Mary Harron established herself as a genre legend with her wickedly funny horror satire American Psycho in 2000. Her body of work — which includes the films I Shot Andy Warhol and The Notorious Bettie Page — is as eclectic as it is thought-provoking. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Harron about her new Quibi series THE EXPECTING, and she touched on her love for David Cronenberg and Dario Argento, her fondness for ambiguity in storytelling, and the process of choosing projects that speak to her as a director.
THE EXPECTING charts the unearthly pregnancy of Emma (AnnaSophia Robb), a waitress who desires to free herself from her troubled past and disappointing present. Plagued by nightmares and disturbing physical complications, Emma embarks on an unexpected journey to uncover the truth about her conception.
Your work focuses a lot on women who are forgotten and/or misunderstood. Do you see that in Emma?
Mary Harron: Oh yes, yes. Certainly. And I like the fact that it’s also kind of blue-collar. You know, she’s working as a waitress. She didn’t have the money to go to art school, which is what she really wanted. And she’s in this kind of northeastern post-industrial wasteland, you know? And I thought that was good. There was a bit of a forgotten element to that, to those kinds of people. And her life’s a struggle even before bad things happen to her in the woods.
Exactly, I like that exploration of the class aspect of it, for sure. I wanted to ask: Quibi is really unique in terms of the storytelling format with the 8-minute episodes. What was it like working within that narrative framework?
Mary Harron: I mean, it was kind of fun, you know. It’s always good to get a technical challenge, and it’s kind of good to have limitations put on you sometimes as a filmmaker. It’s like you have to make sure that this works in chapters, you know, which was quite fun. Especially with horror, which needs a lot of surprises and little plot twists and things. And I think one of the things that horror always needs is to keep mixing it up. There’s very often in horror a “Who can I trust?” aspect to it, which I felt like this script was very strong on. So within Ben Ketai’s script, there were a lot of little switches and surprises, which made it easier to find the cutting points. I think it was originally written as a single movie, but then he rewrote it for Quibi and turned it into chapters. So it was scripted with an ending for each chapter. But when we were in the editing room, we didn’t always end up with the same length, so we’d have to sometimes create a new ending. But there was enough material and surprises and tension in what he’d written that you could always find a moment.
I was able to watch the first three episodes, and it feels like already there are so many different aspects of horror that you’re drawing from: body horror, psychological horror…there are elements of a conspiracy and the aliens. Was that part of the draw of the project, being able to explore so many different aspects of the genre?
Mary Harron: Yes, it was. I mean, I haven’t done much that’s really graphic horror. It’s not as graphic as…you know, it’s not Saw. It is more body horror. There’s elements of that. There’s definitely some prosthetics you’ll see. And I like that. I’m a big Cronenberg fan. But I also like the psychological…I don’t think I would ever want to do a horror thing that didn’t have a psychological aspect, and really the biggest horror element is the psychological in this. I was very influenced by Rosemary’s Baby when I was young, and Repulsion. And the idea of a girl’s consciousness and what’s happening, you know. And she’s like, “What’s happening to me? I don’t understand what’s happening to me. Who can I trust to help me through this kind of nightmare that my life’s turning into?” So the script had those elements. And there were also just some fun aspects of what it looks at in pregnancy and what happens with that…there’s one little dream sequence, I think, in the trailer or in the episode that you’ve seen where she’s having a dream and the little feet start pushing through the belly. Yeah, I think that when I read that scene it was like, “Oh, I’m doing this.”
Your work often subverts expectations, and you talked about kind of taking different angles on horror. Do you ever think about those expectations when you’re approaching a project?
Mary Harron: I don’t know. I think I get very lost into what the story is itself. But I also think you want to do something that…I’m interested in genre but I also like things that are not quite genre, you know, that have a dramatic element or that are about something beyond just being scary. You’re always trying to push the envelope a little bit. I think in this family, in the relationship…I don’t want to give too much away, but the relationship with Emma and Rory Culkin as her boyfriend Tyler, I thought that they were great together, and there was a lot that was interesting in that.
Absolutely. Yeah, I love those two actors. Like I said, I’ve only seen the first three episodes but I like the hints that things aren’t as they seem. We’re not sure who we can trust at this point, and just the body horror of being pregnant in the first place. It’s a really interesting mesh of ideas that I’m really curious to see where it’s going to go.
Mary Harron: Yeah, because there’s not a lot of stuff about pregnancy…I mean, The Brood. I made the DP watch The Brood, which I’ve always loved as a Canadian. I love it as a Canadian. You know, as a Canadian child, you’re always put into a snowsuit. You spend your life in a snowsuit in winter. So I just love that in The Brood there are all these little brood creatures running around in snowsuits. Very close to my heart, that story.
I would imagine. Yeah, and that’s such an iconic and surprising image for horror. But it really is something that sticks out…if you’ve ever seen the movie you always remember that image. Did you have specific images in mind when you were reading the script? We see a lot of close-ups on Emma’s face, and there’s a lot of emphasis on the shadowy figure that she sees. Were there images that jumped out to you when you were reading it?
Mary Harron: Yes, it took us a while to work out…I don’t want to give the story away, but we talked a lot with our wonderful production design team and our prosthetics team and our visual team about how to create these shadowy figures that she encounters and what they look like…I’m trying to think of when we started to get the look of it together. I worked with a DP — Mott Hupfel, that I’ve worked with before, he shot Notorious Bettie Page for me — and we started sitting down and thinking about references, and just for inspiration we watched a lot of Dario Argento. Because I love the color in his films. And actually, we watched a film…it’s not exactly a horror movie, but it is a great movie. I mean, people don’t like this movie, but I love this movie: Only God Forgives by Nicolas Refn, which is a really crazy and beautiful looking movie. Oh, and then there’s a Dario Argento movie called The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that I had never seen, and I watched it for the first time when we were in pre-production…I just got a couple ideas from it. And it will be obvious what I got from it, but I can’t tell you what it is because it would give it away.
Right, understood. I love Dario Argento, so I’m looking forward to that.
Mary Harron: Yeah, that’s the problem of talking about things before people have seen it, the way you can’t just give it away. But anyway: Dario Argento, always a touchstone.
There’s so much variety in your career in terms of genre and genre that’s not really genre, and you’ve done films and television. Is there anything specific you look for when you’re coming to a project, like when you came to this one? Or is it just something different every time that draws you to want to create something?
Mary Harron: Yeah, I think you have to listen to some instincts always when reading a script. Because people always say “You should do this“ and then you read it and it may not spark for you. So I wouldn’t do anything if it didn’t spark for me. And there’s something where it just doesn’t get your imagination working…as you read it, do you start seeing pictures in your head of what this maybe could look like? And I definitely started that thinking that. And I really loved, like I just said, in that scene where she’s…having had the experience of being pregnant, you know, and the baby’s sort of pushing and making these little bumps and ripples and it’s like, “Whoa!” I love that it took that idea and then took it further. So I was excited by that. And I also like the Rosemary’s Baby idea of, you know, I always like ambiguity, I think. I’m very interested in that, about not knowing quite what’s real and what’s not real. So it was definitely in my wheelhouse for that.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorite things about the episodes that I watched, that we’re not sure where we stand. She’s not sure where she stands. So I’m really excited to see the rest of it.
Mary Harron: Yes. Actually, my favorite episodes are the ones at the end. It definitely builds towards something.
THE EXPECTING is now available for viewing exclusively on Quibi.