Exclusive Interview: Mary Harron on Anna Nicole
Anna Nicole, the biopic of Anna Nicole Smith, premiered on Lifetime, but with a feature film pedigree. Directed by Mary Harron, of American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page, the telefilm starred Agnes Bruckner as Smith. The film charts Smith’s rise to prominence as a a Playboy centerfold and Guess model, her relationship with J. Howard Marshall (Martin Landau), her reality TV show and untimely death. For the film’s DVD release, we got a chance to speak with Harron by phone about Anna Nicole and her career in film.
CraveOnline: Would you have liked to do a fully explicit Anna Nicole Smith story?
Mary Harron: Yes, in an ideal world, yes, I would have. But, I was very happy just to have the chance to tell her story because it’s such a great story. In an ideal world, I would have showed more, would have been a bit raunchier because that’s what Anna was like. You always have to choose which story you’re telling about someone, so understanding the restrictions there were, Lifetime has parameters you have to work within of nudity and all the rest, language, this story that we’re telling is really the story that people don’t know which is the personal story, and most important story, of her and her son. That was her in a different mode.
If we saw “The Anna Nicole Show,” we saw she wasn’t the most articulate person. Was there a little bit of artistic license in the screenplay?
Yes, I mean I didn’t write the script but I think there was a little bit of artistic license. I also think though that in the reality show, a lot of the times she was on drugs at that point. So you’re not watching someone playing with a full deck really. Her speech was slurred and slow. If you look at earlier interviews, because she does sound different, we didn’t want the persona of the reality show to define [her] because that was very much that era of her.
Your movie does touch on Skyscraper. Would you have liked to include more about her acting career?
Yes, I wanted to include, in fact at one point I said to Agnes, because it wasn’t in the script. I went and looked at it online and thought, “This is fantastic. Oh my God, I want to recreate scenes from this.” We did talk about it. It was difficult though because we had such a tight filming schedule, but there was a point where I was trying to get that done. I thought that would be so fantastic.
Or how about when she was in Naked Gun 33 1/3?
Yes, yes, yes, it’s really funny because I was staying in the same hotel as the director of Naked Gun and I actually talked to him about it. He said that she was really sweet but she was also kind of drugged up then.
There’s a snippet in the opening montage at the Be Cool premiere. Is that a premiere Anna Nicole was actually at?
I think so. With the montage, we mixed stuff of Agnes with stuff of the real Anna. I believe so, and I think she went to the opening of an envelope so I’m sure if it was a premiere, she was there.
Anna Nicole Smith was obviously bustier than Agnes Bruckner. Was it always going to be a prosthetic?
Yes, whoever you cast it was going to be, although we didn’t use the prosthetics that much. They were so difficult to work with because you’d be filming and they took hours to put on. Then suddenly they’d start to buckle, the latex, so we had to do some cleaning up digitally. We used them very much for a couple big photo shoots. Once you’ve shown them, and for when she’s in the kind of Marilyn Monroe figure in the mirror wearing the prosthetics, for a lot of the rest of filming we actually just did a lot of padding.
Are the prosthetics still a little restrained compared to how big Anna Nicole Smith really was?
She went bigger and smaller, you know what I mean? There were times when she was very big and times when she wasn’t. There were various surgeries, and we just went for one-size fits all prosthetics rather than a lot of different ones.
You recreated one shot I remember where she’s upside down on the pool chair. Was that based on a real photo?
Yeah, with some changed detail, but that’s based on a real photograph. It was actually a bit later than the point where we put it in the film but it’s such a beautiful shot.
Were the circumstances of her automobile accident true, that she was flashing a truck?
No, that’s dramatic license by the writers but she did crash a car. There are mug shots of her drunken driving so it’s not a big distortion. It’s a bit of dramatic license but she definitely did crash a car. Whether she did it right after a party, the actual circumstance of it, it was more to illustrate that symbolically, when things were going well and great for Anna, she would crash the car.
I remember she went by Vickie Smith in her first centerfold. Were there more details about exactly when and why she changed her name?
I think it was during the Guess [campaign]. I think it was the Marcianos that wanted her to change her name. I’m not sure actually the true story of who came up with it. I think we have a little bit of that, that it’s during the Guess photo shoot.
When we hear the Letterman Top Ten list, is it a different voice doing him?
It’s a different voice because you’re not allowed to, but the Top Ten is accurate. They won’t license the voice I think.
I thought it sounded different. I just wanted to be sure I wasn’t crazy. You’ve done TV episodes but was this your first experience doing a movie with act breaks?
