work by artists that I don’t want people to part with,” the director told IndieWire in a recent interview. “I love reading Dostoyevsky, who was anti-Semitic and had crazy political views. As a youngster I was greatly influenced by Polanski, who did terrible things and really should have been in jail for them. But that doesn’t mean his films haven’t continued to inspire.”
Concerning Dalí: The Surrealist may have been a cruel egomaniac who expressed sympathies for Hitler at one point in his career, alienated scores of colleagues, and fed his outlandish sexual fixations into his work. “He would say the most awful things, whatever came to his mind,” Harron said. “So many of the artists and writers that I love, if you look at their personal lives, it’s very problematic. But I get so much from them. I’m more interested in where I can find something inspiring and find the good I can get out of someone’s work.
In “Dalíland,” Ben Kingsley plays the mustachioed provocateur late in his career as he struggles with his legacy and retraces his journey through the 20th century. The story, seen through the perspective of a young gallery assistant (Christopher Britney) caught up in the Dalí bubble, also touches on the inherent conflict between Dalí’s artistic stature and the commercialization of his work. “No one has gone so deep into our primal, weird-manifesting sexual instincts — the side of ourselves that everyone wants to suppress,” Harron said. “I don’t think you can disentangle the business side from that.”
Harron’s journey in the creative market has been a complicated one. While his best-known credit is 2000’s “American Psycho,” the twisted portrayal of a murderous investment banker (Christian Bale) received a mixed response when he came out. Harron said she didn’t realize the film had built a stronger following until nearly a decade later, when audiences caught on to the drama’s satirical side. “That was a function of the internet, in terms of memes and a new audience discovering it,” Harron said. “Initially, people didn’t know it was funny. To me it’s at least half comedy, and in the first screenings people were afraid to laugh.”
She recently caught the film at a memorial screening for the late producer Ed Pressman and noticed the younger crowd giggling throughout. “I realized they saw it differently,” she said. “They were seeing the way Christian’s performance makes fun of the character.”
As for “Dalíland,” while production was hampered by pandemic-related delays, Kingsley stuck to the part. “I really appreciated that,” Harron said. “From the start, my biggest fights have been about casting.”
In her latest film, 2018’s ‘Charlie Says’, she was adamant in casting Matt Smith as Charlie Manson despite his minimal fame at the time. “Obviously, thanks to ‘House of the Dragon’ and stuff like that, he’s super famous now,” Harron said. “Back then, it was just Doctor Who. You have to pick the right people for the roles and hopefully this will help them become famous.
At 70, Harron remains on the fringes of the studio system, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. (“Dalíland,” independently produced and distributed by Magnolia Pictures, was rejected by Netflix and Amazon, among others.) “If I could get more money to make a movie, I’d be super happy,” Harron said. “There are very few people other than Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson who can make a studio film and keep control.”
A former music journalist who turned to film in her late 30s, Harron was squeamish about the projects she took on and resisted commissioned work. “After ‘I Shot Andy Warhol,’ I came across a lot of biopics about women,” she said. “There was a script about the Brontë sisters that had them sitting around talking about sex like they were at Starbucks. Yep, that’s just how the Brontë sisters went about it!
While the writers’ strike delayed his trial, Harron recently worked on two new projects, including one with “American Psycho” writer Geneva Turner. While Harron said she feels freer to pursue more projects now that her daughters, 23 and 24, are grown up, she wouldn’t rush into circumstances that would keep her from retaining creative control. “It took me so long to direct my first film,” she said. “Years and years. I’m not going to do something that doesn’t really interest me.