Yes, it was. It’s complicated because there’s a lot of act breaks. You have to work towards a number of act breaks as opposed to a three-act drama or a drama where you’re moving towards one single ending.
How did that change the way you craft the story?
It does because you’re thinking in segments. Obviously you have to think about the overall flow of it, but you’re also thinking of almost little episodes in her life, chapters almost.
We still think about your theatrical films. Would you agree that The Wolf of Wall Street was American Psycho without the killing?
I mean, they’re definitely kind of companion pieces.
Had you heard that comparison before?
In a way I was surprised there wasn’t more comparison to it. There’s Wall Street and American Psycho and Wolf. I think people have talked about Margin Call and all that. American Psycho is about a very wealthy privileged Wall Street broker. Wolf of Wall Street is more like guys from Long Island and a Boiler Room kind of thing. Obviously in terms of tales of excess, Jordan Belfort damaged a lot of people too but he didn’t actually [murder them]. He just took their money.
American Psycho premiered at Sundance in 2000. Was that a very different Sundance than the Sundance today?
I haven’t been there for about five years. I was on the jury about five years ago. It’s different because there’s a lot more movies. Everybody’s making them digitally. People worry about the future of independent cinema but there seems to be a ton of movies, even more than ever. I think it probably is but I haven’t been in the position of actually having a film there since American Psycho.
There’s more movies even in the competition once they’ve narrowed it down?
There’s just billions, you know?
I understand there are more submissions but I didn’t know the festival has gotten bigger too.
Does television, even TV movies, present an opportunity to get things going that you couldn’t get going in the feature world?
Yes, it can be hard to get financing for a film with a female character, so it was just great to be offered something that was just ready to go. It’s all financed, it’s all set up. For a film director to just get offered a project that’s ready to go is always fantastic if you like the story. That means you just focus on making it. Then obviously you have a tight schedule and everything but you also have good resources.
Anna Nicole was a straight offer?
Did they say why they came to you with it?
I don’t know. This is Zadan and Meron, Craig and Neil, and they were the ones who contacted my representatives. They wanted something that was going to be different and more personal. They wanted something unusual I think. They wanted a different sensibility, so they wanted me to do something personal with it, do it more in my style.
Was it a different approach than even Bettie Page, and “Notorious” was in the title of that movie, who was a notorious centerfold in a different era?
Yes, also Bettie Page was more innocent, this religious girl and she did some nude modeling but her life was much less [scandalous]. The bondage photos she did, because she was covered up, she didn’t think of them as obscene. She was worried about the nudity.
Anna had a very raunchy life, much more so and also Anna was much more out there, in her real life and her photographs and film stuff. So it’s a much raunchier story, and also Bettie was famous during a time when magazines were just hidden in the back of bookstores. Anna’s fame was at a time when you’re on reality TV and you’re in the supermarket tabloids, so it’s a very out there kind of fame, and Anna was famous at a time when everything’s out there.
Did Hugh Hefner have anything to say about any aspect of the film?
No. Obviously we had to get Playboy’s permission to show the covers that we showed, the images from Playboy but no, they didn’t have any comment on it. I don’t think they had a problem.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a movie but I haven’t got the contract so I can’t say actually, but I have another project that looks promising so we’re rewriting another script that I will direct. I think I’m going to go back and forth between TV and film I hope. The actual thing I’m doing right next is a short film that’s a horror film for an anthology of horror films by women filmmakers. That’s going to come out next year. I’ve been given a little bit of money to make a film but I can do whatever I want with it and that’s very exciting.
It’s a company called XYZ and Todd Brown is producing it. Me, Jennifer Lynch, Karyn Kusama, the Soska Sisters and it’s very fun and exciting. We all get a chance to go make something we like.
How do you look back on American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol?
Oh, I’m just always amazed with any film that actually gets made. Even my first movie was like, “Oh my God, how did that happen? I actually got a film made about such a difficult subject.” And the same thing with American Psycho which was very difficult to get made and we went everywhere, Ed Pressman the producer and I took it everywhere before Lionsgate finally signed on. People were very dubious about it and when it premiered at Sundance I was attacked a lot by people for this violent movie which is not really that violent. It was very controversial and wasn’t at all acclaimed the way it is today. It’s been a funny journey.
So much of your cast in both movies, but especially in American Psycho, blew up. Did you know when you were casting that you were discovering a real generation of actors?
No, I just fought for them because I thought they were good. Josh Lucas, I think it was his second movie. Justin Theroux was in my first movie, that was the first movie he was ever in. I had to defend them, fight to cast these people because they weren’t famous yet.